Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Chris, and thoughts on Native American history

I recently finished writing a fairly long travel essay (8000 words) about the Navajos of the southwestern United States. It is based mostly on my trips to their reservation (see map) while I was in Phoenix, Arizona. (The Navajo reservation is the largest reservation in the United States, about the size of West Virginia).

The extract below is from the second part of my essay, and describes my meeting and short conversation with a Navajo student, Chris, at Arizona State University. It also describes some of my thoughts on the broader topic of Native American history. If you happen to like what you read and wanted to have the full piece, please send me an email – my address is on this page.

In the spring of 2005, I attended a seminar by Lance Morgan, a member of the Winnebago tribe in Nebraska. Morgan had a Harvard law degree and was now an entrepreneur. His seminar was at Arizona State University and was on the topic of tribal trust land. More than fifty students attended the talk and nearly all of them were Native American. Many of them might have been Navajos as well given their high numbers (nearly a thousand) at the university.

It was at the talk that I saw Chris, a mechanical engineering student at the university. Chris was a Navajo and his home was close to the capital of the Navajo reservation, Window Rock. He was short, well built young man with a dark, lustrous face. From the questions he asked at the end of the seminar, it seemed he had an aggressive and forceful demeanor.

I ran into Chris again that evening at the student recreation field in the university. He was playing a keenly contested intramural softball game. Chris was the captain of his team, and I slowly recognized the other players of his team: they were faces I had seen in the audience during Morgan’s talk. All the players wore t-shirts that said “Go Fighting Whites”; each t-shirt also had a 1960s style picture of a smiling white man. There was clearly some political theme here but I wasn’t sure what it was. At the time, I thought it quite subversive since the message, in my imagination at least, seemed to be directed against the opposition team: a team of young, heavily cheered white college students. I later learned that the t-shirt was supposed to be a riposte to the stereotyping of Native Americans implicit in team names such as Washington Redskins.

Chris’ team lost the game. His team members were upset; their faces had a sort of suppressed anger and disappointment over their own performance. Chris called his teammates into a huddle in an attempt to rally them for the next game. “We fucking beat ourselves,” he said and pointed out they with effort could do much better in the next game.

I caught up with Chris a little later, and talked with him for a while as we walked away from the recreation field. I had meant to ask him about tribal trust land, but ended up talking very little about it. Instead, I found myself telling him of my visit to the Navajo reservation the summer before; it was then that I had first heard about Kit Carson, the American soldier who led the campaign against the Navajos in the 1860s that resulted in the brutal eviction commonly called Long Walk. Kit Carson had followed a scorched earth policy, which ensured that cornfields were rendered uncultivable, livestock killed and peach trees felled. Already starving because of Carson’s campaign and now deprived comprehensively of their means of sustenance, thousands of Navajos surrendered and were herded in the long march to Bosque Redondo. Navajos numbers dwindled to only a few thousand during this period. It was a precarious position to be in; as a community, the Navajos were a whisker away from being obliterated, like tribes in the other parts of the United States.

Chris felt deeply about what had happened at the time; he used the loaded word genocide to describe it. He also had thoughts on the calamities that the Native Americans in North America had faced. His view was that too many nations had manipulated the Native Americans. When he learned that I was from India, he said:

“India really had to deal with only one country – the British. We had to deal with many different European countries. The Spanish, the French, the British.”

I felt his assessment of India wasn’t entirely accurate: British colonization was really the last in a series that went well back in time; invaders had come from Afghanistan and Central Asia since the beginning of the millennium. And one could go even further back.

Chris also expressed surprise that India, with so many different cultures and languages, had been unified into a single country. The lack of unity among tribes was for him the principal reason why the Native Americans had been unable to combat European incursions.

We were walking all this time; I wanted to talk more with Chris but he was headed in a different direction. I did not see him again. My conversation with Chris had been brief, but I’ve always attached a lot of importance to it. For it was also around that time that I’d begun to form some of my own thoughts about Native American history, and I’d been wanting for a while to talk to someone about it.

There was truth to what Chris had said: the lack of unity amongst tribes was indeed one reason that had led to their subjugation. But clearly, there had been also other unalterable factors, geographical and environmental, that had worked against the Native Americans.

I had always been stymied by how European colonization efforts had gone so differently in the different continents. I was especially surprised by how sub-Saharan Africa, which like North America five hundred years ago, had consisted of chiefdoms, tribes and small kingdoms, today had more than 500 million people, while the Native Americans, despite an upward trend in the last century, were a mere 3 or 4 million in the United States population of 300 million (see Note 1). Somehow Africa’s terrain, its climate and diseases had thwarted permanent settlement of outsiders, allowing native populations – despite their own high mortality rate to the same diseases – to grow quickly in the last hundred years (see Note 2) . In a strange inversion of this, European diseases had decimated many Native American communities, and North America, not too dissimilar in places from Europe in climate, had turned out in the long run to be very favorable for settlement.

I began to wonder how things would have been had history gone differently, if the independent trajectory of Native American development had remained undisturbed. It was a probably a futile exercise but I was drawn to it. I imagined that intensive agriculture had somehow been adopted by most tribes, that their populations, unaffected by pandemics, had increased significantly; I imagined federations of tribes starting to coalesce into empires throughout the northern half of the continent; I imagined alliances and enmities, militaristic tribes and kingdoms forcing wars on their neighbors; I imagined social problems that have plagued civilizations in other parts of the world. But also I thought of unique cultural accomplishments, worldviews, of hundreds of different languages, customs and practices, not static or uninfluenced by other cultures, but continuously evolving yet retaining their distinctive character; I thought, in short, of what the world had missed.

Note 1: The population estimates of North America before the coming of the Europeans remains a topic of controversy; estimates vary significantly. Charles Mann, in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, has a good discussion on the topic (I've also posted about the book here). The upshot of his book that there were far more Native Americans that lived at time of Columbus’s arrival than is presumed.

Note 2: Perhaps it was also crucial that Africa had not been as isolated from Asia and Europe before the fifteenth century as the Americas had been: West and North Africa always had links with the middle east and Europe; and the eastern coasts of Africa had traded with Asia along the sea routes of the Indian ocean.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Why Democracy?

While traveling in Washington DC for a few days last week, I attended an event at the National Archives, where short clips from different documentaries were shown. The theme was democracy and how people and cultures from different parts of the world interpret it. This is the website of the group that is organizing the documentary project - called Why Democracy? - and bringing it to fruition.

The clips I saw at the DC event were brilliant – I can’t wait for the release of these movies. Among the movies featured was Dinner with the President, an audacious and nuanced account of a Pakistani reporter's travels to different parts of her country. The reporter's goal is to get a sense of what people from all walks of life – including Musharraf, whom she meets at a dinner – feel about democracy and the current political situation. A preview of the movie is here.

Also in the collection is Iron Ladies of Liberia, about the new President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and her brave and intelligent mediation of political disputes; and Please Vote for Me, a hilarious yet disconcerting look at the election of a class monitor in a primary school in Wuhan, China. I was astonished by how expertly this movie (at least in the clip I saw) was able to encapsulate - through the actions of little kids! - the power play, corruption and grievances that entail the democratic process. It reminded me a bit of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Two themes from Dostoevsky's The Idiot

I’ve been reading Dostoevsky for the last month and a half. I finished Crime and Punishment, and am currently reading The Idiot. This post is about two of Dostoevsky's many themes in The Idiot. The first is about capital punishment – Dostoevsky himself faced a death sentence – and the second is about the essence of religious feeling. I found the expression of these themes in the novel powerful and moving, and I felt it would be good to provide some quotes and passages from the novel. All quotes in this post are from Henry and Olga Carlisle's translation.

I. The Death Sentence

In 1849, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was sentenced to death for his involvement with a radical socialist group. Dostoevsky was in his late twenties then. He was about to be killed by the firing squad, when a last minute message repealed the death sentence. He was instead exiled to and imprisoned in Siberia for the next ten years.

Dostoevsky returns to this harrowing brush with death in his novel The Idiot – the second of his classic works, which was published after Crime and Punishment (this was in 1868, about eight years after his return to St.Petersburg). Many of his views are expressed through Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of The Idiot, a young man of nobility but who possesses no wealth when the novel begins. The prince – one of Dostoevsky’s most fascinating creations – is an unassuming person with a heart of gold, but who is mistaken as an idiot on account of his guilelessness.

In the first part of the novel, the prince, just returned to St.Petersburg, speaks to other characters of his experiences abroad in Europe, where he lived for four years. One of these experiences concerns a trip to Lyons in France, where he had observed a public execution:
“In France, they always cut their heads off…It’s done in an instant. They lie the man down, and this broad knife falls through a machine they call the guillotine – very powerfully and heavily – the head flies off before you can blink an eye. The preparations are horrible. When they read the death sentence, dress him and prepare him, tie him up and drag him onto the scaffold – all that is dreadful. People crowd in, even women – they don’t like women to look on though.”
A little later, the prince talks passionately of how the idea of certain death can be more difficult than any other ordeal:
“Who could say that human nature can endure such a trial without slipping into madness? Why this ghastly, needless outrage? Perhaps there is a man to whom the death sentence was read and who was allowed to suffer and then told, ‘Go, You are pardoned.’ Perhaps such a man could tell us something. This was the agony and the horror of which Christ told too. No, you cannot treat a man like that.”
“…Think! When there is torture there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented only by the wounds until the moment of death. But the most terrible agony many not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant – your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that is certain; the worst thing is that it is certain.” [Dostoevsky’s italics].
That’s probably how Dostoevsky felt. I’ve only quoted a few passages here, but there’s more in the novel. There’s a section forty pages later when the prince, talking to a different audience in St.Petersburg – that is what the first part of The Idiot is about: the prince’s encounter and conversations many different people in St.Petersburg – imagines the details how the man he saw executed on a guillotine must have felt in his final hours, minutes.
“Then three or four hours were spent on usual things: the priest, the breakfast, at which he was given wine, coffee and beef. (Isn’t that mockery? You think how cruel it is, and yet, by heaven, those innocent people do this out of the kindness of their hearts and are convinced they are being humane.) …Finally he is taken through the town to the scaffold. I think as he is being driven there he feels he has still an eternity to live…All around is crowd, noise, ten thousand faces, ten thousand eyes…”
Dostoevsky’s special achievement has always been his imagining of the inner workings of troubled minds – such as the imagining of the murderer Raskolnikov’s mind in Crime and Punishment. But in recreating what the man who was to face the guillotine felt on the day of his execution, Dostoevsky was drawing from his own experience, even though his planned execution was not a public one.

II. The Essence of Religious Feeling

Six months later – we are now in the second part of the novel; a lot has happened by now – the prince talks to Rogozhin, a rich merchant’s son, one of the novel’s main characters. He talks of his travels in an unnamed Russian province. Because he was in Europe in his formative years, the prince knows very little about Russia. It is only now that he has begun to understand the country and how deeply religious it is. And in the series of anecdotes that the prince tells, I found one of Dostoevsky’s recurring themes – religion, and what it means to be Christian – beautifully expressed.

While traveling on a train to the province the prince meets an atheist, a very learned and well-bred man. But the prince notices in the atheist what he has seen in other atheists too - that they sidestep the question of God, though it might appear that they are addressing it.
“He doesn’t believe in God. Except one thing struck me: he didn’t seem to be talking about that at all, the whole time, and this struck me precisely because whenever I’ve met disbelievers before, and no matter how many of their books I read, it always seems to me that they are always speaking and writing of something else, though on the surface it seems to be that.”
Later, while the prince is staying at hotel in the province, he learns of a murder that had happened there the night before. Two close peasant friends had shared a room at the hotel. One of them wore a silver watch on a beaded ribbon, which the other, despite being a close friend, had not previously known about.
“The first was not a thief, he was in fact a honest man and for a peasant not all that poor. But he was so taken by this watch, so tempted by it that he finally could not restrain himself, he took a knife and when his friend’s back was turned came up cautiously behind him, took aim, raised his eyes to heaven, crossed himself, and bitterly and silently prayed, ‘Lord, forgive me for Christ’s sake!’ and he cut his friend’s throat with one stroke, like a sheep, and took his watch.”
At this, Rogozhin, to whom the prince is talking, laughs uncontrollably and says:
“One fellow doesn’t believe in God at all, while the other believes in Him so much he murders people with a prayer on his lips. No my dear prince, you could have never have invented just that. Ha, ha, ha! No, that beats everything!”
But the prince’s point – and Dostoevsky’s too – is a lot more complicated than the irony that Rogozhin finds irresistibly funny. The prince now tells Rogozhin of the following experience from his second day at the province:
“ I was going back to my hotel, I came upon a peasant woman with a tiny baby. The woman was quite young and the baby six weeks old. The child smiled at her for the first time in his life. I watched and suddenly she crossed herself with great devotion. ‘What are you doing my dear?’ (I was always asking questions in those days). ‘There is joy for a mother in the child’s first smile, just as God rejoices when from heaven he sees a sinner praying to Him with his whole heart.’ This is what that peasant woman said to me, almost in those very words, such a profound, subtle and truly religious thought in which the whole essence of Christianity is expressed – I mean the whole conception of God as our own Father and of God’s joy in man, like a father’s in his own child – Christ’s fundamental thought!”
And this is the prince’s final message – a sort of denouement – to Rogozhin:
“ …the essence of religious feeling doesn’t depend on reasoning, and it has nothing to do with crime or atheism. There is something else there and there always will be, and atheists will always pass over it and will never be talking about that.” [Dostoevsky’s italics].
It is a remarkable message and it resonates even today. The genuine personal connection that people all over the world feel with their faith, irrespective of whom or what they believe in, cannot be explained easily. But it is something special and indisputable; it is something millions of people draw comfort and strength from.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Great first lines of novels

Via an old post of Jai Arjun’s (I can’t locate it now), I came across this link that lists some of the great first lines of novels - you'll find many classics in this compilation.

Some of my own additions: Rushdie’s frenzied start to his famous Midnight's Children: “I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947.”

And here's my vote for the most cynical beginning ever to a novel: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” This is from - not too tough to guess - Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.

Finally, to digress from literary writing a bit, Jared Diamond, in his non-fiction work, Guns Germs and Steel begins with “We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe” and then goes on to provide an astonishing, readable synthesis of existing research to explain how these differences came to be.