Lynch-mob nation

In the cosmopolitan southern city of Bangalore this week, a Tanzanian woman was dragged out of a car, beaten, partially stripped, and ‘paraded’ by a mob. Her assailants, it seems, were angry about an unrelated accident, in which a Sudanese student had hit and killed a pedestrian. The details are appalling: when the young Tanzanian tried to escape her tormentors by jumping on a bus, the passengers threw her back to the crowd, and when she tried to file a report with the police, she was sneeringly told to produce the Sudanese man (whom she did not know) first. The scrap of comfort that can be gleaned here is that one bystander had stepped forward to help the woman, only to beaten mercilessly by the mob. But there has also been some anguish about ‘what we have become’: how racist, how lawless, and so on. Even the contributors to the comments sections in the mainstream press have recoiled, in the equivalent of an embarrassed crowd. Since lynching and mob violence are neither new nor rare in the modern Indian experience, however, it is worth asking whether the assumption that there has been a change for the worse – a moral and civic decline – is actually justified, and when lynching becomes commonplace.
For those familiar with Indian public life and its patterns of violence, what happened to the Tanzanian woman is almost entirely familiar, and not just because of the rage that lurks below the surface of relations between the car-borne and the pedestrian. The particulars of the Bangalore incident are easily recognizable as the idiom of violence against low-caste women in rural areas and provincial towns, and even urban women on ‘festive’ occasions. In a patriarchal society, there is nothing like sexual humiliation and terror to enforce the intertwined hierarchies of caste, class and gender. That enforcement is typically abetted by the police, who are after all there to maintain ‘order’ in every sense of the word.
The spectacle of the violent crowd – engaged either in a pogrom against a ‘community’ or in the lynching of a stray victim – should not surprise Indians. The rioting mob has been a part of public affairs in independent India from the outset, acting out a rogue history that resists historicizing and frustrates those whose preferred national narrative is one of warring states. It might be argued that such mob action is the sign of a ramshackle modernity in which the state is weak both ideologically and structurally: it has no monopoly on either the legitimacy or the means of violence.  Every once in a while, the liberal pretensions of the republic are exposed as irrelevant and alien, and the citizenry reverts to its primal state.
That argument is not altogether without merit; the ideological gulf between the crowd and the state in India can hardly be denied, although it can be romanticized by those who see the subaltern crowd as the repository of an alternative and superior civic virtue. It may, however, be more accurate to say that the problem is not the gap between the crowd and the state, but the overlap. Here, I want to draw attention to two other histories of chronic mob violence: anti-black terror in the United States between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and anti-Jewish terror in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The American example is overtly noticeable to those who were shocked by the attack on the Tanzanian woman, because of the shared element of violence against those identified as ‘black.’  That connection, however, is a red herring. Anti-black racism is not a uniform or universal phenomenon; its roots and rationales vary from one historical setting to another. American bigotry is only tenuously related to Indian contempt for the dark-skinned. The more interesting overlap has to do with the relationship between the crowd, the state and the pariah. The epidemic of lynching which began in the American South even before the Reconstruction had ended was not just about reestablishing white supremacy and intimidating the generation of blacks who had grown up after the Civil War. It was also about creating rituals that would demarcate the boundaries and content of blackness – articulated as spatial segregation, sexual containment, disenfranchisement and the condition of terror itself – at a moment when slavery no longer supplied the parameters. Mob violence clarified and policed the outcaste status of people who were otherwise entitled to the permissions of freedom and citizenship. At the same time, it generated for Southern whites a method of defiance, not only against the federal government and the Republican Party but also against republican principles of American identity, recovering from it the narrower ideology of white democracy that had its roots in Andrew Jackson’s nation even more than the Confederacy. Lynching thus became the basis of a local governance that was contextually at odds with the national government: a rift in the state, in which the crowd established a semi-legitimate Southern shadow-state. It could be tolerated by the national state, not only because tolerance was politically expedient following the rehabilitation of the Democratic Party, but because it was consistent with the delinquent side of American praxis. Frontiers and colonial warfare came with their own rituals of racial violence. Teddy Roosevelt, imperialist and frontiersman, could thus both disdain and accept the lynch-mob politics of the South.
In the German case, that distance between the legitimate and illegitimate states was eventually closed. After 1933 but well before the Wannsee Conference, the mob and the state had become interchangeable, in the sense that each spoke and acted in the name of the other, and also provided cover for each other. Mob violence, as in Kristallnacht, functioned as a surrogate for state violence. Once the Final Solution began, the mob was fully absorbed by the state and lost its visibility as an autonomous entity, i.e., as a mob. In each these aspects – the emergence of the mob as a proxy of the state, and the redundancy of the mob – Germany showcased an arrangement of power that is fascist in the first instance, and fascist as well as totalitarian in the second. Lynching in the American South, in contrast, was ‘merely’ a form of productive terror. Whereas the state-mob in Germany produced the Jew and the Gypsy as vermin (or, as Agamben would have it, as beings removed from the domain of legality and illegality), seeking ultimately to dissolve the ghetto and empty the camp, Klan terror produced the Negro as a subordinated minority, to be kept in its new designated place.
When a mob in Bangalore terrorizes an African student, the American reference is actually the least applicable. There is no question of reimagining black students in India as a ‘minority.’ Euro-American racism has certainly leached into Indian speech and behavior (more in the diaspora than in India itself, I would suggest), but this borrowing is so thinly rooted in the history of that racism that it is highly superficial: an easily available imitative gesture, like the monkey-gestures that were directed at the black Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds in India some years ago. Indian racism against people perceived as black, and Africans in particular, is real and pervasive, but it is not an ideology in its own right. It is, rather, a practice extemporized from cultural rubble: neighborhood and campus tensions, perceptions of the relative wealth and power of different categories of foreigners, imported discourses of savagery that are understood at the level of picture books. Affiliating that racism with its American counterpart is like ascribing ‘anti-Semitism’ – a European ideology with a European history bracketed by Jewish emancipation after 1791 and annihilation before 1945 – to Arabs in the erstwhile Ottoman lands and post-Algerian-War Europe. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, anti-black racism in India is not primarily about blacks, blackness, or aversion to dark skin. It is about an illiberal community reacting to a perceived foreign presence in its midst when foreignness is unprotected by a color – of skin or of passport – associated with power.
It is also about the widening of an Indian practice of normalcy and dominance, in which the status of women, minorities, outsiders and pariahs is underlined by recognizable rituals of crowd violence. The Tanzanian woman was treated like a Dalit, not because she was black, but because that is how Indian crowds have long put people in their place and experienced themselves as communities of power. Bangladeshis and Biharis (and at one time, Gujaratis and ‘Madrasis’) in Mumbai, Manipuris and Nagas in Delhi, Sikhs in 1984, the Chinese in 1962, and Dalits, Muslims and women (of all classes and communities, although not equally) at all times have been subjected to the order of the mob. Well-developed discourses of otherness and inferiority exist only in the last three instances, but it turns out that such discourses are not necessary for that much-debated Indian phenomenon: ‘intolerance.' Racism towards Africans is readily acknowledged as an Indian problem even by people who bristle at the suggestion that there is widespread intolerance towards Muslims. The first makes India 'look bad' in the global press, and the acknowledgment of crimes against foreigners is a part of the damage-control. The second is intimate and existential. Like a crime within the family, it cannot be admitted even to yourself.
If something has gone wrong, it began decades ago, when older patterns of exclusion and domination converged with new civic identities, rendering public space particularly dangerous to anyone who could be identified as a misfit or an upstart. What has happened relatively recently, however, is a reinforcement of that public violence by the state, which is increasingly prepared to utilize the mob as a surrogate. A distinction must be made at this juncture. The reliance of Indian politicians and parties on mobs (usually organized from cadres or hired lumpen) is of long standing, and every party that has sniffed power has been guilty of it. But the mob-as-nation is a specialty of the Hindu right, which can govern the state but also strategically locate itself outside the state, among the 'public.' Nationhood itself – with its compulsive quest for an order of insiders and outsiders – has, accordingly, taken on the quality of the mob.
Few would argue that the Indian government systematically encourages attacks on Tanzanian women, or on blacks. (Besides, Karnataka is governed by the Congress, not the BJP.) But it does not seem to be especially disturbed by such attacks either, because what happened in Bangalore is not divergent from a particular understanding of nationhood, with its rituals of belonging, demands for order, and assorted compulsions. In this nation, the many will always take for granted the right to humiliate or kill the few – it knows no other way of self-constitution, with the exception of an anxious self-congratulation that highlights its investment in modernity. The day after the incident, Indian scientists announced their development of a vaccine for the Zika virus (a proud moment for the nation, naturally), underlining the Indian condition as a scientifically accomplished lynch mob. As I observed earlier, it is not really about blacks. It is always about Muslims, Dalits and women, in the sense that that is where the patterns and permissions of Indian mob violence originate.

February 5, 2016

The Death of a Jew


Following close upon the golden jubilee celebrations of ‘victory’ in the 1965 war against Pakistan, with its imbedded celebration of the Anglo-Indian hero Alfred Cooke, has come another moment of remembrance in the history of the Indian state: the passing of J.F.R. Jacob. Jacob was, more or less famously, the only ‘Jewish general’ in the Indian Army and one of the architects of the Pakistani surrender in the Bangladesh War. His visage graces the iconic photograph of the surrender ceremony in Dhaka in 1971. (Jacob stands towards the right of the frame, above, with a young Air Force officer gripping his arm.) By his own admission, Jacob was not a religious man and may not have been entirely comfortable with the tendency of his admirers – mainly Indian and Israeli – to underline his Jewishness. Nevertheless, every obituary has led with some version of ‘Jake the Jew.’
How extraordinary this treatment is must be emphasized. When Sam Maneckshaw, the most celebrated soldier in Indian history, died not long ago, few headline-writers in the mainstream press thought to describe him as ‘the Parsi general,’ and no eulogist gloated about the fact that a Zoroastrian had led the Indian Army. Likewise, when Air Chief Marshall Idris Latif, the only Muslim to head an Indian military service, passes away, his religion will be mentioned politely in the small print, as is only right. Denis La Fontaine will not be 'India's Christian air chief'; Christians are too prosaic. Clearly, being a ‘minority,’ in and of itself, is not all that noteworthy. When it is noteworthy, it is unevenly so:  Alfred Cooke was embraced in spite of his Anglo-Indian ancestry (and even then, nobody mentioned his religion), but Jacob was celebrated because he was an Indian Jew. Coming at a time when minorities are not especially popular in India, this invites us to think about the conditions under which a national majority becomes generous towards the impurities it contains.
The concept of a ‘minority’ is something of a novelty. It became meaningful only in the nineteenth century, as a corollary of the new institutions of popular sovereignty and the democratic nation-state. In India, the term was most firmly associated with Muslims, beginning with colonial historiography, proceeding through Aligarh’s foundational debates and the nationalist polemics of the 1880s and 1890s, and becoming concretized in the Minto-Morley reforms of 1909. Partition reinforced the concrete, but also added a new complication by making policy (management) rather than politics (accommodation) the normative idiom of relations between the majority and the minorities. Throughout this trajectory, the concept secreted layers of negative connotations: not only was it a calamity to be a minority, it was a misfortune to have minorities. In much of this, the Indian experience was consistent with trends in political demography elsewhere in the world that emerged from the Great War.
Yet models exist in that world for ‘good minorities’ and even happy minorities. The best known such model is, conveniently, known in America as the ‘model minority.’ That term has been used since the 1970s to refer explicitly to ‘Asian immigrants,’ who do well at school, do not trouble the police, and appear to affirm the ‘American’ values of hard work, self-reliance (not relying upon government assistance), single-minded acquisitiveness and ‘family,’ at a time (the aftermath of the Counterculture and the Civil Rights Movement) when ‘Americans’ themselves had evidently wavered in their faith in those things. The deconstruction of the model minority, coming in the first instance from Asian American scholars like Ronald Takaki, has been very thorough. Its critics have noted that while the notion compensated somewhat for the virulence of the Asian Exclusion Acts, the lynch mobs in the Pacific Northwest, the wartime internment of people of Japanese ancestry, and seventy years of murder and dehumanization of ‘gooks’ and ‘slopes’ (who can breathe easier now that attention has turned to ‘ragheads’ and ‘Art Malik’), it has been more pernicious than generous. It has highlighted the success of some Asians (mainly Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Indians from middle-class backgrounds), blacked out the less advantaged and successful, and trapped all Asian Americans within the exotic category of ‘immigrant,’ to be contrasted with real Americans, whose realness is reified by their imperiled virtues. The model minority is a handy stick with which to beat other minorities (including Asians, but always and primarily blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans) for their apparent fecklessness. Beyond that, it has imposed on all minorities – the successful and the feckless – a constricting model of citizenship that emphasizes docility: not challenging the prerogatives of the majority, not questioning the meanings of success, not taking over the ‘good schools’ and ‘excellent neighborhoods,’ not making waves. The model minority is, in the final analysis, a model of apolitical citizenship as the subjectivity of a ‘good’ minority, which allows the majority to bury its history and politics of racism.
The notion of a ‘good minority’ is not alien to India, where linguistic minorities have been a fact of political life since the 1920s. In the Presidency capitals, an expanded political pie and massive in-migration made it necessary for regional politicians to work out a language that could accommodate – or isolate – the misfits. But who was a good minority at the national level? For a long time, the answer was obvious: the model minority in India were the Sikhs. Not only did they fit easily into the anti-Muslim thrust of nationalist historiography, they were endowed with qualities that Hindus were often unsure they possessed: Sikhs were industrious, ‘martial’ and hyper-patriotic. It was a nationalist redemption of the colonial trope of the simple, loyal peasant-soldier. Sikhs themselves seemed to embrace their role as semi-detached Hindus, and happily referred to themselves as the ‘sword arm of the nation.’
The fragility of this model of minority citizenship became inescapable in the 1980s, with the onset of Sikh terrorism, the Delhi pogrom, and the years of profiling and ‘encounter’ killings. When Shabeg Singh, another icon of the 1971 war, used his military expertise against the Indian Army in Operation Blue Star, the hero became the traitor in shockingly literal terms. The wounds healed with Manmohan Singh’s stint as prime minister, but not completely. The romance was gone, and the good minority is nothing if not a romantic concept: a specter of the majority’s love affair with its own national mythology.
What went wrong with the Sikhs? It was not simply the demands for autonomy or secession. It was the revelation of a reluctance to accept the status of quasi-Hindus, which fully-credentialed Hindus could neither understand nor forgive. (Nothing is as embarrassing as interrupted self-love.) Just as pertinently, Sikhs asserting their separateness – whether from Hindus or from India – were able to mobilize politically. Even a two-percent minority can do that when two percent is more than fifteen million people, concentrated geographically and already equipped with political organizations and useful histories. The otherwise useful Sikhs, therefore, failed that crucial test of a lovable minority: docility.
If we return to the photograph of the Pakistani surrender in 1971, in which the romance of Indian cosmopolitanism is fully on display, we see immediately that Sikhs are well represented, notably by General Arora, the senior Indian commander in the eastern theater. They are not, however, performing as a minority. Being politically alive and viable, Sikhs are not exotic. They are not in the frame as curiosities. General Jacob is. Some three decades ago, a relative of mine – a retired group captain in the Indian Air Force – told me that Jacob’s presence at the ceremony was intended to compound the Pakistani humiliation by forcing them to surrender to a Jew. It is difficult to imagine Indira Gandhi and Jagjivan Ram plotting such a detail, but it is significant that it was the perception of Indian officers with some awareness of world politics. Jacob in 1971 was already a symbolic Jew.
He was also the most perfect kind of minority: a man with a race but without a racial community. The number of Jews in India is so small (barely five thousand) that mobilizing as a community – coming together with an agenda and a means of applying pressure – would seem to be out of the question. Indian Jews can, at most, express their dismay when some fool in Ahmedabad opens a boutique called ‘Hitler.’ They are, in that sense, a docile minority, and can be placed on the shelf of the nation's trophies. The same can be said for Parsis. They too are a model minority, running gracefully out of bodies and vultures. The Tatas have put to rest the old Parsi reputation of being ‘bum-lickers of the English’: a stigma that Anglo-Indians could not fully escape. In Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Cracking India, a Parsi woman in newly independent Pakistan explains to her child that they are, and must remain, like sugar in a cup of tea: sweetening and invisible. But the Parsi predicament is also different from that of Indian Jews. Jews are more useful. Being Parsi has no global significance. Jewishess does, and that meaning dovetails with specific Indian agendas, historical and contemporary.
The post-1945 Zionist tendency to deploy an exceptional and existential victimhood – ‘everybody hates us, so everything is justified’ – has made it possible for Indian nationalist discourse to claim an exception of its own. In India, the narrative goes, Jews were never persecuted. This may very well be true, give or take the Inquisition in Goa. But the assertion has not only allowed the spokesmen of the Indian majority to proclaim their own ‘tolerance’ and inherent cosmopolitanism (which, it turns out, is compatible with fascist imaginings of nationhood), it has also aligned them with a strand within contemporary Zionism, which is its anti-Muslim animus. This promises to take Hindutva politics out of the backwater, connecting it to another national narrative and a global concern (articulated in terms of ‘terror,’ ‘security' and 'Islam'). It also cements the relationship between India and Israel at a time when both states have reached a majoritarian nadir.
It may be, of course, that eulogists casually invoking 'Jake the Jew' are merely drawing attention to a harmless bit of trivia, without political 'intentions' or 'agendas.' When they do that, however, they reduce race and the racialized individual to trivia: the harmless fluff that is the essence of a model minority. The harmlessless is tied up with utility and the comfort of the majority; for that reason, it is political. The celebration of General Jacob’s Jewishness then feeds (and feeds upon) majoritarian self-congratulation and tokenism, and simultaneously sharpens the distinction between good and bad minorities in India. The more or less solitary Jew, identified with national victory and globally aligned with power and civilization, is good. The Muslim, with his numbers and birthrate and place in history, is not. He is the trouble the Jew does not give the nation. He is unser Ungl├╝ck. Sikhs have proved to be manageable; they can be either pogrom victims or prime ministers.
Jacob was not an innocent observer in the politics of his identity. He may have been ambivalent about his faith, but he took racial identity seriously enough to work hard for closer ties between the Indian and Israeli states. That effort, while understandable, highlights an important dynamic of being a model minority. It shows where, and with whom, one chooses to stand, and how one is willing to be used. When a minority lacks the demographic means of political self-assertion, there still remains the option of self-assertion on behalf of other minorities, within the larger community with which it identifies. Jacob liked to say he was ‘Indian through and through.’ I would like to think that that means standing in solidarity with those Indians who are excluded from ‘model’ status. Such solidarity, however, might mean that when you die, you would not be a national icon, but merely a troublemaker.

January 18, 2016

Life in the Jungle

An old friend died recently on the other side of the planet. It was both predictable and shocking, as these things often are. He was a long-term abuser of powders and pills; I had not expected him to live as long as he did. Still, we had been children together, neighbors, brothers almost, at that crucial period in modern male friendship: early adolescence. So I was shaken when I got the call from another friend and ex-neighbor. It was as if a few bricks fell away from the walls of my house, but it wasn't a house I live in anymore.

Over the next few days, the grapevines of social media (through which old acquaintances had tried to reimagine themselves as old friends) yielded slippery details and problems. He had died in his sleep in a hotel in Paharganj, the seedy Delhi neighborhood frequented by white tourists in dirty pyjamas. A bottle of sleeping pills was found in his bag. His mother was with him. They had been traveling together from Moscow to Durgapur, the industrial city where we had lived as children; she had spent the night in the same bed unaware that he was dead. She had dementia and a tendency to wander off. There was a brother in Canada; he was on his way but, we were informed, reluctant to take his mother back with him. The mutual friend and I tried to find an old-age home in our old hometown where she could be safely abandoned, among people who might visit her once or twice.

I also tried to remember the dead man, or boy. I dreamed of him several nights in a row even though we had not spoken in nearly thirty years. This lag was not due to a quarrel, but because we had drifted so far apart that nothing was mutually comprehensible or relevant. So it was startling to find photographs of a big-eared twelve-year-old slouching in his room circa 1982. It regenerated a face, which allowed other images and sounds to creep back: the grinning face in my window on weekend mornings, the stuttering shout of my name, his presence in my house on the day of the year when sisters give their brothers a protective fingerprint (having no sister of his own, he would borrow mine), the telephone ringing just when my mother was taking her cherished siesta on her day off from teaching. I remembered endless hours of batting practice, and the sight of him airborne before his delivery stride, head cocked, arm and wrist coiled, lanky. He revered Michael Holding. I remembered a small crime we had conspired to commit (inspired by James Hadley Chase) and the unraveling of the conspiracy, the embarrassed-indulgent rage of parents. I was able to recall an even older image, from before we became friends: a boy of five or six throwing a tearful tantrum on the bus because he didn't want to go to school. It’s not that I had never thought of these things in three decades. But it had been knowledge rather than remembrance, cut off from life.

It was, among other things, knowledge of waste and luck, which is why it had been pushed to the margins of memory. One more boy wasted by a system of education, examinations and professional bottlenecks that gave no quarter to those who could not, or did not want to, stay in the fast lane, which was also the only lane. Healthy competition, the schools called it, as if there was something laudable about brutal hours of cramming and 'private tuition,' fetishizing ‘coming first’ in examinations, being ‘ranked’ in your class beginning when you were five years old, the smugness and alarm of parents who shared the hierarchy of their children, and the fear of falling out of the middle class altogether. The perversity of that education was inseparable from our teachers' proclivity for creative physical violence. I don't look back at my Indian schooling with any pleasure or nostalgia; the memory of those grey walls is enough to fill my stomach with a dull anxiety. I lived with the nausea – the longing to be anywhere else instead – for nearly ten years. (The feeling came back to me when I began dropping my daughter off at school, and I had to force myself to see that her school was not what mine had been.) My dead friend, who had been an intelligent boy with eclectic interests and bookshelves, was also an average student in a system that chewed up such children. I got out just in time; he did not and became a ‘failure.’ When I met him again at the age of nineteen, he was injecting heroin into his scrotum and stealing cough syrup. He had nothing to say that was not recycled tripe. He was not the only one. There but for the grace of God went I.

The Jesuit jailhouse of our childhood dissolved into the city itself, turning it grey: grey school-buses, grey shorts, grey mornings, dirty white sky. As with the school, I can’t go back there without a sense of dread. I know this contradicts the conventions of NRI nostalgia. (But then, bin Ich nicht ein bloede NRI.) We are supposed to look back with affection and pride, and there is undeniably something romantic about Durgapur and other ‘steel towns’ that came up in India in the 1950s. This was the frontier of Nehru and Bidhan Roy: instant cities in the wilderness that had secreted legendary bandits like Bhabani Pathak and Ichhai Ghosh, marked by receding forests, smoke-stacks, geometric housing developments, no extremes of wealth and poverty, no crime to speak of (polite scientists and their well-bred wives had replaced the bandits), no filth on the streets (but nasty chemicals in the air and the river), sheltered and sheltering, a modern Indian Eden where everybody knew their neighbors and spoke three languages, and nobody talked about religion or caste. In the evening, the horizon would turn an attractive orange as the blast furnaces roared and released their slag.

As a new city where even the old residents were first-generation migrants from elsewhere, Durgapur was a place constituted by arrivals and departures. Men and women came, recognizing their roles as pioneers, but expecting to leave at the end of their working lives. Parts of the town retained that touch of the makeshift: Steel Market, where we bought Tintins and textbooks, cricket balls and orange squash, was a double row of Quonset huts corrugated-iron barracks on a dirt road. For children, home was always encroached upon by departure, because the same schools that consumed their lives in the city would spit them out of the city, towards ‘real’ cities where there were colleges, careers and airports. (Durgapur had only a railway station.) To remain in this place was a sign of failure.

Into this place that was also no place at all, at some point in the mid-1960s, my friend’s mother had come, a Russian scientist who had married an Indian engineer given to spells of withdrawal and melancholy, and what was probably schizophrenia. The few friends she made in Durgapur included my mother. Birokto korbena (“Don’t bother me”), she told my mother, was her husband’s frequent response to her desire for his company. She had hung on for a long time. As a foreigner, she was even more afflicted by the limbo between arrival and eventual departure; the sense of isolation must have been acute. I remember her – and her husband – as being simultaneously present and absent, inseparable from the failure that swallowed my friend. In attractively modern company housing, husbands turned cold and wives seethed with rage at being stranded in the jungle with their various disappointments, while children lingered on the cricket field after dark or wandered the streets in the burning heat of May afternoons because it was better than going home. Anyone could turn feral. The town wasted the Russian woman just as it wasted her son, and there’s a morbid irony in the likelihood that she will live out her final years there, in this wilderness of unreliable memory. There but for the grace of God; but quite a few of us did go there.

I had left. I escaped miraculously, due to the mad initiative of parents who recognized the importance of getting out, even though their own education and aspiration had been focused on reaching places like Durgapur. Leaving destroyed them professionally, socially and personally, turning them into slightly shocking shadows of their confident and accomplished selves; immigration is not for the middle-aged. But it got the kids off the conveyor belt to nowhere. My friend who died understood that. He once sent me an email in which the only coherent thing was his resentment that I had flown the coop while I was still alive.

So perhaps it’s understandable that I associate the place with death: arrivals culminating in necessary departures. I first arrived in Durgapur when my parents stepped off the Coal Field Express on to the platform, my father carrying me in a bassinet. Quite by coincidence, I last saw my father at the same railway station, when he put me on a train bound for Indore. It may very well have been the same platform. The Coal Field passed through before my train pulled in and we said goodbye. Four months later he was dead, alone. I used to take the Coal Field sometimes when I accompanied my father on his trips to Calcutta. Fish and chips in the dining car, the thrill of the big city and what must be the real world. Lunch at Kwality or cake at Flury’s to bribe me into visiting relatives. Temporary getaways.

A lot of this is the neurosis of the emigrant, of course. For most of my friends from Durgapur, the place is mundane. Some have laid to rest the ghosts of engineers’ colonies and borrowed time, bought homes and started businesses, made it a hometown like any other. There is even an airport now, although not many flights. But on the two or three occasions that I’ve gone back, I’ve been haunted both by the fact that the place has changed, and by the suspicion that it hasn’t. Is it even sadder now, or was it always sad? Were the roads always narrow and the buildings a little drab? Had the open spaces that I remembered vanished, or never been there at all? And I went back to Ohio / But my city was gone. But the school is still there, with the grimy boys in grey shorts, living in homes that shade into the jungle, studying feverishly to get out. When I had tried to explain to my friend, during our failed attempt to reconnect by email, that I found Durgapur depressing, he had again become enraged: he claimed the place, and I was the condescending NRI. He was too wasted for me to convey that ‘going to Durgapur’ was like visiting my own grave, charged with the fear of discovering things best forgotten, like dead boys and the holes we come from.

December 4, 2015