Unalienable: Reflections on Independence and Belonging

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Fashionable Anti-Americanism

I was on holiday in Mumbai after a gap of three years. It was wonderful to reconnect with my 90-year-old father and old friends. There are now no pandemic-related restrictions and so the natural dynamism of Mumbai was in full bloom. Just as refreshing was being in a completely different context where all the acrimony and divisiveness in the US are a distant memory.

Even so some things have changed. One jarring experience took place around the dinner table in the home of one of my closest friends. Sanjay, my friend’s son was trying to convince my son Anil to visit India more often. He suggested visiting Goa, Kerala, and Kashmir.

“Is Kashmir safe?” I asked, clarifying that based on the few reports I had read, my sense was that the situation was volatile.

This question seemed to trigger Sanjay. “You are a fine one to talk,” he said, albeit with a smile. “Your country, America, is terribly unsafe. Why point fingers at Kashmir?” 

Roots of Anti-Americanism

I was taken aback by his remark. As U.S.-based readers know from actual experience, crime is indeed very bad in certain pockets of the US. But it is also true that the rest of the country is peaceful and safe. Did I really want to correct Sanjay and prolong an acrimonious discussion during a nice dinner party? Would Sanjay, who is a privileged Mumbai-kar, be amenable to changing his mind? Most important, would I come across as blindly nationalistic?

“Being anti-American is and has been fashionable for decades,” I pointed out. Anti-American sentiment festers even in staunch US allies like Germany, Japan, and Korea. The reasons for this are complex, rooted as they are in disagreement with US policies, each country’s history, and some level of envy.  

I could have mentioned the importance of keeping an open mind and getting information from a wide range of sources. Coverage of events in distant lands is often one-sided, incomplete, and lacking in context. For example, recent coverage of India in the U.S. media has tended to focus disproportionately on rapes and the caste system.

Fortunately, the conversation soon veered to other topics.

A Change Of Tone

A few minutes later Sanjay brought up the topic again. “If I were to suggest going to Kashmir, I am sure my mother would ask the same question that you did,” he allowed. “Not only that, if my wife were to suggest going to Kashmir, I would ask her the exact same question.” Clearly the better angels of Sanjay’s nature had reasserted themselves.

At this point, Sanjay’s father picked up the conciliatory thread. “There is a difference between the government of a country and the citizens of that country.” He went on, “Even democratically elected governments are rarely perfectly aligned with all the priorities of any given citizen. However, thoughtful authentic interactions continue to take place between people from different countries and between people with opposing views within a country. These are typically infused with humanity and decency and are the backbone of civil society.”

Memories of my many American friends, who span the political spectrum, flashed in my mind’s eye.

A New Perspective

My son had been completely silent during the above exchange. A few days later he shared a recent article from the Financial Times. The opinion writer’s main thesis was that U.S. soft power is growing rather than shrinking against the backdrop of “Russia’s failed aggression and China’s domestic troubles.” A key paragraph mentions anti-Americanism:

Anti-Americanism is so often a luxury sport. It thrives when an alternative hegemon is too remote and ill-defined a prospect to merit scrutiny. The US is therefore compared to a perfect standard rather than the earthly options.

Luxury beliefs are ones that a person holds despite those ideas being misguided. This happens because that person is privileged enough to not have to face the consequences of those beliefs. However, the person manages to score some points in terms of appearing virtuous. In that vein, some people respond to the massive soft power of the U.S. by focusing on its flaws. The point they miss is that their beliefs are possible because other powerful countries, being in disarray, don’t pose a threat to their countries in a geopolitical sense.

This is not to say that the U.S. should not be criticized. But the U.S. is held to a higher standard than other countries. The negative attitudes are a kind of back-handed compliment.

Matrabhumi vs KarmaBhumi

A few weeks have passed since the above interchange. I respect Sanjay more because he had the honesty and humility to retract his earlier harsh response. It is also good to know that my son Anil is thinking about America’s standing in the community of nations in a more thoughtful way. Being outside their respective bubbles offered both young men opportunities for reflection.

As for me, I am like an Indian woman who moves in with her in-laws after her wedding. Even while she continues to love her family of origin, she comes to love her new family members and makes a place for herself among them.

I see the strengths and the flaws of each of my two countries—one my matrabhumi and the other by karmabhumi—and love them both. Despite their flaws, I primarily perceive them through their ongoing efforts towards building “a more perfect union.”

Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

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Nandini Patwardhan

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu....