By Maliha Diwan
Neel Patel’s stories are about Indians living in America, but instead of ethnic divides or cultural disparities, he writes about people falling in and out of love and messing up their lives in the process
The blurb on the back cover of If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi tells us that it “examines the collisions of old world and new world.” Far from it. Unlike, say, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, no story in this collection by Neel Patel revolves around bridging the cultural divide or nostalgia. In many ways this is refreshing: there are as many second-generation immigrants who make the best of both worlds as there are those who struggle to juggle the two, so why should a writer, who happens to share two cultures, be expected to focus on only that?
The characters that populate Patel’s debut short story collection aren’t conflicted with their hyphenated identity, but are motivated by something as old as stories themselves: love. In Patel’s world, Indian Americans navigate the pitfalls of relationships, find and lose love, self-sabotage their marriages and find themselves embroiled in family feuds that last for years. The culture of their two worlds forms the background of the narrative, but human flaws drive the plot. The author does reference Indian American heritage, but in a nuanced way: a picture of Shiva links two parts of one story, whereas in another, the narrator is irked by her arranged marriage and is determined to derail it, confessing: “I never wanted to marry Akhil. My mother found his picture on a website I had never heard of (and to which I unwittingly belonged).”
The 11 stories in If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi are homage to heartbreak and regret. In ‘God of Destruction’, the protagonist rues that “No one ever told me that happiness was like currency: that when it goes, it goes, and that few people are willing to give you some of theirs.” In ‘World Famous’ and ‘Radha, Krishna’ — connected stories that are some of the best in the collection — community gossip tears Anjali and Ankur apart. Told from the perspective of each of the two protagonists in turn, it explores how leaving things unsaid can erode a relationship. By the end of the story, like Anjali the reader is also left wondering: how did it all end like this? What happened?
It is in such stories of people grappling with what life throws at them that Patel’s strength lies. He excels in capturing the way you move forward in life — or so you think you have — till you find out that you have come full circle, that you are right where you didn’t want to be. Often Patel’s protagonists connive, plot or push against fate, but they soon realise that fighting is just futile. The narrator in ‘Hare Rama, Hare Krishna’, for example, is determined that his relationships will be unlike his parents’ crumbling marriage, but eventually it dawns on him that life is like “a strong current, sweeping you in whichever direction it chose.”
In ‘An Arrangement’, a wife sets out to sabotage her marriage only to find herself the victim. Another story, ‘Taj Mahal’, drives home the point that no matter how far we try to run away from our personal tragedies, they will always be there, shaping us and waiting for us to confront them. Ankur, the protagonist in the previously mentioned story ‘World Famous’, is reluctant to return to his childhood home, but eventually resigns himself to the inevitable: “When I didn’t match, I went home to Illinois and became one of those ghosts you saw at the mall: the ones who never left.”
And there is plenty of something or the other in Patel’s stories that most readers will be able to relate to. The titular story of the collection revolves around two brothers who have a falling out and consequently drift apart. They haven’t spoken to each other in years, hence, ‘If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi’. The catalyst for this conflict is — predictably — a girl. Meanwhile in ‘Hey Loser’, a medical student named Raj is continually drawn towards the same former girlfriend, the distance of geography and time cut short by Facebook. How easy it is to relate to this, for who amongst us hasn’t looked up an ex on social media and wondered, ‘What if’?
The genius of Patel’s writing lies in this — in stories that anyone can see themselves in, in protagonists whose struggles often mirror ours, with Indian American culture humming in the background. In If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, Patel shows he is a writer worth watching out for: the author knows how to economise his words well to draw the plot forward and is adept at writing stories with surprising twists and endings. With these 11 stories, Patel compels you to see the good, the bad and the ugly of love, up close.
If You See Me, Don’t
By Neel Patel
The point of having democracy
By Pulapre Balakrishnan
As the general election approaches, we are reminded of the observation by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that while raisins may well be the better part of a cake, “a bag of raisins is not a cake”. For, while elections may be an integral part of democracy, surely they cannot be its end. The end is the demos, or the people, and the content of their lives. However, going by the actions of political parties when in power and their pronouncements when they are not, the end of democracy gets overlooked in the political process in India.
In the run-up to the present, indeed through the greater part of the past five years, two constructs have repeatedly been projected by the main political formations in the country. These are nationalism and secularism, associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, respectively. As are raisins to the cake, so we might say these two ideals are to Indian democracy. But unlike the fruit which, given to us in a natural state, is not malleable, the concepts of nationalism and secularism have proved to be quite that in the use to which they are put by India’s political parties. This by itself may have proved to be less disappointing if they had not in addition privileged these constructs over everything else.
Actually, it is possible for nationalism and secularism to be part of state policy even in the absence of democracy. Thus both Iran under the last Shah and Iraq under Saddam Hussein ran a secular state, though they were both dictators. The People’s Republic of China is so nationalist that even its socialism is said to be imbued with ‘Chinese characteristics’. Its state is not just secular but avowedly atheist. However, it is not a democracy. What is at stake here is that democracy is meant to be something more than just nationalism and secularism. None of this suggests that these two concepts are unrelated to democracy. Indeed they are of it.
Take nationalism first, once we have imagined ourselves as a democratic community we must defend our national interest. Threats to India come from two sources. There are authoritarian regimes in the region that are hostile to India. Second, the western powers have captured global bodies to promote their economic and political interests, for which think of the multilateral agencies that attempt to prise open India’s market without yielding the West’s to migration.
Take secularism next. Based on first principles, we would say that a democracy cannot allow any religious influence on the state’s actions. However, there is a reality in India today that requires a contextual understanding, and this would require the secular state to go beyond this limited brief to protect religious minorities. The relevance of this is brought home by an incident that took place on Holi day when a gang of hoodlums, attacked without provocation, a Muslim family including young children with iron roads in broad daylight in Gurugram outside the national capital. The video, uploaded on the Internet, makes for horrific viewing. It should leave every thinking Hindu raging with anger that terror is directed at innocent Indians in his or her name.
To accept the relevance of both nationalism and secularism to Indian society does not, however, entail agreement with the use made of these constructs by India’s political parties. We have just completed five years during which a toxic nationalism has been unleashed. In the BJP’s hands, nationalism or national pride has shown itself to be a means to establish Hindu majoritarian rule, a project with potentially destructive consequences for the country. A substantial part of India views this with trepidation. For its part, over the past 30-plus years the Congress party has often resorted to a sham secularism, the high mark of which came in the form of its response to the Supreme Court ruling on the Shah Bano case. Many citizens, including Muslim Indians, were deeply demoralised. In the State of Kerala, the Congress routinely shares power with sectarian parties while proclaiming its secular credentials. Nobody is fooled.
Of all the leaders India has produced, it is Jawaharlal Nehru who has been the most clear-eyed on the goals of Indian democracy. When asked by the French writer André Malraux as to what he considered his biggest challenge Nehru had replied: “creating a just state by just means [and] creating a secular state in a religious country.”
The significance of this was that Nehru saw these goals as challenges to be overcome. Not for him the thought that these tasks were done merely by stating “acche din aane wale hai” or publicised visits to mahants and imams. Some years earlier, at the moment of the ending of colonial rule, Nehru had stated that it was an opportunity to create a “prosperous, democratic and progressive” India. He had read the aspirations of his compatriots astutely. Prosperity was not considered second to progressive thinking, even if the latter meant nationalism and secularism.
In the close to three quarters of a century since, the goal of Indian democracy had been articulated prosperity is not in sight for the vast majority. On the other hand, a section of Indians has surged ahead economically. Not just the very rich but the middle classes too are now much richer than they were. For the rest of the country, however, it is an ongoing struggle to earn a living. A just society must seem far away to these Indians. But a just society by just means is no longer a pipe dream, it is entirely feasible, and in our times at that. The pathway to it lies in adopting the right public policies, and it is in the hands of India’s political parties to do so.
To address the economic hardship of the majority of Indians, public policy should now shift gear to launch an assault on the capability deprivation which underlies India’s low human development indicators. The poorly educated millions are helplessly caught in the eddies of a market economy. Their skills do not match what is required for them to earn a decent living. Overcoming this requires two actions to be undertaken. It would require committing resources to education and training and then governing their use. In fact, we elect and then maintain a political class to govern the system. Instead, it acts as if its sole task is to lecture the public on either nationalism or secularism, as the case may be, leaving the task of governance entirely to the bureaucracy. This empowers the bureaucracy in an undesirable way, amounting to its not having to be accountable.
The second task of public policy in India at this moment is to raise the tempo of economic activity. Jobs are an issue. The government cannot create jobs directly but it can create the preconditions. It does so through public investment and macroeconomic policy. For about a decade now, the latter has been conducted unimaginatively. Amateurish economic management is responsible for rising unemployment. India’s political parties cannot say that the pathway to the ends of democracy has not been shown to them. If they fail to take the country there, they must assume responsibility.
By Tavoos Hassan Bhat
It is said that the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history, culture, and language. It’s a known fact that people of Kashmir are being denied to know and understand of their past and this can be proved from the school textbooks which are completely silent on the Kashmir history and at the same time Kashmiri language losing its speakers.
Kashmir is well known as only part of the whole subcontinent with an uninterrupted recorded history of more than five thousand years. Before the advent of Islam in Kashmir, the country was governed by Hindus and Buddhists and the majority of the population followed these two faiths. Though there are enough debates being held on the political events after 1947 in the mainstream media usually an important part of the Kashmir history (Dogra rule) is generally ignored.
Oppressive Sikh rule (1819-1846) was still not completely over when British sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh. Treaty of Amritsar was signed on March 16, 1846 and by Article 1 of the treaty, Gulab Singh acquired “all the hilly or mountainous country with its dependencies situated to the eastward of the River Indus including Kashmir and the westward of the River Ravi including Chamba, Under Article 3, Gulab Singh was to pay 75 lakhs (7.5 million) of Nanak Shahi rupees to the British Government, along with other annual tributes. The Treaty of Amritsar marked the beginning of Dogra rule in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Therefore, Gulab Singh became master of every movable and unmovable thing in the whole state of Jammu and Kashmir. For a Kashmiri, it was a scenario like out of the frying pan into the fire. As his freedom was long back taken away when Mughal emperor Akbar annexed Kashmir in 1579 after arresting the last king of Kashmir Yusuf Shah Chak by deception and treachery. Akbar was unable to subjugate Kashmiris militarily.
What followed in the Dogra rule was tyranny, a complete breakdown of social order, degeneration of moral values and continuous humiliation of the helpless Kashmiri people which is hard to imagine in Preset times. Two Englishmen (Edward Frederick Knight and Walter Roper Lawrence) visited Kashmir during this period and they have well-portrayed scenario of the valley at that time in their books “Where Three Empires Meet (1895)” by Edward Frederick Knight and “The Valley of Kashmir (1895)” by Walter Roper Lawrence. Both of these books mention hardship, abuses, and suffering of native Kashmiri population at the hands of rulers and government officials.
The first hand account of the situation by these two Englishmen presents a very grim and heart breaking scenario. Native people especially the cultivator class were subjected to very harsh and inhumane treatment and two-thirds of their agriculture produce was taken away by the State. Rampant Corruption, extortion and harassment by the government officials also increased the misery of native Kashmiri. As mentioned by Lawrence in his own words “The peasants were overworked, half-starved, treated with hard word and hard blows, subjected to unceasing exactions and every species of petty tyranny (P 2)”. Even after working the whole day in the farms “before 1887 peasants rarely taste their beloved food rice (P 4)”.
In addition suffering from state tyranny two natural calamities happened in around same time, Famine (1878) and Cholera (1892) both of these natural calamities could have been averted had state administration acted in good faith but due to corruption by government officials grains were stored and let to be rotten instead of being distributed within hungry population both of these writers agree on this. More than half of the population of Kashmir perished due to the combined effect of state tyranny, huge taxation and natural calamities. Both of these writers have mentioned that they have observed completely deserted villages where people died of hunger, natural calamity or have migrated to pre-partition Punjab.
Further to make things worse for a native Kashmiri, a horrible practice of forced labour called Begar was also introduced in the Dogra rule. Kashmiris were forced to carry goods to Gilgit, most of the unfortunate people who were taken away from their homes by force used to die of hunger, thirst or cold climate and very few managed to return back home alive. In his own words Edward Frederick has mentioned that “when a man is seized for Begaar his wives his children hang upon him , weeping , taking it almost that they will never see him more (P 68)” and “Gilgat is a name of terror throughout state (P 68.).
Not only physical and emotional abuses natives were even subjected to the lowest form of moral degradation. Prostitution was legalized and encouraged by state as one-third of total state revenue was collected from this immoral trade. This is just a brief account of events in the Dogra period.
Though times have changed and Kashmir has seen a huge improvement in the economic activities with started with the land reforms after Dogra rule was over. The local economy has remarkably improved in the last six decades even in the midst of political instability. Improvement in agriculture and horticulture sector (As 80% economy of the valley is dependent on agriculture and allied activities) also helped the local economy. Unlike rest of the subcontinent where there is still a huge gap between poor and rich Kashmiris have managed to distribute wealth almost equally within masses, as a result, we have a large middle class and just 4% incidence of poverty, one of the lowest in the whole Indian subcontinent. At the same time, the population of Kashmir has also raised manifold. However, corruption and unemployment have remained as major challenges and one of the reasons for unemployment is that is most of the workforce is not technically skilled.
Low levels of democracy, Low accountability, low political transparency, higher levels of bureaucracy and inefficient administrative structures have contributed to the corruption in addition to the current political conflict. Dealing with the above may help in decreasing the levels of corruption.
Past suffering of our ancestors should always act as unifying force and encourage us in remaining steadfast in achieving our goals. Current generation needs to work very hard to provide a suitable environment and best education for the next generation so that they have better job opportunities and excel in their respective fields. This can be achieved by turning our society into a knowledge economy with Technically Skilled Workforce of very high moral values.
(The author is Senior Occupational health and safety officer (health care), Abu Dhabi, UAE and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Learning love from New Zealand
By Harsh Mander
“We are broken-hearted, but we are not broken,” declared Imam Gamal Fouda, while leading prayers in Christchurch in New Zealand one week after the terror attack. “We are alive, we are together, we are determined to not let anyone divide us.”
In a moment of immense tragedy, the people of New Zealand have shown a world riven by bigotry and hatred what solidarity and love can accomplish, even in the darkest times. It is a lesson which Indians, more bitterly divided today than ever since the blood-drenched days of Partition, must heed. But will we?
The azaan was broadcast before the memorial service all across New Zealand. Outside the mosques where the terrorist had massacred the worshippers, and in mosques around the country, hundreds of men, women and children assembled in solidarity with the families of the dead. They locked their hands with each other, creating a wall around their Muslim brothers and sisters who prayed. Many of the women wore hijabs.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attended the prayer meeting, her head covered by a black dupatta. After the prayers she quoted Prophet Mohammad. “According to Prophet Mohammad… the believers in their mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy are just like one body. When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain,” she said. “New Zealand mourns with you; we are one.”
Earlier too, when Ardern visited the mourning families to comfort them, her head was covered by a black dupatta. As she embraced them, her face mirrored their pain, making plain to those who had lost their loved ones in the shootings that she shared their suffering.
The contrast with India over the last five years could not have been more telling. There have been many brutal mob attacks against Muslims, videotaped and circulated widely on social media. These hate attacks — by individuals and mobs — have spread fear and anguish among Muslims across the land. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never once visited the bereaved families and has never communicated his empathy in a public address or through social media. When Kashmiri students were being attacked in many parts of India after a suicide bomber killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Pulwama, Kashmir, Modi declared that the rage that burnt in the hearts of people burnt in his heart too. It was an unambiguous message encouraging revenge.
While Muslims constitute 14% of India’s people, in New Zealand they are only over 1%. Ardern recognised that many of them could be migrants or refugees, but “they are us… The perpetrator is not”. The message that Mr. Modi communicates with his deafening silences is exactly the opposite. He is rooted in the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which believes that the Muslim who has been part of this country for centuries is not one of “us”, but the perpetrator of violence is.
In the last several months, we have made 27 harrowing journeys of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat into 15 States of India. In each, we have gone to the homes of the families of those who have lost their loved ones to hate and violence. Each time we have learnt afresh how much our simple gesture of reaching out means to these distraught families. They feel alone and abandoned as they battle loss and the hate of their neighbours or strangers who attacked their loved ones. As we embrace and hold each other’s hands, our eyes turn moist as they weep. Often, families in distant parts say that we are the first people who reached out to them.
It is this that . Ardern did for the loved ones of those slaughtered while in prayer in Christchurch. I have often wished that this is what our Prime Minister and leaders of the Opposition who claim to stand for secular politics would do. But none of them has shown the spontaneous compassion or the political courage to reach out to these stricken victims forced to battle hate alone.
Take also the symbolic question of headgear. Ms. Ardern covered her head with a dupatta to show respect to a stricken people, not necessarily as an endorsement of the practice. Inspired by the Prime Minister’s gesture, women all over New Zealand — newsreaders, policewomen, ordinary people — covered their heads with hijab scarves.
Imam Fouda said to Ms. Ardern, “Thank you for holding our families close and honouring us with a simple scarf.” By contrast, Mr. Modi has worn every conceivable form of headgear in his travels across a diverse India, but he has pointedly refused only one, and this is the Muslim skull cap.
Ardern also took firm steps to not allow the hate propaganda of the killer or the video he live-streamed to be circulated, and pledged never to utter his name publicly. By contrast, the videos that perpetrators of lynching and hate attacks shoot and upload in India are freely circulated. So are the hate speeches by them and indeed by many leading members of the ruling establishment. Those charged with hate killings are celebrated by Union Ministers, with garlands and the national flag.
A handout image obtained from Dubai’s Public Diplomacy Office on March 23, 2019 shows the Gulf emirate’s Burj Khalifa tower lit the previous night with an image of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in appreciation of her solidarity position with her country’s Muslim community following the March 15 massacre of 50 worshippers in a mosque in Christchurch by an Australian white supremacist.
Dubai projects New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern image on Burj Khalifa
Religious leaders of Christian and Jewish faiths in New Zealand, Australia and around the Western world have come out in iridescent solidarity with the Muslim community, and have attended joint prayers in mosques. Stu Cameron, Minister of Newlife Church on the Gold Coast, said, “Good neighbours always weep when the other is weeping, and stand together in solidarity when the other feels threatened.” Sikh gurudwaras in New Zealand opened up for the survivors’ families. In India, there have been no similar demonstrations of care by religious leaders after brutal hate attacks.
However, what is even more worrying than the failures of political and religious leaders in India to resist hate violence is the profound lack of compassion and solidarity in local communities wherever these attacks have occurred. There is no empathy with people who are so pushed into fear that they can no longer recognise this as a country to which they belong. Nowhere in our journeys of the Karwan have we heard reports of care and support for survivors of hate attacks by neighbours from other religions and castes. In upmarket Gurugram, mobs supported by the administration have succeeded in bullying Muslim worshippers to reduce the numbers of places where they can worship on Fridays to a tenth of the original number. It is nothing short of a civilisational crisis that we have allowed hate to curdle even our capacity for compassion.
Imam Fouda in New Zealand said, “We are broken-hearted but not broken.” Our civilisation crisis is that as our brothers and sisters are being felled by hate around the country, we are not broken-hearted. We just don’t care. In fact, some of us endorse and celebrate the attacks. This is how broken we have become as a people.