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    Volume 6 Issue 18 | May 11 , 2007 |

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Bapsi Sidhwa


Dearest Cambeyses,
I know you have your heart set on joining the US Army. Admissions to West Point and the Citadel are very competitive and you are preparing yourself in every way you can: academically, physically and mentally. You have also applied for a job as a councilor in training at the Citadel where you will learn, among other things, leadership skills. Whether you achieve your ambition or not - and I pray you do - the experience will have taught you a lot. At fifteen, your life shines ahead of you. To belong to the mightiest army of the mightiest nation in the world is a heady thing; but it carries with it a special responsibility. No matter what direction your life takes, I pray also that you will carry within you compassion and a sense of justice - values so dear to our Zoroastrian faith.

But this is getting way too preachy. Knowing of your interest in science fiction let us instead conjure up a visitor from some advanced planet in outer space. Next, let us imagine how he might report back on us and our view of creation, were he to descend on earth and land in America. The scenario might go something like this.


"At first the Earthling's God said: 'Let there be light!' And there was a Big Bang, and a whole lot of light. And then God said: 'Let there be the Universe,' and there were the galaxies, stars, black-holes and quarks. And when God said: 'Let there be the Worlds,' there were the First, Second and Third Worlds, and a bewildering constellation of countries christened the “Axis-of-Evil-World”.

And commenting on the way we Earthlings conduct ourselves he would end his report thus: “There these primitive entities remain: stereotyped, branded and locked in their separate and warring worlds.”

Why does this strife between our species exist? Is it because it entails a loss of national or religious pride to grant other cultures their wisdom and humanity? And, after degrading them with generalisations, arrogantly assume we know them sufficiently to brand them as Evil?

The enemy everywhere is always evil.

Globalisation has caused our world to shrink; it is time we see people as human beings - whether they are in Ethiopia, Mexico or Bangladesh; whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or Jew. The human race is too closely linked to be so simplistically pigeon-holed. To do so is dangerous as was demonstrated to us on 9/11

The Twin Towers in New York stood tall as modern marvels - beacons of our hope for the future, of our faith in a New World in which races and religions are defined by tolerance. In attacking them the terrorists destroyed more than just a miracle wrought of glass and steel; they undermined our trust in American ideals, and alarmed us with the realisation of how fragile our freedoms are.

The measures Homeland Security has adopted is turning us into a Police State. Anyone who does not think exactly as the Captains-of-the-Universe do is “evil” by the standards of the comic-strip language used by our leaders. Except for a brief visit to Soviet Russia, I have never felt the need to glance over my shoulder, or mind what I say. Now I do. A few months ago an Indian friend, a delegate to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, called to say hello. The talk turned to politics and suddenly he cautioned me to speak in Gujarati; “Don't you know how many people have been spirited away from their homes and locked up?” United States Human Rights activists had supplied the information. The. District Judge Gladys Kessler directed that their identities be revealed. A few days later she had to issue a stay to give the government more time. The 'stays' continue and we continue to lock people away at will not to mention the hundreds of prisoners from 39 countries rotting in a state of legal limbo in our naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

Does anyone believe war will stop acts of terror? The attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq which even Jerry Springer likened to “whacking a bee-hive with a baseball bat,“ have created only humiliated and embittered nations increasingly mired in civil strife. Who dares to predict the consequences of the chaos, fury and hatred our 'shock & awe' bombs has generated? Where are the weapons of mass destruction Sadam was supposed to unleash? And this unprovoked preemptive strike, which our founding fathers wisely forbade, sets a dangerous precedent. Any
country can now attack another with impunity!

Even if we hide every plastic knife in America, will it stop an attack from a man who is desperate enough to commit suicide? Shouldn't we instead address the grievances that are generating so much anger and hopelessness--the suffering of the larger world community whose misery we so callously disregard or take for granted? Who ordained that we may pamper ourselves with Nike shoes and Victoria's Secrets underwear, while millions in Afghanistan and Rawanda can't even get badly-fitted artificial-limbs?

We think of people from far-away countries as somehow inferior. Superficial differences of colour, dress, gesture, language - rob foreigners of their humanity. In other words, we render these people faceless. We stop seeing them as individuals, and see them only as remote blobs: Chinese, African, Arab, American, blobs. The scariest aspect of this is that faceless people become like figures in video games; it doesn't tax our conscience to bomb and destroy blobs.

A journalist friend at CNN told me that he was taught that whereas the death of three Americans was news, the death of a thousand Africans or Papuans or Afghans was not. Given the self-centered nature of our species this is perhaps globally true. But sadly, people in the Third World, who are absorbing the demeaning Western media's images of themselves subconsciously, are finding their self-esteem so eroded, that they are beginning to look down even upon themselves or moving towards religious extremism to maintain their sense of identity and self-worth.

There are other forces that turn people faceless within the same space and time. This happens during ideological, racial and religious crusades and, often, when one community or group wants a larger portion of a country's wealth and power. It happened during the Holocaust. It is happening right now in the Middle East - the bombing of the Palestinians and their homes and attacks on civilians by suicide bombers in Israel. And it happened during the partition of India in 1947, when the religious and cultural biases and economic pressures within the country tore it savagely apart.

I want you to realise that whatever you think, say and do as an individual is of vital consequence. The butterfly effect, which explains how a flutter of wings in Houston can end up creating a cyclone in the Atlantic, joins our fragile flutters to those of others'. It is up to our thoughts, words and deeds to shape our world; to stabilise, or destabilise it. Often when I talk about characterisation in my writing classes, I insist: "Name your characters straight away, so that they are not just a 'he' or a 'she' but individuals. Describe them - the texture and colour of their skin and hair, the timbre of their voices; and, on the very first page, state where they come from. This gives the reader a hint of the forces that have shaped an Indian Sita or an Israeli Adina, or an Arab Abdul, or an American Rosie or an African Achebe."

If the reader is not aware of these particulars she/he cannot become involved with the characters and doesn't care much what happens to them; in other words, the character becomes faceless. And, to bring my point to its conclusion, faceless blobs are easy to kill. Do we care if a lot of Lebanese, Afghans, Angolans and Sri Lankans die? We would care more if we knew someone from these countries. So I urge you to meet and become friends with a person from Cambodia or Haiti or Chile or Ghana or from whichever culture appears remote to you. For once you do, these people will develop faces, and they will begin to bear worth. They will become humanised.

The validity of the butterfly effect was brought home to me in a striking way.

Beginning with a Feminist conference in Amsterdam in the 1990s, I have often mentioned how vital our awareness of names, and the cultural implications they convey, is. During a Q & A in 2001, after the screening of Earth [a film based on my novel Cracking India Ice-Candy-Man] at the University of Georgia at Athens, I again talked about it. A few days later President Bush, in his Address to the nation following the attack on 9/11, said something to the effect: 'Tell them we have a Rosie in America.' Baffled anchormen remarked on it. I felt smug. I, alone in the entire world, knew its context. Constraints of length rather than any lack on the part of the speech-writer must have prevented him from explaining the idea.

But my flutter had somehow found its way into the President's speech.

Surely this is what we need a greater awareness of our common humanity and how each of us affects the other - and less Big Brother.

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