As a twenty-three year old Indian transplant in mid-nineties Atlanta, the one way I proved to visiting family and friends that I had “arrived” in America was to take them on what I had dubbed “Rajee’s Weekend Tour of Atlanta.” Regardless of my visitors’ preferences, it hardly ever changed. The tour commenced at the Centennial Olympic Park, wound its way through CNN Towers, World of Coca-Cola, Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, High Museum of Art or Georgia Aquarium and concluded on a high note at the capstone attraction, Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Stone Mountain is a dome monadnock which, at its summit, reaches an elevation of 1,686 feet. The rock is a pluton, a type of igneous intrusion. It is well-known not only for its geology, but also for the enormous bas-relief on its north face, the largest such sculpture in the world. The carving depicts three key figures of the Confederate States of America: Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis.
It is an impressive monolith. Being winched up the mountain on a cable car, or the SkyRide as it is fancifully called, to the top of the rock and getting uninterrupted 360 degree panoramic views from the edge of the rock never fails to excite me. Exploring the many hiking trails around the park is the filler activity before relaxing on the giant lawn in front of the sculpture for a night lit up with the glittering display of an outdoor laster show that highlighted the carvings and its many facets.
As a person who was weak in history in general, and American History in particular—may I confess that I found history the most boring subject in school—phrases like American Civil War and Confederacy sounded vaguely familiar but devoid of any true meaning (“Lincoln saved the Union” and “Emancipation Proclamation” were the only facts I seemed to have retained from school).
About a year into my stay in Atlanta and many trips to Stone Mountain later, I happened to pick up a book about Stone Mountain from the local library. It was nothing short of an eye-opener for me to the wrenching history of the American Civil War. The details, especially the racial controversies surrounding Stone Mountain in the early part of the twentieth century were deeply unsettling. Stone Mountain is the venue where robed and hooded figures under the leadership of William J. Simmons inaugurated the second Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
For the first time in my life I became aware, deeply conscious, of the invisible but indelible scars of history all around me. The more I researched Stone Mountain, the more ambiguous I became about the place itself. From coworkers I heard about the edifice being a blight to “history, which cannot be erased.”
The irony of the tour itinerary I came up with—curiously juxtaposed albeit unintended—was not lost on me. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site followed by Stone Mountain. One commemorating a man who proclaimed “Let freedom ring from the Stone Mountain of Georgia” and the other a place that stood for figures of history, had they prevailed would have taken these United States in an entirely different course.
One long-term consequence of immigration is that it makes you confront history—your own, your motherland’s and your adopted land’s. Or may be it’s just plain old growing up.
Colonialism and slavery stand as the twin nadirs of human depravity. My motherland extricated herself from the clutches of the former while my adopted land corrected its course on the latter. Yet both countries are forging forward—never forgetting the lessons of history, one fervently hopes.
As a young person in India, on the verge of adulthood at a time when economic liberalization had not fully borne fruit, all I wanted to do was to see the world on my own terms. So I took the first opportunity that work offered to travel outside the country. It was meant to be an eight-month project, at the end of which I was to return back for good, with tales of exotic landmarks visited and enough dough to buy as many churidars as I pleased.
My own history is now equal parts Indian and American. In the constantly evolving milieu of a globalized world, I frequently think about my place as a hyphenated citizen—with not an insignificant history in India, but with a potentially longer history in America.
This awakening-to-history I had did not stop me from continuing to enjoy the many trails and the songbird habitat around the Stone Mountain. But “Rajee’s Weekend Tour of Atlanta” had one major change in itinerary—not only was Stone Mountain no longer the star attraction, but my visitors also had to tolerate an earful of my spiel on Civil War history if at all I took them there!
Rajee Padmanabhan is a perennial wannabe—wannabe writer, wannabe musician, wannabe technologist. She lives with her iPad and iPod in Exton, PA, occasionally bumping into her husband and son while either of her iPals is out of charge.