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Thinking about America October 19, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, life.

I came across Granta – this amazing journal/magazine recently. The special issue was about – “What we think of America”.

Having lived here for 2 years now, next to my home country, this is the country I know the most about ( even though I know rather little ) – in any conceivable sense – history, personalities, geogpraphy, people, weather, education etc. So the issue caught my attention. Turns out, its been written by some eminent scholars and they have a very different things to say. I am linking a few samples herein.

A German who was ‘liberated’ by the ‘visiting’ American Army in 1945

Gradually it dawned on me that the better I knew the place, the less familiar it looked. Just because they speak a language rather similar to the one we had listened to during the war, thanks to the BBC, and consume much of the same stuff from the same kind of department stores, it does not follow that we think and feel alike. And I find the strangeness of America a relief, if not a blessing. Different rules and habits, different cities, different beliefs and obsessions. Think of a place where cigarettes are perceived as more of a threat to human health than machine guns, where a casual acquaintance will offer you the use of their apartment with all their belongings included, where almost everyone believes in some god or other and where the outside world, unless it intrudes with bombs, is largely ignored! Surely we cannot pretend to understand such a society entirely. It will always be something else, a world unto itself, a Western Heavenly Empire, a China of our imagination, a place to admire, to be grateful to, and to be baffled by forever.

Our own Ramachandra Guha

My wife got a scholarship to Yale, and I reluctantly followed. I reached New Haven on a Friday, and was introduced to the Dean of the School where I was to teach. On Sunday I was taking a walk through the campus when I saw the Dean park his car, take a large carton out of the boot, and carry it across the road to the School and up three flights to his office. That sight of the boss as his own coolie was a body blow to my anti-Americanism. My father and grandfather had both been heads of Indian research laboratories; any material they took to work or back—even a slim file with a single piece of paper in it—would be placed in the car by one flunkey and carried inside by another. (Doubtless the Warden of an Oxford College can likewise call upon a willing porter.) Over the years, I have often been struck by the dignity of labour in America, by the ease with which high-ranking Americans carry their own loads, fix their own fences, and mow their own lawns. This, it seems to me, is part of a wider absence of caste or class distinctions. Indian intellectuals have tended to downplay these American achievements: the respect for the individual, the remarkable social mobility, the searching scrutiny to which public officials and state agencies are subjected.

A British man who just cant take it anymore :

Still, the fatal flaw of arrogance need not be dignified by references to Greek tragedy. It is enough to remember that Twain’s trip to Europe was dominated by ruins. America, too, will not last in its present form. In due course, and by means as yet unknown, the United States’s global hegemony will go the way of the British, Spanish, Roman and all other empires. Byzantium? Babylon? The one is suing to join the EU, the other is in the grip of Saddam Hussein. Forget the ethical hand-wringing. It’s about power, stupid; and power eventually sifts through a nation’s grasp like sand.

A Czech woman – a balanced view

For more than a century now there has existed a sort of American dream. For some it means boundless affluence, for others freedom. I am not a devotee of hypermarkets or of grandiose mansions containing dozens of rooms for just two or three people and a few pedigree dogs and cats. I’ve never yearned for more than one car or a private plane, jet-engined or otherwise. I have an aversion to profligacy, but I don’t share the view that there is an indirect relationship between America’s affluence and Third World poverty. Without idealizing the policies of the big monopolies (either American or European), I am convinced that America’s wealth, which derives from the work of many generations, is chiefly the result of the creative activity of free citizens. The Americans are not to blame for Third World poverty, which is mostly due to the circumstances in the Third World and the demoralizing lack of freedom that most of the people there endure.

As for me, though I have not written an essay about it, for now I will just say I think when I return to India, there will be a whole lot of things about this place I will miss. No, not the cars or roads or the clean air – these are necessities – their absence hurts doesnt mean their presence is the stuff memories are made of ! I think its more to do with me, my times, my struggles and the fact that it forms the context for an important period in my life and the contributions this context has made to my growth.

8 PM and after less than 8 hours sleep in the past 48 hours, a bad exam later, I must go home.

P. S: And well, fair enough, then there are a whole lot of essays on how America sees the world. I havent read any yet.



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