American Sahib

American Sahib by Eddie James Girdner (2016) 416 pp.

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This novel is largely autobiographical but contains a good deal of fiction. It is mostly about life in a Punjabi village in the late 1960s.

I wrote this book in 2015 and then put it aside for several years after publishing it. It was based upon my two years in Punjab, India (1968-1970).

I had forgotten somewhat how the narrative unfolds. So I read it again this summer to see what I would think of it.

If someone is looking for a patriotic book that only praises America, the Peace Corps, the US Government, then this is not the book. It pokes a lot of fun and criticism at the USA. And it does not spare India either. So one should read it with an open mind. If one does not have something to say, then why bother to write the book?

The book has not been sanitized by a corporatist publishing company to make it safe for a neoliberal global agenda.

The book has some love affairs. Not unusual. This often happens in life itself, so it should not be surprising to discover it between the pages of a novel. One might be surprised at how many people object to such things. So many Americans seem to have a puritanical bent of mind. Often hypocritically, however. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Reading the book after three years, I was rather surprised. I hoped that I could look at it somewhat more objectively. Quite frankly, I was surprised at how good it was. I just don’t know of very many books that describe life in Punjab as well as this one does. Prakash Tandon, of course, Punjabi Century and Beyond Punjab are great books. But a somewhat different genre.

I found the book to be such a revealing description of life in a remote village in Punjab and in the towns in those days. Now that was fifty years ago. Half a century of water under the bridge. The book is quite funny in many places. The book is not only literature, but a political and economic analysis of a developing country without all the academic jargon. British colonialism, Indian politics, and the USA in the global system. America as an imperialist hegemon. A good deal of political economy spills out of the pages. And what the locals think of America and Indian politics might be interesting.

The love scenes spice up the book somewhat, breaking the monotony of village life. The dichotomy between the city and the countryside is stark. Escape is necessary to keep one’s relative sanity.

The perspective of the left in India, the relevant communist analysis of society emerges. Comrades are in the street, some actual members of the Communist Party of India. The author finds their analysis honest and convincing. They are often hauled off to jail. Actually, I think the members of the US State Department could benefit by reading this book. They could certainly learn something. This would surely be their ruination, as a part of that outfit. Unfortunately.

The author cannot resist mentioning the stupid things one hears on VOA, the Voice of America. Actually, the voice of Dick Nixon in the late 1960s. One picked it up on shortwave radio, the twenty-five meter band in India. Dick, the US President, hates the Peace Corps and sets out to kill it. Or as much of it as he can. He almost did. The US Presidick, for the author.

It always amused me how US congressmen in Washington were afraid to send young Americans abroad, especially to developing countries. What were they so afraid of? Why, simply that they might learn something and bring their ideas back to America. The old mushroom syndrome once again. Keep the people in the dark and pile horse shit on them. That’s the way one grows mushrooms. Americans are mushrooms. No shit. But why insult mushrooms? They are useful.

I will not even mention Tiny Hands Trump. Things can always get worse.

There is a good deal of satire in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again.

It came to my mind that it would be incredibly instructive for students in a South Asian studies program in an American university to read. It is very informative in a simply way. But I don’t think that most American professors would have the courage to use it in their classes. The book steps on too many toes and is too unorthodox. Political correctness has ruined so much freedom in academia, it seems. The very place that it should not be ruined.

I am not saying that this is a great novel, as a novel. I do not claim to have any expertise to evaluate the book as a novel. But it is an interesting story. I think that it is a fun book. It is full of ideas. I just had some things that I wanted to say, and so I said them in the form of a novel. I would like to think that I have learned something living outside the USA for a third of a century. And all in so-called developing countries.

I guess that young Indians, especially Punjabis, might enjoy reading it. That is, if they knew about it. So many know English. The book is written in very simple language. It is also good just for entertainment. That is, if one has a critical and intellectual bent of mind.

It is not a bad book to have on one’s book shelf.

July 21, 2019. Akarca, Seferihisar, Turkey

Images of Punjab in the 1960s

Zarang Restaurant Kolkata (India Blog 11)


Zarang Restaurant in Kolkata (India Blog 11)

The restaurant where I went to yesterday is in Lonely Planet (Zarang Restaurant). I had a conversation with a guy there. I don’t know if he is the owner or just the manager. I hope that I did not piss him off too much with my comments about Trump, and then some critical comments about Modi.

I hear the morning Izzan (call to prayer) starting from a nearby mosque. The time is 5:54 AM.

The guy thought that I might be supporting Trump. I told him that Trump is doing great damage to the United States. I said that it was a horrible development. He seemed to be astonished. He said: “Oh, but you are an American. Why would you say that?”

I said, “Well, in order to tell the truth.”

Actually, I mentioned quite a few things about the government. I told him that the US is not a democratic country but an oligarchy. It is ruled by the rich corporations. I told him that if you want to be a representative or a senator in Congress, you have to take millions of dollars from corporations to get elected.

I didn’t mention to this guy that I lived in Turkey. I have told some people, but sometimes I do not. When I tell them this, they are always surprised.

When the guy got around to asking me about Narendra Modi, I had criticized Modi for being a Hindu nationalist and communalist. Actually, I suspected that he might have the same sentiments. He said something about religion.

I didn’t want to start getting into talking about the caste system. So I just said, “Well, I agree with the analysis of B.R. Ambedkar. I think that he was right.”

I think that at that point, the guy sort of ended the conversation. He may be an Arun Shourie type guy who trashes B. R. Ambedkar. But I didn’t know.

For Ambedkar, Hinduism was the root of the problem of the caste system. To solve the problem of caste, one had to abolish Hinduism. Of course, that would be impossible in India. Tantamount to abolishing Indian society itself.

People really do seem to be quite naive.

He asked me if I thought the US would keep troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq. I said: “Sure, they will. One should understand that the US is a global empire. Countries have to take orders from the USA. Either that or get bombed.”

Then he asked me if Obama was better than Trump. I said that he is a nice guy, but he was lazy. He didn’t really do much while in office. I could have been more critical, but I left it at that.

The guy said: “Oh, but he got Osama bin Laden.” I said: “That was nonsense. Bin Laden was living in Abbatobad in Pakistan next to a Pakistan Army base. The Pakistan military was protecting him.

He knew that it was true, that the US created bin Laden. Earlier, bin Laden was working for the Americans. I said: “Sure. And they created Saddam Hussein too. The US supports these guys as long as they take orders from the USA. Then the US goes after them if they do not.”

Then I gave the example of Turkey: Tayyip Erdogan. I said: “The US was fine with him for some years after he became Prime Minister. But then, the US launched a coup against him in July 2016 and tried to kill him. It was a CIA operation, carried out with the Fethullah Gulen organization. But they failed. God saved him!” I added the last, being cynical. I also told him that I have written and published a book on the Iraq war.

USA and the New Middle East,” published in Delhi by Gyan Publishers in 2008. It found its way into many libraries across the Middle East, and also in several in the USA.

Wow! Sometimes the people that you talk to seem to be very naive. He asked me why the US would stay in Afghanistan. Good question. But the US is a global empire and being so, generates big profits for US capitalists. Afghanistan is rich with vast minerals. And then, there are the plans for pipelines for gas to South Asia.

The conversation got around to Kashoggi. I said: “Look, the Saudis murdering him was alright with Trump. It is all about money. If he invests in the USA, and buys weapons, Mohammed bin Salmon is great for Trump. It doesn’t matter if he murders a journalist from the USA.

I said that Trump only cares about money. He is just enriching the big corporations in the US. The US working class has been losing since the 1970s.

I said: “Why should I trust Donald Trump? He got his money from his father who was a big slumlord in New York City. He cheated the poor, the tenants and cheated the government out of taxes. That is all on record, of course. Donnie boy is the same.”

Well, there are some Americans who are so stupid as to say: “Oh, you shouldn’t criticize your own country while you are abroad.” Well, I can hardly think of anything more stupid than saying that!

When I criticized Modi for being a Hindu nationalist and communalist, he pointed to the young waiter there and said: “Well, look. He is a Moslem and he doesn’t have any problem.”

I said: “Sure, many Moslems would support him because they both have religious issues.” I didn’t want to talk about communalism.

Modi can use their votes, but they may not realize the thrust of his communalist Hindu ideology.

I do not know if he knew what I know about the history of Hindu fascism in India. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh) and so on. I couldn’t get into all of that.

When I start to talk to a person like that, I start to think that I really know too much, far more than is good for me. The guy probably regretted that he asked if he could talk to me. He didn’t expect to hear what he heard.

I later told him that we shouldn’t discuss politics. Maybe sports is better. But then, I didn’t know anything about Indian sports.

He agreed. Sports is a better topic.

I got the idea that criticizing US imperialism is fine for him. He also does not like what the US does. But he does not like criticism of Modi. Wow! This country, like Iran, is full of petty bourgeois shop keepers who are socially, politically, and religiously backward. That was my reflection.

The failure of Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, the socio-political construct. It generated a lot of hot air over the years, but never delivered for the masses. It has led to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Just like the liberal Obama failure led to Trump in the USA. Hasn’t it happened around the world? Brexit in England. The working class gave Brussels the finger. Up yours! That was the message. Now the ruling class in Britain cannot digest it. They are looking for another way to weasel out with another referendum or pro-European deal in the United Kingdom. Becoming a rat-fink as the Europeans did in the referendum in France, where they had a second vote. So much for British democracy. They just cannot stomach their defeat.

But now most of the Europeans are fed up with dealing with the British.

In late March, the remainers have yet to give up screwing over the people who voted to leave.

Well, this trip is more interesting to me when I can have some stimulating conversations like that. But I didn’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings. He was a nice person.

I am sure that there are many intellectuals at the university here. It is not so far from here. That’s the story this morning.

6:00 Morning. I have been hearing the sweepers doing the streets for some time. The army of bhangis. Slaves, essentially. Indentured labour, for sure.

After breakfast I am off for the long walk to the Howrah Bridge.

Paharganj (Delhi Blog 4)

Paharganj (India Blog 4)

7:45 Evening: (5 December 2019) I spent the whole day in Pahargunj. Went to Leo’s Bar and Restaurant. Had two big Kingfisher beers, 650 ml each.

I was pretty comfortable there. In other words, I was not feeling any pain.

Just talked to Selma.

I just came back from Paharganj. The rickshaw guy told me fifty rupees. I did not have change, so I gave him one-hundred. He was happy. It was only a dollar and a half, anyway. It really does not take much to make them happy.

I took both of my cameras and two lenses for the Minolta. I realized that the fifty-five mm lens on the Minolta was not wide enough. So I was glad that I brought the old 28 mm Vivitar lens for the Minolta. Even though, it is not a sharp lens, it is OK for this purpose.

I shot the first roll with the Minolta. I thought that it was color film, but later discovered that it was Kodak Tri-X. Maybe that was better. I continued with color film (Kodak Colorplus), then switched to the Leica M6. I finished another two rolls of black and white.

Well, I used to think, I used to deceive myself that I was a part of this Indian colossal. Somehow, I felt that I was part of it. Now. I no longer deceive myself that way. In fact, I see the whole thing as quite alien and feel that I could never really be a real part of it. It is a culture that still boggles my mind, even after fifty years.

Why the fuck? Why the fuck, so much degradation? One wonders what the limits of human toleration really are. The thing is, today I actually felt quite safe in all that confusion. Actually, most people do not pay much attention to one. They are used to foreigners in Paharganj, anyway. We are gora.

I met a German girl taking pictures on the main street in the bazaar with an old film camera. Using color film. I thought she was probably American at first. It was nice to see someone shooting with film. There was mass confusion everywhere. I asked her if she was finding anything to photograph. Cynically, of course.

OK, I will tell the story, as I remember it. After breakfast, I headed out. Down at the desk, I asked about the auto-rickshaw to Paharganj. The clerk said that it would be about fifty rupees.

Then the hotel bearer hailed a rickshaw for me on the street. The first one refused for fifty rupees. Then another one came, and he said OK. The road to Pahar ganj seems to have been cleaned up somewhat. I did not notice all that urine smell and parked pedal rickshaws that I saw ten years ago.

In a little bit, we came right in front of the New Delhi Railway Station, after getting stuck in quite heavy traffic.

I got down and made a few pictures around there. One guy selling food invited me to take his picture and gave me a small cup of Indian cha. I want say chai, as is said in Turkey, but it is chaa in India. Sweet, with milk and sugar. I can drink it that way, but it is not my favorite. I love the black Turkish tea much better. I talked to a guy while I was drinking it, but just then, sombody walked past and bumped my arm, spilling part of it. That got my hands rather sticky.

After a bit, I asked where the main road was inside the bazaar. I walked toward it, but actually entered in the wrong place. Anyway, those small lanes were more interesting for pictures. I shot some pictures in black and white using Kodak Tri-X film. There were many shops inside those small lanes. Some places had fried up fish. I thought that it should be fried up at the same time one eats it. So it did not look very appetizing to me. I would not have gone for it. The small places were excessively grimy. Great for pictures.

Besides the dark narrow lanes, the tangle of electrical wires was hard to imagine. I can’t imagine how it functions. Or does not start a fire. There was such a mass of cables bound together and not very high off the lane. I am not sure if the hotels above that mass of electrical wires are very inviting. One would think there was a fire danger.

I finished the black and white and put a roll of kodak Colorplus in the camera. I talked to some guys along the street. Many of them are doing tours of Delhi and other places. I walked on down through the bazaar.

I took black and white shots with the Leica M6. I saw a cafe that said: “Leo’s Bar and Restaurant.” I decided to go in and take a rest. It was now after two and I figured that I could use a beer after all that photography. Again, there was a doorman to seat one.

It was a very Indian setup. Not surprisingly. There were only two customers at the time, but others drifted in later. A young girl was there and a guy. They looked like they were from somewhere in East Asia. I was thinking to just have a beer, but then decided to eat something.

There were several chicken dishes, like chicken Tandori. I decided to have that and Kingfisher beer in those big 650 ml bottles.

The food was about half price compared to what it was in Kwality Restaurant. Like 270 rupees for the chicken. The beer was cold and delicious. By that time, my feet were getting sore from all the walking, so I needed a rest. It felt very good.

I slowly finished the beer and chicken. I decided that it would be good to just rest there and have another of those big beers. Let my eyes melt down. I might take better pictures. So I asked for another one. It was 189 rupees for a big one. About three dollars. So quite cheap. I saw that this beer was made in Haryana State. They must still have a factory in Ludhiana up in Punjab.

I noticed that the label on the bottle would peel off quite easily. A very nice red label in the shape of an oval with a Kingfisher bird on it. I saw that it would fit nicely on my cap, right in front, where the “Chicago Bulls” logo is. I asked one of the waiters for some tape.

He brought the tape and I stuck it on. I feel a little silly about that, but it was fun. It actually looked like it was just right for the cap. And I wore it out of the restaurant.

The bill came to something over 700 rupees. I tipped the waiter 100 rupees. I have not been spending a lot of money so far. I will buy gifts for Selma in Kolkata.

When I came out of the restaurant, I took more pictures. I guess that I was having fun with these guys on the street. They couldn’t pull me into buying anything. And I largely avoided the beggars by just ignoring them. It is easier after two beers (of that size). I acted like I was deaf and dumb. Maybe I am dumb, but not deaf. When people call to me, I pretend not to hear.

There are so many people running tours in Paharganj. And there are no places that I want to go by tour. I actually prefer to make the arrangements myself and be free. I mean that I am free to spend as much time at any place as I want. I do not need to be led around by the nose to places that I do not care to go to. Especially to their sponsored shops.

Sometimes people try to sell one useless things on the street. I just say to them: “What the hell am I going to do with that?” I understand that they want or need to sell something, but it is not my job to buy it, when I don’t want it and cannot use it.

Two guys were selling small drums. They make quite a lot of noise when tapped. He told me that I could give it to my kids. They say: “I haven’t sold anything all day. Maybe or maybe not true, but am I supposed to buy it because of that? I told him that the kids would drive one crazy with that. “Pagal Hogay.”

I would go crazy with it.

He found that I knew some words of Hindi. Someone asked “who taught you?” I said: “Allah.” I was having some fun with them and actually enjoyed it. I guess they did too.

If these guys are thirty years old, then I was in India twenty years before they were born.

By that time, the evening lights were starting to come on. I made some shots with the Minolta with color film. There was a rush of traffic and then the streets sort of cleared up. I had a hell of a good time and enjoyed it. I didn’t eat anything on the street. That is a good rule for travel in India if one is there for a short time. I have not eaten fresh fruit and vegetables, except for bananas in the morning. Street food is more likely to give one the Delhi belly.

The breakfast in the hotel is mostly South Indian dishes. It is alright up to a point. I eat it lightly. No eggs, but there is toast and jam. One can make tea with tea bags.

That’s the story up to today. I want to go to old Delhi tomorrow, Chandni Chowk. See what I can do around there. Part of Paharganj is like Old Delhi, for sure.