Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Attacks in Mumbai - again

Came back from a road trip, to learn the horrifying news about Mumbai. Varnam provides some useful links; Amit Varma writes about his experience. And Sonia Faleiro writes a moving piece. Both Amit and Sonia were very close to where some of the shooting happened. I was also glad to hear that my friend Chandrahas is safe.

Salil Tripathi has a piece in the Far Eastern Economic Review. And his son, the 19-year old Udayan Tripathi, has a beautiful essay on the attacks, quoted by that inexhaustible blogger, Prem Panicker, who himself has a series of links and updates (if access to his blog is spotty, press refresh enough times and you'll get there). And from the WSJ: India's antiterror blunders. And more: Suketu Mehta, author of one of the best books about Mumbai, Maximum City, in the New York Times; and Desipundit aggregates a number of updates and provides links to more articles and essays.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The real story behind American Thanksgiving

Most facts in this piece are from Charles Mann's thrilling book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.


The story of American Thanksgiving is linked to the United States' beginnings: to the tenuous coastal Massachusetts colony in Plymouth. The colonists, about a hundred of them, later came to be known as “Pilgrims”. They were a religious group, and identified themselves as separate from the Church of England. Fleeing the volatile political situation in England, they first went to the Netherlands, and eventually found investors to fund a venture to establish a colony in North America.

They sailed on the now famous Mayflower in 1620. It was a badly planned voyage: the Pilgrims had little clue as to where they were precisely heading. When they landed in what is today coastal Massachusetts – on Nov 9th, 1620 – they realized they had no real means of producing food. They had not brought domesticated animals to ensure a supply of meat; they had not planned to farm either. They planned to fish and export fish, but their fishing gear turned out to be useless in New England.

The colonists would have perished – indeed half of the hundred or so that arrived died the first winter – but they survived because of assistance offered by the Indians of New England. Chief among the helpers was Squanto who taught the colonists techniques to grow maize (corn). The colonists, using this new knowledge, survived, and had a bountiful harvest. To express their gratitude, they had a magnificent thanksgiving feast with Indians. That’s the feast that the picture of Jean Louis Gerome depicts: splendidly feathered Indians, surrounded by the Pilgrims, partaking in what must have been a sumptuous meal.

This is also the story Americans kids learn in school. All nations attach special relevance to their beginnings, and the Pilgrims are a vital part of America’s national narrative. But the story, while true, is told in isolation, without a proper context; there is a sense of idyll about it. And the way it is told propagates a broader myth: that European settlers settled a largely empty expanse of North America, a vast natural wilderness. Sure, there were a few tribes here and there, some friendly, some hostile, but what could they do? They were destined to lose.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The textbook version of Thanksgiving not only obscures the broader socio-political context of the time; it also hides an immense tragedy.


New England before European contact was teeming with different Indian groups: a mosaic of shifting alliances and confederacies. The population is estimated to be 100,000. Certainly not as high it was in some of the dense parts of the world at the time – the region around Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), for instance – but significant for the 15th century nevertheless.

The population was growing as well. Maize (corn) was a staple and was farmed abundantly along with squash and beans. The presence of this triumvirate – maize, squash and beans – is especially significant. All three were first domesticated in Mexico. For them to have made it this far north meant that there was an extensive network through which such ideas of cultivation were relayed.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, European shipping vessels – British, French, Spanish and Italian – began to rove the eastern coast of the United States. By 1610, Britain alone had about three hundred such vessels. Many of them attempted to stay put and settle, but could not, except for short periods. Why? Because they weren’t always welcome. The Indians were happy to have the Europeans stay for some time and trade with them, but the moment the visitors overstayed, they were asked to leave, sometimes with a hint of force. All accounts of European explorers who sailed in these ships confirm the coast was thickly populated.

(Southern New England in the 16th and 17th centuries: at the time of European exploration. Click for a much better view.)

Prominent among Indians groups in southern New England was the Wampanoag confederation, whose chief was Massasoit. To the north was the group called Massachusetts – which incidentally was also the name of the language spoken in the region – and to the east, in Cape Cod, were the Nauset. These groups were allied together, and were hostile to the Narragansett alliance immediately to the west. There were also the Nipmuck, and the Western Abenaki to the northwest. In New England, the Indians belonged to one of two different language groups: Algonquian and the Iroquoian.

To reiterate: the New England before European contact wasn’t a vast wilderness with a few scattered tribes; far from it. But something happened around the time that Europeans began to explore the east coast; something that damaged the equilibrium and irrevocably shifted the balance against the Indians.


That something was disease.

Indians had no immunity to European diseases, which had their roots in the domestication of mammals – such as cows, horses, and pigs, which the Americas did not have. Most infectious diseases we know – smallpox and measles for example, and more recently AIDS – were once diseases in animals that mutated and adapted to human populations. Since Eurasian agrarian societies had a great number of domesticated mammals and were in close contact with them, their populations were inevitable targets for such diseases. Epidemics took a heavy toll on Europe during medieval times, as we all know. Large numbers of Europeans died, but the population developed some immunity over time.

Indians, on other hand, had no domesticated mammals (why that was so is too big a question to answer here), and hence had fewer diseases that could affect Europeans and inadvertently hinder settlement. Conversely the lack of immunity to European diseases proved devastating to Indian communities throughout North and South America. It paved the way for European colonization.

Indeed, it was disease in conjunction with conquest that brought about the decline of the Indians. If only conquest had happened and the effects of disease had not been catastrophic, Indians would have surely fought the Europeans back and eventually gained their independence, like other people the world over. And if only disease had affected them and no conquest had happened, Indian populations would have declined initially, but would have later rebounded back – as Eurasian populations did after the epidemics of medieval times.

What eventually unfolded, though, throughout North and South America, was a combination of disease and conquest. This crushed Indian communities everywhere. That is why, instead a North America full of indigenous peoples – with their own nation states and flags – you see a North America full of the descendants of Europeans, Africans and now Asians. American Indians are now a mere 3-4 million of the total United States population of about 300 million.


How did disease play a role in New England of the early 1600s? Plymouth, the part of Massachusetts where the Pilgrims landed, had once been a thriving coastal Indian community, called Patuxet. But nearly all of the inhabitants of Patuxet had died because of viral hepatitis. The disease had apparently been transmitted by way of prior interactions with Europeans, before the Pilgrims’ arrival (the epidemic is estimated to have struck around 1616).

Not only that, the disease raced into the interior, killing nearly ninety percent of the Wampanoag Confederacy, of which Patuxet was a part. Ninety percent! Here is a passage from Charles Mann’s 1491 that describes the devastation, with quotes from Thomas Morton, a merchant who witnessed the aftermath of the tragedy:
The Indians “died in heapes as they lay in their houses,” the merchant Thomas Morton observed. In their panic, the healthy fled from the sick, carrying the disease with them to neighboring communities. Behind them remained the dying, “left for crows and kites and vermin to prey upon.” Beginning in 1616, the pestilence took at least three years to exhaust itself and killed as much as 90 percent of the people in coastal New England. “And the bones and the skulls upon the severall places of their habitations made such a spectacle,” Morton wrote, that the Massachusetts woodlands seemed to be a “new-found Golgotha,” the Place of the Skull, where executions took place in Roman Jerusalem.
With his people suddenly on the verge of being exterminated, Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag confederacy, took a risky decision. He felt threatened by the Narragansett to the West. (Presumably, since relations between the Wampanoag and the Narragansett were frigid, there hadn’t been much exchange between the two; the latter had thus not yet been affected greatly by the epidemic.) So when the Pilgrims landed in 1620, about three years after the epidemic struck, Massasoit, in a desperate move – reversing his earlier policy which discouraged European permanency on Wampanoag territory – allowed the Pilgrims to settle. In exchange the Pilgrims would have to formally ally themselves with the Wampanoag against the Narragansett.

What precise advantages, you might ask, would an alliance with the Pilgrims bring? The Pilgrims themselves had barely survived. There might even be a risk of more disease: though epidemics were unexplained at the time and were attributed to the realm of the supernatural, surely it might not have been lost on the Indians that interactions with traveling Europeans had brought disease. Perhaps it was advantageous to associate with the Pilgrims because they possessed new weapons. Firearms were new to Indians, though they quickly realized that the “British were terrible shots, from lack of practice – their guns were little more than noisemakers.”

But most likely Massasoit wanted to make an alliance with the Pilgrims just to deter the Narragansett. Since the Narragansett were farther inland, the Pilgrims with their firearms might have seemed like a uncertain and unpredictable threat. They might think twice before attempting a takeover of the Wampanoag.

Massasoit’s alliance with the Pilgrims happened in 1621. Squanto, a former resident of Patuxet, was one of the key players. His true name, in Massachusett, was Tisquantum. Some years before the Pilgrims' arrival, Tisquantum had been kidnapped by a European shipping vessel – the kidnapping of Indians was quite common – and was paraded in Europe’s capitals as an Indian specimen, a curiosity. But Tisquantum was smart; he learned English, became proficient, maneuvered his hosts and returned back to New England. When he reached Patuxet, hoping to rejoin his community, he found it no longer existed. Instead, there was now a British settlement.

Tisquantum’s story is the most poignant: imagine his grief and sense of desolation upon discovering that the community he'd known so well and had grown up with had been all but exterminated by disease. Charles Mann argues in 1491 that Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims with an eye to somehow rehabilitating Patuxet. That is a fair thesis. Tisquantum might have also had broader ambitions, which is why Massasoit was ever suspicious of him.

But to return to the point. In 1621, Massasoit took a chance and allied with the Pilgrims. Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims and soon became indispensable. It was his assistance that led to the Pilgrims' bountiful harvest that year. Massasoit and his men joined the feast with the Pilgrims; together they had a great time and complained about the Narragansett.

Hence Thanksgiving.


Thanksgiving, thus, was as the product of a calculated move by Massasoit, a decision that he took with the Indian political-social context in mind. Naturally, he could not have evaluated the long term consequences of his decision.

It turned out to be a critical moment in American history. With the Pilgrims’ alliance and permanent settlement, the British now had a foothold in America. Farther south, the Jamestown colony, founded even earlier than the Plymouth Colony, in 1607, had also managed to survive. In the decades that followed, thousands more from Britain would arrive – leading to more wars with the Indians: the Pequot War and King Phillip’s War; the latter particularly brutal.

The floodgates had now opened. The stage was now set for the European competition for Indian land in North America. The creation of the United States was not too far away.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gujarati cotton trade in the 11th century: A lesson in market responsiveness

At the beginning of the second millennium AD, maritime trade in and around Asia was quite well developed. It spanned North and East Africa, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and China; and covered the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the China Sea. Merchant communities commonly traveled abroad and sometimes even settled in places along the network. For instance, trade was one reason why Jewish merchants from the Middle East and North Africa came to live in the thriving cities on India’s western coast.

India’s location – between Africa and East Asia – ensured that it played a significant role in the maritime trade. Ships from say Aden, in present-day Yemen, never made a direct journey all the way to Southeast Asia or China; that was too risky. They stopped at ports on India’s western coast before sailing farther.

Many different things were traded – spices, silk, ingots, glass beads. One of the major exports from India was cotton; and Gujarat was one the main centers of the cotton trade:
“Cotton was a major export from India and almost certainly would have been on board. Many documents that date from the period of the shipwreck, from the Middle East to China, concern the trade in Indian cotton. Recently discovered archaeological evidence is more direct, specific, and exciting. Several digs in the garbage dump of the old city of Fustat, south of Cairo, have turned up hundreds of fragments of printed cotton fabric that date as far back as the eleventh century, though many of these pieces are from the subsequent two centuries. The dry climate of the Cairo area has preserved these fragments for nearly 1000 years. Analysis of the twist patterns of the selvage style, and the wood-block printed patterns places their origin in Gujarat on the western coast of India. These small pieces of cotton were from simple, functional clothing, quite different from the use of silk in Indonesia…Gujarat had many specialized centers of cotton cultivation, dyeing and weaving spread through the countryside.” [From Stuart Gordon's When Asia Was the World]
That Gujarati cotton was found in Cairo isn’t news by itself. What is surprising though, is how responsive the cotton centers of Gujarat were to their markets thousands of miles away. Indonesia and the islands of Southeast Asia also appear to have been a market. But preferences about how that cotton should look and feel differed vastly from Egypt to Indonesia. The cotton producers of Gujarat were up to the task; they smartly and flexibly adjusted their production to meet varied tastes:
“Gujarat became subtly responsive to distant market demand. Researchers have recently located intact cloths in the islands of Southeast Asia that are virtually exact matches in weave and selvage to the small pieces found in Egypt. The only differences are in color and block printed pattern. Blue, being an inauspicious color in Southeast Asia, never appears. Green patterns sold well in Egypt. Animal patterns were sent to Southeast Asia, but not to Islamic Egypt. These archaeological finds suggest that traders did not simply take Gujarati cotton out to distant lands hoping to sell it. Instead there was a sophisticated return flow of information from traders to manufacturers on what sold well and what did not. There is even some archaeological evidence that Indonesian patterns were brought back to Gujarat and copied to meet market tastes.” [From Stuart Gordon's When Asia Was the World]

We live in a complex world today; we are more connected than ever before in history. But our globalism blinds us: we tend to overlook the fact that the world a thousand years ago was in some sense just as interdependent and complex – despite the hindrances to travel. Globalization was nothing new to Gujarat or Cairo or Indonesia even then: the wealth of their economies depended on it.

Fast forward a thousand years and the same market responsiveness that Gujarat demonstrated is vital for the corporations of today. It is true that modern day globalization is more instant and accelerated – perhaps that is why many communities feel it is harsh and intrusive– but the basic idea is very old indeed.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The professor's webpage

is up. You'll find a picture of yours truly - with a silly smile - and a resume full of impossible-to-understand terms: combinatorial optimization, genetic algorithms and suchlike. Isn't that what academia is all about - parading the incomprehensible and the esoteric?

More seriously, I'll try to write in this space - which has focused on history, current affairs, literature and travel - about my research as well. If and when I write about my research, I promise to make it as accessible and readable as possible (this recent post, for instance, is related to one area that I study: queuing).

But if you still fall asleep...well that's not such a bad thing.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

How I helped Obama win in eight states

In August this year, as I moved from Minnesota to Massachusetts, I drove through eight states. Amazingly – and I realized this just recently – Obama won all these states. So here goes a quasi-satirical, fictional piece that follows my journey: the places I mention here are places and people I actually met. But I’ve twisted the actual narrative to have some fun.


I moved from Minnesota to Massachusetts in August this year. I drove for three days and through eight states to get to my destination: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and finally Massachusetts. Look carefully at that list. Do you notice something? Yes, they are all states in which Obama won; and they include some of his more memorable victories: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

I am here to take credit for his successes. I hope the Obama campaign takes notice. After all, I traveled and spread Obama’s word in Midwestern prairie towns; I climbed lonely silos and shouted, so his message of change and hope could reach every barn and every farmhouse. And when I crossed the Mississippi – that most important American territorial and cultural marker – and entered Wisconsin, I set sail large paper boats with a “Yes, we can!” emblazoned on them, so the message would travel down the river, all the way to St.Louis, in the bellwether state of Missouri, where the race still remains tied.

And that night - the first of my journey - I ate a hearty meal at King of Falafel, a restaurant in downtown Madison. I encouraged the Egyptian owner to vote for Change. When he complained that life was tough and business was slow because of a fierce Lebanese competitor whose restaurant was right across, I said to him:

“There is no Egyptian America or Lebanese America – there is only the United States of America.”


The next morning I was in Illinois, a state already well converted. As I drove through the notorious south side of Chicago – a place Obama had made home and where he’d done his community organizing work – I thought I saw a young and skinny Obama walking the streets, knocking on doors, helping frame and sign petitions, helping people pick up their lives as the steel factories closed.

I saw him slip on the sidewalk, fall, and twist his ankle; his papers, containing hundreds of signatures flew and scattered all over the street. But he collected them with the same patience and poise with which he ran his Presidential campaign. Later, I saw him addressing a group of just twenty people – yes just twenty people, not 200,000. Big audiences certainly do not develop in a day. I saw him stumble and stutter and lose his sentences - unfortunately there wasn't a teleprompter to channel his eloquence.


Twenty five miles south of Chicago is the town of Gary, in the state of Indiana. This predominantly black town would probably vote for Obama – unlike the state which was a toss-up – but I thought I had to do my part nevertheless. Every town counted; every person counted. White folks in Minnesota had advised me to avoid Gary; I was told to “gas up and avoid everything south of Chicago downtown; these are bad parts.” In America, as many of you well know, “bad” parts of town in the public discourse are generally an indirect reference to “Black” or “Hispanic” parts of town.

I made my way through Gary’s deserted main street, full of strangely empty buildings. I stuck a hundred Obama fliers on the walls, alongside tattered messages that said: “Gary: Celebrating one hundred years; Steel Strong!” But the heavy industry halcyon days were in the past. Now there wasn't much going on.

At a crowded gas station at the end of the street, I found the owners – an Indian-American man and his son – conducting transactions behind a bullet-proof glass partition. I said to them:

“Change is coming; it will break these barriers of suspicion and distrust that we have erected.”

I repeated this to a middle-aged black lady who arrived in posh red SUV. She was in a foul mood, and had begun cursing the two ragged men lounging outside the store. The men, she claimed angrily, were eyeing her car.

“Get a proper job!” she told them. Those behind me in the line grinned wryly.

A little farther east in Indiana is the town of South Bend. Here too, the downtown buildings were empty; the economy seemed to have stagnated. And as with other cities in the US, the demographic in and near downtown was mostly black. This contrasted sharply with the brilliantly landscaped campus of Notre Dame University a few miles away, where the rich sent their offspring. I wandered around the well maintained boulevards trying to find students who could energize the campaign in South Bend.

I came across a group of students and professors at a small hangout called Lula’s Café. Cosy and comfortable, the café’s interior was a world very different from downtown. The walls were full of murals; students discussed in groups. Some played drums; others played the flute: the atmosphere was very much like it is in organic cafes and stores. This was a community conveniently absorbed in its own world, its own bubble, seemingly impervious to the situation just a few miles away. Most of them were already Obama supporters, but I had something to say to them:

“We can't have a Hippie America and a New Age America and a Yuppie America and a Ghetto America. We can't have a rich college-going America and a poor high-school dropout America. We must have only the United States of America!”


Onward from Indiana to Ohio, yet another critical state. I drove and drove until I came to the town of Toledo. I was exhausted and slept long that night in one of the highway-side hotels. But next morning I was up early. I set myself up in the breakfast room, with other hotel guests – senior citizens, families with many children– shaking a packet of Quaker’s oatmeal, toasting English muffins, slicing boiled eggs, and having weak coffee.

I didn't have to do much. The television was on; Obama was addressing a large rally, reading eloquently from the teleprompter, his eyes moving left and right, following the prompts.

“Vote for him!” I said passionately. My audience in the breakfast room looked at me in the uncertain manner of undecided voters, but my passion must have roused something deep in them.

And I can claim safely now that that same passion came to fore in Ohio when Obama carried it last week.


I could go on and on: describe my stop at Cleveland, Ohio; my stops in the small towns of Pennsylvania, yet another battleground state; and finally the easy home stretch through Upstate New York and western Massachusetts, through quaint towns that were ready to vote for Obama anyway, and where yards proliferated with Obama signs. But that wouldn’t be interesting.

It shall suffice to say that I did my bit; that during this journey – from the plains of the Midwest to the hills of western Massachusetts, covering nearly 1200 miles, and experiencing, if only for a little bit, the stark social realities that face the country today – it shall suffice to say that on this journey, I planted a seed on all my stops along the way: an Obama seed that grew and prospered on Election Day.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Why I blog

Some answers to the question are contained in Andrew Sullivan's wonderful essay in The Atlantic.
For centuries, writers have experimented with forms that evoke the imperfection of thought, the inconstancy of human affairs, and the chastening passage of time. But as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that’s enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal. And make no mistake: it heralds a golden era for journalism.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

In light of Joe, the Plumber

There’s been much talk about Joe, the Plumber, in the soap/drama that is the US Presidential election. For those who may be unaware, Joe the Plumber is an actual plumber - albeit with a different name - who earns about $40,000 but has aspirations to buy a 250,000/year earning business. Joe met Obama while the latter was campaigning in Ohio and is now a celebrity, ever since McCain mentioned him some dozen times during the third presidential debate.

For the two Presidential campaigns, Joe is a convenient stand-in for the “honest, hardworking” American – just like other generic stereotypes: Jill the engineer; Molly the dental hygienist; Jack the electrician; Chuck the truck driver. In my travels to American cities – Chicago, DC, Seattle, Minneapolis, Philadelphia – I’ve come across plenty of these so-called “ordinary” Americans, whom the Obama and McCain campaigns invoke at every turn. Here, then, are a few of my glimpses – a few of the many such I’ve met over the years.

1. The Shuttle Driver

A few days ago, I took a ride on a shuttle from Amherst, Massachusetts to the airport in Hartford. The shuttle service was called Bluebird. Joe, the driver, picked me up at 5 am. He was a tall man, perhaps in the early or mid-sixties. As we drove, I learned Joe owned Bluebird. He was in fact, the owner and the only driver. The minivan, fitted with a GPS, was his only vehicle. Joe used to work with Valley Transporter, a larger service with many employees, but had quit and begun Bluebird recently.

“So you must be one of the small businesses that the Presidential campaigns constantly refer to,” I said with a laugh.

Joe smiled and said yes, but there was a bit of a pause.

“I get one or two calls per day, but it’s been awfully quiet the last few weeks. I thought I wouldn’t get any more calls.” he said. “It must be the economy. Everything is expensive. I pay a hundred dollars a month to Google to ensure my shuttle reservation website shows up among the top results when prospective customers search on the internet.”

Joe lives in South Hadley, a small Massachusetts town very close to Amherst. His family consists only of his daughter, who went to college in the area, and is now attending hairdressing school.

I asked Joe where he stood politically.

“Well, I don’t prefer either of the candidates. Both are not liberal enough for me. I’d like someone who is a lot more liberal. Someone who’ll get us out of Iraq quickly. I still cannot believe we are in this mess. But if I vote, I’ll vote for Obama.”

Nothing surprising there: this was Massachusetts after all. In fact, I’ve seen only one McCain sign so far in my drives around the towns here. I was surprised, though, that Joe didn’t mention anything about the economy affecting his choice of candidates. Especially since Joe himself was feeling the pinch.

But perhaps Joe was thinking broadly: if billions hadn’t been spent in a meaningless war, perhaps they could have been put to better use at home.

2. The Mechanic

In April this year, while traveling on an Amtrak train from Washington DC to Baltimore, I met Joe, a short, potbellied man in his mid forties with somewhat ragged clothes and large, calloused hands. My first impression was that this was one of the “working class men” that the television networks were constantly talking about at the time. The Democratic primaries were still going on; the Obama-Clinton contest was still undecided. The general wisdom floating around was that to win states like Pensylvania, the candidates would have to win over working class voters.

Joe was talkative. He had a wily look about him; he came across as someone who knew well the ways of the world. He had been in the military, loading bombs during the first Gulf War. He had traveled to India too, to Kerala; he’d also been on a secret plane that had flown over Russia, and had almost been hit by a Russian missile. He said all this with an easy pride.

Joe earned his living now as a mechanic. He had grown up in Philadelphia, in the south side, near “hardware docks”, where things were assembled and disassembled. That experience had fascinated him. He had a special love for cars and trucks. “Automobiles,” he claimed, “ran in his blood.” He worked in what seemed like a high intensity environment, where cars and trucks had to be fixed quickly. He bragged of a rough but macho life: those who worked with him were tough. Sometimes, in accidents, mechanics lost the tops of their fingers, and yet pretended that nothing had happened. They covered the fingers with tissue and kept on working.

As he talked, I began to sense something different. This wasn’t a “working class” man - at least he wasn't anymore. He was paid more than 100 dollars an hour. His boss, in order to keep him from moving to a more lucrative job elsewhere, pleaded with him to stay and kept increasing his pay. Joe dictated the terms of his increase every year.

“In America, everyone wants to blame others for their situation these days,” he said, talking of political and social matters. “They say: I am in this situation because of you. Pointing fingers. It’s all a blame game.” I couldn’t help wondering if he was referring to the black community.

His views were very conservative. “I hate liberal democrats,” he said. “Global warming is something democrats have cooked up to take our money, tax us. In the Midwest, right beneath American land, there is oil there for the taking. But the democrats won’t want take it; they want to steal money from us. So my advice is: Never vote Democrat.”

It made sense now. Joe was well off; he had probably earned his wealth the hard way and was now protective of it. A Democrat government meant taxes, and that might mean some of his wealth would be siphoned away.

We got off at Baltimore Penn Station. When I’d first seen him in the train, his ragged clothes had suggested that he might be frugal, that upon reaching Baltimore, he’d get home in a bus. But at the station, as we parted ways, Joe said he would call a taxi. He said it in a tone that suggested he called taxis all the time, without hesitation.

How mistaken initial impressions can be.

3. And finally, Jane

I’ll finish with a note about a lady named Jane I met in Minnesota. Jane was 52. Unlike the shuttle driver in Amherst and the mechanic in Baltimore, Jane had nothing political to say, but she was full of warmth and spoke with great earnestness. She talked to me – while we rode on the shuttle van from Minneapolis to Rochester, Minnesota – of her family, and of how she had left Rochester only twice in her lifetime, this trip of hers to Minneapolis being one of them. I was fascinated by that fact: it contrasted sharply with my own life. I had moved a lot, even while in India. The other trip Jane had made outside Rochester, Minnesota had been to the Appalachian country in Kentucky. That to her had been like a visit to a foreign place.

Jane was one of eleven children. Her father had grown up during the Great Depression and had struggled. But he had worked hard to provide for his children. Jane was the third child, and she had only brothers after her.

One of Jane’s brothers worked as an electrician; another as a brick layer; yet another as a carpenter; one had been in the navy; her sister worked as a beautician. Jane herself worked as a nurse who cared for the elderly. Remarkably all of them lived in Rochester. Jane did not have to call a service when she wanted something fixed at home; her brothers would do it for her. They were a close knit family.

Joe the Plumber was just one person, one example of your “ordinary, hard-working American”. But here was a family whose occupations sounded like a roll call of the unspectacular, plebeian jobs. If the Presidential candidates had known of Jane's family, they might have come rushing to use them as an example.

This, they would promptly claim, was the type of hardworking American family they would fight for when they were elected to office.