A Hindu, a Jew and Two Taliskers

Wednesday nights are special this semester, because I have an unusually long day at the office. By the time I get back to Brooklyn, it’s usually 11 pm, which means I’ve been commuting, teaching, grading and in meetings for nearly fifteen hours. At that point, I’m nearly desperate for one of the great pleasures of the week: an hour or two at the pub, sitting near the fireplace with a Talisker, a hamburger and a book. It feels like…detoxification. On a lucky night, the crowd is sparse and quiet, and I can feel the bass from the live music in the basement coming through the floor and the sofa.

Last night, however, things went awry. I had barely ordered the food, sat down in the cavernous armchair and fished out my borrowed copy of Robert Gellately’s Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany when I realized that a man had twisted around in his seat and was staring intently at me. He was only about six feet away, so it was difficult to ignore him. And he did look familiar. So I squinted back, trying to make an identification. ‘Professor Sen?’ he asked, and I brightened a little, thinking it might be a colleague I’d met at a conference. ‘I was in your class,’ he said, and my heart sank. Fuck. Queens had followed me all the way along the Jackie Robinson Expressway and Eastern Parkway to Brooklyn. Just when you think it's spring break, it's not.

The ex-student walked over to join me and introduced himself, at which point I remembered him right away. Nearly my age and a lawyer to boot, he had been one of the better students in the class a couple of years back: confident, highly engaged, an asset in discussions. He was well-traveled: he had been to India, and unlike most students, knew where Assam was, what a Mizo was, and so on. He had, in fact, not been a student at all – he was simply squatting the class. (I learned yesterday that he has also squatted Indian history classes at Hunter and Brooklyn College, with varying levels of enthusiasm on the part of the professors.) When he had begun to show up in my classroom, I had mentioned it to the department chair, but neither the chair nor I had seen the ‘ghost student’ as a problem. We had tacitly agreed to not make an issue of the fact that he was not enrolled at the college, let alone the class. Some of us at CUNY are like that only.We indulge our eccentrics.

So while I was a bit crestfallen to have my Wednesday night detox disrupted by the tox, clearly it could have been worse. (A bad student, for instance.) I hope you don’t mind talking about Indian history, my  new companion said. My head reeled, but the spirit held firm. Of course not, I said politely, resigning myself. Then he saw the Gellately on my lap. “What do you think of the Jews?” he asked.

“What do you think of the Jews” is, under the best of circumstances, a very indelicate question. It’s like being asked about some particularly intimate detail of one’s sexual preferences. When asked by a near-stranger and former student with an unmistakably Jewish name, it’s almost paralyzing. I don’t think of ‘the Jews,’ I replied bashfully, hoping he would either get the hint or take offense and leave. Instead, he looked stricken, which made me feel bad. So I reassured him that I did sometimes think about particular Jews.

That led to a long and unbelievably strange conversation, none of it about Indian history. I spent several minutes defending Noam Chomsky against the usual charges. My new friend speculated that Whoopy Goldberg ‘had a Jewish slave-owner.’ (He was joking.) At one point, he tried to persuade me that since the Chinese mistreat the Tibetans, only anti-Semites would make a big deal about the Palestinians. At another point, he insisted that Zionism was incompatible with liberal democracy, and I found myself arguing for Zionism, giving a short, chaotic, Talisker-fuelled lecture on the differences between Herzl and Jabotinksy, and discreetly raising my glass to Jinnah. In my exhausted condition, it felt like an out-of-body experience.

The man sitting across the table from me was not a bigot, a hardline Zionist or a card-carrying AIPAC representative. He liked Palestinians and wanted justice for them. But he was also compelled to reflexively defend Israeli policy in the same breath as he criticized it. It was as if he was arguing with his own ethical apparatus, afraid that any concession would be tantamount to aid-and-comfort-to-the-enemy, afraid that the enemy was everywhere and that people were out to get him. Beyond a certain point, arguing with him by asking him when he was last discriminated against, or whether present-day Irish Americans should be paranoid because “it could happen in the future,” felt like bullying. He was a decent man caught in the web of ethnicity and identity politics, unable to get away from the notion of ‘my people,’ which is of course the same thing as the notion of ‘those people’ or ‘the Jews.’

A running thread of the conversation was a question, directed at me: why do you care about them, the Palestinians, those Muslims? Why did you care about Bosnia, about Afghanistan, about the Pakistani victims of President Drone? Aren't you a Hindu? Considering the fact that I was quite willing to tell him he was speaking from a ghetto of his imagination, it was a fair question. I did not have a chance to answer, mainly because I needed to think the answer through. But he did tell me that he reads my blog, so this is as good a forum as any for a response. It is precisely because I am a Hindu that I care about Muslims. It has nothing to do with secularism or ideologies of tolerance, on which Hindus have no monopoly. But being Hindu connects me to a larger civilization – a place, a society and a history – to which Muslims also belong. That makes them ‘my people,’ just as my being Bengali makes Punjabis and Tamils ‘my people.’ It brings a sense of responsibility, and with it, guilt and cantankerousness. There are also more general considerations of justice and anti-colonial solidarity, but the ethnic foundation is undeniable and not entirely separate. We are not so different, the Jewish ghost-student and the irritated Hindu ordering a second whisky. (My companion did not drink at all. He was just squatting the pub. Or maybe he was a spy, engaged in the vital mission of checking out obscure South Asianists in the basement of academia.)

It is hard not to feel that one’s ideals of justice should be based on something more generous and less Romantic than parochialism. But perhaps parochial identity is a good place to begin.

March 21, 2013