| Long minute
On September 11 I was sitting in a bar near where I live in North London, having a drink with my niece S, who had just arrived from Ahmedabad to study fashion design. At about 1.45 pm the waitress came up and informed us that there was to be a minute’s silence for the victims of the attack on New York. There were not very many people at the bar but, as the clock moved to 1.46, those of us who were there fell silent.
As we know, one minute can be a pretty unremarkable unit of time, or it can stretch for a very long while. It all depends on what that minute happens to be traversing. In my case the minute moved not only over the whole of this strange and horrible last year but also across continents. While I regard what happened in New York and Washington as a tragedy, I also felt a deep, deep anger that this day, and this minute, were being privileged all across the world over the moments of many other equally tragic and meaningless deaths. September 11 was a day when roughly three thousand innocent people were murdered. But were those innocents any more important than the innocent dead in Afghanistan, than the long drawn out mass murder, rape and dismemberment that is still going on in Gujarat' And, for that matter, what about the many who may be about to die in Iraq'
I am sure I was far from being the only one who felt this way and, in that sense, my minute was a pretty ordinary one, impossible to differentiate from thousands (if not millions) of other people’s minute of silence. What was perhaps different, and not shared by too many other people, was this: at about the fortieth second of that minute, a bizarre thought came to me that I was actually keeping a minute’s silence for the demise of the United States of America.
Over the next few days the thought began to seem less and less bizarre, and now it is properly installed, totally at home, sitting on a chair at the dining table of my mind. Other thoughts sharing the meal look suspiciously at this guy — yechh, what is he doing here' — as if the idea is a dinner guest sitting there, dressed weird, smelling odd, talking in some foreign tongue, and saying absolutely nothing that anyone else can understand. But the guy is there, nevertheless, and very politely and cheerfully munching into the food on offer, passing dishes across, pouring wine for the person next to him, listening to the conversation as if he understands every word and generally partaking in the gathering as if he has every right to be present.
Perhaps this guest is dressed like a black rap star from Los Angeles and speaking softly in Kashmiri, or perhaps he’s dressed like a Palestinian and speaking in piercing Gujarati. To move my story forward let me sail closer to the second possibility.
My niece S is one of my father’s ten grandchildren. Besides my own two children, whose whereabouts I more or less know, I was a bit hazy about where the others were, and that day S gave me the run-down on who was doing what. Out of the other eight grandchildren three were now in America, S herself was here, in England for a year, but with New York as the next target. This left four in Ahmedabad of whom one was finishing college, after which he was also headed Stateside. Two other cousins, who my nieces and nephews are close to, were also now “US-ma”, as were various others who were more distant. In the larger Joshi family, of the slightly younger cousins, perhaps seventy per cent, were planning to leave Ahmedabad and go to America, aiming obviously for the inevitable Green Card. Except for S, who was the only “arty” one, the professions too were all in a narrow range, IT, business management, computer engineering and the like.
After S finished giving me the family news, I gently broached the subject of the Gujarat genocide and its aftermath. What did she think' Had any one of them visited the camps' How did my brother — the top finance man in a big Ahmedabad company — think all this would affect business' I tried hard not to impose on these questions any of my own sense of outrage and despair. I wanted to hear what she had to say. As I asked the questions a part of me was prepared for some hot denial, some anger at “these Muslims”, some forceful paint-scrape of the “explanations” and “justifications” being handed out by the Modi government. What I was not prepared for was what I got.
I hadn’t seen S since she was perhaps seventeen, and now, looking at her at twenty-two, I could suddenly see strong traces of my father’s face, and even more so the face of one of my father’s younger brothers. This composite face that I knew so well was now calm, considerate, concerned but unemotional. S spoke of what had happened in Ahmedabad as if it was something that had happened in another city, in a neighbouring state, say Madhya Pradesh or Maharashtra, but not Gujarat.
Yes, of course, what had happened was terrible. Yes, of course, the Gujarat government had messed up badly and, yes, some people in authority were totally culpable. Yes, Modi has to go. Yes, she had visited the camps a few times with her fellow students and they had tried to help the victims. Some of her younger brother’s friends were Muslims, and he had called them immediately and told them to move to the Joshi bungalow at the first sign of any danger. My nephew had even offered to go and pick them up, but eventually it hadn’t proved necessary.
Yes, yes, yes. But. But what could we do' How could you, Ruchirkaka, even imagine that us Gujaratis could actually do something like this' Don’t you know the real killers had been brought in from UP and MP and they were the sort of people who didn’t really care if you were Muslim or Hindu, they were just looking to kill' We were all scared. Also, the problem was there was first a flood, then an earthquake, and then, before people had time to recover, this happened. But life has to carry on, and, business-wise, Gujarat would get back to even keel in two to three years. What happened was terrible but there was nothing we could have done to stop it, and there is nothing much we can do now to repair the damage. It has very little to do with us, it’s all the politicians’ and their goondas’ doing, and what can you do about that' It’s bad, but it happens.
There was a seasoned distancing there, that I really found terrifying in a twenty-two-year-old. It occurred to me later that S, and many other young middle-class Gujaratis like her, were very well trained to become “ordinary Americans”. There is a classic mixture of accepted lies and stoicism that helps propel you past uncomfortable questions, and this bright, fresh-faced, warm, affectionate girl had carried it in with her in her chic little jhola all the way from Ahmedabad. And she will perhaps, probably, still be carrying it when she makes it to New York City.
Add her indifference and self-centredness — on the surface a very civil, a very intelligent indifference — to the level already existing in the States. Leave out all other nationalities and Indian communities, just keep adding every young Gujarati Hindu who gets in, and then work out how long it will be before it reaches critical mass. Work out how long before the whole thing implodes.
Recently there has been a lot of talk, both here and in America, about how we are seeing a new Roman (or indeed a new, bigger/better British) Empire, benevolent, responsible, altruistic even, towards its many subject lands, but all-powerful and ruthless at the same time — The Mother of All Empires. Aside from the fact that all empires eventually bite the dust, I find these comparisons simultaneously depressing and risible. I keep looking for someone to point out that now the whole of the Evil Empire is actually, finally, on its way out. Like any B-grade actor it’s taking it’s time in slow-motion, sure, but the US is actually lost without its Siamese twin, the USSR. Surely it is possible to argue that, without half the organs that propped it up, the America we see is a cleaved giant caught in a final paroxysm of rage, blundering and murdering and near-blind as it flails against the inescapable fading of the light.
Me being extremely pro-Americans, as opposed to being pro-America or pro-American, I’d like to quickly and emphatically remind everyone that there are, of course, many Americas, and some of them precious enough for all of us to treat this terminal case as a matter of crucial urgency. As if our own limbs were attached to the patient — which they are. America is too important to be left to Americans, (just as Islam and Hinduism are too important to be abandoned to the self-proclaimed Swords of Allah and Trishuls of Shiv Bhagwan) and hopefully, with all our efforts, some of these positive Americas will survive, and even thrive, after the disintegration of the monolith.
But in the meantime, all I can see in the face of my niece are the ghosts of hundreds of raped and murdered Gujarati women who happened to be Muslim. And all I can think of is how to contain the body-count of the many different Gujarats and Indias, the Pakistans, Irans and Iraqs, that the remaining half of the twin monster will take with it as it goes down.