Saturday, July 3, 2010

Americanized or just finding harmony.

When I got one too many brickbats for my postings on India I needed a reality check and turned to a friend whose judgment I value. I asked him, "do you think I am unduly harsh?". He said "I don't think so. What you wrote is reality but the only criticism that a reader might say is you are completely Americanized". I am sure he does not hold it against me for that or thinks ill of me for being Americanized. That said I want to look at the question deeper and July 4th is very apt for that.

Am I Americanized? Of course yes but only on the surface. I'd say that I had a core self that was in harmony with western civilization. America, the land I came to inhabit, is just the best of that Western civilization. A teenager who consumed Francis Bacon, Will Durant, Ayn Rand, Arthur Koestler, John Gribbin, English Poetry, Shakespeare, Churchill, Beethoven, Bach and much more. This is not to suggest that I grew up in some cocoon studying in some international school watching English movies or listening to Pop and reading only Wodehouse. Far from it. I've had my share of weekly Tamil movies, Ilayaraja, Sivaji Ganesan, Vikatan, Kumudam, Doordarshan, Oliyum Oliyum etc. I've read my share of Tamil novelists. Jeyakanthan, Balakumaran, Sujatha, Lakshmi, Sandilyan, Kalki, T.Janakiraman, Mu.Va etc.

 How did one influence win over the  other? Simple, politics. At every turn the government and the society at large kept reminding me that I am a, supposed forward community, and I should be punished for my birth. And punish they did. When my brother joined medical college we as family were clear that he would leave the country for postgraduate studies. Those who scream about his subsidised education at taxpayer cost can go fly a kite. An FC student getting a PG admission in choice disciplines was a distant oasis. My case was less clear because, thanks to reservation system, I ended up in Engineering. All that was just one factor. Irrespective of what I read or watched or listened in Tamil a constant thread was that much of it was far inferior to what the west offered. The west, with its penchant for merit and excellence stood in opposition to stifling mediocrity that not only existed around me but was in fact encouraged and extolled as virtue.

For those who would rush to charge that I was not instructed in the glorious history of India I'd say hold on. I used to be obsessed with anything written by Nehru and digested with avarice anything to do with Gandhi or Freedom struggle and India's history. Problem was that the best readable biography, then and now, of Gandhi is by Louis Fisher. The best readable book on India's moment of triumphal freedom was by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. [Other good books on India's history are all by westerners like Stanley Wolpert]. Bharathi remains dear to heart but reality was different. Jeyakanthan always extolled Russian literature and Western Classical. Khushwant took delight in taking down Indian jingoism. Sujatha always quoted western authors and liberally borrowed from western books for his writings on science. Then there was Tavleen Singh who was a columnist in Indian Express. Tavleen Singh was untiring in tearing down hubris of Indian politicians and Indians in general.

By the time I graduated I knew I had to leave India. That my cousins had mostly left for USA made USA the choice. America with  its H1-B program opened its golden gate.

What do I love most about USA? Why do I love America? Let me phrase this succinctly. In the past 12 years in USA, despite the occasional rise and fall of personal fortunes, I've not seen even ONE aspect of America, excluding Indian food, where I could say wistfully 'this was better in India'. Am I criticizing India because of what I had seen or experienced  in US? Not at all. Every day I used to drive in my scooter in Korattur on a road that was nothing but an obstacle course I would swear 'not for long'. I did not have to come to US to realize what was wrong with India.

There is so much hollowness in the understanding of many Indians in USA about how and why America became what it is. Most have not even bothered to read elementary history of the country they chose to live and raise families. When I hear people say "oh they were advanced technologically, had a subway system in 1901", I feel like yelling in their ears, "Have you wondered WHY?". Has anybody wondered about the beauty of a constitution that placed limits on Congress stifling liberty 300 years ago? Has anybody wondered about people Alexander Hamilton or John Adams or Thomas Jefferson? How many have pondered on the magnificence of the Declaration of Independence? How did Magna Carta become the cornerstone of modern law 700 years ago? Why does America have 7 out of top 10 universities in the world for decades passed? Could just having money make a university become Harvard?

Is America without blemishes?  Of course not. What redeems America is its ability to address its blemishes and constantly reinvent itself. In a zeal to understand the country I sought out and read quite a number of books on American history and every book only made me love the country deeper and better. A biography of Benjamin Fraknlin would leave me stunned at the man's gigantic intellect. Reading many a book on the history behind America's constitution would leave me starry eyed. A biography of Alexander Hamilton and the origins of American capitalism would make me admire how a man of such humble origins could come about to architect the foundations of America's greatest strength. People,people and only people matter. America's biggest gift was its founding fathers. America's good fortune was through out history other leaders renewed their promise.

What can I say in admiration about a country that had founding fathers who thought that a library of all books published should exist just so that its legislators can have recourse to any book to consult for their own benefit and for the benefit of their country when they legislate. The Library of Congress website says "The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest federal cultural institution and serves as the research arm of Congress." What a country. "Research arm of the congress". Just pause and think. Legislators read books and do research for legislating and it was thought that legislators should read books. This in 18th century. Just run your eyes over the web page that gives the history of that library.Does not this country deserve to be a super power?

Pulitzer Prize, Smithsonian museums, NASA, Ivy Leagues, Mac Arthur Genius awards, Scientific American magazine (published for layman for over 100 years), Congressional hearings, Senate confirmations, Presidential debates, checks and balances for power, ability to hold election officials accountable, transparency, basic honesty of general population, Museum of modern art, Rockefeller, Jefferson, Feynman, Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Princeton, Carnegie Music Hall, New York Philharmonic, National Parks, Freedom. There is so much of America that I simply love, adore and respect.

At the height of health care bill negotiations the President called for a bi-partisan summit. For 8 hours both parties and the President debated thread bare a legislation that would touch every living American on live TV broadcast  on all channels. As an American I have differences with the bill but watching my elected representatives discuss in detail a historical bill made me respect the poltical system. The bill went to vote on a momentous day with 100% attendance in the house. The final voting completed past midnight. After a victorious vote that delivered history the President went to address the nation at 12:30 AM. What a country. Legislators wrestling with a bill for 12+ hours, discussing arcane finance implications, analysing budget deficits, worrying about federal debt and finally a President who was watching it all into the wee hours. Karunanidhi and his cabinet spent 8 hours watching vulgar dances.

So to answer the question of whether I am Americanized? Unambiguously, Yes. Did I forsake my soul" Not at all, not in the least. My ideas and principles just found a home. I was primed to be an American. A brief word on Indians who keep prattling about Indian values while enjoying American hospitality. I simply detest such hypocrisy. For all those who keep saying "oh this country is no different", I can only say "if  you think so please hand over your citizenship and go back to your beloved India at least then you would not be betraying both countries, the country of your birth and the country that welcomed you". I did not come to America leaving behind much of what I had to known to live as an Indian. I came here to be an American.

I do not agree with Indians celebrating Indian Independence day as American Citizens. As Americans I've but only flag and America gives me the liberty  to fly it from my rooftop or wear it as T-shirt. I do not think immigration is a right. Every country reserves the right to give it or deny. I am thankful to America for allowing me the privilege to enrich it. My only request to Indians in USA is please do not make a India out of USA like asking to ban stuff you do not like, like not collecting sales tax in stores you run, like honking horns, like spitting betel nut in theaters, like yelling in Hindi/Telugu/Tamil across the hallway in office etc.

Once Ayn Rand was asked why she was more zealous about America she answered "because I chose to be an American". Tomorrow is July 4th. God Bless America.

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