Xmas card from America
THE woman on the aisle seat, my neighbour on the British Airways flight, could have been any agreeable white American tourist exuding affection for India. That she turned out to be a dyed-in-the-wool Republican made her a more interesting companion on an otherwise pointlessly long journey to San Francisco. She was returning home to Phoenix where Sarah Palin is thought to have a marginal approval as a possible challenger to Barack Obama two years from now.
The subject inevitably turned to Meera Shankar's patdown search saga. The Indian ambassador in Washington was the toast of the Obama visit to Delhi. Her picture of poise was underscored by her elegant choice of saris. And now she had been subjected to a humiliating physical search at an American airport.
There was outrage in the Indian media. The foreign minister described it as unacceptable. His American counterpart offered profuse apologies. Just then news came in of India's UN envoy, a Sikh gentleman, being subjected to a similar search. "When they peep inside our underwear we don't protest really," said my flight companion in a whisper. She was trying to explain that Indians had overreacted, keeping her tone soft to avoid attracting the attention of other Indians in the vicinity. "There is nothing racist in being cautious with airport security, not since the underwear bomber nearly wreaked havoc last Christmas."
The reference was to a young Muslim from Nigeria, who evidently tried to destroy Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit, on behalf of Al Qaeda. Had he succeeded, the result would have been worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.
American security officials were sanguine they had done the right thing with the Indian diplomats. If the two needed protocol assistance they should have informed the airport ahead of their travel, which they hadn't. Unlike the standard insular American Republican visitor to India the lady from Phoenix read local newspapers. She was quick to observe, though not disapprovingly, that the Indian home minister had just then profiled Indian migrants in Delhi for a rising crime graph in the city of 14 million plus.
The minister later apologised for airing his prejudice but it took away little from the point that Indian elites can be racist and suspicious of fellow Indians. It is mandatory for police, for example, to fingerprint domestic servants in Delhi, while sparing the employers the insulting scrutiny. I wondered if the lady from Phoenix endorsed the Indian minister's ideas on internal security.
I was in America last Christmas and a few times before that but I haven't been able to understand the hullabaloo about being searched or being subjected to pervasive questioning. No one has done it to me. Americans love to fear, of course. That's the way they are brought up. That's how the bulk of their commercial advertising is angled into the living rooms. It is fear that spawns a bizarre rush for consumerism. In any case, immigration officials have been cordial with me, even friendly. A Vietnamese customs official at San Francisco checked a packet of cumin seeds from a range of spices I was made to carry for a relative and a policeman loaned me his phone to make a call.
Of all the American states hit badly by the current economic slump California has endured the worst of the trauma. Soon the state's movie-actor governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will hand over the baton to a Democratic successor but the arriving change will be at best cosmetic. The sullenness that comes with a high incidence of unemployment and 'To Let' signs on empty public buildings is unlikely to abate.
At home, someone switched on the TV. An impressive repast of Christmas carols was being beamed live from Washington with President Obama and his family occupying the first row. Christmas carols and the more familiar hymns always take me back to La Martiniere College, my school in Lucknow. Its ornate chapel symbolised the most venerable part of a fine tradition of music and celebration. So what if its founder was a French mercenary who deserted to the British corner after facing imminent defeat in an 18th-century skirmish? Wizard of Oz
There is something comforting about America's respect for its history of art and music, about its unending veneration of icons from the past. The late Judy Garland always makes an appearance around Christmas time in her celebrated role in the . Ask someone in India about Judy Garland's singing and acting contemporary, say, Kanan Bala. The chances are that you would be sorely disappointed. Apart from the very old patrons of her music, there is hardly a chance of her being known to the younger generation. There's something to ponder over here.
Two stories caught my eye in the past week. There is a great debate brewing over an American soldier who raped and killed a 14-year old Iraqi girl and shot her family. Should the civilian courts have the authority to prescribe the life sentence he has been given?
The other story reveals a flip side of the world's most formidable military power. There is no debate about whether the WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange had a point to make by exposing the seamier side of American diplomacy. He should be killed, say the senior leaders, not unlike the ayatollahs of Iran they revile.