Us and Them :
For months I actively debated and weighed in on the American elections in many conversations. I watched in awe as I saw how this country went through the same inflammatory campaign rhetoric that marked Indian politics. Here in the Silicon Valley, we cater to a certain mindset of political correctness. This is even more apparent given the fact that tech professionals are drawn from varied countries and cultures. Most of us who live in the Valley studied very hard, obtained college degrees, and competed with the best from across the world to be here. To find a footing in this environment of meritocracy, as immigrant communities we paid our taxes in time, enjoyed a decent lifestyle and expected the government to deliver on its promises. We would sometimes encounter a homeless person on our daily commute or check about the number of refugees being added to the rolls because of ISIS in the Middle East – 2 million? 6 million? The numbers descend into a haze, soon forgotten in the frenzy of event-hopping, wine tasting and “networking” at the Row.
Not so far from where I live in San Jose, I had once met a Ninja. A Japanese immigrant, a United States Army veteran was sitting on the curb at the intersection of West San Carlos and Meridian streets. Drugged and hallucinating. It was December- he was cold and needed a blanket. Food, and perhaps medication…love…..a vision for the future? He had none. We started talking. For one thing, it was hard for me to understand why somebody couldn’t get a job in the Valley and that too somebody like him, who could carry on an intellectual conversation in spite of such adversity! He had a legal status in this country until one trip to Japan – when he came back, he lost his legal status, lost a place to live and now, was on the streets.
I decided to follow-up on his situation and the plight of others like him. If you are a legal immigrant, you would perhaps never know what transpires in the lives of illegal immigrants. Previously I had been part of many romantic drawing room conversations about how this country is built by immigrants. But, what about illegal immigrants? What would you build, if you are completely broken, shattered, and devoid of even basic human pride?
His story reminded me of the past. The city where I was born and raised, Kolkata, had many people who looked the same. Felt the same. Every five years, just before the elections we would see them. Sitting under the bridges. At the rail stations. In dilapidated buildings. Some even checked into government-sponsored hospitals as medical bills were cheaper than hotels. Some of them came in flocks with no food, or shelter or even a commitment to a future. They were just numbers. People called them vote-banks. Enlisting refugees was the only sure-shot way to winning elections in Bengal then. Sadly, it is the same even at this time. I was too young to understand the implications. What do they do after the elections? Do they go back? Or do they continue to live in dilapidated buildings and hospitals?
What do they do in California? In New York? Florida? Texas? Do they continue to starve and beg and bear the brunt of their hapless new statutes? If there is equality and parity in our eyes, then like the Silicon Valley intelligentsia we could give them some brand recognition. Illegal Immigrants. Vote banks. Only, they don’t live our lives. We don’t live their lives either. And, soon they lie forgotten.
Nationalism and Populism:
In Bengal, right after Indian Independence, the then socialist government put a cap on nationalism. It was considered un-intellectual to talk about national heritage, cultural history and having a religious identity was nothing short of blasphemy!
There were only two categories of people – the “haves” and the “have-nots”. If you are in the have-category then there was nothing much you can do. You lived with guilt for being in the “moneyed” category. If you were a have-not, then the government decided to dig deeper. Maybe it was because of your caste, religion, or ancestry. People were divided based on castes and sub-castes. New political leadership arose catering to certain categories and sub-categories. However the villages looked darker, the kids hungrier and the dream of a better future shattered altogether. The categories blossomed and fueled more hate-mongering.
An election happened. A lot of people from a lot of different categories happened to like the same person and the only calling they answered to was their shared sense of national integrity. Democracy decided based on the issues and on the overall national need at the moment to select a leader who would be willing to take a fresh look at the bigger picture and to shake it all up. The media went berserk. The academics were ashamed. How could an election avoid looking at all the differences that had guided Indian elections until this day? It went against conventional political wisdom. How could the common man make up his own mind? But they did. For once, a nationalistic bent of view also became the most popular view. That was in India, with the election of Narendra Modi in the recent past.
We just had one path-breaking election in America. Now, elections in different countries are dissimilar in many ways. However, the basic human needs have remained a constant. No matter how much we try now to analyze the results, the need of the hour pretty much boiled down to jobs, dignity and the promise of a good life. Here in the United States, one can be white, black, brown, yellow, or even mixed ethnicity, but the needs didn’t change. Much to the anguish of the pollsters, the hunger for change in governance grew to record levels. Change did come. People had to reckon with a leader who seemed like a far-cry from career politicians. Yet, he emerged as a hero. Once again, populism triumphed!
In this new world, in Silicon Valley for a while now, our lives have been dictated by numbers. The numbers in our pay checks, the 5-digit number of the zip code our house is in or the school that our kids go to. The dreaded number of the tax bracket we fall in. The limited number of vacation days we can take in a year. The number of miles we need to commute for work. The number of zeroes that could possibly be added to retirement benefits if the stock price changes. We run these calculations in our heads. There was a time in my life when I didn’t have to worry about numbers – I could just sit and read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. I believed in it too. I believed that we, the global citizenry could somehow come together and help the 500,000 Yezidi people in Iraq who turned homeless overnight after being attacked by ISIS. Then, some of us got together one evening to discuss Brexit. We even discussed the earthquake that devastated an elementary school in Italy recently. While we couldn’t seek a lasting solution and the Yezidi people are continuing to live in dire-straits, tragedy hit close to home. Somebody in my neighborhood killed a police officer. He was the only earning member of his family of five. He was patrolling the neighborhood at midnight trying to keep our community safe. Somebody shot him. While the nation debated on moral battlegrounds whether to support or oppose law-enforcement officers, I tried to think for a moment what our lives would be like if there were no police officers in the streets.
Also, what would my six-year old son do if his school shut down permanently due to lack of funds in the state-budget? What can I say to my dry-cleaner, now that she has to shut shop after thirty years as she is going bankrupt paying small-business-owner taxes? Nobody discussed these in our drawing room. We chose to anguish over Michelle Obama’s closet expenses and Donald Trump’s locker-room conversations. I anguish over some other grossly selfish issues too. Like my son’s future, now that the national bully-report has been published stating that one out of every three Hindu kids is being bullied in American schools.
Ah well, I don’t know what category I’ll fall into now. Maybe there are hopes to join a fiscally-conservative, socially libertarian, politically-incorrect, intellectually right-liberal, suppressed-middle class, forever-fretting soccer-mom party!