Chicago Blues

This blog is an online repertoire of my columns that run in the Indian Express, North American edition. Here I rave and rant about life, mostly as seen from the large vistas of my little world.

Location: Chicago, United States

Monday, March 17, 2008

Signal-Dewan - The Resurgence of Simon Legree?

I was recently traveling back from India via the Middle East, and at an airport there, heaving sighs of discontent over delayed flights and lost baggages alongside other stranded passengers, I noticed a rather indiscernible passenger who had other reasons to feel discontent over. The slender, hungry-faced, hunch-backed woman was being tormented by a tinier person - a child, perceptibly not more than three years of age. He was spritzing out drool, yanking her hair, and generally being unruly in demeanor. I mean, I know some very boisterous three year olds, but this was totally off the wall. From what one could see, the woman was the little boy’s nanny, and the mother of the child, who was also present, was staring into oblivion for the most part, noticeably aloof and travel-weary (the nanny too had traveled across oceans and unending miles, but she had little choice but to put up a resilient front).

And then I return home to this big explosive news about battered guestworkers in Mississippi striking me hard, as a possible parallelism to what I’d witnessed. Well, it may be distending things a bit out of kilter with the point of reference at hand, but really, what is the threshold when it comes to mistreatment? Where are the so-called boundaries when it comes to racial and overall plebeian intolerance, and therein, does the human race really stand upright or feebly totter at the abyss?

In the words of Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) Immigrant Justice Project Director Mary Bauer, “Guestworkers are usually poor people who are lured here by the promise of decent jobs. But all too often, their dreams are based on lies, their hopes shattered by the reality of a system that treats them as commodities. They're the disposable workers of the global economy."

Possibly, “disposable” is what it all boils down to. Ever since the one hundred and odd Indian “disposables” with H2-B visas, employed at a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, staged a walkout earlier this month, not only have they attracted media attention, but also shaken the leaderships in India and the US off their inertia.

While the employer of these guestworkers, Signal, and the Mumbai-based recruiters, Dewan Consultants, who aided the shipping of these workers, face the music; US Congressman George Miller, in an endeavor to delve deeper into this deplorable scam, has helped throw light on some other dirty hands that may have been involved, including but not limited to big staffing agencies in India and the US.

One worker, initially promised a Green Card, was allegedly threatened of dire consequences, including having his passport confiscated if he refused to sign H2-B documents just before he boarded his flight at Bombay airport. He and several others have not been mere victims of abuse, but have possibly been rendered penniless and consequentially, shorn of morale, as they have had to sell homes and other assets in order to get these dreadful “jobs”. The point everyone seems to be missing in this struggle for a fair dealing is - even if the companies are indicted, and justice in monetary form meted out to these workers, would they ever be psychologically ready for another low-paying, low-level job?

While on the topic of slight jobs, my mind inevitably harks back to Girija, my mother’s housemaid, who not only cleaned the house, and helped manicure our little green patch, but babysat for me when called upon; and eventually became my little girl’s best friend in what was otherwise an unfamiliar environment to her for the entire span of our holiday. While she welcomed the help and compensation that she more than deserved when offered, she gleefully accompanied me on my shopping jaunts across my hometown, seated in a rickety Indi-cab, as my toddler got her beauty winks, stretching between our laps. We even spent warm, languid afternoon hours organizing closets, snapping sweet peas off their pods, and flipping rice crisps moist side up on the terrace, sharing with each other our life’s ups and downs. Although I did take pity on her for the things she’s had to endure in her personal life, I’m relieved, in retrospect that I didn’t let her know, or let her down. I’m thankful, among other little things, for being blessed with the wonderful, affirmative upbringing I’ve had, which has given me the gift of good insight and civility so I know to regard every human as one. Girija may be the “housemaid,” and I her “akka,” but she works hard for a living, like we all do, and at the end of that line, for all the hard-working, resolute, indispensable “guestworkers” in the world, there ought not to be place for anything but respect and acquiescence.

If nothing else, our children, be it boisterous three-year-olds or docile pre-teens (or boisterous-again teens), shouldn’t have to be all clued-up when it comes to Simon Legree.

The Learning Deficit in Desi-ism

Ever since Thomas Macaulay, the initiator of the English learning culture in India, referred to us as a sect that is “Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, opinions, words and intellect,” the scope for learning and education for all desis - homebound or outside - has been rather marginalized. For years, what we learn about our own civilization as well as that of the Western world has been more or less defined by those precincts he set in the 1800s. Which is why, perhaps, one doesn’t often happen upon “erudite” desis taking genuine pride in our heritage. There is always a hankering for an “East-West” flavor, for that mysterious medley of mores; as if dressing up like new-world androids to a desi do in the US makes up for the lack of knowledge on our heritage; and as if listening to the Beatles alone opens up vistas to Indian classical music. Even with all the manner of progression and advancement India has seen in the recent past, it appears as if it is merely the influx of wealth and resources from “outside” that has fueled this new-fangled power status of India on the global map. Our B-schools are still rarely spoken of in the same breath as those here or anywhere else across the world, and parents will go to any length to ensure their children get admission into these schools, whether or not the children are inclined to, to begin with.

A growing trend that has emerged lately is the highlight on the conduit of sports that leads straight to the Ivy League. Desi parents are scrambling to get their children in by way of athletic recruitment; and according to reports by the NYT, many squash players from India have made it to the great American Ivy League solely on the basis of their clout over the sport.

In the lower school levels, desi children are being pulled out and treated, to use a politically correct term, “differently.” A Sikh teen was singled out in his New York city high school and his hair forcibly chopped, in an incident last year. Some claimed that the incident was purely an offshoot of a xenophobic mindset, while some others averred that it was simply an average high school bullying case. And then in a more recent case, parents of a Brooklyn girl who was denied admission in a top-notch public school is taking legal action to ensure the incident doesn’t recur. The school has apparently stuck to strict standards on its recruitment tests in order to sustain a 6:4 “white” to “minority” ratio in compliance with a federal court order from the 70s, according to reports. Eleven year old Nikita Rau scored a “meager” 79 on a music admission test at the school in question, against the 84.4 limit set for minority groups; whereas the limit for “white” students remains strong at a much lower level of 77. This has given enough reason for her parents to sue the school for the enforcement of preposterous racial double standards. Another point that has been given emphasis by her dad is that the school’s discriminatory action could further ruin her chances of making it at “Harvard, Yale or Princeton.”

There are, however, rare cases that exemplify a reverse trend. For instance, several students from top of the cream schools across the US work with Indicorps every year in an effort to understand the import of their roots, and to give to India. Occasionally, some techies and other high-flying professionals take a kink out of their routine work lives to join hands with similar not-for-profit outfits and partake in India’s progress. But what can possibly be called the best instance in such a tenor is the cropping up of a new breed of hi-tech public schools in India. These are exclusive learning centers that train students for a British secondary school examination or the International Baccalaureate for admittance into universities across the world. While there has been a steady influx of NRIs sending their school-going children to India, to sophisticated boarding schools that cater to the whole new-world, “alternate” education whim, but this particular class of “public schools” has everything that one would generally associate with IT parks and Silicon Valleys: massive, well-stocked libraries; state-of-the-art IT systems; superior counseling services; cafeterias that serve global cuisine platters; 24-hour medical service…to list a few. And yes, many of these schools have been conceptualized and established by NRIs.

While there is no one way to glean complete knowledge about our rich heritage, emerge out of our cocoons, and take pride in the foundation our schools and elders have laid for us, learning to tell the difference between a mélange of bits of anachronism and authentic Indianness could definitely be a good way to start. To quote Tagore, “school forcibly snatches away children from a world full of the mystery of God's own handiwork,” and we as Indians should feel blessed for the finesse of that handiwork bestowed upon us. The best way to deal with the strain of bi-culturalism and inculcate in our children the greatness of our ethos is simply to not thrust the burdens of new-age technophilia-driven standards on them. Perhaps like Vijay Prashad says in his book, “The Karma of Brown Folk,” it is not enough to receive accolades for being gifted in the technical arts, or being able to live up to the levels expected of our genes, and children should never have to endure disapproval on those accounts.