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Hey, where did my country go?
September 30, 2008
There was a time, seems long ago but actually just 15 years back, when your country disappeared as you left it, for those of us from the developing world. Say, you were engrossed in the Test match between Sri Lanka [Images] and India and were in Bangalore with Sachin having scored 94 at the draw of stumps on the second day. The next day, if you happened to travel to Bangkok or Berlin, let alone farther afield to America, your country with all its obsessions and preoccupations would have simply gone off the radar and you had to struggle to find out whether Sachin completed his century.
Has the world changed irrevocably with the CNN and the internet? Are we denizens of the clich�d global village, inhabitants of a flat world without borders or boundaries? Are the local and the global merging? Yes and no. Personally speaking, I am suffering from a massive sense of disorientation having changed homes in three continents in two months.
But before describing my predicament, let me recall how frustrated all of us from the 'third world' used to feel, if we happened to leave home and went to the 'first world,' especially America.
My mind goes back to 1991. A group of us, diplomats, academics and journalists from around the world had been brought together to Washington on a sabbatical to learn about the American foreign policy process.
US foreign policy itself may sometimes seem simplistic with its clear categories of black and white, 'good guys' and 'rogue states', and the infamous 'our SOB and theirs' during the cold war years, but for all that the 'process' itself is complex, with the turf wars between the President and the Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon, the media and the think tanks, the lobbyists and the idealists and a number of other bit players trying to influence it. We were to understand this process rather than the policy.
Anyway, as it happened the first Gulf War, the one conducted by Bush (senior), started the day after we had landed on a cold snowy January night. All of us, from different corners of the world, were excited to follow this momentous story from the capital of the mighty state. We were glued to the television following not only the war, but the analysis by the pundits, the debates in the Congress and the commentaries by the talking heads. We were captivated.
But as days progressed, there was a slow feeling of bewilderment and increasing uneasiness in our group. All this coverage was very well, but what about the rest of the world, our world, we wondered. Janet from Zimbabwe was a cheerful and bouncy journalist, flush with the enthusiasm of the liberation of her country. She had been nominated by Robert Mugabe himself, a hero those days.
One day I recall her in an unusually solemn mood almost on the verge of tears. When we tried to quiz her about the source of her unhappiness, she just asked plaintively: 'Where has my country disappeared? Has something happened to it?' We could only nod in sympathy as many of us felt touched having experienced the same feeling.
Those days the average American's ignorance about the rest of the world was equally touching. Here we were -- a group of decidedly informed people about foreign policy -- and I recall one of our guides, a graduate student, asking us unabashedly when he took us to the Ford's theatre in Washington, the site of Lincoln's assassination: 'How many of you guys have heard about Abraham Lincoln?' We were too outraged to answer or raise our hands and this innocent soul seemed incredulous that there was no one who had even heard about Lincoln!
Yes, it is possible that some of these experiences have gone forever in the age of the internet. If you have the access to a laptop or a computer, you can log on to Rediff anywhere in the world today. Your country is always there on the web. Further for Indians, India is physically present in most parts of the world, in the 'Taj Mahals' or 'Delhi Durbars' around every corner with their stale smell of curries, 'Cash and Carry' groceries with stocks of Haldirams and MTRs, Balaji temples or gurudwaras, and a hundred other manifestations.
Living in America, much of Europe or the Gulf, India is not distant, let alone absent. Are we then, people of a certain class at least, wherever we are, consumers of the same diet: CNN, NDTV, burgers and Diet Cokes? I have often wondered.
But as I am discovering with some confusion but also pleasure, the world is still round rather than flat and can still be intensely 'local' and unfamiliar.
To pick up my personal narrative, leaving San Francisco after three years, I was at home for sometime, not just home as in 'India', but real 'home' as in my town in Karnataka. Of course, you can be in California one day, in Delhi [Images] the next, and continue the same conversation except for switching on the air-conditioner.
Intelligent and incessant talk of Obama vs McCain, Microsoft vs Google, Blackberry vs I-Phone, Uranium vs the indigenous Thorium route etc can engulf you, if you belong to a certain chattering set. Just as India is omnipresent in the Silicon Valley, a form of America is forever present in India, in a part of India, and for me this happens in Delhi before I head to an authentic home. Other noises and voices intrude, of course, but in South Block or in Khan Market your universe of discourse can remain the same.
But not at 'home.' Here in the eternal and immutable India the talk is different. Even at the risk of romanticising, the core concerns are not the same. Horoscopes -- now cast on the computer -- are being compared; suggestions that it may be useful to do a small japa to remedy the dosha are being made. The areca nut prices are down yet again; the coconut yields have improved and the prospects for our town looks bleak.
The perennial debate about the influence of the Lingayat lobby, now all powerful in the state with the BJP government compared to the fortunes of the Vokkaligas -- a debate that I have heard since my childhood -- rages unabated, muting the big fight on television about the NSG waiver. Crucial issues, but essentially local, giving me a sense of being an outsider. I spend a few months in nostalgia, at home and yet out of it.
My job and career have now positioned me in Brazil [Images], after a journey of two days, instead of one. I am in its capital, Brasilia, a city carved out of a savannah from scratch some 40 years ago. A capital in the middle of a huge country, the fifth largest in the world and difficult to believe, much larger than India. Its buildings like pieces in a museum of art, 'post-modern' with a vengeance. A place with exotic looking people, different from what I have seen all these years in different continents: some look European, others Japanese, and yet others African, but all speaking only in what for me is an alien tongue -- Portuguese.
I look for signs of India or Indians. And see none. Indian restaurants in Brasilia? You can try Japanese teriyaki. They are the closest, informs a helpful soul! Indian associations? There were a dozen Gujarati Sabhas and Kannada Kootas in my last locale, California. None here, as the handful of Indian academics in the University of Brasilia, miracle of miracles, have not formed an association, let alone split and formed two.
I am elated and depressed. In this day and age, to come and discover something vibrant but altogether unfamiliar is an opportunity. To encounter and to make friends with people who look different, talk an almost mysterious language and seem to dance to a different rhythm in life, is a challenge. At the same time, to live in this day and age without the daily diet of Bollywood masala on cable television, access to cricketing capers, and to fellow argumentative Indians seems strange.
I feel like a kid in a new school starting life all over again.
B S Prakash was till recently the Indian consul general in San Francisco. He is now India's ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
B S Prakash
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