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Letter to India Abroad


On the occasion of India’s 50th Anniversary of Independence, and in memory of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Washington — Convinced she was about to win the National Spelling Bee, 13 year-old Rebecca Sealfon from Brooklyn, N.Y., shouted each letter of her last word into the microphone “e-u-o-n-y-m” and raised her arms high. She beat out Prem Murthy Trivedi, 11, of Howell, N.J. Prem lost after he added an extra “l” to the word “cortile”, a courtyard. Sudheer Potru, 13, of Beverly Hills, Mich., came third. (Associated Press)

I need to look up the word “euonym” in my d-i-c-t-i-o-n-a-r-y.
“Euonymous: Well or felicitously named, as in, The Peace Society and its euonymous president,
Prem Murthy Trivedi from Howell, N.J., and Sudheer Portu, of Beverly Hills, Mich., and there must be many others, Deepa Rao, 12, from Jacksonville, Fl., and Renuka Ghosh-Michaels, 14, of San Diego, Calif., these are the born again Indians of pages 45 or 47 of next week’s India Abroad.

One Mr TV Raghavan from Houston will write that this is the best news he has heard since Vishwanath Anand beat the computers 4-2 in the Dutch tourney, “including the one named Genius which had already beaten Kasparov previously in rapid chess.”

There is Senator Jesse Helms on page 16 of my last India Abroad. Sen. Helms responded to an invitation by the Indian American Forum for Political Education and its euonymous president-elect, Swadesh Chatterjee, to help celebrate India’s 50th anniversary of independence. On way to the bold type, the exclamation marks, the box with the word URGENT screwed on it, I reach at last the Classifieds, past the want ads for motel help, computer programmers, drivers, tandoori cooks, curry cooks, live-in housekeepers, typists fluent in English, till I am seeking with the rest of independent India one beautiful girl, convent educated, tall, slim, fair, charming, caring, humble, from respectable family, open minded with traditional Indian values. Two columns to the left of “Restaurant for Sale under $60,000” and right next to “Photo Lab Must Sell Due to Health” is one that reads:
“24 and 29, handsome, tall, citizens with mixed blessing of eastern and western cultures are seeking women, 22-28. Contact: boys@desilink.com”.

Dear Editor, Prem Murthy Trivedi, Sudheer Potru, Deepa Rao, Renuka Ghosh-Michaels, TV Raghavan, Swadesh Chatterjee, and citizens of mixed blessing a.k.a. boys@desilink.com:

You have in your possession

to spell and sell
tell me

how many “l’s” are there in “loneliness?”
Why have these words become meaningless to me

Ma ghar aaunga to tumhare liye kya launga?
When I come home
what will I bring for you, Ma? You invite Jesse Helms, the euonymous head of Foreign Relations Committee,
to tell you about your independence
and he does
praising you for the opening of the market
of “the world’s largest democracy” to the US
and you who print news-reports
of your sons and daughters winning quizzes
with the correct names of fossils and T-Rex
why didn’t you ask Jesse Helms if he knew the difference
between Bhagat Singh and Manmohan Singh?

What link do I have anyway with the world’s
largest democracy
that is ever worth more than a 49-cent-per-minute calling card?

That is why
I sit here turning the pages of my India Abroad.
Like the women’s magazines printed in Nagpur and Lucknow
still firm in the belief that what Indian women need most of all
are new recipies for pickles and mango chutney,
here is a newspaper that offers me
one cup of India-brand nostalgia
mixed with a half cup
of thinly-disguised comfort at having finally left the shores
and another tablespoon
of envy for those other Indians who have really made it here,
the CEO’s, independent entrepreneurs, and research scientists.
And should any of this give me indigestion,
there is a generous sprinkling of ads for astrologers:
“Are you frustrated in love or marriage?
Is somebody giving you a hard time?”
2. While I’ve been talking, dear editor, a corner of my brain turned black like
the night but it could also be a screen in a dark theater
cut diagonally in two by the roaring of
the empty train in which lies the lone traveller.
It is an August night of 1947.
K.L.Saigal with a voice that sang anthems to pain, Saigal mad for more liquor and the cool hills
of Simla, hums a tune near the window while the train’s wheels strike a steady beat.
Or it is 1997.
That traveller could be a woman of dark skin, beneath the sepia shawl, Kuppa.
A Gulf-Air flight brought her from a white house in Oman with five cars parked in the front. Kuppa is returning with thirteen thousand rupees after six months in the desert with an Arab family for whom she cooked and cleaned.
The man she worked for never laid a hand on her. In a film, here the reel breaks with a snap,
the men in the theater whistle and shout information which they’re privy to about the
projectionist’s mother.
When the whistle blows, the prone figure in the train feels sparks fall on her half-opened eye. Then feels the lurch as the train cuts, passes over, whatever it was that was lying on the rails.

It’s India’s Independence Day. What will the West give us as a present? A younger, fitter Mother Teresa who’ll preach the virtues of the poor. India will give the world maid servants
who’ll teach the world to be humble and to pray.

The train comes to a stop at a platform. I want to read a review of the film they’re shooting
The Nation at Fifty: The Railways.
There are two bearded men with a camera and a tripod on the platform outside. A woman in a red
sari and bright jewellery makes repeated appearances at the train’s door. She breaks
into a smile and speaks.
A train passes in the opposite direction.
In the middle months of 1947, trains in north went back and forth across the border laden
with the bodies of the raped and the murdered.
In November, 1984 the rumor spread through the streets of Delhi that trains from Amritsar
were arriving filled with corpses.
So, the streets of Delhi were filled with corpses.
Tonight too
trains will snake out of stations
like whispers passing between places in the dark.

Tu kisi rail-si gujarti hai Main kisi pul-sa thurthurata hoon. You pass-by like a train, I shudder like some bridge.
(Dushyant Kumar)

Like any other self-respecting
progeny of Bombay films
I cannot stop myself from incongruously bursting into song
with the nightingale of post-independence India, Lata Mangeshkar
fresh from a concert at the Royal Albert Hall:
Tum na jaane kis jahaan mein kho gaye,
Hum bhadi duniya mein tanaha ho gaye
You got lost in another world unknown,
I was left in this whole world alone...

In the textile strike that started in 1982 in Bombay
there were 250,000 workers.
You got lost in another world unknown,
I was left in this one alone
with an obituary to a murdered trade unionist
in the pages of India Abroad.

This is not a song, nor is it an anthem.
This is only a letter.
This is a letter in search of the name
of the taxi driver from Queens
who calls each week to talk to his school-going daughter in Ambala.

This is a letter in search of the name
of the seventy year-old naani who strains her eyes through glasses
to stitch garments for hours in an apartment in Bensonhurst.
The students in Pittsburgh, burdened with their own studies,
who printed pamphlets to fight those
who from this distance dream of destroying old mosques.

In search of the name
of the young bride
from Rajkot who searches silently for the names
of other women who will help her in New Jersey.

This is a letter in search of the names
of the ones who will teach the sons and daughters
of Indians now settled in San Francisco and Los Angeles
the poems of Nirala and Faiz
Of the ones who hold literacy classes so that women can fill out forms
in English and ask a stranger for directions
to a train station when they need.

In search of the names
of the ones who did not write letters home
except to ask “how are you”
for fear that if they said more they would reveal
what had happened to their American dream.
Of the ones who wrote letters and then saved them
in the hopes of using them
to cover the cracks
that kept appearing in their mirrors when they looked at themselves.



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