Sunday, November 8, 2009

From Pokharan To Private Ryan

A Day In New York Remembered

By M L Raina

My New York is not the city Thomas Pynchon’s V explored through its sewers, nor the city that Garcia Lorca thought diabolic as well as inviting. My New York is a city on whose symmetrical streets and avenues I have walked miles and capped milestones of memory and remembrance. One such memory is of a day more than ten years ago, a memory that is evoked as I rediscover those streets on a day’s walk.
I arrive in New York a few days after India blasted its way into the nuclear club. Suitably puffed up with patriotic fervour I recall the words of the actor George Scott, playing World War II’s prima donnish general Patton in the Hollywood movie of that name: “No poor bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other bastard die for his country”. So, on arrival, my first impulse is to see how the other bastards, Pakistanis, were coping with our new-found pride and self-respect. What right, I ask, has the American President who couldn’t hold his own zipper in place, to lecture to us on the ‘immorality’ of owning an atom bomb? How dare the Chinese, the Brits, the Japs and the Ruskies deny us a place in the nuclear monopoly? And what right have the Pakistanis to cry fire when all along they were readying their own bomb with stolen uranium? My pride balloons further when I read my fellow academic Harish Trivedi ticking off the New York Times for not taking note of us as a nuclear power. Armour-plated with assertiveness I set out to reconnoitre.
I call up my friends at the university where I occasionally lecture to know how they felt about us. They respond with the usual familiarity. I notice no awe in their voices at my new status as the citizen of a nuclear–armed nation. The same banter, the same opening gambits to conversation about who was in and who was out in the market place that is an American campus. No hallelujahs at my new avatar as a nuclear-toothed third world academic. A close friend, particularly sympathetic to India, doesn’t even bother to know how it feels to be saying with Wordsworth ‘we are seven’ not five. Instead she asks when my niece Priya, a Columbia university undergraduate, is giving her next Bharatnatyam performance and if my friend’s daughter would be invited. I begin to simmer with indignation. While the rest of the world shivers with the tremors from Pokharan, here is a friend who isn’t even aware (or pretends not to be) of our achievement. Is it envy or racial arrogance (two excuses the friends of BJP in America offer) that keeps the West from genuinely acknowledging our feat? Access the BJP’s website and their print columns to grasp their swaggering self-righteousness.
Turn to the people on the streets of New York and you are assailed by their yawning indifference to what is happening outside their yard-sized self-absorbed world. Does the American establishment hate us? I wonder. Shouldn’t they be rejoicing at the world’s largest democracy squaring up with the world’s ‘greatest democracy’? I recall William Hazlitt’s 1826 essay “On the Pleasures of Hatred” wherein he speaks of hatred as a spur to achievement. Then the penny drops. First it was the Russians and America’s hatred spurred them into space exploration. Would the blasts from Pokhran and Chagai spur them on to some deadlier technologies?
To feel how our ‘traditional enemies’, the Pakistanis, were cowering under our nuclear threat, I saunter into Nagma House, the famous Pakistani electronics store on Lexington Avenue (now gone without trace, as everything in New York disappears when you look for it after many years), where subcontinental shoppers would pick up their gadgets in 240 volts and shop for papers and magazines from India and Pakistan. The affable young owner greets me with the same warmth as on other occasions and asks why I hadn’t stepped into the store for a long time. I sense neither bitterness in his voice nor any menace in his manner. Knowing my preference for Urdu papers he signals his Nepali assistant to bring me latest issues of Jang and Nawai Waqt. With screeching headlines threatening the destruction of India, the papers carry extensive reports on how the country is facing up to India’s ‘hegemonism’. A middle-aged Muslim enters the store and asks for a Bhim Sen Joshi CD. Nodding to me as fellow shoppers do in a store, he says, “You don’t get them in Pakistan”. A youngster, another Pakistani, asks if Amol Palekar’s film Dayara was available in video-cassette (DVDs appeared much later). Meanwhile Javed, the owner, sells me a pay-per-view for the India-Pakistan cricket series soon to be held in Toronto. A bubbly girl with her semi-rouged mother in tow comes in to return the cassette of the Pakistani TV serial Marvi. “What a relief from the dreary fare from Doordarshan”, she chortles. Papers tucked under, I leave the store rather dismayed at the absence of hatred inside.
Are the ‘other bastards’ just putting up a brave face? Or are they just stupid? Or are they unconcerned as long as I buy their papers and they our CDs? Suddenly, as if in a flash, I realize that these private gestures are more revealing of the inherent commonality of us all than the public postures of belligerence. Inside Nagma house you sense no war but commerce of cultural give and take as well as an occasional cordiality if not a total bonhomie. (Cynics call it sheer business instinct which it also is.). Nuke rattling would kill these sentiments. After all, in a real sense, there is no patriotism but only an instinct to preserve our private selves under the grandiose slogans of ‘Love Your Country Above Everything Else”. These private transactions constitute our civilized individual responses to the scabrous reverberations heard at Pokhran and Chagai. These only endure amidst the war cries of our ruling establishments. They are incorporated into our common vulnerabilities, our not-to-be-wished away desire to defend our private selves against the jingoistic assaults on both sides. Patriotism has no meaning unless it is private—a fact brought home to me in Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan.
In this film the gung-ho war-mongering of the likes of Patton or the chief protagonist of the 1962 film The Longest Day is put to a severe close scrutiny. “Private Ryan opens and closes with the Stars and Stripes spread on the screen. But unlike in Patton, it is faded suggesting the difficulty of surrendering our private selves to the state’s version of patriotism. A clear shift is visible here: ones private prerogatives are preferred over the aggressive public demands for conformity. Private Ryan is more important than all the blather about defending our country against our enemies who also, it would appear, have their own private Ryans. Even the mission undertaken by Captain Miller to find Ryan (the two brothers are already dead on the Omaha Beach) is justified in the hope that in the end, “I could go back to my wife”. The first thirty minutes of the film showing broken limbs, hanging entrails, bodies torn asunder in tender spots, mock the hollow exhortations to war. Every death becomes my death, every pain my pain. Spielberg has ripped the mask from all consoling vocabularies.
Private Ryan is appropriate to the present sub-continental occasion as it reveals the enormities of war behind sensational slogans. I wonder if it is more moral and just to oppose nuclear war on the ground that it negates my private world as well as my enemy’s, than to support ideologies that encourage all round destruction. Americans needed Vietnam to cool their patriotic frenzy for a time. But they learnt no lessons then in Vietnam and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do the new Godzillas of Pokhran and Chagai need other enactments of the killing fields before they step back from the Armageddon?