Saturday, November 12, 2016

11/9 - TRUMP TRUMPS

I never thought an election outcome would affect me the way it did. I felt physically ill, emotionally drained and unable to sleep. Many friends in my circle felt the same. I realized I was living in a nation, that was profoundly divided. I always knew that, but was not aware of the extent of it.

The polarization that had begun in 2008, when Barack Obama became the first black president of this nation, was now complete. The path Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, The Tea Party and their ilk charted had come to fruition in the election of Donald Trump. The unthinkable was now real. The illusion that Americans can see through lies and distortions was now shattered. The nation voted against its own interest and the status-quo by taking a gamble on an unseemly candidate.

This election was a referendum on the failure of the two party American federal system of elections. Both dominant political parties of this country imploded and through their ashes rose Donald Trump - a Republican by label, but an independent at his core. He blew his own singular horn to victory and danced only to his tune to the dismay and horror of many. Personal traits such as decency, respect, kindness, inclusiveness, humility and humanity did not play a role. One's faith, personal taxes, obscene accumulation of wealth by unscrupulous means, which in the past would have decimated a candidate had no impact. Class, Race and Gender were the only primary positions along which votes were casted and decisions made.

So what went wrong? Why did America fracture right in the middle? Even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a narrow margin, why could she not seal the deal? At the heart of it lies the underestimation of Donald Trump, his rhetoric and the people he galvanized. The disconnect between a class of America and what we have come to know as mainstream America, was so deep and wide, that it took an election to awaken to. What the pollsters and pundits failed to see in Donald Trump was him resonating with a kind of America, which to a large extent had been relegated to the fringes by both political parties. They were abandoned by the elite left leaning liberals and the Republican establishment who were seen as belonging to the same corrupt ruling class. With their manufacturing and coal mining jobs evaporated by globalization, they felt they had been forsaken by the system. They had had enough of the smug urban centric media which consisted of college educated sophisticated liberals telling them that their values were out of touch with the times. That they were racist, xenophobic, gun totting, white supremacist "deplorables" in complete contradiction to the core values of the constitution and a changing America.

And so they gravitated to the most elite person they could find in the lineup, the billionaire businessman who would "win" and succeed for them where the ruling class had failed. When Donald Trump held immigrants, Muslims, Mexico, NATO, China, India, bad trade deals, crooked Hillary, Washington insiders, special interest groups, environmentalists as the cause for their misery, they thought they found their reason for despair. They figured only a bully like him could go to Washington, and be tough and get the job done with his no-nonsense, politically incorrect direct approach. He would "make America great again" and restore it back to its glory.  For this they were willing to overlook everything unsavory and brash about Donald Trump. To many this was the appeal. His open misogyny was overlooked, with 40% of his voters being women who detested Hillary for being dishonest. His bankruptcies and sexual indiscretions were ignored. Others felt a woman was not ready to be President of America, just yet. He became the man of the hour to many while he was being made out to be the clown of the hour to others.

Those like me, who lived in a bubble in Brooklyn, New York City, were so far removed from what was happening in the heartland, that we were unquestionably lulled into believing the pollsters and media pundits. The flashes we saw of Donald Trump on TV behaving like a boorish child, gave us the false impression and hope, that people would not take him seriously. The large crowds that were gathering to see him, did not seem that large on TV and in our minds. The lampooning of Donald Trump by late night television and the mainstream press was so scathing and direct, many were assured that America could never elect someone of his caliber, temperament and moral fiber. Others thought it was a left conspiracy to belittle him and undermine his candidacy. When President Obama used his bully pulpit to frame him as a man incapable in temperament and dangerous to trust nuclear codes with, it was seen as a further affirmation of a gang up. And so there was a backlash and the rude awakening on 11/9 brought a cloud of despair on a large part of this nation.

As those who did not support him ponder on the uncertain future and feel heavy in their heart, one must acknowledge all this is only politics. Politics can touch us in our daily lives, but its influence is minimal, unless you let it be.

One aspect I found deeply disturbing in this endless election season, was how degrading the discourse had become. While civility was discarded and obnoxious behavior came spewing through our television screens, what was sacrificed was innocence. As it is, in the times we live in, it is hard for a parent to shield their children from violence in popular culture. Some have lost all perspective in an increasingly pervasive environment. Now the election added a whole new layer of violence that was abhorrent. On one hand children were being subjected to a discourse that was deeply unsettling and parents were allowing it to wash over them, by projecting their rabid stance around dinner table conversations. Objectivity was abandoned as clear lines were drawn painting one candidate as evil and the other not. Children were forced to draw conclusions, based on their parent's preference, without knowing what it meant and why they were doing so.

So when the results came, I was shocked to see how disturbed children were. Children whose understanding of politics cannot and should not be more than knowing the processes of democracy, were deeply invested and emotionally shaken. At my ten year old's ballet class, a little girl, out of the blue showed me a drawing, which said "Donald Trump is a turd". The emotional instability around politics of parents had filtered into their children. When they should be reading fantasy books and watching cartoons, they were being sucked into a realm, which was far beyond their grasp, as the world was being dissected for them in the most basic dichotomy of good and evil.

His detractors are now orchestrating what Donald Trump promised he would do if he lost. Protests across the nation have broken out in mostly urban centers where he is deeply unpopular. In Oregon it has also turned violent. The violence that we witnessed in his rallies now seems to have infected the opposing side. If he follows through with his policies the time to protest will come. Anyone who has followed his rhetoric knows that it is inevitable. But to do it now seems like whining for having lost.

Even though Donald Trump did not win the popular vote, playing by the rules, he won the presidency fair and square. The system was not rigged as he proclaimed, and the institutions of America delivered the result in a free and non-fraudulent election. Now a peaceful transition of power is in progress. While he assembles his team, he must know that the way the system is designed, there are limits to what he can do. If he follows through with his promises, Donald Trump can unleash significant damage. It will be the responsibility of the opposition in power to stop him with all their might. There might also be somethings he might do in the interest of the nation. Like putting term limits on congressmen, limiting the reach of lobbyists and getting better trade deals so more jobs can be created in the US. But if he behaves the way he has on the campaign trail as he governs, he will face global isolation and social unrest like never seen before in this nation.

As Donald Trump prepares to move from his golden abode at Trump Tower to the less ostentatious public housing at the White House, he must meditate on this election. He must acknowledge that almost 50% of the eligible voting population of this country did not take part in this election and a majority of those who did, did not pick him. His contemplation needs to be expressed to all people in more than tweets. Or else his legacy will be as short lived as his mercurial diatribes.

In the end, the President we get, is the President we deserve. It is what it is.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Deep Divide

Growing up in India, the story of the nation's valiant struggle against the oppressive British was a constant reminder via schoolbooks, movies, comics and television. The portraits of Gandhi and Nehru adorned every office, dominating and making sure you never forgot the sacrifices made. Politicians dressed like freedom fighters channeled the past for votes and legitimacy. But what was brushed aside as a footnote, was the horrors of partition - a holocaust that claimed the lives of millions.

And so, in part because of these horrors, India and Pakistan remain enemies, amassing nuclear weapons and armies and living on the verge of mutual destruction. Every now and then there are glimpses of reconciliation, but they are fleeting. A terrorist attack on Indian soil orchestrated by groups within Pakistan, reignite tensions. When it subsides, disagreements over Kashmir flare up. The Pakistani establishment often blames the Indian intelligence services for the chaos in their country and India blames theirs. This cycle has been in motion for decades and there are no signs of it ending. 
When discussing the two nations, it is important to shed light on the trajectories they took since their formation. India evolved into a functioning democracy with a robust and diverse social fabric. The armed forces are under the firm control of the civilian government, which is elected every five years by a largely free and fair election. Pakistan on the other hand, has spent a large portion of its existence under military dictatorship. Today the army is a dominating force that sets the agenda, always waiting in the wings with a threat of a coup. The clerics, appeased and empowered in the 80s, have more power than before and practice it with relative impunity. Terrorism in the name of Islam is not only eating away Pakistan’s core, but is also being used as a proxy to spread chaos across the border. Many known convicted terrorists roam free in Pakistan under the protection of powerful entities. India's "public enemy" Dawood Ibrahim leads a life of luxury in Karachi. As a result Pakistan's civil society pays a heavy price as journalists and free thinkers are harassed or killed and minorities are oppressed and cleansed.
While Pakistan is in a state of free fall, lately India  seems to be becoming less tolerant in its diversity of opinion.
Two recent events seem to have hit a nerve in India, which have created a firestorm, where people's loyalties are being questioned based on their opinion. The gulf between the left and right has gotten wider and what is emerging is a disturbing and unhealthy form of nationalism that threatens India's democracy.
The killing of a young militant commander of the terrorist group Hizbul-Mujahedin, was seen as a major breakthrough for the Indian armed forces, who have policed the troubled region of Kashmir with an iron hand, for more than thirty years. When thousands spilled into the streets at Burhan Wani's funeral it was a shock to many. As his body was paraded through the streets, it was clear he was a hero to many and not just a slain terrorist. This soon led to clashes with the armed forces and scenes reminiscent of Palestinians throwing stones at the mighty Israeli army were all over television screens. The unrest in Kashmir prompted the Pakistani Prime Minister to praise the slain terrorist as a "young leader", irking India.
On a September morning, a few miles from the Pakistani border, in a town called Uri in Kashmir, an Indian army base was attacked by a band of terrorists. Several hours later, four militants and eighteen Indian soldiers were dead. India directly blamed Pakistan for this attack and launched "surgical strikes" against militant bases within Pakistani territory. Pakistan denied any involvement in the Uri attack, and said there was no evidence India could provide to prove otherwise, and said it was a revenge attack in response to the violence in Kashmir. They also said India had not carried out any strikes within their territory they could corroborate. The tension between the nations escalated further. The Indian armed forces were put on a war footing, villages along the border were evacuated and the media went into a state of frenzy. 
When the dead soldiers and their wailing family members were displayed on Indian television, emotions began to run high. Politicians and media pundits began to whip up patriotism and jingoism. The case to go to war was being made between talking points. Anyone who did not pay their overt respect to the dead soldiers and not take part in the patriotic fervor, were portrayed as traitors. Politicians openly used the death of the soldiers to further their agenda, and an open call was in place to ban anything and everything belonging to the enemy state.
The broadcast of all Indian television programs were suspended inside Pakistan. A prominent Bollywood film was threatened from being released because it had a Pakistani actor in its cast. A right wing political party called for a boycott and an association of theater owners refused to screen the film. So the director in an emotional public plea, apologized and vowed never to cast a Pakistani every again. The director was also asked to donate a large sum of money to an army welfare fund as reparations for his misdeed. A complaint was lodged against the organizers of the Mumbai Film Festival for screening a Pakistani film. There was a heightened aversion for everything Pakistani or Indian on either side of the border.
In the past the enmity between the countries, was tempered by civil engagement in the arts, sports and science. Acknowledging that Indians and Pakistanis are the same people sharing the same heritage only divided by history and politics.
My first interaction with a Pakistani happened when I moved to New York City in 1996. He was my taxi driver. We spoke the same language and could relate to each other on many levels. When in a sign of camaraderie he refused to accept payment from me, the brotherhood was even more evident. Over the years I have found friendship in many Pakistanis for obvious reasons. Late last year, I was approached by two Pakistani producers to direct a film about a remarkable man named, Abdus Salam. I was surprised how little I knew of this man, who was born in my country of birth in 1926. The more I found out, the more his life’s story intrigued me. I soon realized that as the first Muslim Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam was a national treasure whose life needed renewed attention, especially in the present times.
When I started work on the project with my Pakistani producers, I found many things in common with them. We unequivocally agreed how ludicrous, unnecessary, painful and demoralizing the divide between the nations is. It hinders so much that can be beneficial to both. We faced some of the inconvenience first hand while making this film. Even though I am a US citizen, I was not granted a visa by the Pakistani government to film there, for being of Indian origin. The Pakistani officials were annoyed that my producers could not find a native to direct the film. While filming in London we met many Pakistanis who were married to Indians and could not visit their families because of visa restrictions. The human toll the separation takes is significant and damaging enough in every sense of the word.
It is almost a year now since I started work on this film. While this is a biography of a Nobel scientist, it largely deals with an aspect of his life, when he was exiled from his own country for belonging to the Ahmadiyya community. The Ahmadiyyas, a sect within Islam, were declared non-Muslim by the dominant Sunni clerics, and the Pakistani constitution drafted an amendment to this effect in 1974. Since then they are treated as second-class citizens in their own country prompting many to leave. Abdus Salam was one of the most prominent of them. 
Many in Pakistani civil society are disturbed and deeply worried about the spread of extremism that is eating away at their social fabric. They are as much victims of terrorism as Indians are across the border. A recent film titled Among the Believers, made by an Indian and a Pakistani exposes the true nature of this cancer and therefore has been banned in Pakistan. My film exposes the heavy price people and nations pay when intolerance overruns humanity. When a man like Abdus Salam should be celebrated and his legacy used to encourage science and learning, he is vilified, maligned and discarded in his own country. 
At the moment, with the way things are, I am concerned if our film will be shown in either of the countries. Not because of the subject matter, but because of the origins of its makers. It is what it is.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Hardly A Debate

The year I arrived in this country, an election campaign was in high gear. George H. W. Bush was the incumbent and Bill Clinton his rival. The year was 1992. This is when I was exposed to American presidential politics first hand. On a midwestern university campus in Ohio, terms such as "swing state", "conservatism", "liberalism" were being spoken and I was quickly learning what they meant. It was the first time I found myself immersing myself as an observer of American politics and getting to know the inner workings of the system. Coming from India, which is the world's largest parliamentary democracy, I found some aspects of the process quaint. I could not fathom how there could only be two political parties to choose from and the "Electoral College" seemed like an antiquated system to pick a leader by. But one thing that immediately grabbed my attention was how civil everyone was in contrast to politicians in India. I did see commercials on TV that resorted to mud slinging and taunting, which is to be expected in politics, but there was nothing too acerbic or obscene. The candidates seemed dignified in suits and smiled and shook hands despite the gulf between their world views.

One thing that immediately dawned on me, was how powerful the media was in swinging loyalties. The media machine, which then consisted of radio, television and newspapers, set the agenda and drove the debate by its incessant coverage. The months of campaigning and media punditry culminated at the three presidential debates, which were televised live a few weeks before the election. Since the time Nixon lost to Kennedy in the 60s, for looking awkward on television, TV debates had become the crucible by which candidates were declared winners or losers and optics meant everything.

Two decades later, having seen a number of presidential debates, the eagerness to see the current one, that took place this week, was high. Primarily because there has never been a more contentious and polarized election campaign in the history of this nation. And the rise of the most unlikely candidate Donald Trump, has been controversial since day one, and has only heightened with every passing moment. Even though Hillary Clinton's rise was more predictable, scandal dogged her campaign as well. There are many who still sit on the fence about her candidacy, even though by now it is more than apparent who is more qualified, just based on resume and temperament.

So as the clock struck nine on the east coast, millions of Americans and others around the world, tuned in on televisions, laptops and phones to watch the first great American presidential debate of the season. As Hillary Clinton walked on to the stage in a blinding red pantsuit and Donald Trump in a bland suit and blue tie, the battle lines were drawn. After the customary hand shake, they took to their podiums and the duel began.

The first question posed to Hillary Clinton was about jobs and how her policies would spur the economy, create jobs and put more money in people's pockets. Her response was like any prepared presidential candidate, meaty with policy positions on raising the minimum wage, tax cuts for the wealthy and investing in infrastructure and green technology. When the question was posed to Donald Trump he started his routine of painting a dire image of America and how a "huge" number of jobs were being shipped to Mexico and China and how bad trade deals were hemorrhaging growth. But he did not propose a single policy by which he would create jobs, other than that he would stop them from going abroad. This is when I knew this was going to be less a debate on policy and more of a spectacle of who can "Make America Great Again" with a presupposition that it not longer was. Painting an image of an imploding America, has been the cornerstone of the Republican campaign.

As the duel progressed, it quickly became clear from Donald Trump's body language and facial expressions, that he was rattled. His unpreparedness was apparent. He kept drinking water during breaks, interrupting Hillary with impunity and finally getting to a kind of behavior that he has come to be known for - that of a bully.

And so the debate got reduced to a personal attack shoot out. As Hillary dug into his deplorable history of racism and sexism, he took it personal with unapologetic responses. When called out on not having released his tax returns, which is customary of all presidential candidates to do, he gave his usual lame excuse of being under an audit. Even though the IRS has stated, an audit does not prevent one from releasing one's taxes to the public. When exposed that he had not paid any federal taxes in the past, he applauded himself for calling himself a smart businessman. Today a New York Times report revealed he may not have paid federal taxes over the last 18 years on the millions he has made in income.

The debate got even uglier as he condescendingly accused Hillary of fighting ISIS "all her adult life", and made her responsible for the war in Syria and the chaos in Libya. He questioned her motives behind deleting thirty thousand emails, as though she was covering up something sinister. He then said he would reinstate "stop and frisk" to address inner city crime, which had been declared unconstitutional, as it is racial profiling and has disproportionately criminalized the black community. He effectively alienated the African American community, yet again, by supporting this abhorrent practice. He then went on to reduce the presidential debate to its lowest level in history, by mentioning a childish squabble he had had with Rosi O'Donnell, who he called a "pig", and then justified his despicable behavior by saying she deserved it. As my jaw dropped, so did my expectation of any decency from this man.

When the question was asked about who had the right temperament and the stamina to lead the nation, Hillary quoted her thirty years of public service as First Lady, senator and Secretary of State, when she crisscrossed the globe as a diplomat and survived an eleven hour congressional grilling without taking a break or losing composure. Donald Trump who derives sustenance from insulting people in Tweets, clearly showed he did not have the temperament to be civil let alone be presidential. The verdict was clear.

So what do people find appealing in this man, to put him on a stage that wields so much power and influence? What do people see in him that is presidential? What is it that despite all the scandals and rash and immature behavior, he still garners so much support?

Some say people in America like to vote along party lines, much like they support their favorite sports team no matter what. Many don't cast their vote for the most qualified candidate but for the one who ends up being the nominee of their party. Others say Americans are angry and Donald Trump is feeding into their frustrations. I cannot fathom what Americans are angry about. The American economy is still strong and has stabilized in the last eight years from where it was, and is growing. Maybe not as much as some would like, and not equally across the nation, but at least it is not falling off the precipice like many other developed nations. I think "Americans are Angry" is code for the character of this nation changing and many don't approve the direction it is taking. America is becoming more diverse, power is slightly shifting from the predominantly caucasian ruling class, marginalized groups such as gays and transgendered are finding their legal place in society and non-Christian religious groups are asserting themselves more loudly than before. Movements like "Black lives Matters" and groups challenging Hollywood's implicit racism are questioning the status quo and demanding fair treatment. For many these issues parsed and dissected on relentless social media, seem like a tidal wave hurtling at them, determined to cause a seismic paradigm shift. This fear, restlessness and unease is driving people to rally behind Donald Trump, even though he is part of the very east coast elite and could care less about the interests of a vast majority of Americans. While the Republican establishment see him for who he is, few openly expose him with any conviction. His supporters see him as an outsider, a rabble-rouser who can shake the system which has long been working only for the elite. And they think only a person with wealth and business acumen such as his, can bring the much needed change. There is an amount of delusion, misinformation and a strong belief in conspiracy that drives this mode of thinking. And for obvious reasons his faithful tend to be white and male.

One thing is certain, given the cards that have been dealt, historically speaking, this could be the most important election facing this nation. America has never come this close to putting a person of such character in the driving seat. This nation has had its share of corrupt leaders who have lied, started illegal wars, shown poor judgement and moral fiber, helped the rich get richer and have taken America into the abyss. But America has never had a person with such an openly disgraceful record of scamming people, denigrating women, bigotry, narcissism, personal enrichment, charity and temperament this close to the White House. Hillary Clinton may still seem distant and too much of an insider to many. With two more debates to go and at this moment in time, for those who uphold values of decency and civility above all, the choice is clear. It is what it is.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Refugee

For the past eight months, my house has been under construction. What started off as a four month project has now taken more than double the time, with the end nowhere in sight. While we upgrade our more than a hundred year old Brooklyn home, the task keeps getting more exhaustive and expensive. Anyone who has renovated an old house can attest to the fact, that it is easier and faster to put up a new structure than to rebuild an old one. So for the past eight months my family of four have been living in cramped quarters on the second floor, while the guts are removed and replaced in the duplex below. We have been braving the noise and the dust and the loose floor boards, trying hard to be positive, with the promise that the end will have rewards that will blur the pain. But there is nothing more stressful than living in a temporary shelter. Everything is off kilter and every waking day is a challenge. It is to some extent like living as a refugee.

By no means is my current status comparable to some of the people who have had to leave their homes as a result of conflict or dire economic conditions. Over the last few years, the planet has been facing a refugee crisis on a scale not seen since the second world war. It has particularly exacerbated in the last five years as the conflict in Syria has engulfed the region. To put it in perspective, most people who manged to stay alive through the conflict have left Syria. Many are living in permanent camps in Jordan and Lebanon. More than a million refugees have arrived in Germany, in the last year alone. Mostly from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa. Germany has been the most gracious of nations to welcome the refugees, though not always with open arms. Even though Angela Merkel's policy of giving refuge has grown increasingly unpopular, she has held firm. The nation seems to be atoning for a refugee crisis it created a few decades ago. Angela Merkel deserves a Nobel peace prize for her unwavering support of those who have lost everything.

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean on over crowded boats from north Africa have become a common sight. The world has grown numb to images of women and children drowning while trying to make the crossing. Almost everyday there is a capsize, as people meet their watery end in an attempt to find a home and a future. To walk in a migrant's shoes is to walk alongside horror. Yet not many can empathize, as it is human nature to take care of one's own and not bother with that which is uncomfortable and alien. And politicians exploit this feeling to spread fear and a right wing agenda of exclusion and apathy.

In America, the current Republican candidate Donald Trump uses it to pander to those who think they are the original owners of this land. Muslims and Mexicans are branded as terrorists, criminals and illegal moochers. In Great Britain the fear of the immigrant was successfully used to remove itself from the European Union. In France, the ban on the Burkini, and incidents of Muslims being singled out and not served, are a direct response to a sense that Europe is being over run by migrants who are not compatible with their way of life or are there to end their way of life via subversive means.

The reality is, it is not only Europe or the west that is baring the brunt of a mass exodus. Many Afghans have lived most of their adult lives as refugees in Pakistan. They fled their native land when the Soviet army invaded their nation in 1979. Countless have grown up stateless in camps which have become permanent homes. Now the Pakistani government is asking three million Afghan refugees within its borders to vacate immediately. They are being uprooted and torn from their families and are being asked to return to Afghanistan. Knowing that their nation is far from finding peace and security,  many are turning west and taking on a deathly journey. Another humanitarian crisis is brewing in a part of the world, which has only seen chaos turn into catastrophe. This means the numbers of people wanting to arrive in Europe and the United States is only going to increase.

People around the globe have always been on the move. It is but human to look for a better future for yourself and your loved ones. Self preservation is at the core of the human spirit. It is this very fact that led to the establishment of the United States of America. It is a nation formed and built by refugees who we now call immigrants. Yet America is barely doing its part in the current climate.
This week United States admitted its 10,000th Syrian refugee, in a resettlement program announced by President Obama last fall. In 2015, just 2% of the 70,000 refugees admitted were from Syria. In 1979, having literally destroyed the nation of Vietnam, the US provided sanctuary to 111,000 Vietnamese, and added another 207,000 in 1980. Having partially created the crisis in Syria, 10,000 is a far cry from the million Germany has taken in.

In reality, every nation on this planet was built by refugees at some point in time. Humans moved around always looking for better climes and laid roots where they could harvest and form community. That is how civilizations got started and nations drew borders.

Now that we have drawn imaginary lines on our tiny planet, the tribal nature of humanity has come to the fore. With visas and passports, we decide who can live where and where one go or cannot. We have organized systems of governance that decide who gets certain benefits and who does not. Based on respective histories, some nations have established systems that are more altruistic than others. Other nations, have shut their doors completely even though people from their tribe needed their help. Many rich middle eastern nations have done very little to relieve the suffering of the Muslim refugees that are on the run. Other nations have simply ignored the crisis.

To leave a home, where you have found comfort in family and surrounding, is the most disruptive thing that happen to a person. For some it pushes them to find a new home, work hard to make sure a situation like that never returns in their lives, to others it spells death. But these are the people who have the metal to make something of themselves and in the process improve the plight of others. These are the people who have built America and will build Germany and other places where ever they are let in. To make them the enemy and stigmatize them as criminals or alien is not in the interest of humanity or the growth of any nation.

While I go through my relatively benign discomfort of renovating my home which I built as an immigrant to this nation, I do not take the disparaging of refugees and migrants lightly. When people choose to ignore the fact that all humanity is essentially made up of migrants who are just passing through this planet, they loose sight of who they are. It is what it is.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Dinner Conversation

It is not often that I get invited to an Eid party in America. But this year came my lucky day. So I found myself at a friend's sister's house in Staten Island, in a middle class neighborhood, where every other window displayed a sign "Happy Ramadan". Sounds of celebration were in the air welcoming the end of the fasting season. My hosts were from the city where I was born and grew up, Hyderabad. I am a little ashamed to say that my prime motivation to accepting the invitation was driven by my palate. The food in a Muslim house from my city is unsurpassed, and on Eid it is especially good. And the hospitality of a Muslim family is extraordinary, especially when they know you are from the same town.

So as expected my family and I were greeted with warm hearts and hot spiced "chai". We were embraced with a warm hug and the greeting, "Eid Mubarak". We were welcomed into a home which had large pictures of the Kabah hanging on the wall and framed words from the Quran adorning every door frame. Men and women were dressed in their brightest and finest traditional attire. Some women wore the Hijab and others did not. Some men wore beards and Kufi's and others did not. Some had a dark marks on their foreheads, a mark of their religious fervor. The young were in the backyard throwing hoops and being American in every way. The men sat in the living room and women were upstairs having a cheerful time. The atmosphere was festive and vibrant. Being from Hyderabad, I  blended in speaking in Urdu, which always gives me pleasure. Even though I was the only non-Muslim among fifty odd people, I perfectly felt at home. This was partly because I was familiar with the culture having grown up in a city which was half Muslim.

After some tea and biscuits, the men were shown to the basement for dinner. As the aluminum foil peeled off the serving platters, the aroma filled the room. The best Biryani on this side of the planet was on display along with other culinary delights native to my town. I had no choice but to give up my recently acquired vegetarianism for the night. As the men filled up their plates and sat around the table, the conversations began. I soon realized most of the men were in the small retail business or had other low level office jobs. I struck up a conversation with two Pakistanis who were from Karachi.

After the customary introductions, the conversation shifted to my profession. As I often experience at many Indian gatherings, people are surprised and intrigued to find a documentary filmmaker among their midst. It is not a profession of choice among many of my origin. As we spoke, the attention shifted to the film I am directing, which happens to be about an illustrious Pakistani scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 1979. The two Pakistanis I was conversing with were vaguely familiar with his name, but knew very little about what Abdus Salam had done.

Abdus Salam has the unique distinction of being the first Muslim scientist to have won a Nobel Prize. Born in 1926 in a small village in Punjab, Abdus Salam was a child prodigy. His accomplishments and contributions to science, especially on the elite field of Theoretical Physics, are unsurpassed. Without his seminal work, the Higgs Boson would not have been discovered. Abdus Salam was a deeply religious man and belonged to the Ahmediyya community, a sect within Islam. Over the last sixty years or so, the Ahmedis have been persecuted in Pakistan for considering their founder to be a Prophet. The Sunni majority in Pakistan, consider them to be heretics for not accepting Mohammad as the final Prophet. For this they have been declared non-Muslims by an amendment to the constitution, and over the years Ahmedi mosques have been attacked and people, discriminated, targeted and killed. As a result many have left the country or live in fear mainly in one particular town outside Lahore.

As I began to elaborate on why I was making this film and how important it was, as Abdus Salam had been wiped out of his nation's psyche despite his patriotism and contribution to his country, just for being an Ahmedi, my audience did not seem very sympathetic. One went so far as to warn me that I was risking my life making a film about Abdus Salam, and suggested other illustrious Pakistanis to consider. Also my Indian origin was a little unsettling to them. They were quite intrigued as to why I was interested in making a film about a Pakistani. I could sense that many people did not have a problem with the status of Ahmedis in Pakistan and believed they deserved to be declared as heretics.

As the comfort level grew more amiable, the conversation shifted to other areas. Many unanimously agreed that 9/11 was an inside job. America had orchestrated an attack on itself to find an excuse to invade the middle east. This is a very commonly held belief in many parts of the Muslim world. A poll conducted in Egypt not long ago revealed that 80% of Egyptians believed in this conspiracy theory. Another point of consensus was that America the "evil empire" was responsible for the chaos ensuing in the middle east and visa-vie the Muslim world. Israel, America's evil cousin was never to be trusted and the Mossad trained the American police and that is why so many African Americans were being killed. The American media was only interested in showing the ugly underbelly of places like Pakistan. They did not care to show the progress other nations were making as it did not serve their agenda. All in all an anti-American sentiment was in the air, which was a little unsettling. I was also aware, that many were being unfiltered in their opinions as they considered me a member of their tribe. But what astonished me most, was that there were a couple of Donald Trump supporters in their midst as well.

There is no question America has a checkered history in the way it has dealt with nations around the world that did not serve its self interest. The list is long and recorded for all to see and parse and volumes have been written and continue to be compiled, as the nation goes through one war after another. The recent illegal invasion of Iraq exposed America's dark side, with horrific revelations of torture from Abu Ghraib prison, CIA rendition sites and Guantanamo Bay. America's ill-conceived adventure not only resulted in the deaths of many Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere, but also gave rise to a cancer called ISIS, which is mostly killing other Muslims, in a battle for survival. As politicians like Donald Trump and his ilk ratchet up the suspicion of all Muslims by their hateful rhetoric, the suspicion of American policies only grow stronger and deeper, spawning recruits for the unending "war of terror".

As the conversation around delicious food moved along, I was trying to process what was being said, in a setting that was foreign to me, but not so alien, that I could not fathom the source of their train of thought. Many of the participants had arrived in the United States seeking a better life and I had to remind them, that no other nation in the world would assimilate them like this one. I also had to make a point, that yes America not always plays its cards right, but one must also acknowledge the good it does with it's generosity towards many humanitarian causes, both from the private and public sector. Recently the Ebola epidemic in a far off land was contained by mostly brave American doctors and forces. In many instances America is on the front line providing rescue and relief when both political and natural disasters strike and other nations fail to step forward. Yes America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, bombed Pakistan, Libya and Syria in a way that has been detrimental in myriad ways. But billions of dollars have been poured into these nations to rebuild and provide basic infrastructure which was absent before. So I had to make a point, that one has to put everything in perspective and historical context and most of all acknowledge that it is only this nation that provides the protection of the constitution, to freely speak your mind without hesitation, as they did.

As the meal ended and the table had to be vacated for the women to gather, I wondered what a young mind sitting at this table would have gathered from the opinions expressed. In a time when we routinely see young people radicalized and brainwashed via the internet by powerful ideologues, a simple dinner conversation can serve as an impetus, if you are naive and trying to navigate world. If no historical context is provided to a conversation, and the complete picture is not sliced and diced, and only a myopic view is presented, it is not hard to imagine someone being lead down a rabbit hole of no return with little provocation.

In the powerful 1989 movie American History X, the Neo-Nazi protagonist played by Edward Norton is menacing and racist to his core. He has a change of heart when he goes to prison and interacts with a black inmate on a human level. A scene that left an impression on me, was when the protagonist as a child is vehemently bombarded by racist rants from his violent father around the family dinner table. And so he grows up with a warped view of the world, eventually becoming a skinhead. The dinner conversation I had on this day reminded me of this scene from the movie, as I pondered on all dinner conversations around the world. I wondered how easy it was to skew a young mind, by only providing a unilateral view of the world with a strong belief in conspiracies.

In today's world, the impulsive conversations on the internet, seem to have taken the place of the family dinner table. As mores of socializing become infused by technology, I wonder if conversations occur in many homes as they used to at all.Yes there is an evil that is to be fought in the world when it morphs into a diabolical ideology, but if we are to create a better world, the real battle to win is at the dinner table, be it real or virtual. It is what it is.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

YET AGAIN...INERTIA


I am dreaming of a day, when my attention would not be drawn to yet another mass shooting in this land, which I have come to call home. The more gun violence I read about, the less desirable America becomes as a society to live in. Many come to this land seeking justice and protection. Others admire this nation, as to a large extent the "system works". But it is becoming apparent, that when it comes to gun violence, it clearly does not.


Since the time I started this exercise of dispersing my thoughts with words into this void called the internet, I have lost count how many times I have visited the subject of mass murder. I wrote a piece this year alone called "The Disease Within", where I sighted gun violence as a sickness plaguing American society. Much like cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, gun violence is adversely impacting American lives, as more than 30,000 lives are lost each year. Billions of dollars are poured into finding cures for cancer; an insignificant amount is spent in finding a remedy for gun violence.  


The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) studies a variety of public health threats facing America. From infectious disease to automobile safety, this federally funded agency is tasked with the responsibility of protecting the public from undue harm. But for 15 years the CDC has not done any comprehensive research on one of the top causes of death in the United States: firearms. The reason: a lack of funding from the federal government. In 1997, an amendment was added to an operations bill that passed in Congress with language that impedes the CDC from conducting research that will “advocate or promote gun control”.


While the CDC keeps surveillance data on gun injuries and deaths, it has not funded a single study aimed at reducing harm from guns since 2001. The CDC is aware from its own research that guns are one of the top five causes of death for people under the age of 65. So the lack of comprehensive research is not only glaring, but is in complete contradiction to its mission. This sends a clear message that the very government we have elected, whose primary directive is to protect its citizens, is in fact working against the safety of its own people. 


The mass shooting that took place in Orlando this month already seems like a distant memory. It has moved of the news cycle, the rainbow flags are gone, the memorials have been swept away, striped filters on Facebook have vanished and we are back to the day before the shooting. While the world debated whether it was a terrorist attack or a mentally ill person unloading his automatic weapon, what was not lost, was the grotesque horror of it all. For a moment when the emotions were high, and as this event was labeled as the second or third deadliest incident of gun violence in the nation, there was hope that congress would take urgent action. As there was hope when toddlers were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. 


When Congress could not respond to the death of innocent children, the chances of anything meaningful happening when gay people were gunned down was rather remote. And as expected the morally bankrupt and ethically corrupt congress did not budge an inch. The dramatic theater of sit-ins and protest by the democrats on the house floor yielded no result. The country went back into the pocket of gun lobbyists and the industry of mass murder.


There is no more a polarizing topic, as gun violence in this country. There is overwhelming support from the public to do something about it, even if on the margins, but the deadlock in congress stifles any change. A similar scenario prevailed decades ago when America was engaged in another arena of violence, the Vietnam War. After a decade, with over fifty thousand body bags returned home, the appetite for violence within the American public had run its course. The war had touched too many, and the pointlessness of it was becoming apparent to all. There were mass protests in the streets, on college campuses and at music concerts. The pressure on congress to end all hostilities was severe. But what to some extent turned the tide was when the war actually began to touch the members of congress. When their family members started coming home in body bags, they began to realize the horror of it all. And the war ended soon after.


The inability of the United States Congress to enact any legislation to prevent gun violence makes them culpable. Their hands are bloodied. And every instance they vote to do nothing as civilians get gunned down, their hands only get bloodier.


It appears that the appetite for violence is on the increase. The appetite to not only commit horrific acts of violence, but also the appetite to consume violence via mass media seems to be on the rise. The act of watching more and more grotesque acts on screen has become a norm. Television shows like the global hit Game of Thrones and feature films in general, are pushing the envelope of fictional violence. Recent acts of deplorable violence committed in the name of ISIS, have shaken people to their core, but have also desensitized them in the process. Since I started writing this piece, suicide bombers attacked an airport in Istanbul, boys from affluent families in Bangladesh hacked foreigners to death in a cafe and bombs killed and maimed hundreds in a Baghdad market, all in the holy month of Ramadan. While reading about these acts of violence, I found myself numb. Not just numb to the acts of horror committed, but to the frequency at which such acts are being committed since that ill-fated day when planes crashed into buildings a few hundred meters from my home.


What comes out of violence is fear. And people seeking power can easily exploit fear. Even though less people in America have died from overt terrorism and more die everyday as a result of one on one gun violence, the specter of Islamic terrorism looms larger in the psyche of Americans. Presidential candidates like Donald Trump and his ilk stoke that fear to promote an agenda of seclusion and suspicion of the other. The rhetoric used by leaders who successfully removed the United Kingdom from the European Union, was of exclusion, fear and xenophobia. Right wing parties in Austria, Germany and other parts of Europe are capitalizing on this changing mood to rise from the shadows and feed off of people's perceived insecurities. At the core of this hysteria is a sense of terror and violence that is engulfing our very being. Most of it fueled by the immediacy of social media.

Every time there is a massacre in America, as seen in Orlando recently, flags across this nation fly at half-mast honoring and mourning the dead. Unless there is meaningful legislation to address gun violence, the American flag should fly at half-mast, permanently. It is what it is.






Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Learning to Learn

For about a year now, I have been focused on a right of passage for my child and myself. My daughter is graduating from high school, and is heading to college where hopefully she will find a path she is passionate about. From almost 1600 colleges and universities to choose from, the task of preparing for this next step can seem daunting. In an ultra-competitive world where brand names drive decisions, the pressure of making the right choice has been challenging at times.

But, the way the American system is designed, there are filters that allow you to narrow your choices. Once the nationally administered standardized tests are taken the first stage of filtration is put in place. High school grades determine the next. Geographical location, the size of the school and its reputation follow. And then the most important, "the sticker price" becomes a major determining factor. An average four year private school education in this country, without scholarships, grants, discounts and other financial assistance costs about a quarter of a million dollars today. And that number is rising every year, leading many to question whether a college degree is really worth all that it is made out to be.

After weighing in on all of the above, and doing your research and having a vague idea of what your child wants to pursue, you are recommended to short list about a dozen colleges to apply to. The application is made through a centralized system called "common app", where you upload your scores, portfolio, essay and recommendation letters. Then with a click of a button, and punch of your credit card number, all your chosen colleges receive your documents. Now it is time to make plans to visit some of the campuses and fairs to get a better sense of where your child will be spending the next four years of her life.

And so I shortlisted some names of colleges and made appointments and did what all families here do. Take a road trip. Most campus tours are essentially marketing presentations. The college president gives a talk, spitting out statistics on how good his/her institution is and how its alumni are pursuing productive careers across all areas of interest at top places. Then you are handed a bright colorful folder with well designed graphics which spell out everything from tuition, room and board costs and diversity and student teacher ratios and so on. And then you go on the grand tour of the campus where everything from the dormitories, library, dining room, gymnasium and the student center are all displayed in their shiny best. These tours are most often given by a senior student so you get a sense of what it is to be a member of that hallowed institution, which in most cases here are over a hundred years old with established traditions. Much like one exhibits allegiance and devotion to a favorite sports team, sentimental attachment to one's alma mater runs deep and lasts a life time. Then for those who are into sports, the athletic program is marketed with great pomp. In America, the mascot of a university and its colors elicit immense pride. It adds to the whole spirit of being a member of the "tribe" by wearing hoodies and T-shirts that carry the logo. In fact once you decide which college you are going to attend, your first expense is to purchase an overpriced article of clothing or a product that bears the name of your institution from the bookstore.

Once you finish touring campuses, comes the hard part. To decide where you would drop roots. The rejection letters you get from some colleges for not making their cut, narrows some of your choices. Others send you financial aid and scholarship packages, to entice you to join their institution. Most colleges, private and public, once you meet their criteria, offer need based assistance helping you offset some of the expenses. All colleges have comparable education standards and facilities. What  mostly differs, is their approach to imparting education. In addition to feeling like the chosen one, the branded ivy league institutions offer an elite alumni network which to many is a bonus to aspire for. To the status conscious a Harvard or a Yale stamp draws attention, much like a Bentley or a Ferrari would.

Having had my undergraduate education completed in India, I found this process exhausting. When I grew up, you had a hand full of elite national and state institutions which you aimed to get into. And if you did not make the cut, you settled on a couple of colleges your city offered. India is the heartland for standardized testing. Sometimes even being in the 98 percentile is not considered worthy. I was never good at standardized testing, and therefore could not pursue a career in Architecture at an institution of my choice. My fallback was to get an undergraduate degree in math, physics and chemistry at a city college. Today, the wealthy send their children to America or to a private college, spending exorbitant sums of money. And the not so wealthy, settle for the next best option and then later find their way to America at the graduate level to climb the socioeconomic ladder. In India, unless you want to be a doctor, engineer or a software coder, your choices are limited to a handful of disciplines that can offer a career with a good wage.

For the most part an Indian education is not very creative. Rote learning is the preferred method.  So when I came to America for my graduate degree, I had to adapt quickly to a whole different approach to learning. Being a student of social sciences, I had to accelerate my reading and writing skills to a level where it had never been. The first six months were the most challenging as a student.

Now that my time had come to send my child to college, I recalled my time fondly as a student on an American campus. A four year college education is more than just about getting a job, and finding something you are passionate about and acquiring a means to payback the debt you accumulate while there. It is the experience of belonging to a community and learning the ropes of becoming an adult, that is more defining. And nothing offers it better in the world, than the bubble called an American college campus.

Having visited half a dozen campuses, it became apparent, that no matter where our child would go, she would get a decent education. What we were looking for is something that would not only meet a high standard, but an approach that was more in tune with the times. Therefore, we were interested in finding a liberal arts college as we were certain that it would be a better fit than a large university. Liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller and have an open and creative approach to education. While being rigorous they are intimate and far more open to new ideas and initiatives. We found what we were looking for in Goucher College.

What drew me in, were the things that would normally turn me away. The marketing spiel presented by their college president. He was so unconventional that he left a lasting impression on me. Not only did he convince me that this college was unique, but also gave me some words of wisdom to live by.

A jazz musician by training, he was running a major institution, that was in itself unusual and interesting. He had a simple approach and the way he delivered his speech, was more motivational than business as usual. He started by saying, degrees and accolades really don't matter much in today's world. A profession that is lucrative today can become obsolete tomorrow, as technology  rapidly erodes the way we live. All the information you need, is in the palm of your hand in a smart phone. So you really don't have to go to college to acquire knowledge. The problem is, good information is buried under heaps of garbage. And the skill you need today, is to see through the extraneous "stuff" and find that which is important and real. That is the challenge we face today. He said that at Goucher, most importantly they teach their students how to "learn to learn". Therefore strong reading and writing skills are paramount, no matter the discipline of choice. He then went on to mention the three Rs of education that he believes makes a student strong. The first is "relationships". Relationships are fundamental to everyone's growth. The relationship you have with your teacher, colleague, family member and others, dictates whether you are going to succeed. The second is "resilience". It is a forgone conclusion that you will always face failure. On campus and in life. But only a resilient person recovers from failure and does even better. And the third is "reflection". If you do not recover from failure and reflect on what lead you to fail, then you are bound to make the same mistake again.

Only time will tell if Goucher College is the right choice we made. Whether and how the president is able to instill his ideas through the campus is something that remains to be seen. But as ideas, they seem rather inspirational and reformative in a world where rote learning is still the norm. Children are still pushed to pursue math and science and the notion that if you did anything unconventional you would end up on your parent's living room couch without a job, is still a popular mode of thinking.

In the world we live in, there is no question; a college degree necessarily does not provide you instant monetary gratification. But it certainly offers you a way of thinking, which cannot be imbibed any other way. Finding the passion to chase a dream or be comfortable in a career choice, no matter the monetary reward, is a personal metric dictated by an individual's choice, circumstance and aspiration.

An American college education is expensive and is only going to get more so, as it is a business. Colleges and universities are meant to be non-profit institutions. But in a capitalist system, they are as corporate and competitive as any company on Wall Street. Many in the United States are underwritten by gigantic endowments, some generated from the slave trade eons ago, as discovered recently in the case of Georgetown University. In response to escalating costs, in the present election, Democratic candidates are floating the idea of offering a total or partial free four year public education to all. On the other hand the Republican nominee Donald Trump is dealing with allegations of starting a for profit unscrupulous failed business venture called Trump University, which is now mired in law suits. It is clear that it is in the universities and colleges is where America's true power lies. As it is from its institutions are created the presidents and the power elite that shape our world. But it is only those who learn to learn, as the world rapidly changes around them, who succeed. It is what it is.

 
Pingates