Friday, June 29, 2012

I Lived with a Pretty Girl

I don't remember that girl's name. She was tall, slim, and had very long dark hair that she liked to wear loose. It fell across her back and over her shoulders like so many twisty grapevines. At 16 she had the kind of face that people notice, that sets you apart in a crowd. Bright eyes, a button nose, doll-lips. It's easy to let a pretty face distract you from what's behind it. She was from Kanpur and was one of the 4 girls with whom I shared my (really shoddy) room at the all-girls' Abdullah Hall at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in India. I don't remember our room number (maybe 35?), but it was right at the end of the hall, in the same line as dreaded #43 where a group of baleful Kashmiri girls lived. I had only lived with this girl from Kanpur for a couple of weeks, but some things about her made me uncomfortable. Some strange madness behind her eyes which every once in a while turned to stone, something bad there going tick-tock, tick-tock.

We didn't know much about her. This was August 1997, and there was no Internet, no LinkedIn, no cell phones, no Blackberries, no Facebook. All we knew about this fierce (and frightening) beauty was that her parents had divorced (hush!) and that she lived with her mother. She had now joined AMU with us, a bunch of 11th grade science students, and lived locked up with the rest of us at the hostel.

I haven't seen her since 1997. I left AMU only 2 weeks after school started and went back to my old school in Muscat, Oman. I don't remember her name, but I expect that I'll remember it in a dream now after having thought about her so much today. She was a strange girl. Very reactionary and very sensitive. Too intense. She knew she was pretty, and I felt that took away from her beauty. One day we all heard in class about how the 12th graders would host a party for the 11th graders and would also have them walk in a fashion show. When we came back to our room, this girl immediately fished out a pair of worn-out closed shoes. They had low wide plastic heels, and I remember how she had confidently put them on and started strutting about the room in whatever little space we had. She was in her element, but something felt...scary. "I will be crowned the ramp queen," she had said, brightening up so suddenly. I can still see her, her dupatta slung across her body like a sash and tied at her waist, the loose ends swaying as she swung her hips in a confident catwalk, her arms swaying along with the rest of her. She had shown me the bottom of her shoes later. The soles were worn out at an angle. "These are my catwalk shoes," she had told me, "I have worn these out with so much catwalking that I can do it best in them." She was dead serious. I don't know, something about how much she banked on her physical appearance made me feel uncomfortable.

I remember how one day she'd been sitting on her bed, reading a letter she'd received from a friend in Kanpur. That's how we all kept in touch in those days. That sleepy afternoon we were all in our room and not really doing anything at all. All of a sudden she crumpled the letter very loudly in her hand and leapt off the bed. That's how she did things, too fast, too suddenly. We all watched as she ripped the letter to shreds and threw it onto the stone ground. Then she set it on fire and watched it burn. And she kept looking. And we kept looking at her. Her long lean body frozen, her eyes unblinking. Maybe she wanted to take in as much of the sight as she could. I wonder what was the matter with that beautiful girl.

The Indian Restaurant by the Arkansas River

Desi Wok was a mad, bad hit in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The little restaurant had only been running for a few months, but every single person I knew was addicted to their food. Even white people! My favourites were their chicken biryani, chicken tikka masala, and lollipop wings. I ate from there sometimes twice a week, and their portions, like most American portions, were large enough to last me for two meals. And the biryani only cost 7 dollars! Hotdiggity, I loved that place. Someday I will go back there. I am not much of a foodie, but the fact that the very memory of Desi Wok is making me salivate right this minute says a lot.

Desi Wok was only a 10-minute drive from my place, so I often called in my order and picked it up to eat at home. It was on one of those days while I waited by the cash register for the folks there to pack my food up for me that my eyes fell upon a yellow flyer up on their wall. They usually put up flyers there to advertise cultural events and to make other announcements. That's how I had one day come across the ad for a new movie called 'Om Shanti Om' that was being screened in the normal theaters where they played American movies. I had never heard of that movie before, but an Indian movie being screened in a regular theater in Tulsa was always a big deal, something that you'd go to just because it only rarely happened in white country. Imagine my shock in the theater when I discovered that it was a Shahrukh Khan movie and that he now had abs and was flashing flesh all over the place. Scandalous! And I had loved it!

So I paid closer attention to the yellow flyer on the Desi Wok wall. It had a picture of a man on it. He was a middle-aged Indian man and looked serious in that smudged black-and-white reproduction of his passport photo. He'd died, and they were collecting money to send his body back to India.

I looked at that man, and he looked through me. I wondered where that picture had been taken, and if when he had been looking into the camera lens at that point if he had looked a little deeper and seen me looking back at him from the future, from outside the yellow flyer he would eventually be inked across. I knew him. I had met him once. He had been a waiter at the other older Indian restaurant on the other side of Tulsa, the one by the Arkansas river. I didn't go there very often, but I had eaten there the first time I had visited Tulsa.

It had been a couple of years ago when I was in my final semester as a graduate student at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater 80 miles away. I had been interviewing with the Deloitte office in Tulsa, and a few of us from my university had been invited to visit them. I had bunked a ride with another student (who always weirdly introduced himself as 'of Persian descent') and had met up with an Indian friend of his who lived in Tulsa. He had taken us that Indian restaurant, the one by the river. This was around February 2005.

I hadn't wanted to ask that guy for a ride at all. He had been in a few of my classes, and I'd always found him highly obnoxious and arrogant. I'd seen him around for a couple of years at university, and though he was a Zoroastrian (Parsi) who had lived in Bombay, he would spare no opportunity to insult Indians every chance he got. The word 'a**hole* was invented for him. He'd speak with a phony elitist British accent and only befriended white people, and he used to treat me with ugly contempt until the day he discovered that I listened to English music, after which he stopped sneering at me and would approach me in a friendly way. I couldn't stand him. What an a**hole. I had seen him introducing himself to people as 'of Persian descent', ridiculing Indians in public and often in the presence of other Indians, yet miss no opportunity to audition for and MC the annual (and wildly popular) India Night event on campus where he paraded around on stage for the whole show and praised India and its usual Himalayas and rivers and languages and ancient history or whatever on centerstage. God, what an a**hole. I know, I had been the other MC. What a jackass. He was haughty, thought everyone un-white was beneath him, and he always had a contemptuous mocking grin plastered on his face. During a group study session, I once asked my fellow students for advice on buying a digital camera (a new invention in those days), and he'd suddenly looked at me from far across the long desk and said, "why don't you just buy it from Walmart and return it after using it? Isn't that what all Indians do?" He'd had that same haughty glint in his eyes when he'd said it. I couldn't stand him.

The almost two-hour-ride back and forth between Stillwater and Tulsa had been a long, painful, and silent one. At some point I'd interrogated him about his citizenship. He'd held an Indian passport but had been born in Iran. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, his family had moved to India to join his Indian Parsi relatives only because his father had waited too long to apply for asylum in the UK. So the Persian had grown up in India. He'd apparently also spent a couple of years in the UK as an adult with some relatives. But man, was he a jackass. I'd seen him use his Indian background when it suited him, to connect with Indian recruiters (whom he secretly despised, I guess?) or get a chance to be on stage, but otherwise he'd fake being this exotic brown person with some murky connection to ancient Persia and ye ol' Queen.

So it was with this man I couldn't stand and a friend of his I'd only just met that I showed up for lunch at that Indian Restaurant by the Arkansas River. It was an Indian restaurant much like all the others you'll find anywhere in the US. A slightly mouldy interior with a name any combination of [Mahal, Taj, Masala, House, India(n), Spice(s)], very agreeable smiling brown waiters, strange pictures on the wall of people and elephants that looked Rajasthani, Mughal, and erotic all at once, sticky table-tops, old wooden chairs with upholstered seats that I didn't want to touch, and some faint music ('Chaudvin ka Chand' - mostly instrumental - or classical) playing from speakers hidden somewhere in fake potted plants.

We'd arrived during the lunch rush, and we'd opted for the buffet (I've eaten at way too many Indian and Chinese buffets in America) over the menu. We must've eaten the usual food that these usual Indian restaurants outside of India serve at the buffet table - coagulated daal makhani, soupy butter chicken, stiff pieces of white roti that everyone calls naan, some generic chunky yellow-green vegetables, white rice, salaad, and gulaab jaamun. And don't miss the brittle 'lentil wafers', the broken ones with the jagged edges, at the beginning and the stale but sweet mouthfreshners on your way out.

My Indiaphobe friend and his Indian friend sure looked like they were enjoying the Indian food. They ate a lot. God, I hated this guy. He sure had a chip on his shoulder about 'Persia'. I used to call him the 'Prince of Persia' behind his back at university; he had been quite universally disliked. It was at a potluck party at our department head's house the year before when I happily looked at the qorma an Indian student had brought that he had snapped at me and hissed, "oh yeah, well did you know that qorma was Persian??" This was a man being bitchy. Only an hour ago when we had dropped by his friend's apartment to pick him up had he started going gaga over his large flat-screen TV (another new thing in those days). He'd looked at me but I had been bored. "This is HD!" he'd told me. Do you even know what HD is, his tone implied. He'd given me a dirty look. I guess he was the sort of guy who didn't know how to deal with a difference of opinion.

I couldn't wait to get back to Stillwater. We still had to get through lunch, and we had just started. We'd been greeted at our table by a middle-aged Indian waiter. He had looked a little bit like Narsimha Rao, but his manners were a lot better. I had been so angst-ridden about having to be around the Persian for the past two days, and this older man's manners made me feel better. He had been very attentive, almost clicking his heels. His English had an Indian accent, but he spoke it very well. "Is there anything else I can get for you?" he'd ask with a nod. "Have you had dessert?" "We hope you've enjoyed your experience at Masala/Taj/Spice/India Mahal/House." What a great waiter, I'd never seen anything like him before. That was in February 2005.

I got the job at Deloitte and moved there a few months later in June. I probably saw that yellow flyer in Desi Wok 3 years later in 2008. I remembered that man. He had been the best waiter I'd ever met. He had been very professional, and he had almost behaved like he had been a trained butler. I looked at his picture some more, but my food was ready, so I packed it and took it home with me.

A few days later I withdrew some money from my bank and made my way to that Indian Restaurant by the Arkansas River. I never went there very often, it used to depress me; the insides were a little too dark, it almost felt like you were entering Ali Baba's cave except that there were no great treasures within.

I walked up to their bar and told the man there that I had wanted to donate money to send the body of that middle-aged waiter back to India. The man's eyes became soft, and he took out his register to wrote down the amount I was donating. I think we spoke in whispers, although I'm not sure why. He took the money. I asked him how his co-waiter had died. A heart attack. He'd been living in Tulsa for many years and had been sending money to his wife and children and old mother in India. Now it was time for him to go back too.

I don't know why I remember him so clearly from that day with the Indiaphobe Persian and his Indian friend. It's not like I'd ever seen him after that. I don't know why you remember some people after one meeting. I don't know why it always feels like they're still out there somewhere living, talking, waiting.

We Called Her Ruby

The last time I met Ruby Baaji was the night before I was about to fly out to the US for university. It was August 1999, and I had recently turned 18. She was married by then, the mother of 2 young children - a baby girl and a boy - and she gave me a present that I kept for a long time. A pouch full of makeup brushes. A blue, yellow, and green pouch. The brushes inside had pale white handles. It was a rather grown-up present for me from a person who symbolised my childhood. Our relationship had always been that way. I had no elder sisters, and she had been to me what I think one is like. I still remember her giggling in that tinkly laugh of hers as she handed me the present. Ruby Baaji used to laugh everytime she felt like it. Her eyes would grow small, and she'd slightly lean back and hunch as she laughed from head to toe. I'd felt slightly embarassed and self-conscious about the make-up pouch. It meant that she was looking at me as if I were a young lady and not a gender-free school kid (we still had those in those days). I had not been ready for that. Our relationship had been changing as the both of us were growing into our 20s and the things that can mean, and this was another new thing for me.

Ruby baaji died in a car accident a few months later in early 2000. I was in my second semester at university in the US at the time. That's around the time I bought my first lipstick. A dark brown one. Browns were in in those days. Ruby Baaji had been about to move to Canada with her husband and children but had decided to accompany her family and her in-laws for a quick umrah in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. They had all been returning to Muscat by road when one of the tires of the car had exploded. Ruby Baaji had been flung out of the fast-moving car with her little daughter who had been sitting in her lap. I was told that they had both been found lying by the road outside, her little daughter unhurt, still shielded by her mother's body. But Ruby Baaji had already passed away from internal injuries. She was eventually buried in a cemetery somewhere near Riyadh. That was 12 years ago. Was it really? I think Ruby Baaji was 8 years older than me. She was born on May 1st; I remember because I had made a big deal about it being the same as Labour Day. I had had a 365-days storybook - one story or poem for every day of the year - and I had made her read the story that was listed under her birthday. It was about a caterpillar that felt ugly and wanted to be beautiful until it went to sleep and woke up a beautiful butterfly. It was crowned the May Queen by all the insects, the most beautiful of them all. The moral of the story was that some people may not be born beautiful but they can grow beautiful.

Ruby Baaji had once cut out butterflies for me from a pretty writing pad she owned. She had put them in an envelope for me to take home. It was on one of those evenings when my parents would drop me off at her house because they had a serious grown-up event to go to. I spent many days like that with her. Ruby Baaji was very popular with the younger kids she knew, myself very much included. We were all in primary or middle school and she was in high school. We all used to bounce around her at parties or whenever we stayed over at her place. And Ruby Baaji used to talk to us like we were the most interesting little people ever. She used to laugh with us all the time.

I guess you could say that Ruby Baaji was one of those soft, feminine kinds of girl, the sort that wears red on Valentine's Day and likes babies. She was thin, not too tall, and wore glasses (contact lenses weren't common in those days, I only got mine in high school). She had pale skin, the kind that grows yellower the lighter it gets. She had a long smooth face and long delicate limbs. I remember her feet, they were very beautiful. Long delicate light-looking feet with very clean skin. Sometimes I look at my feet, and when they're in their best shape, they almost look like hers.

Ruby Baaji was very talkative, and she used to laugh a lot. Her voice was husky but not raspy, you could call it a girly breathy. I, like all the other little girls, used to follow her around like a tail. Our mothers used to shop together a lot, and I have a memory of Ruby Baaji and I sitting together on the dirty worn-out carpet that covered some wooden steps in that store and her singing the title song from 'Chandni' to me. "Khaali haath nahin aate, khaali haath nahin aate..." she tinkled in her sweet voice. I think we were sitting next to a wall with a poster of Sridevi's, possibly in one of her signature tight chiffon saris from that time. I have since stopped by that store a number of times or just simply walked by, and every single time I can see Ruby Baaji and I sitting on that dirty carpet and singing songs from that old Hindi (the word 'Bollywood' hadn't been invented then) movie. The Sridevi poster has long since gone, but they always do.

Sometime after a spate of Salman Khan starrers had been released in the early 90s that I noticed that Ruby Baaji used to talk about him all the time. I remember one dinner party where she was explaining to us clueless younger girls that Salman Khan's character was more noble than Sanjay Dutt's character in 'Saajan' because he had decided to sacrifice his true love. Everytime I now see that old Salman Khan - thinner, swifter, a better actor - from 'Saajan', 'Pathar ke Phool', 'Maine Pyaar Kiya', I think of Ruby Baaji at that table in that restaurant I don't remember.

Ruby Baaji left Muscat for university in India, and I began to see less of her. I remember the first time she returned on a holiday; I'd visited her at her home with my mother, but I'd been nervous and awkward. So had she. We'd had less to talk about. We'd become more formal, and she was getting along better with our moms. Something had changed between us. I guess we didn't have as many things in common anymore, and I'd only met her after a long time. I had brought my Arabic test paper from school with me to show her the way I used to show her every small thing before; I'd aced the test, and I had wanted to tell her that, but it somehow felt stupid and unimportant when I did. I told her about how I was angry with my parents for not letting me visit my Jain best friend's house just because in India the Ayodhya Masjid had been demolished by a right-wing Hindu mob. I must've been in 6th grade then. Eleven years old. I told her that it made no sense. I didn't think she agreed, but she didn't say anything. I think I stopped talking to her too much after that, it all felt too awkward. And I just felt ridiculous, I don't know why. But it was alright.

And the years sped by. I discovered boys and menstruation and my own movie star crush (Shahrukh Khan, right after 'Baazigar') that lasted me well into high school. Ruby Baaji entered her 20s, got married into a family we also knew in Muscat, and had kids. I only saw her at grown-up parties where I had to wear grown-up clothes and behave myself. My hair was longer, and I had learned how to wear liquid eyeliner. Ruby Baaji looked like light, like she was truly made of light. She was young, newly married, and always laughing. She looked wonderful and glowy and dressed so beautifully. I remember running into her at a party when I was in high school. She wore a gharara, I can't remember what colour, but she looked like light. I was shy and only spoke to her formally, but she was still very friendly. I didn't know how to behave with her - like the 10-year-old I used to be or the chirpy 17-year-old I thought I was supposed to be. But she was still very full of life. And happy. I think she was the type of person that has a clean heart. Everyone doted on her. All the aunties and uncles and even the young ones. She'd grown up around all of us. Even her two little children would call her Ruby because that's what they heard everyone around them call her. Ruby, Ruby, Ruby. She once sent me a card that I think I still have with me somewhere. It had two ducklings, one blue and one pink, cosying up together on the front. The card read 'I like it when you're nice...' on the outside and '...but I love it when you're naughty!' on the inside. It was adorable. It was only many years later that I realised that at that point, when I had just finished high school, that neither she nor I had realised in our innocence that it was not a card that was meant for friends.

Her real name was actually Masarrat. I remembered her very strongly yesterday because of a glowy young wife I saw in a Pakistani drama the other day. She had long hair like Ruby Baaji's and was very light-skinned. She wore a white gharara that made her glow. She had very little make-up on because she didn't need any, she glowed without it. I've been meaning to write about Ruby Baaji for such a long time. I'm 31 now, she would've been almost 40. After Ruby Baaji died, her mother found an old friendship band in her belongings that I had made for her as a kid. Did she really die 12 years ago? I can still hear, see her giving me that make-up bag.

Qissa Kursi Ka

I had just left the Airtel office at Nehru Place in South Delhi. It had been that (other) time of the month when my Internet bill had been due. I had been living as a paying guest at Hemkunt Colony across the street for over a year by then.

Have you ever been to Nehru Place? An old BBC story once described it as the world's largest market for pirated software. Nehru Place is a large square (but really a rectangle) surrounded by tall dirty stone buildings that were once possibly white. You go there for...everything, I guess. Quick tech fixes, cheap books, drippy snacks, or a visit to the grand Satyam movie theater across from the Metro station. If 'crammed' were the title of a picture, then that picture would be of Nehru Place. It is crammed with people, shops, and signboards. The people and shops that don't find any place in the buildings end up on the ground of the square. You can find people sitting in the shade of external staircases with makeshift tables offering laptop lamination services. I bet they don't pay rent.

I disliked my monthly trips to the Airtel office. It was always crammed (like Nehru Place), and I'd often have to stand in line in that office where everything was red-and-white and pass my time staring at the large poster of young fresh-looking white boys and girls with mouths full of big white teeth that were framed by dimples and who never looked like they had sweated in their lives (unlike the people at Nehru Place). The posters meant to say, "buy Airtel services and you too could be their friend!" The girls had long hair that never went greasy or grey, the boys' clothes never wrinkled. Forever young, forever happy. Forever Airtel.

I was happy to have paid my bill that day and left the office. Outside the glass door of the air-conditioned office sat two overweight Indian men on folding metal chairs. I remember one of the men solely because of his voice. It was loud, crude, and obnoxious. He was a babu. Dressed in varying shades of vomit-brown from head to toe, he probably had plaque-ridden brown gums and dark-brown stains on his mostly yellow teeth. Probably some bad breath too. His hair was black and greasy with the occassional silver strand, and his skin was dark and shiny. He was drawling on and on in a voice stretching with know-it-all-ness. You know the type.

A third chair near the two men was empty. A very thin young girl in shalwar qameez was standing nearby, and as I passed them and began to walk away, she moved to that empty chair and sat on it. The obnoxious man turned his attention to her and commanded her in a voice slathered in contempt that she was not allowed to sit on that chair. He gave her a contemptuous lookover, took a moment to establish the ridicule in case she had missed it, and turned back to his friend.

The girl started. She was about 25 years old, brown, with a long dark oily braid that snaked down her back. She looked like a peanut with a body. She was about to move away from the chair, but then her quick dark eyes flitted towards the obnoxious man and she said, "main is kursi pe kyun nahin baith sakti?" Why can't I sit on this chair?

The man slowly turned his dirty thick neck and looked at her again. Who was this little runt, this little woman, who had dared to question him? "Kya kaha?" he almost threatened, what did you say?

The girl stiffened. I think her Body Mass Index must've been the lowest in the world. A long thin head on a stick. She paused for a second, afraid of the sleepy hostility the ugly monster in front of her was directing at her. He was still looking at her.

She found her voice again. "Main jaanna chaah rahi main yahaan kyun nahin baith sakti?I wanted to know why I can't sit here. She looked alone and scared. The man kept glaring at her with his fat oily eyes. How dare she!

I had stopped walking and had been waiting to see if there would be an altercation or the usual Indian humiliation. What would the man say? Would he yell at her? And then he spoke.

"Dekho," he said slowly, "har sawaal ka jawaab nahin hota." Not every question has an answer. And he turned away, defeated, out-questioned. Girl 1, man 0. I smiled to myself and walked away. Yet another day, and somewhere again in the world someone had stuck it to the Man.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Friday, June 15, 2012

Malcolm and Betty X

"The unease Malcolm had shown toward marrying Betty almost immediately manifested itself in their lives together as man and wife. The challenges they faced were linked, in part, to the general problems that many black Americans encounter when adopting Qur'anic standards for marriage. Many basic beliefs Muslims have about its purposes and duties are at odds with Western Christian values. Another serious issue is the concept of machismo that some African-American males carry into Islam. The Nation had long drawn its converts from the lowest rungs of black society, and many of its flock came from difficult or self-destructive backgrounds. Those who, like Malcolm, had converted while in prison often continued to bear painful scars, both physical and psychological, from that experience. Trauma can last an entire lifetime, and the Nation had no self-help program to assist men in overcoming such emotional problems. Malcolm's prior sexual history had been largely defined by encounters with prostitutes and women like Bea Caragulian. Now he would have an obligation not only to provide financially for Betty but to address her emotional and sexual needs."

- Manning Marable, 'Malcolm X'

The Men and Women of the Nation

"Elijah Muhammad's views about gender relations would be set out in this 1965 manifesto Message to the Blackman in America. To Muhammad, males and females occupied separate spheres. Black women had been the mothers of civilisation, and they would play a central role in the construction of the world to come. Metaphorically, they were the field in which a mighty Nation would grow; thus it was essential for black men to keep the devil, the white man, away from his "field," because the black woman was far more valuable than any cash crop. There was no question that all women had to be controlled; the question was, who should exercise that control, the white man or the black? He also warned against birth control, a devilish plot to carry out genocide against black babies. It was precisely a woman's ability to produce children that gave the weaker sex its value. "Who wants a sterile wom[a]n?" he asked rhetorically.

What attracted so many intelligent, independent African-American women to such a patriarchal sect? The sexist and racist world of the 1940s and 1950s provides part of the answer. Many African-American women in the paid labour force were private household workers and routinely experienced sexual harassment by their white employers. The [Nation of Islam], by contrast, offered them the protections of private patriarchy. Like their middle-class white counterparts, African-American women in the Nation were not expected to hold full-time jobs, and even if Malcolm's frequent misogynistic statements, especially in his sermons, were extreme even by the sexist standards of the NOI, it offered protection, stability, and a kind of leadership. Malcolm's emphasis on the sanctity of the black home made an explicit promise "that families won't be abandoned, that women will be cherished and protected, [and] that there will be economic stability."

Temple women during those years rarely perceived themselves as being subjugated. The [Muslim Girls Training] was its own center of activity, in which members participated in neighbourhood activities and were encouraged to monitor their children's progress in school. At the Newark NOI temple, not far from Temple No. 7, women were involved in establishing small businesses. They also took an active role in working with their local board of education as well as other community concerns. It is likely that Harlem's women made similar efforts. As with those who were working in civil rights, women in the NOI had in mind the future of the black community. What attracted them to the Nation was the possibility of strong, healthy families, supportive relationships, and personal engagements in building crime-free black neighbourhoods and ultimately an independent black nation."

- Manning Marable, 'Malcolm X'

Looking For Black Role Models

"An impressionable young black man in search of roles and images in the movies and media, however, would have found a sorry set of models. In the forties, the dominant representation of the African American was the comic minstrel, typified by the national radio show Amos 'n' Andy. (Ironically, of course, the original actors in the series were white, mimicking black dialect.) In films, blacks were generally presented as clowns or mental incompetents. Gone With the Wind, Hollywood's 1939 extravaganza celebrating the prewar slave South, offered up the servant Mammy, docile yet loyal, obese and hardworking. One of the few Hollywood movies of the period that departed slightly from crude stereotypes was Warner Brothers' Bullets or Ballots, featuring black actress Louise Beavers as the notorious Nellie LaFleur, the numbers queen. It is likely that Malcolm saw this film as well as dozens of others that addressed racial themes; decades later he would recall Hollywood's distortions of black people as part of his general indictment of white racism. Even the title of the Warner Brothers' film may have been recycled in Malcolm's 1964 address "The Ballot of the Bullet.""

- Manning Marable, 'Malcolm X'

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Those Black Kids at School

"The Little children were constantly drilled in the principles of Garveyism, to such an extent that they expressed their black nationalist values at school. For example, on one morning following the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the national anthem at school, Wilfred informed his teacher that blacks also had their own anthem. Instructed to sing it, Wilfred complied: "It began with the words...'Ethiopia, the land of the free...' That creates some problems," Wilfred recalled, "because here is this little nigger that feels he is just equal to anybody else, he got his own little national anthem that he sings, and he's proud of it...It wasn't the way they wanted things to go."


"When Malcolm went to Mason, you could see a change in him," Wilfred recalled. "Some for the better, some for the worse...He would complain about some of the things the teachers would try to do - they would try to discourage him from taking courses that black people weren't suposed to take; in other words, keep him in his place." It hadn't bothered him particularly during the previous year when white students who had befriended him continued to call him nigger. But now Malcolm was keenly aware of the social distance between himself and others. An English teacher, Richard Kaminska, sharply discouraged him from becoming a lawyer. "You've got to be realistic about being a nigger," Kaminska advised him. "A lawyer - that's no realistic goal for a nigger...Why don't you plan on carpentry?" Malcolm's grades plummeted and his truculence increased. Within several months, he found himself expelled."

- Manning Marable, 'Malcolm X'

Go back to Africa!

"The destruction of a black family's home by racist whites was hardly unique in the Midwest at this time. In 1923, the Michigan State Supreme Court had upheld the legality of racially restrictive provisions in the sale of private homes. Most Michigan whites felt that blacks had no right to purchase homes in predominantly white communities. Four years before the Littles' fire, in June 1925, a black couple, Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife Gladys, purchased a single-family home in East Detroit, a white neighbourhood, escaping Detroit's largest ghetto, known as the Black Bottom, and were forced to pay $18,500 even though the fair market value of the modest bungalow was under $13,000. On the night the Sweets moved in, despite the presence of a police inspector, hundreds of angry whites surrounded the house and began smashing its windows with rocks and bricks. Several  of the Sweets' friends shot into the mob, killing one man and wounding another. Ossian and Gladys Sweet plus nine others were subsequently charged with murder. The NAACP vigorously took up the case, hiring celebrated defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Despite an all-white jury, eight of the eleven were acquitted; the jury divided on the remaining three. The judge subsequently declared a mistrial, and ultimately the Sweets were freed."

- Manning Marable, 'Malcolm X'

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Creative Accounting?

"Don't do any work on the Sabbath yourself, but pay someone else to do it. You obeyed the letter of the law: who's counting? The Dalai Lama tells us that you can visit a prostitute as long as someone else pays her. Shia Muslims offer "temporary marriage," selling men the permission to take a wife for an hour or two with the usual vows and then divorce her when they are done. Half of the splendid buildings in Rome would never have been raised if the sale of indulgences had not been so profitable: St. Peter's itself was financed by a special one-time offer of that kind. The newest pope, the former Joseph Ratzinger, recently attracted Catholic youths to a festival by offering a certain "remission of sin" to those who attended."

- Christopher Hitchens, 'God is Not Great'

A Warning to Seekers of the East

"A faith that despises the mind and the free individual, that preaches submission and resignation, and that regards life as a poor and transient thing, is ill-equipped for self-criticism. Those who become bored by conventional "Bible" religions, and seek "enlightenment" by way of the dissolution of their own critical faculties into nirvana in any form, had better take a warning. They may think they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reasons to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals."

- Christopher Hitchens, 'God is Not Great'

A New Island Religion

"In 1964 there appeared a celebrated documentary movie called Mondo Cane, or "the world of the dog", in which the directors captured numerous human cruelties and illusions. This was the first occasion on which one could see a new religion being assembled, in plain view, on camera. The inhabitants of the Pacific islands may have been separated for centuries from the more economically developed world, but when visited by the fatal impact many of them were shrewd enough to get the point immediately. Here were great vessels with billowing sails, bearing treasures and weapons and devices that were beyond any compare. Some of the more untutored islanders did what many people do when confronted with a new phenomenon, and tried to translate it into a discourse that they could themselves understand (not unlike those fearful Aztecs who, first seeing mounted Spanish soldiers in Mesoamerica, concluded that they had a centaur for an enemy). These poor souls decided that the westerners were their long-mourned ancestors, come back at last with goods from beyond the grave. That illusion cannot long have survived the encounter with the colonists, but later it was observed in several places that the brighter islanders had a better idea. Docks and jetties were built, they noticed, after which more ships came and unloaded more goods. Acting by analogy and mimesis, the locals constructed their own jetties and waited for these, too, to attract some ships. Futile as this proceeding was, it badly retarded the advance of later Christian missionaries. When they made their appearance, they were asked where the gifts were (and soon came up with some trinkets).

In the twentieth century the "cargo cult" revived in an even more impressive and touching form. Units of the United States armed forces, arriving in the Pacific to build airfields for the war on Japan, found that they were the objects of slavish emulation. Local enthusiasts abandoned their lightly worn Christian observances and devoted all their energies to the construction of landing strips that might attract loaded airplanes. They made simulated antennae out of bamboos. They built and lit fires, to simulate the flares that guided the American planes to land. This still goes on, which is the saddest but of the Mondo Cane sequence. On the island of Tana, an American GI was declared to be the redeemer. His name, John Frum, seems to have been an invention too. But even after the last serviceman flew or sailed away after 1945, the eventual return of the saviour Frum was preached and predicted, and an annual ceremony still bears his name. On another island named New Britain, adjacent to Papua New Guinea, the cult is even more strikingly analogous. It has ten commandments (the "Ten Laws"), a trinity that has one presence in heaven and another on earth, and a ritual system of paying tributes in the hope of propitiating these authorities. If the ritual is performed with sufficient purity and fervor, so its adherants believe, then an age of milk and honey will be ushered in. This radiant future, sad to say, is known as the "Period of the Companies", and will cause New Britain to flourish and prosper as if it were a multinational corporation."

- Christopher Hitchens, 'God is Not Great'

Why Chris Left Marxism

"Trotsky had a sound materialist critique that enabled him to be prescient, not all of the time by any means, but impressively so on some occasions. And he certainly had a sense - expressed in his emotional essay Literature and Revolution - of the unquenched yearning of the poor and oppressed to rise above the strictly material world and to achieve something transcendent. For a good part of my life, I had a share in this idea that I have not yet quite abandoned. But there came a time when I could not protect myself, and indeed did not wish to protect myself, from the onslaught of reality. Marxism, I conceded, had its intellectual and philosophical  and ethical glories, but they were in the past. Something of the heroic period might perhaps be retained, but the fact had to be faced: there was no longer a guide to the future. In addition, the very concept of a total solution had led to the most appalling human sacrifices, and to the invention of excuses for them. Those of us who had sought a rational alternative to religion had reached a terminus that was comparably dogmatic. What else was to be expected of something that was produced by the close cousins of chimpanzees? Infallibility? Thus, dear reader, if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined - as I hope - I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through. There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking."

- Christopher Hitchens, 'God is Not Great'

An Ordinary Miracle

"Mother Teresa died in 1997. On the first anniversary of her death, two nuns in the Bengali village of Raigunj claim to have strapped an aluminium medal of the departed (a medal that had supposedly been in contact with her dead body) to the abdomen of a woman named Monica Besra. This woman, who was said to be suffering from a large uterine tumour, was thereupon quite cured of it. It will be noticed that Monica is a Catholic girl's name not very common in Bengal, and thus that probably the patient and certainly the nuns were already Mother Teresa fans. This definition would not cover Dr. Manju Murshed, the superintendent of the local hospital, nor Dr. TK Biswas and his gynecologist colleague Dr. Ranjan Mustafi. All three came forward to say that Mrs. Besra had been suffering from tuberculosis and an ovarian growth, and had been successfully treated for both afflications. Dr. Murshed was particularly annoyed at the numerous calls he had received from Mother Teresa's order, the "Missionaries of Charity", pressing him to say that the cure had been miraculous. The patient herself did not make a very impressive interview subject, talking at high speed because, as she put it, she "might otherwise forget" and begging to be excused questions because she might have to "remember". Her own husband, a man named Selku Murmu, broke silence after a while to say that his wife had been cured by ordinary, regular medical treatment."

- Christopher Hitchens, 'God is Not Great'

A Miracle at Mother Teresa's

"I had already helped expose one of the "miracles" connected with the work of this woman. The man who originally made her famous was a distinguished if rather silly British evangelist (later a Catholic) named Malcolm Muggeridge. It was his BBC documentary, Something Beautiful for God, which launched the "Mother Teresa" brand on the world in 1969. The cameraman for this film was a man named Ken Macmillan, who had won high praise for his work on Lord Clark's great art history series, Civilisation. His understanding of colour and lighting was of a high order. Here is the story as Muggeridge told it, in the book that accompanied the film:

[Mother Teresa's] Home for the Dying is dimly lit by small windows high up in the walls, and Ken [Macmillan] was adamant that filming was quite impossible there. We only had one small light with us, and to get the place adequately lighted in the time at our disposal was quite impossible. It was decided that, nonetheless, Ken should have a go, but by way of insurance he took, as well, some film in an outside courtyard where some of the inmates were sitting in the sun. In the processed film, the part taken inside was bathed in a particularly beautiful soft light, whereas the part taken outside was rather dim and confused...I myself am absolutely convinced that the technically unaccountable light is, in fact, the Kindly Light that Cardinal Newman refers to in his well-known exquisite hymn.

He concluded that

This is precisely what miracles are for - to reveal the inner reality of God's outward creation. I am personally persuaded that Ken recorded the first authentic photographic miracle...I fear I talked and wrote about it to the point of tedium.

He was certainly correct in that last sentence: by the time he had finished he had made Mother Teresa into a world-famous figure. My contribution was to check out and put into print the direct verbal testimony of Ken Macmillan, the cameraman himself. Here it is:

During Something Beautiful for God, there was an episode where we were taken to a building that Mother Teresa called the House of the Dying. Peter Chafer, the director, said, "Ah well, it's very dark in here. Do you think we can get something?" And we had just taken delivery at the BBC of some new film made by Kodak, which we hadn't had time to test before we left, so I said to Peter, "Well, we may as well have a go." So we shot it. And when we got back several weeks later, a month or two later, we are sitting in the rushes theater at Ealing Studios and eventually up come the shots of the House of the Dying. And it was surprising. You could see every detail. And I said, "That's amazing. That's extraordinary." And I was going to go on to say, you know, three cheers for Kodak. I didn't get a chance to say that though, because Malcolm, sitting in the front row, spun around and said: "It's divine light! It's Mother Teresa. You'll find that it's divine light, old boy." And three or four days later I found that I was being phoned by journalists from London newspapers who were saying things like: "We hear you've just come back from India with Malcolm Muggeridge and you were the witness of a miracle."

- Christopher Hitchens, 'God is Not Great'

The Lawmakers and Their Subjects

"In 1996, the Irish Republic held a referendum on one question: whether its state constitution should still prohibit divorce. Most of the political parties, in an increasingly secular country, urged voters to approve of a change in the law. The did so for two excellent reasons. It was no longer thought right that the Roman Catholic Church should legislate its morality for all citizens, and it was obviously impossible even to hope for eventual Irish reunification if the larger Protestant minority in the North was continually repelled by the possibility of clerical rule. Mother Teresa flew all the way from Calcutta to help campaign, along with the church and its hard-liners, for a "no" vote. In other words, an Irish woman married to a wife-beating  and incestuous drunk should never expect anything better, and might endanger her soul if she begged for a fresh start, while as for the Protestants, they could either choose the blessings of Rome or stay out altogether. There was not even the suggestion that Catholics could follow their own church's commandments while not imposing them on all citizens. And this in in the British Isles, in the last decade of the twentieth century. The referendum eventually amended the constitution, though by the narrowest of majorities. (Mother Teresa in the same year gave an interview saying that she hoped her friend Princess Diana would be happier after she had escaped from what was an obviously miserable marriage, but it's less of a surprise to find the church applying sterner laws to the poor, or offering indulgences to the rich.)"

- Christopher Hitchens, 'God is Not Great'

Monday, June 11, 2012

What Happened to Eduard

"Eduard sat for long hours staring up at the sky in Brasilia, watching the clouds moving across the blue - beautiful clouds, but without a drop of rain in them to moisten the dry earth of the central Brazilian plateau. He was as empty as they were.

If he continued as he was, his mother would fade away with grief, his father would lose all enthusiasm for his career,  and both would blame each other for failing in the upbringing of their beloved son. If he gave up his painting, the visions of Paradise would never see the light of day, and nothing else in this world could ever give him the same feelings of joy and pleasure.

He looked around him, he saw his paintings, he remembered the love and meaning he had put into each brushstroke, and he found every one of his paintings mediocre. He was a fraud, he wanted something for which he had not been chosen, and the price of which was his parents' disappointment.

Visions of Paradise were for the chosen few, who appeared in books as heroes and martyrs of the faith in which they believed, people who knew from childhood what the world wanted of them; the so-called facts in that first book he had read were the inventions of a storyteller.

At supper time, he told his parents that they were right; it was just a youthful dream; his enthusiasm for painting had passed. His parents were pleased, his mother wept with joy and embraced her son, and everything went back to normal.

That night, the ambassador secretly commemorated his victory by opening a bottle of champage which he drank alone. When he went to bed, his wife - for the first time in many months - was already sleeping peacefully.

The following day, they found Eduard's room in confusion, the paintings slashed and the boy sitting in a corner, gazing up at the sky. His mother embraced him, told him how much she loved him, but Eduard didn't respond.

He wanted nothing more to do with love, he was fed up with the whole business. He had thought that he could just give up and follow his father's advice, but he had advanced too far in his work; he had crossed the abyss that separates a man from his dream and now there was no going back.

He couldn't go forwards or back. It was easier just to leave the stage."

- Paolo Coelho, 'Veronika Decides To Die'

You & Everybody Else

"'Am I cured?'

'No. You're someone who is different, but who wants to be the same as everyone else. And that, in my view, is a serious illness.'

'Is wanting to be different a serious illness?'

'It is if you force yourself to be the same as everyone else: it causes neuroses, psychoses, and paranoia. It's a distortion of nature, it goes against God's laws, for in all the world's woods and forests, He did not create a single leaf the same as another. But you think it's mad to be different and that's why you chose to live in Villete, because everyone is different here, and so you appear to be the same as everyone else. Do you understand?'"

- Paolo Coelho, 'Veronika Decides To Die'


"She had understood perfectly what Dr. Igor meant, just as she understood that, although she had always felt loved and protected, there had been one missing element that would have transformed that love into a blessing: she should have allowed herself to be a little madder.

Her parents would still have loved her, but, afraid of hurting them, she had not dared to pay the price of her dream, the dream that was buried in the depths of her memory, although sometimes it was awoken by a concert or by a beautiful record she happened to hear. Whenever her dream was awoken, though, the feeling of frustration was so intense that she immediately sent it back to sleep again.

Veronika had known since childhood that her true vocation was to be a pianist.

This was something she had felt ever since her first lesson, at twelve. Her teacher had recognised her talent too and had encouraged her to become a professional. However, whenever she had felt pleased about a competition she had just won and said to her mother that she intended giving up everything and dedicating herself to the piano, her mother would look at her fondly and say: 'No one makes a living playing the piano, my love.'

'But you were the one who wanted me to have lessons.'

'To develop your artistic gifts, that's all. A husband likes that kind of thing in a wife, he can show you off at parties. Forget about being a pianist, and go and study law, that's the profession of the future.'

Veronika did as her mother asked, sure that her mother had enough experience of life to understand reality. She finished her studies, went to university, got a good degree, but ended up working as a librarian.

'I should have been madder.' But as doubtless happens with most people, she had found this out too late."

- Paulo Coelho, 'Veronika Decides To Die'

The Comfortably Numb

"Certain people, in their eagerness to construct a world which no external threat can penetrate, build exxageratedly high defences against the outside world, against new people, new places, different experiences, and leave their inner world stripped bare. It is there that Bitterness begins its irrevocable work.

The will was the main target of Bitterness (or Vitriol, as Dr. Igor preferred to call it). The people attacked by this malaise began to lose all desire, and, within a few years, they became unable to leave their world, where they had spent enormous reserves of energy constructing high walls in order to make reality of what they wanted it to be.

In order to avoid external attack, they had also deliberately limited internal growth. They continued going to work, watching television, having children, complaining about the traffic, but these things happened automatically, unaccompanied by any particular emotion, because, after all, everything was under control.

The great problem with poisoning by Bitterness was that the passions - hatred, love, despair, enthusiasm, curiosity - also ceased to manifest themselves. After a while, the embittered person felt no desire at all. They lacked the will either to live or to die, that was the problem.

That is why embittered people find heroes and madmen a perennial source of fascination, for they have no fear of life or death. Both heroes and madmen are indifferent to danger and will forge ahead regardless of what other people say. The madman committed suicide, the hero offered himself up to martyrdom in the name of a cause, but both would die, and the embittered would spend many nights and days remarking on the absurdity and the glory of both. It was the only moment when the embittered person had the energy to clamber up his defensive walls and peer over at the world outside, but then his hands and feet would grow tired and he would return to daily life.

The chronically embittered person only noticed his illness once a week, on Sunday afternoons. Then, with no work or routine to relieve the symptoms, he would feel that something was very wrong, since he found the peace of those endless afternoons infernal and felt only a keen sense of constant irritation.

Monday would arrive, however, and the embittered man would immediately forget his symptoms, although he would curse the fact that he never had time to rest and would complain that the weekends always passed far too quickly."

- Paulo Coelho, 'Veronika Decides To Die'

Do You Know This Woman?

"It's true that in her life she had seen many things through to their ultimate consequences, but only unimportant things, like prolonging a quarrel that could easily have been resolved with an apology, or not phoning a man she was in love with, simply because she thought the relationship would lead nowhere. She was intransigent about the easy things, as if trying to prove to herself how strong and indifferent she was, when, in fact, she was just a fragile woman, who had never been an outstanding student, never excelled at school sports, and had never succeeded in keeping the peace at home.

She had overcome her minor defects, only to be defeated by matters of fundamental importance. She had managed to appear utterly independent, when she was, in fact, desperately in need of company. When she entered a room, everyone would turn to look at her, but she almost always ended the night alone, in the convent, watching a TV that she hadn't even bothered to have properly tuned in. She gave all her friends the impression that she was a woman to be envied, and she expended most of her energy in trying to behave in accordance with the image she had created of herself.

Because of that, she had never had enough energy to be herself, a person who, like everyone else in the world, needed other people in order to be happy. But other people were so difficult. They reacted in unpredictable ways, they surrounded themselves with defensive walls, they behaved just as she did, pretending they didn't care about anything. When someone more open to life appeared, they either rejected them outright, or made them suffer, considering them inferior, 'ingenuous'.

She may have impressed a lot of people with her strength and determination, but where had it left her? In the void. Utterly alone. In Villete. In the anteroom of death."

- Paulo Coelho, 'Veronika Decides to Die'