An Independence Day of Sorts: Beginning a Migration

15 August 1947 is Independence Day in India. It is also my father-in-law’s birthday, a midnight’s child. And it is the day I left India–in 1987, forty years later–to migrate to the US.

My ‘migration’–such as it was–consists of pretty standard fare: I began as a graduate student, armed with an admission letter to a graduate program in technology and engineering, headed for a small technical school on the US east coast; later, after obtaining full-time employment and a visa change to a ‘skilled worker in short supply’,  becoming a ‘permanent resident’ and after returning to graduate school to initiate a career change via a move to a different academic field, I would become a naturalized citizen.

But it all began with a one-way journey on a British Airways flight to London and then on to New York. My mother drove me to the airport after a sleepless night; my flight left at 6AM, which meant checking in at 3AM. I had never flown in an aircraft before. (Well, as an adult; apparently, I had accompanied my mother on a short flight in the Indian northeast when I was a six-week old baby.)

The flight to London felt long and tedious, its monotony only partially relieved by the awe-inspiring landscapes occasionally visible through our windows, and the beers we drank and the cigarettes we smoked. (I was accompanied by a pair of acquaintances also headed for graduate school in the US, and yes, in those days you could smoke, at high-altitude, inside the pressurized cabins of transcontinental airliners.)

After arrival at, and departure from, London’s bustling and intimidating Heathrow, I finally arrived, a little wide-eyed despite the exhaustion engendered by yet another eight-hour flight, at JFK airport.  The dreaded INS officers were little softies, and soon I was in the arrivals hall, waiting for an old high-school friend to pick me up.

Through the glass walls of the terminal all I could see was an airport. But I knew I was in a different land. Outside, it was America.

Later as I was driven back to my first night’s digs in Hicksville, Long Island, I marveled–like a good old-fashioned rube—at the cars, the crowded expressways, the gleaming supermarket–and the dazed and confused cash register clerk–where we stopped to pick up supplies. My first meal was microwaved pizza washed down with a Löwenbräu. It was not a particularly distinguished culinary kick-off and gave me some inkling of the nature of a very particular deprivation that awaited me.

15 August 1987 was a longer day than most. I traveled from summer to summer, traversing ten time zones and spent most of the day, ironically, at rest, cramped and uncomfortable, even as I traveled thousands of miles away from all that had been familiar and comprehensible for twenty years. I moved to a place I imagined I knew well but which was to prove, unsurprisingly, far more intractable to my understanding than I might have reckoned with.

Twenty-six years ago, I began the process of placing quotes around ‘home.’

Pankaj Mishra on the Supposedly ‘Inevitable’ American ‘Retreat’ from the Middle East

Pankaj Mishra suggests America’s ‘retreat’ from the Middle East is ‘inevitable’ as its ‘financial clout’ diminishes and with it, its ability to control the ‘bewilderingly diverse and ferocious energies unleashed by the Arab Spring.’  Now, the language of inevitability in a domain as complex as geopolitics generally signposts intellectual arrogance: Can the interactions of people, power, money, religion, really give rise to anything subject to such a facile description? One would think not, but admitting this would presumably lead to a less provocative headline.  Mishra is, of course, on to something, given the diminishing ability of the US to influence world affairs and recent events in the Middle East but he doesn’t help his case by arguing his point with his usual penchant for looseness and the throw-away line. (Such as, for instance, dismissing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s interesting role in Indian independence struggles with a casual note that runs him together along with Woodrow Wilson’s rejection of Ho Chin Minh’s overtures for IndoChinese independence, all on the basis of one–admittedly crude–remark about the Palestinians. Roosevelt’s extended correspondence with Churchill on this matter is seemingly of no interest to Mishra, an astonishing omission for someone appointed the Modern Voice of India. )

The central elision in Mishra’s analysis occurs early where he suggests that recent events in the Middle East–‘the murder of four Americans in Libya and mob assaults on the United States’ embassies’–should not be analogized with the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran but rather with America’s helicopter-borne departure from Saigon as ‘North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the city.’ But soon after offering this putative analogy, Mishra offers a quick disclaimer, which is not revisited again for the length of his Op-Ed:

Of course, Southeast Asia had no natural resources to tempt the United States and no ally like Israel to defend.

The reason the analogy with South East Asia might not be made then, is because, bizarrely enough, Southeast Asia is not like the Middle East for the two reasons adduced above. If A is to be analogized to B, then it must be because A is relevantly similar to B. But the presence of gigantic energy resources–already the cause of several expensive military involvements in the Middle East–and of an ally that has a significant lobbyist-fueled presence in American domestic politics, render  the modern Middle East rather, relevantly dissimilar to the Southeast Asia of the 1960s and 1970s.

Mishra attempts to paper over this weakness in his analogy by noting that Southeast Asia like the Middle East,

[A]ppeared to be at the front line of the worldwide battle against Communism, and American policy makers had unsuccessfully tried both proxy despots and military firepower to make the locals advance their strategic interests.

But this seems common to Latin America, Middle East and Southeast Asia. Has the US faced a ‘strategic retrenchment’ in Latin America in the face of the many struggles for self-determination in that continent? Not really, because Latin America is sufficiently dissimilar from Southeast Asia–in geographical proximity for instance–to bring about a different orientation on the part of US policy makers.

Mishra overlooks other factors that weaken his analogy. The hasty departure from the rooftops of the American Embassy came at the end of a long, expensive, and bloody war that graphically demonstrated the limits of US military might, a war front and center in the American imagination because of its extensive reach, across the oceans and back into daily life–thanks to the draft–in the ‘homeland.’ The current involvement in Afghanistan does not compare in terms of its visible presence in American political conversation: it is yet another forgotten war. The ability of this war to force American ‘strategic retrenchment’ is crucially limited.

Yes, America faces resurgent nationalist movements and uprisings against dominant, US-supported regimes in the Middle East; yes, its economic power is waning. And yes, the US remains oblivious to, and misreads, Middle Eastern sensibilities. But there is oil in them thar sands, and those who sit on top of it can still be talked into backroom deals that ignore local sensitivities, and there remains an ally of the US that is capable, unlike any other, of skewing US foreign policy in directions of its choosing.