The Endless Surprises Of Memory

Memory is a truly wondrous thing. A couple of weeks ago, I met an old friend’s younger brother for lunch in midtown Manhattan; we were meeting after over thirty years. We ordered food, grabbed our trays, and headed to a table, our conversation already picking up pace as we did so. We talked about our high school days (his brother and I had been in the same class; the ‘kid’ had been a year junior); I asked about his sister, whose home in Delaware I had visited a few times during my first years in the United States; we laughed uproariously, as all those who reunite seem to do, when recounting tales of days gone by, which now suddenly seem more peculiar, more distinctive, with their ever-increasing vintage; and of course, we talked about my friend, now physically absent, but who loomed larger than life as the reason which had brought our two lives together. In the course of our conversation, I made note of how I  used to walk over to my friends’ home in New Delhi; the section of town I lived in was about a mile or so away, and walking and biking roads offered an easy connection. As I offered up this little recollection, a thought went through my mind; my friend’s house, like all those in planned ‘residential colonies’ in New Delhi, had an alphanumeric address consisting of a ‘block’ letter and a number; it seemed to me I could remember it. (Mine was S-333; the three hundred and thirty-third residential ‘plot’ in ‘S’ Block. Quite obviously, I remembered this address; only a nihilist cannot remember his childhood home’s location.)

This fact, of my being able to remember my friend’s old address, caused me some astonishment; I sought confirmation of this remarkable feat. I asked my friend for some; he supplied it. I had remembered his childhood home’s address–I-1805–clearly and distinctly. I had not thought about this alphanumeric combination for over thirty years now; and yet, somehow, by dint of being placed into a context in which it was relevant, I had been able to summon up its details with little difficulty. Other details came flooding back too, unprompted and unbidden. I felt an older self within me stir; amnesia fell away.

I will freely admit–as an immigrant who lost his parents a very long time ago–to being obsessed with memory and nostalgia and recollection. (I am surprised that I did not do more academic work on memory, given my interests in the philosophy of mind and the conceptual foundations of artificial intelligence; I am unsurprised that I was deeply fascinated by the work my friend John Sutton did in the same field.)  Here again, was another instance of why this particular human capacity captivated me endlessly. And I could not but wonder yet again about the nature of my self, and of the interactions of memory with it: how much remained, ‘locked away,’ in the recesses of my cranial stories, merely awaiting for the right contextual cue to be reinvigorated; are there other discoveries and understandings of myself possible as a result?

On Surviving A Police Stop (Unlike Terence Crutcher)

One morning in the winter of 1989, after finishing up a short trip to Binghamton, NY with a pair of friends, I was driving back to my home in New Jersey. Rather, I was dozing in the front passenger seat after having performed my share of driving duties. I was jolted out of my slumbers by the awareness that we had come to an abrupt halt; some excitement seemed afoot. On groggily inquiring into the reasons for our stopping, I learned we had been pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘now we’re going to have to go through that old driver’s-licence-registration-insurance bullshit; but at least it won’t be me getting a ticket and two points on my driving record.’ I settled back drowsily in my car as the trooper walked over, asked for the windows to be rolled down, demanded our papers, and walked back to his car to run the appropriate checks.

A few seconds later, I was jolted out of my complacency. The trooper was now standing next to his car, pointing a gun at ours, while loudly yelling for us to get out of the car with our hands up. We stared at each other dumbfounded, a collective what-the-fuck informing our facial expressions. Even as we asked each other what the problem could be, we scrambled out of the car. It was December in upstate New York; we were wearing thin sweatshirts, and in the haste, forgot to put on our jackets. Our hands held high, shivering instantly as our formerly protected bodies encountered the freezing air, we stood next to the car, a large-caliber handgun pointed at our heads. The trooper ordered the three of us to turn around and put our hands on the car. We complied again even as the freezing metal made our fingers and hands almost instantly numb. I was scared and confused; we all were. Why was a state trooper pointing a gun at us? What had we done wrong? Our panic steadily mounted. We were frightened and freezing, an armed man was threatening to shoot us if we did not follow his orders precisely.

Suddenly, the trooper yelled, “Keep your hands in sight!”As he did so, my roommate, standing next to me, frantically pushed his hands inside the car window. As he did so, the trooper screamed again, “Keep your hands in sight!” Turning slightly, with my hands still raised, I whispered, “Take your hands out!” He complied. A few minutes later, two more trooper cars arrived; we were handcuffed, pushed into the back of the squad car, and hauled off to the local precinct station. The car rental agency had reported our rental stolen, having made the clerical error of not having taken the car off the ‘overdue’ list even though it had been returned by the previous truant client. A few hours later, we were released. An embarrassing fiasco, you will agree. We considered ourselves unlucky and aggrieved; we could have sued for the distress and discomfort caused us.

But in point of fact, we had been lucky, very lucky. We were brown men; we spoke English in accents. We hadn’t been black. Had we been, I wonder if my roommate, who had misheard the troopers directives, and I, who spoke to him–out of turn–during his misunderstanding, would have made it out alive.

Terence Crutcher was a black man. His car broke down on the road. The police showed up. He expected help; they shot him dead. He didn’t get lucky. Just like too many other black men when they encounter the police.

A Bedtime Story About ‘Immigration And Separation’

Last week, as is our custom at home, I read to my daughter before I put her to bed. (We pick a mix of ‘long stories’ and ‘short stories’ and settle on a number beforehand, one which has to be conformed to by a ‘promise.’) On this particular night, the ‘long story’ was Edwidge Danticat‘s Mama’s Nightingale; I did not know what the book’s contents were and only picked it up because, well, the author was Edwidge Danticat. That’s not entirely accurate: the subtitle did say A Story of Immigration and Separation but I presumed it was about an immigrant child feeling homesick for the home she has left behind. Perhaps, subconsciously, I had hoped to be able to tell my daughter about my migration to the US, my occasional nostalgia for an older ‘home.’

The opening passages of Danticat’s story soon dispelled these hopes:

When Mama goes away, what I miss most is the sound of her voice….For the last three months, Mama has been at Sunshine Correctional, a prison for women without papers….Every night after he makes dinner for us and helps me with my homework, Papa sits at the kitchen table and writes letters to the judges who send people without papers to jail. He also writes to our mayor and congresswoman and all the newspapers and television reporters he’s heard of. No one ever writes him back.

I’ll admit to hesitating when I read the bit about an imprisoned mother; I was reading to a not-quite-four-year-old after all. But I pressed on. My daughter’s curiosity about why this girl had been separated from her mother was not easily satisfied; I did the best I could to explain the surrounding context.

Danticat’s story is ultimately one with a happy ending–a family reunification–in which the young girl who is the subject of the story plays an empowered and leading role. I read–with some relish–those parts of the book in which the young daughter of the imprisoned mother is able to intervene in her mother’s case; there was ample opportunity here for my daughter to find behavior and attitudes worth emulating.

My story reading over, I noticed the book carried a postscript by Danticat, which I read aloud as well. In it, Danticat notes that she is the child of parents who migrated to the US before she could, that she was unable to join them because they were ‘without papers,’ a notion which fascinated her then and resulted in her writing this current story. And then at the end, there was a straightforward recitation of some grim numbers, an accounting of the tens of thousands of who have been ‘returned’ or ‘removed’ from the US–thus splitting many, many families asunder–by the Obama administration.

I have heard of, and read, those statistics many times; they have featured in many political debates I have participated in. But my relationship to them, despite being an immigrant myself, has always been a rather peripheral one. Not on that night, not with my daughter sitting on my lap. As I tried to finish reading Danticat’s postscript, my daughter looked at me in some surprise: my voice had caught in my throat, and I was unable to continue reading aloud. I tucked her in just a little more affectionately that night.

The Implausible Immigrants Of ‘The Night Of’

In HBO’s The Night Of a young Pakistani-American, Nasir Khan, has a bad night out: he ‘borrows’ his father’s cab for a joyride, picks up a mysterious and beautiful stranger, parties with her, and wakes up in her apartment to find her dead, and himself accused of murder. Things look bad, very bad. And so we’re off, probing into the subterranean nooks and crannies of the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, on the ‘outside,’ his stunned and bemused parents, convinced of his innocence–remain stunned and bemused, fumbling about, accepting help as and when it is given to them by strangers. This depiction of their plight and their reaction to it reveal this show’s understanding of immigrant life to be a very superficial one.

Immigrants don’t sit around, waiting for help to fall into their laps. The fact that they left their homelands to seek a better life is a prima facie indication they don’t do so. Here is what a pair of real-life Mr. and Mrs. Khans, living in the US for long enough for their son to have been born and brought up here, would have done had their son been picked up by the police and thrown behind bars: they would have started working the phones, calling every single one of their friends and family members who could help. They would have put the word out; they would have hustled, desperately and frantically, in a  manner quite familiar to them. The would have worked every ‘angle’ available to them. Perhaps a friend knows a friend who knows a criminal lawyer (“Let me call Hanif, his friend Syed used to work with a lawyer once”); perhaps someone knows a local Congressman who could help (“Do you think we should call Rizwan to see if he can put in a good word for us?”).  The Khans are shown living in Queens; their precise neighborhood is never named, but one can guess the show’s makers had Jackson Heights–where a large Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi community resides–in mind. If the Khans had been living there for any length of time, they would have built up, as all immigrants do, a rich network of connections who would have enabled and facilitated many aspects of their life in New York City. Nasir’s father, Mr. Khan, is shown as being successful enough to have a part-share in a cab; he did not get to that point without: a) displaying considerable drive and b) cultivating partnerships and relationships.

Leaving an old life in one’s home and starting a new one elsewhere take energy and initiative, the kind conspicuously absent in The Night Of’s depiction of an immigrant family’s responses to a personal catastrophe. The networks of ‘connections’ and ‘contacts’ immigrants rely on to replace the comfortable social structures of the past are what make their lives in this new land possible; an immigrant who did not instinctively rely on such forms of aid, and who did not display sufficient initiative to draw on them, would not last too long in this unforgiving land. Mr. and Mrs. Khan do a good job of looking like shocked parents; they don’t do such a good job of looking like immigrant parents who have brought up their child away from ‘home. ‘

An Unforgettable Image, Appropriately Contextualized

In the summer of 1992, I traveled to India to visit my family: my mother, my brother, his wife (my sister-in-law), and my little, then barely six months old nephew. The monsoon lay around the corner, promising mixed relief from the brutal heat of the North Indian plains; the humidity would still oppress, but evenings and nights promised to be cooler. My days at my brother’s air force base passed quickly: morning teas with my mother, playing with my nephew, indulgent afternoon beers, a lazy nap, then a long walk with my mother through the leafy, broad-avenued cantonment, and finally, at night, an old Indian favorite, several whiskies with club soda to accompany a hearty meal. It remains, to date, the most treasured of my many trips back ‘home’ since migrating to the US in 1987. Much was to change after that trip; those few weeks marked the end of an era of sorts.

Among the many pleasantly nostalgic vignettes of that trip that I can summon up quite effortlessly in my mind’s eye, one particular afternoon stands out clearly. That day, my mother and I returned to my brother’s residence on base from a brief train trip to meet some family in Central India. On arriving, my brother asked if we had had lunch, and on hearing we had not, suggested we get some take-out from the local market. My ears perked up, and I suggested we sample the wares of a local shop, which specialized in making the North Indian snack called kachori; this establishment’s products were known far and wide for their lip-smacking taste, and every daily batch produced by the cooks sold out in a few minutes. My brother looked at the time, saw it was just about that hour when the kachoris were to go on sale, and suggested we bust a move if we wanted to get lucky. I complied. We scored, picking up two dozen of the savory, spicy snacks. A dozen were to be consumed that afternoon itself; the remaining would have to bide their time till the evening. On the way back, I suggested to my brother that it would be a shame to not wash down our meal with a cold beer. He agreed, and we stopped off at a local shop to pick up a few three-quarter-litre bottles.

As we rode home on my brother’s motorbike, we noticed an unusually powerful afternoon monsoon shower brewing: grey rainclouds coalesced rapidly into gigantic black thunderheads building and lifting ominously as the winds picked up and little dust devils began dancing by the roadside. We arrived home, placed the food on the dining table to be sorted out into plates, opened our chilled bottles of beer, and stepped out into the lawn to watch the show being put on for our pleasure. As I drank the beer, its cold wetness in my gullet bringing relief from the heat, I felt exhilarated; the buzz was kicking in. All was well; I was at home with those I loved, beauty was all around me, good food awaited.

As we watched the storm brewing, my sister-in-law, a painter and artist, standing next to me, spoke softly: ‘Look at that; my most favorite vision of all, white birds flying with the black rainclouds as backdrop.’ I looked up; there they were, ivory-white wings silhouetted against the now-almost-ebony-black clouds, a stark and stunning contrast. It was, without doubt, one of the most startling and striking visions I had ever had of nature; it remains so to this day. And I knew, even at that instant, that my assessment of the beauty of the image presented to me, was directly and immediately affected by my placement (an air force base my father had flown out of many years ago), my company–those I missed so acutely once I had crossed the black water, my sense of belonging in a space that felt familiar, the love I could feel around me (and perhaps the beer too.) Without those accompaniments, I would not have seen what I did.

Note: In The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism, his psychoanalytic study of the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sudhir Kakar writes:

The artistic streak in Ramakrishna was strongly developed, and it seems appropriate that his first ecstasy was evoked by the welling up of aesthetic emotion; an episode of ‘nature’ mysticism, it was the consequence of an aesthetically transcendent feeling: “I was following a narrow path between the rice fields. I raised my eyes to the sky as I munched my rice. I saw a great black cloud spreading rapidly till it covered the heavens. Suddenly at the edge of the cloud a flight of snow white cranes passed over my head. The contrast was so beautiful that my spirit wandered far away. I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. The puffed rice was scattered. Somebody picked me up and carried me home in his arms. An access [sic] of joy and emotion overcame me….This was the first time I was seized with ecstasy.”

 

 

India’s IIT Graduates Go Mainstream: Via Campus Shooting, The American Way

Graduates of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are part of American life: professors, technology officers, and scientists at Ivy League universities, Silicon Valley start-ups, and industrial research and development laboratories.  But these are rarefied environs, exclusive precincts for the technocratic elite; the IIT graduate’s presence here places his cultural achievements in a fringe zone visible only to a select minority. But now with news of a participation in a campus shooting IIT graduates might have finally gone mainstream in the most American of ways: by using a firearm to settle a dispute.

The man who fatally shot a UCLA professor in his office before turning the gun on himself Wednesday has been identified as Mainak Sarkar. He was a former doctoral student who had once called his victim William Klug a “mentor” but in recent months he had written angry screeds accusing him of stealing his computer code.

Police have identified Sarkar as the gunman in yesterday’s murder-suicide that locked down the UCLA campus…Sarkar submitted his doctoral dissertation in 2013, and in the 2014 doctoral commencement booklet, Klug, a mechanical engineering professor, is listed as his advisor…Sarkar had previously earned a master’s degree at Stanford University and an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. Until August of last year, he had worked as an engineering analyst for a rubber company called Endurica LLC.

The academic CV follows a standard template: an IIT, a top flight American institution, some technical professional experience. And then, things go wrong: a personal relationship deteriorates:

In his acknowledgements, he wrote to Klug, “Thank you for being my mentor.” A source told the Times that Klug bent over backwards to help Sarkar on his dissertation and to graduate, even though Sarkar’s work wasn’t always high-quality. This source is appalled that Sarkar would later accuse Klug of stealing his code to give to another student: “The idea that somebody took his ideas is absolutely psychotic.”

On March 10, Sarkar wrote on a blog now archived:

William Klug, UCLA professor is not the kind of person when you think of a professor. He is a very sick person. I urge every new student coming to UCLA to stay away from this guy. […] My name is Mainak Sarkar. I was this guy’s PhD student. We had personal differences. He cleverly stole all my code and gave it another student. He made me really sick. Your enemy is your enemy. But your friend can do a lot more harm. Be careful about whom you trust. Stay away from this sick guy.

Sarkar resolved his personal crisis with his former mentor and adviser with a gun. Admittedly, only an unglamorous 9mm semi-pistol (perhaps even legally owned and registered), not one of those devastating ‘assault rifles’ that normally gets everyone ire up after the latest mass shooting. And Sarkar didn’t go for the full-fledged massacre; he settled for a ‘one and done’ deal. But in his cleaving to the Way of the Gun, he made his pledge of allegiance, his desire to be All-American, his assimilation strategy of choice, all too clear.

Alasdair MacIntyre On Relativism And The Immigrant

In ‘Relativism, Power, and Philosophy,’ (Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association,Vol. 59, No. 1, September 1985, pp. 5-22) Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

‘Relativism’…names one kind of conclusion to enquiry into a particular class of problems. Those questions arise in the first place for people who live in certain highly specific types of social and cultural situation…It is perhaps unsurprising that [these questions] have been overlooked by those recent philosophers who want to make a sharp dichotomy between the realm of philosophical theorizing and that of everyday belief….This attitude is perhaps a symptom of…too impoverished a view of the types of social and institutional circumstance which generate philosophical problems. What then are the social and institutional circumstances which generate the cluster of problems to which some version of relativism can be a rational response?

They are the social and institutional circumstances of those who inhabit a certain type of frontier or boundary situation. Consider the predicament of someone who lives in a time and place where he or she is a full member of two linguistic communities, speaking one language…exclusively to the older members of his or her family and village and [another language, X] to those from the world outside, who seek to engage him or her in a way of life in the exclusively [X]-speaking world. Economic and social circumstance may enforce on such a person a final choice between inhabiting the one linguistic community and inhabiting the other; and in some times and places this is much more than a choice between two languages…For a language maybe so used…that to share in its use is to presuppose one cosmology rather than another, one relationship of local law and custom to cosmic order rather than another, one justification of particular relationships of individual to community and of both to land and to landscape rather than another.

Nietzsche famously said that all philosophy is but disguised autobiography. I find such a philosophical claim plausible because, interestingly enough, it speaks to my experiences in the course of my intellectual development. I find myself sympathetic to relativistic, quasi-relativistic, perspectival (and relatedly anti-foundational) claims in many domains of philosophy because I consider myself–a bilingual immigrant, who is now a naturalized citizen in his adopted homeland–to ‘inhabit a…frontier or boundary situation.’ Philosophical theses built on such claims exercise a particular fascination for me; I find myself drawn to them. I say so because it would be dishonest to pretend that my acceptability of their arguments is purely a matter of intellectual assessment. As William James would describe it, my ‘passional nature‘ runs ahead of me here, taking me with it. As all too many immigrants and bilinguals will note, their transitions between countries and languages are not journeys through merely space-time or linguistic boundaries; rather, conceptual boundaries of considerable standing and importance are crossed. Incommensurability between worlds and ways of being seems a cosmic fact, an inescapable aspect of such a lived reality; relativism suggests itself as a ‘rational response’ to such a state of affairs.