Take an entire floor in a building in one of the largest universities in the United States. Plaster it with posters, several in Hindi. Set out several tables, with books and handicrafts for sale. Draw up a tight schedule of talks and workshops. Throw in about 150 earnest Indian-Americans—students, young professionals—a few attendees from India, and a smattering of other Americans. What do you have?
You have the annual conference of the Association for India’s Development (AID), held at the University of Texas in Austin last May. With chapters all over the United States, AID collects funds for and monitors development projects around India. But it’s much more than just a funding organization. Its members also work hard to question and change their own ideas about the home coutry: through books, lectures, and conferences like these. “Be the change you wish to see”—with AID folks, that really means something. No wonder their symbol is the famous profile-and-glasses sketch of Gandhi.
The conference’s keynote speaker was the Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh. They also had P. Chennaiah, labor activist from Andhra Pradesh, and Robert Jensen, author and UT journalism professor. And they had me, to offer suggestions on reaching out to the media. I had jumped at the chance to return to this city where I spent seven good years.
Two of those, I worked at the computer science department. My office was on the 21st floor of the university tower. That is, I was only a few feet below the spot where Charles Whitman sat one morning in 1966, surrounded by guns and intent on mayhem. Having murdered his wife and mother the previous night, this crazed ex-Marine picked off panicked students on the campus below for 96 minutes before a cop shot him. In the first such massacre in U.S. history, Whitman left 14 dead, dozens injured.
When I lived in Austin, I couldn’t help thinking of him every time I went up to my office. Back on campus for the AID show, I’m doing it again. I think that’s because, over dinner one night with several Austin friends, we end up discussing Danielle Martin, professor of piano at UT (which itself reminded me of Whitman, an accomplished pianist). In April this year, Martin died horribly in her home.
Fifty-six years old, she suffered from multiple sclerosis. Since she lived alone, she had taken in Jackson Fan Chun Ngai, a talented young Hawaiian student of hers, as a boarder. He helped with errands, shopping, and getting back and forth from campus every day.
Ngai was himself schizophrenic, taking treatment at a local mental health clinic. But on April 20, disregarding medical orders, he checked himself out. Nine days later, Ngai called the police from Martin’s house in Hyde Park, one of the city’s oldest, leafiest neighborhoods. When they arrived, they found him standing over her bloody body with a meat cleaver. Calmly, he told them she had a computer chip in her head and he had had to take it out with the cleaver.
The murder shattered Austin, much as Whitman must have done in 1966. How could mayhem like this happen here, in this city that prides itself as peaceful, easygoing, and liberal?
Tragedy aside, that self-image actually owes something to how Austin has always attracted up-and-coming musicians. That Woodstock generation icon, Janis Joplin, first made her name belting out “Me and Bobby McGee” in smoky Austin bars. In the decades since, cult favorites like the Fabulous Thunderbirds (“Tuff Enuff”) and Joe Ely (“Mustta Notta Gotta Lotta Sleep Last Night”) have rocked a slew of hole-in-the-wall Austin bars, even if they couldn’t spell.
The tradition lives on, and helps give the city its gently eccentric feel. Over dinner, friend Unni tells of a party at a musician-couple’s home. Sure, they strummed guitars and sang Tull into the night. But that didn’t make this the off-the-wall, thus typically Austin, evening it turned into.
So what did? Try these. One of the women there—a friendly soul who brought a tray of cheese—is a dominatrix. “Sadistic Southern Beauty,” says her website; she wears leather, wields whips, and whacks shapely and not-so-shapely rumps for a living. Another woman is a writer. Her best-known piece, for salon.com, is a delightful account of her husband’s efforts at, shall we say, member-enhancement.
“It’s called tugging,” he told her.
Party to savor.
Not nearly as eclectic, but I remember the time a mate and I visited a young Austin lady. She was, we didn’t know then, furious that he was friends with a woman she, we also didn’t know then, hated. When she excused herself for a few minutes, we didn’t think much of it. Later, we did. We returned to his car to find all four tires slashed.
I like to think it’s quirkiness like this that drew the short story artiste O. Henry (“The Gift of the Magi,” “The Last Leaf”) to Austin. His stay here is a source of more city pride. So how does Austin celebrate his legacy? A writing contest, O. Henry books to the winners? His stories read on the radio?
Oh no! This is Austin, after all. So they hold the famous annual O. Henry Pun-Off. A punning contest, if you please. People get on stage and toss off puns clever and absurd. (Mostly absurd). I have no idea why. Certainly, O. Henry stories are not particularly pun-ny.
Nevertheless, three recent Pun-Off entries:
• My wife’s signature is always at an angle—well, she is only my cosine.
• The real testes to see if you can reproduce.
• If you find broken glass in your wine, is it shard-onnay?
Well, maybe you had to be there. As Unni said with a shrug, “I would give my right arm to be as humerus as some of these folks.”
Right. Or left.
Back at the AID conference. I end my session on writing op-eds with an assignment: do a piece about Sushma Swaraj’s threat to shave her head if Sonia Gandhi becomes India’s prime minister.
One of my points was the importance of an eye-catching first line or two. I think that lesson has been absorbed when I hear what Dallas-based Srinadh has come up with. His opening: “Be Indian, Smt. Swaraj! Use a Topaz blade, not Gillette.”
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.