I’m at the annual Fulbright conference, this year in Delhi, at a very posh hotel on the outskirts of the sprawling, polluted capital city. It’s interesting that this joint US State Department and Indian government collaboration is so well funded that they can afford to fly more than 100 of us from around India and Central Asia to gather in comfort for four days! Thank goodness the program hasn’t been cancelled by the Trump Administration- after all, it’s based on the idea of diplomacy and mutual exchange. India must be seen as worth supporting because of it’s huge consumer market- Donald Jr was here recently to promote high-end real estate projects for the Trump Clan.
I was very touched by our keynote speaker last night, Gandhi’s grandson, Dr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi. He is an intellectual and former diplomat who has served in several Indian and global contexts. His topic was the “zig zag” history of US/India relations, tracked by a series of Time Magazine covers and Indian-issued stamps. Essentially, he summarized the up and down relationship of these countries since the early 1900s, as India navigated difficult territories related to Pakistan, China, and the USSR along with the US.
Here are are brief portions of his comments related to how Indians see the US and how Americans see India. Translations follow in case you can’t make things out with his Indian accent!
“to which Indians want to settle down and some manage to do so. Curiously, from out of the scroll of famous Americans one name that still lingers in their minds very strongly is that of John F Kennedy. You will find tea stalls named after Kennedy in obscure towns in a faded picture of that 40 something smiling under that distinctive flip flop hair top. Is that because he had looks and also because Marilyn Monroe seemed to float around him like a pink veil around Peter Pan? more likely it was because he was so unfairly, so rudely shot.”
For the vast majority of them, India means a distant land with teeming population and a hard traffic rule. (???) India also means to them the the original forest abode of the characters of Walt Disney’s Jungle Book. And of course it invokes that fabulous dream monument the Taj Mahal. They also know also rather trustingly gurus and sadhus and maharshis. They have an idea that a man called Gandhi lead India’s millions to freedom from British rule. They have a sense that India is a land that has known bloodshed and assassinations, including that of Gandhi himself. They have a sense of India having known violence.