Monday, August 13, 2012

S.Ramakrishnan and Eddie Murphy Come To America

Eddie Murphy plays an African prince in ‘Coming to America’ who is on the lookout for a queen. Saying 'what better place to find a queen than in Queens' Murphy lands in NY and goes through Murphy-like experiences that showcase America in Hollywood slapstick comedy fashion. Contemporary Tamil writer S.Ra, as S.Ramakrishnan is popularly known, also came to America and has shared his opinions of Yankee land.

S.Ra's recent interview to a magazine had two interesting observations. First, he laments how Tamils in USA who have been emigrating since the 50's, lack any creative literary output, unlike Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto. He says Tamils in USA lack any social awareness for what happens in Tamil Nadu and show not a 'single' good trait found in Canadian Tamils.

Second, he dishes out freely his ideas of what US is. USA is a country where cities are dispersed like islands amidst forests. Dwellings are situated within forests. Americans create cities by the side of forests resulting in an imbalance. Americans lack a distinctive culture and live a life of intellectual emptiness. The capitalist system compels everyone not to look beyond one’s own self or borders. Thousands of Tamils have emigrated to US but unlike Chinese, Japanese and Jewish immigrants there are no literary creations by Tamils.

S.Ra was invited to Canada and USA for his creative acumen and literature. A Canadian Tamil Sangam honored him with an award and that was how all this journey happened. It is disappointing that S.Ra did not bring to bear his literary sensibilities to what he saw. His interview makes it appear that he has little understanding of US history and intellectual traditions and that is what surprises me most given that he is a voracious reader.

When I met S.Ra at FeTNA I asked him about his impressions of the country until then (did not ask what he read of America). S.Ra said he was interested in seeing art galleries. He wrote a nice article about Diego Rivera museum but offered this drivel now. S.Ra added that he would read about US when he returns to India. He said it would be meaningful to read about a country after the visit because he can place what he reads. Fair enough. On the other hand, in his acceptance speech in Canada he expressed great admiration for Canada and how he was desirous of visiting Canada since childhood and mentioned his reading of books on Canada. 

Canada, due to its liberal asylum policies, is a magnet for Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Tamils are by nature reputed to be more literary minded than Tamils in Tamil Nadu. Sri Lankan Tamils had to flee their homeland under tragic circumstances and did not emigrate, like Tamils from Tamil Nadu, in search of greener pastures. As exiles Sri Lankan Tamils have a deeper yearning for their mother tongue and homeland that none of the other Tamils can experience. 

Asians emigrated to US in a big way only after Ted Kennedy sponsored immigration reform in 1965, not 50's as S.Ra thinks. Tamils emigrated by the thousands only recently thanks to H1B program. That our education system produces clerks with no knowledge of fine arts is a much lamented fact. The high concentration of engineers, IT professionals, amongst immigrants in US is a prime reason for lack of literary output. US immigration policies also define what kind of Tamils can immigrate to US. Amidst job concerns, green card anxieties, layoffs, taking care of families in two continents, raising kids in a different culture, by and large the Tamil society, like Indians in general, is still trying to find its feet. Creation of literature by a people results from many factors and almost none of which exists in US for Tamils and, again, for Indians in general. Jewish Diaspora, not just those who came to USA, have a high concentration of not only literary creativity but creativity in every sphere of activity and the reasons for that are varied. But the Chinese and Japanese have not produced any great 'body of work' that makes the Tamils in US look sorry.  Anybody can state a fact but to see the reasons behind what happens and what does not happen is supposed to be the preserve of the intellectual. S.Ra failed to show that nuance in understanding.

About his pathetic understanding of US geography and culture I am speechless. He just traveled by road from Toronto via New York to Baltimore and visited few other pockets. America is a vast country with widely varying topography. Such elementary awareness has escaped this screenplay writer. I'd forgive that too but not his statements on US culture. S.Ra was an English literature student and should have known better about US 'culture'.

How can he talk so lightly of a country where Mark Twain, Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Margaret Mitchell, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, Gore Vidal, Henry David Thoreau, Emerson, Santayana, Dewey and an endless list lived. Time Magazine runs a special issue every July 4th picking out one American to talk about how that person helped shape America. The first person, who was not in the pantheon of founding fathers like Jefferson and Franklin, to be on that cover was Mark Twain. A literature that reflects American issues and shapes American thinking was created to give expression to the needs of this country. Americans have always prided themselves in creating American institutions distinct from their cousins across the Atlantic. This desire for distinctness was so ingrained that Americans even created their own dictionary, by Noah Webster, spelling ‘centre’ as ‘center’, ‘colour’ as ‘color’. 

American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 at Philadelphia functions even today. Franklin founded the society so that Americans might 'cultivate the finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge'. I asked S.Ra if he planned to visit the Library of Congress, Jefferson's creation. He said he did not have time. OK, understood but does he know the hoary history of that library. Does he know how Jefferson created the University of Virginia and designed its rotunda? Jefferson desired that University of Virginia provide an ‘American education’ to Americans. S.Ra's guides are also to blame. They did not take him to Monticello, home of Jefferson. Why do Indians not visit places like Monticello or Mount Vernon or Mark Twain’s home? Or the library of congress? (I am talking about most not all).

The comment about America’s 'intellectual emptiness' is the worst absurdity. This to a country that stages plays by Eugene O Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. This to a country that has the world’s most lavishly equipped prestigious Symphony halls. This to a country of Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, Soul music, country songs. S.Ra might know of some books influencing America, like Harriet Beecher Stowe's 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin'. I am not sure if he knows how Thomas Kuhn's 'Structure of scientific revolutions' is still revered in the study of science or how Allan Bloom's 'Closing of the American mind' came to be written and its influence decades later. Fleeing Nazi Germany Thomas Mann came here and wrote his immortal 'Faust'. Alexander Solzhenitsyn fleeing USSR found a home in New England. The largest number of Shakespeare’s much revered First Folio copies are in the Folger library in Washington DC. Not in England.

Not many immigrants know much about the deep intellectual currents that form the bedrock of America. Louis Menand's 2002 Pulitzer winner 'Metaphysical club' details of a philosophy club founded by famous jurist Wendell Holmes, philosophers James and Pierce. Jefferson is revered for not just his intellect but his desire to create other Jeffersons. The ratification of US constitution by the colonies is itself a story worth reading. The Federalist Papers, written by Hamilton, Madison and John Jay, marshaled support in unprecedented polemical manner to pass the constitution. Those opposed to the Federalist papers articulated their opinions as, what else but, Cato.
Bernard Bailyn's Pulitzer winning 'Ideological origins of American Revolution' is a detective story that traces the origins of the ideas of a magnificent constitution. Bailyn threads the story of how Magna Carta, Montesquieu, Roman history and more flowed into creating an intellectual achievement that stands in a class of its own. Gordon Wood in his Pulitzer winning 'Radicalism of American Revolution' makes the case of how American revolution was 'radical' in creating a new paradigm of nation state. Wood painstakingly explains how a monarchical society transforms itself into a republican society.
America is the country of think tanks. Brookings institution and ‘American Enterprise Institute’, ‘Rand corporation’ amongst others ensure a vigorous intellectual stirring about and create a pipeline of intellectuals to inform those who govern. 

Harvard,Princeton, Johns-Hopkins, MIT, Stanford are all not mere accidents. Many countries have tried to replicate them and failed miserably. A compelling read on American universities is, "Great American Universities" by former President of Columbia University, Jonathan Cole. Cole was part of a team that China formed to create a Chinese Harvard. The attempt floundered and Cole wrote this book to tell the world why America's universities are unique and how to protect them.

The capitalist system that he decries is what drew thousands of India to seek their fortunes here and see more of the world. Does he know how MBA courses are being altered to include a stint in Asia to know the emerging economies. S.Ra should try to understand what leaps of creativity and ingenuity are involved in building the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge. He could explore and learn why Frank Lloyd Wright is revered as the creator of American Architecture? Capitalism is involved in all that.

Silicon Valley can only come from America's womb. No other country can give the space for Steve Jobs. Microsoft, Apple and HP were all born in garages. That Silicon Valley would be created in West coast and not in the equally prosperous East coast is an interesting study of how America has different cultures in its two coasts. Not to mention how the Midwest is re-inventing itself today. Is it an accident that Rockefeller, Carnegie, Stanford etc lived and flourished here? The US transcontinental railroad was not only an engineering marvel but a financial marvel too. Gordon Wood narrates how Americans made 'commerce' as the connective tissue of a country that lacked any other historical glue. The miracles brought about in industrial manufacturing and productivity were possible only in America. Calvin Coolidge, US's 30th President, stated 'the business of American people is business'.
A vague silly chatter of the California gold rush insults the westward expansion of America and the taming of the West.The Jefferson commissioned Lewis-Clark expeditions are stories of not just adventurism but of a unique human spirit that is amorphously labeled 'American'. Jefferson told them not just to travel and map out but they were charged with studying flora and fauna in each area and to see how economic expansion can be carried out. Forgotten for long today that expedition is canonical. 

S.Ra thinks that America does not have its own cuisine. That his guides, fellow Tamils who did not know better, took him to pedestrian restaurants they are used to going is not America's fault. Crab cakes in Maryland,  lobsters in Maine, Soul food in New Orleans and so on were not even tasted by him. Yes America is a land of immigrants and it is home to so many cuisines but they all have taken a distinctive American flavor too, sometimes losing their originality but mostly a new character.

Many Indian immigrants lack a curiosity to know and understand how a motley group of colonies in 1776 evolved into a super power. The 'super power' is not because America is unrivaled in arms and military but its deep intellectual nature. S.Ra maligns that US has not created its own culture but is a hodge podge of immigrant cultures. Nothing is further from truth. In every art forms streams of immigrant cultures have commingled and they have been transmuted into what is called 'American'. This is true of every civilization and every country. It is puzzling that this anthropological truth escaped S.Ra.

Not just S.Ra but every immigrant who has made America his/her home should spend some efforts to understand this country that we all have come to call homeland.


Anonymous said...

Good article. I sometimes feel that these writers 'see' the country they want to see. They project their thoughts and say that is how the worlds is. Prisoners of their own thoughts. And there is a gang to adulate whatever they say.I think all these writers should stick to what they are good at - writing creative pieces, and not writing opinion columns.

Victor Suresh said...

Another excellent commentary. Our Tamil writers' visits to the US are facilitated, mediated and moderated by Tamils/Indians in the US. They rarely get a chance to experience the broad American society and its culture. The troubling aspect is that they pretend to have understood America and write nonsense which mostly gets accepted without questioning.

vijayakumar said...

Good read! I was in Chicago for four years and left for Canada early this year. I'm trying to underatand both the countries intellectual diversity. White washing is unacceptable. S.Ra should reconsider his opinion.

Not sure what jeyamohan thinks if American literature.