North America | United States of America (USA) | The Mid-Atlantic states | New York State | New York City | Brooklyn – The Hard Part
A month already, that’s how long I’ve been back. I just checked a calendar and realized.
Life has shifted and jumped a lot in those thirty days, I’ve got a new place, new roomates, new dogs, a yard, and strange new homework that lacks calculations and instead has me thinking of ways to turn a plant into a handbag. I’ve done more sketching in the past three weeks than in my whole life up til three weeks ago, I suspect.
But it’s brought me back to New York, and I am grateful for that; there’s so much that I missed. Having something to do once the sun goes down is a big one. With a few notable exceptions, India shuts down shortly after sunset, especially if you’re travelling alone. Here it takes just a touch of effort to get sucked into the machinery, and then swept on until five in the morning, and it has the sweet feel of home.
The new neighborhood is a summary of the other thing I missed when I was away: the ‘every sort of person on the planet lives around the corner from me’ thing. The bus ride between Jenn’s place in Greenpoint and where I am now in Clinton Hill takes about 25 minutes, and the ethnic geography goes from Polish to hipster to Puerto Rican and Italian to Hassidic Jewish to working class black with a sprinkling of art students, and for the most part, any one of those inhabitants could stroll through any other part of that landscape without a stare or a worry.
Six months ago it was a trip that would’ve filled me with hope for the human race and a certainty that racism and intolerance and prejudice were slowly and steadily withering in the heat of proximity and interaction. Get enough different people together in the same place, give them all work to do and an incentive for figuring each other out, and it all takes care of itself in the end.
India wasn’t like that, not at all, and it scared the shit out of me. Still does. It’s a great big country, and getting ever more important in the world economy and world politics. One of its borders is the major potential nuclear flashpoint on the planet. It doesn’t seem to be calming down either.
In a country that’s got more ethnic uniformity for its size than just about anywhere in the world, India managed to seize on caste and religion as a mode of discrimination instead. Rather than apartheid or Jim Crow laws, there are Muslim ghettos and mass conversions of Untouchables to Buddhism in protest of the fact that they are still prohibited from entering many of the holiest Hindu temples.
By any rational measurement, Muslims in India are an oppressed minority, suffering a higher incidence of poverty, and poverty’s usual partners, crime and high birth rates. The same can be said of low caste Hindus in many places, and of women. These things are changing in the large cities of course, Bombay especially, but India is still an overwhelmingly rural country, and its urban population would have to increase five or six fold for this to not be so.
Outside of the big cities, prejudice and fundamentalism die hard. One of the frequent images apparent throughout the country was printed by the RSS, a conservative Hindu organization closely linked to the assasination of Gandhi for his Muslim sympathies. It features a map, of “Greater India,” stretching from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border east, taking in Kashmir, all of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Burma, not stopping until it reaches the Thai border. Framed by this map is a defiant Krishna playing his flute, marching at the head of a wide column of the white-shirted faithful stretching back to the horizon. It’s a popular sticker on buses and a common poster in guest house reception areas.
Newspapers are full of rhetoric, both in and out of the editorial sections, and letters urging the violent re-taking of Kashmir using whatever tools are needed appear frequently.
Near the Pakistan border, Pakistani television can be picked up, and all news reports about India show it headless, with all of Kashmir lopped off. Any stories set in the Indian sections of the region are captioned “Occupied Kashmir.” It’s been this way for over fifty years, no better now than the day after Partition.
Introduce the race card, and things get more or less impossible. “So tell me honestly,” one outgoing university professor asked me after a couple of riverside drinks in Orchha, “if it were a group of blacks here with you instead of us, how would things be.”
“Probably fine. I live in a mostly black neighborhood actually,” I said.
“Ha HA! You here that?!” he asked his incredulous friends, “So much bullshit!” They went on to tell me how all black women like to take it in the ass, and all Muslim women are whores, if you name the right price. Not that they’ve ever met a black woman.
That bus ride through Brooklyn, the one that would’ve left me smiling and hoping six months ago, instead left me wondering.
Which one of those Hassidim is going to move to Jerusalem next year and get killed in a bombing, or crack under the weight of religious intolerance and open fire on a bunch of Palestinian school kids?
Who among the black kids at the park up the street has a friend who got beaten by a cop for being alone in the wrong neighborhood in the middle of the night, or turned over a Korean-owned grocery store that recently moved into his neighborhood?
What will happen to me if I keep thinking things like this?
It’s no scarier a world than I used to think, but it does seem less likely than I’d thought that its going to get better soon. It *doesn’t* happen automatically, and tolerance is the exception right now, not the rule. It’s something you have to do, to act on, to make a point about, and that’s no easy trick.
But it is good to be back.