Some Reflections on Visiting the USA
If you are born in Calcutta, you imbibe leftism with your mother’s milk. I am not talking about being communist; I mean you tend to be left leaning as one of our more stupid ministers characterized Abhijit Bannerjee. And the inevitable consequence of this is an antipathy to the United States of America. That is not to say that we do no rush there to study given half a chance. Neither is it that we do not acknowledge it achievements and its glamour. It is just that we are not exactly fans of the US of A. If it plays or fights anybody else, we like it to lose; we were very pleased when they had to leave Vietnam with their tails between their legs. We were horrified about the Twin Towers but could easily see the point of view of the Muslim world, which was not so horrified. However just like anybody else, if anybody gave you a visa to stay there, nobody, not even rabid Naxals ever turned down the invitation. The faculty of Ivy League institutions is full of ex lefties from Kolkata and Bengalis who went to JNU. They would bristle if you called them ex, but it is difficult to distinguish them from the bona fide capitalists who rush there to make money and have a better life. Those who never managed to get there are of course pure at heart and never deviate from the antipathy lifelong.
I am not completely sure about which group I belong. I am, of course, not a full blown lefty, but “left leaning” as our erudite minister said. I am fairly well travelled and am a firm fan of the culture and openness of the European continent. However my travel to the Big Apple has been limited. Almost a decade ago, I visited Chicago: this was before I had seen much of Europe and while its architecture and museums vowed me, two things left a specific mark in my consciousness. One was the insane number of choices in whatever you wanted to do or more specifically, in my experience, your food. It was not possible, in my experience to just order a sandwich. They kept asking you complicated questions about what sort of bread, what sort of filling, how it was to be dressed, and what additional ingredients I wanted. This was before the advent of Subway and other American food brands in India or before I had encountered them in SE Asia, so that I was almost always at a loss. And that too in mainly an African American accent for which I wished I had a translator. When I saw the movie English Vinglish, I could completely identify with Sridevi’s character when she tried to order food.
The second thing that really floored me at that time was when I saw the type of arrangements that a bus had for the differently abled. It was the first time that I saw a bus that kneeled to allow a wheelchair to smoothly enter it, then seats swung away to allow space for the wheelchair to get into place and attachments to prevent it from moving. I stared like the unsophisticated villager that I felt myself to be. It struck me that such facilities must be very expensive and it must be used so seldom. But they still maintained it as a matter of course. To me it seemed a supremely civilized thing to do. Something, that, in my experience, we would hardly ever think of doing back home (and we still don’t).
My visa was expiring in 2020 and so we had long planned that we would visit the US this year and we finally did a couple of weeks or so ago. We saw wonderful natural scenery and man made wonders but that is not what I would like to record. What will linger in my memory for a long long time was the sense of space. We drove fairly long distances in California and then to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. We also drove along the East Coast from the Canadian border down to Washington and then to New York. The sense of being in a natural environment was overwhelming. Even in Las Vegas it took just a 15 minute drive to leave the Strip and its entirely artificial constructs to reach nature in its glory. In the east coast the Fall was in its early stages and entire hillsides were changing colour. It was mesmerizing, but to me the most attractive part was the lack of people and the preservation of nature. I am fully aware that the areas that I traveled have been changed by the hand of man completely over the past few centuries, but even so, there is something to be said for a country where, in the capital, you can run into deer at the roadside at 4 o’clock in the evening. The wilderness has been reserved in Japan too, but it is a very “civilized” wilderness. In the US I always felt that a bear or a coyote was just around the next bend. The rivers mesmerized me. The Colorado river, the Niagara River, the Potomac, the Hudson and the Susquehanna River. These were not the tamed rivers of Europe flowing in an orderly fashion along well defined alignments. These were now calm, but one could easily imagine them taking a completely different look if conditions altered.
|The Niagara River|
The other thing that profoundly impressed me was the fact that I was able to walk to across the street from the White House. In India, we are kept away from our so called elected representatives or even our civil servants as if they were gods and we mere mortals who would sully them by our unwashed presence. Not only that, there was a set of protesters who had set up shop just across the street from the White House who were vociferously and colorfully denouncing most of his policies without being surrounded by a menacing police party intent on creating mayhem. In every tourist spot I visited there was a faux Trump poking fun at the original thing. I shudder to think of the fate of a Modi look alike making fun of the great man among the crowds at Delhi gate or at the Red Fort. Or for that matter I cannot imagine such humour at the expense of those who have filled the chancelleries of power in our states. The smaller or less developed the state, the more the size of their egos.
|Demonstrators outside the White House|
There is much to be said for the US of A. The land and its wonders are of course God given, but the maintenance has been of the people. This is not to whitewash the crimes committed against the indigenous people in order to grab the land in the first place, but I could not but feel regret at the way the wilds are maintained in my country as against the capitalist devil’s homeland. I loved the total unconscious lack of class consciousness. The driver of our bus had no qualms of admitting her lack of much education, but was proud of her two kids, one of whom was a truck driver and the other a lawyer. In this country in the unlikely event of such a combination, I cannot but think that the lawyer would carefully keep himself aloof from his “unsavory” relatives.
I loved the place. I could, albeit reluctantly, understand the Sikh young man, late of Bhatinda, who acted as our local guide in Los Angeles when he said “ Once we come here, there is no way we are ever going back “. I could understand the attraction of a country that allows diversity to flourish, where participatory democracy is a real thing and where the land is beautiful and unpolluted. I guess that if time and opportunity permits, I will be back sometime.