A Passage to America

How May I Help You?
Deepak Singh (DS) is a writer, radio producer, and journalist. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s The World and has written for The New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe and The Atlantic. His new book, How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage by UCPress in Feb 2017. We are happy to carry a conversation between Singh and long-time CM friend Aftab Ahmad. Aftab Ahmad (AA) earned his PhD in Urdu literature from Jawahar Lal Nehru University, specializing in Urdu humor and satire. He was the director of AIIS, Urdu Language Program at Lucknow, for four years. He published Bombay Stories (Random House India, 2012, and Vintage International, 2014) and Mirages of The Mind (Random House India, 2014, and A New Directions Book, 2015) with co-translator Matt Reeck. Recipient of PEN Translation Grant, he has taught at UC-Berkeley. He now teaches Urdu language and literature at Columbia University.

AA: For the benefit of those who have not read the book yet could you say briefly what is this book about and what in your own opinion have you achieved and accomplished through this book?

DS: This book is about my experiences as a ‘fresh off the plane’ immigrant in the United States of America, selling electronics in a retail store in a small town Virginia, where I learned about the struggles of my colleagues and I adapted to my job and my new life. There are a lot of qualified, educated Indians and immigrants in general, staffing the many motels, grocery stores, super markets in the United States. They came to the U.S. looking for a better life, but we often take for granted what they had to give up to be here, the sacrifices they made. We can’t paint all immigrants by a single brush. By telling stories of low-wage employees, I have attempted to bring openness and humanity to debates about work, race, ethnicity and immigration in the United States.

AA: This goes back and forth about your experiences in the USA and India. Each compelling experience in USA brings some memories back to your mind from your life in India. While writing the book did you have to suppress certain experiences that you thought wouldn’t go well with Indians – that would have brought a negative image of India? Did you feel the burden of not saying anything about India that could throw a negative light on it?

DS: Throughout the writing process I constantly asked myself if I was being true to myself in expressing my experiences and my feelings. Most days, I sat and cried at my desk before I typed the first word. I have tried my best to bare my heart in this book and I tried to live by the famous Robert Frost quote: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I do hope that my honesty comes through for my reader.

AA: In India we only hear about Pakistan and people over there. We get immediately riled up just by the mention of Pakistan. Our patriotism is aroused.  We just live with a certain image of Pakistan without any real experiences with people. Most people in India die even without ever seeing a Pakistani man or woman. In the USA, we get the opportunity to meet people from all parts of the world.  Would you like to say something about your experiences with Pakistani people in the USA?

DS: This book has taken place almost entirely on the sales floor, where I did meet a few Pakistanis, but wasn’t able to engage in a meaningful conversation. To answer your question, I’d say yes, I would’ve never met a person from Pakistan if I hadn’t left India. I had a certain perception about Pakistanis before I arrived in the U.S. Laughing and joking with folks from Pakistan in the U.S., I’d often forget they were not from India. And, I’d often think, “They aren’t all that different from me, are they?”


AA: Would you like to say something to your readers that you would have said if you wrote the book today, in the light of recent political developments in both India (including the new CM in UP and the rise in Hindu nationalism) and America? 

DS: Growing up a high caste Hindu in Lucknow, India, I wasn’t aware of the privilege it afforded me. Although, most of my friends were Muslims, I didn’t know what it was like to be a minority, or to not be a Hindu in a Hindu majority nation. No one questioned my patriotism for India, or treated me as if I didn’t belong to the country, or asked me to leave India if I didn’t like it. I joked and criticized its government without worrying that someone might think of me as an antinationalist. Coming to the United States, I became a part of the minority. It took me a while, but I learned what it feels like to belong to the lower strata of the society—a society that is underprivileged, disadvantaged. The book took 6 years to write. I wasn’t writing every single day of the last six years and the most of the revision happened in the last year. I don’t know what I would say if I was writing the book today, but I do want to say that my heart grieves to know what’s going on with minorities—be it India, Pakistan, or the United States.


AA: What fundamental differences do you see in the thinking and attitudes of people in India and the United States in general?  I’m thinking about differences that reflect deeper cultural orientations to the world. Your analogy of Black Friday and Kumbh Fair in India brings this question to mind. A vast majority of people in India live on pathetic wages. They seem to be barely scraping by and many times living by gathering debt. Yet they appear to be happy. Are they really happy?

DS: I left India about 13 years ago and since then the country has changed drastically. Smart phones and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram didn’t exist then. Home phones were a luxury and cellphones had just been introduced in early 2000s. No one knew the word ‘selfie. Working in retail in America, I noticed that Americans didn’t hesitate to buy something on credit. They actually seemed thrilled if they were able to purchase something on credit and often times people planned to spend their paycheck that they were expecting in two weeks’ time. I noticed they indulged in shopping to forget about their sadness, depression. I think it is hard to be poor in a rich country. There’s a stigma attached to being poor in America. You’re considered to be a slacker, someone who is lazy. Where as in India, poverty is everywhere. You can’t spend a single day without witnessing a hungry child on a street. I don’t know what I am trying to say here, but the point is that people in India seem to have other things—their family—to hold on to when they are down and out, where as in the U.S. you’re on your own after a certain age.

CM Exclusive: Prologue to the Chinese Language Edition of The Darjeeling Distinction

 

By Sarah Besky

Sarah Besky received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014). Her current research works across ethnographic and archival evidence as well as rural tea plantations and urban auction houses and blending factories to explore “cheapness” as a social and economic value. A second book based on this research is tentatively titled The Cost of Cheap Tea: An Ethnography of Value in India.

[Previously by Sarah Besky: Surkh Salam, XQs]

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Prologue to the Chinese Language Edition of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India

Forthcoming from Tsinghua Press

When I sat down to write this Prologue to this new Chinese-language edition of The Darjeeling Distinction, I had just returned from a six-week research trip to London, where I steeped myself in the archives of the British Indian tea industry, mostly housed at the British Library.  As I pored through old correspondences between planters in the hills of Assam, Darjeeling, Kerala, and Kangra and brokers and buyers in London, comparisons between the teas of China and India abounded.  Even if the idea of writing a Prologue for a Chinese edition of my book had not been at the back of my mind during those months surrounded by musty letters, notes, and scientific documents about everything from chemical contents to proper modes of storage and shipping, these comparisons would have been impossible to miss.

Anxiety on the part of European tea planters in India about how the quality of Indian tea measured up to that of Chinese tea are emblematic of a longer economic and geopolitical entanglement between Britain, India, and China that spans continents and centuries, and links commodities including tea, opium, and silver.  Readers of The Darjeeling Distinction can find some of the history of this struggle recounted in the book’s early chapters.  Continue reading “CM Exclusive: Prologue to the Chinese Language Edition of The Darjeeling Distinction”

On two modes of witnessing: Azadeh Akhlaghi and Gauri Gill

By Sarover Zaidi

[Sarover Zaidi is an anthropologist, obsessing on architecture, art and other modes of being. Besides she runs ‘Elementary forms and the city’ and an itinerant future Guild for those who stand between the academy and the street. She has previously studied philosophy, worked in rural public health, loved and left Berlin, and worked in a bank.

The author would like to thank Samprati Pani for editorial and other lifeline inputs.

A version of this article first appeared in the Critical Collective http://www.criticalcollective.in – an online art and art history magazine from India.]

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Dedicated to the memory of my father, who died February 2017, my eternal witness.

Image credit: Art Heritage gallery

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means—

Listen: It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “Witness” in Arabic

—Agha Shahid Ali, In Arabic, 2003

Ali Shariati, the Iranian revolutionary and socialist, died mysteriously in 1977.  Shariati, also a sociologist, wrote Jihad and Shahadat, a rendering of the historico-mythical battle of Karbala, retelling it as the first red revolution. Composed as a testimonial to the dead, Shariati portrayed the female protagonist Zainab as the last witness to this bloody battle of loss, death and mourning. Unfortunately, at the peak of Cold War politics, prior to Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran (1979), Shariati had been found dead under mysterious circumstances (1977). Shariati’s own death went without witnesses or testimonials, or the image and space of mourning it demanded. Forty years later, Azadeh Akhlaghi, a photographer, provides a testimonial to Shariati’s death, in her experimental series ‘By an Eyewitness’. Continue reading “On two modes of witnessing: Azadeh Akhlaghi and Gauri Gill”

The Idea of Resistance

By Francesca Recchia

 50 years ago, Gillo Pontecorvo won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with his revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers. CG Entertainment, an Italian start-up, organised a crowdfunding campaign to publish the restored edition of the film. To support the initiative, they asked me to gather some thoughts in response to the work.  The initial English version of the text, To Resist is to Exist was published by With Kashmir. What follows is an expanded version of that article with a further reflection on the idea of resistance.

Fifty-two years ago Gillo Pontecorvo shot The Battle of Algiers, a revolutionary film that tells the story of the Algerian resistance. The film is a three-year-long flashback reconstructing the initial steps of the liberation movement: from 1957 all the way back to November 1954 when the leaders of the National Liberation Front started gathering people and consensus. The story is narrated from the militants’ point of view and gives a very humane insight into the choices that paved the way to the dramatic, but necessary process of decolonisation.

Five decades later, the film still speaks to the present with immense relevance. The historical terms may have changed, but the substance remains the same. Oppressors, fascisms, colonialisms both past and present reiterate trite arguments to perpetuate their own existence and assert an idea of an immutable past to legitimise their privileges. The benevolent paternalism of power, the infantilisation of the Other, the discrimination on the ground of religion and skin colour survive their own stupidity. Continue reading “The Idea of Resistance”