Friday, May 08, 2009

To be called Taliban

I referred briefly here to the sense of humor of the Ogallala Indians of Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota. But it wasn’t always a pleasant sense of humor as I found out once.

Let me elaborate.

During my travels on the reservation, I was trying to get in touch with a community activist named Pinky. She lived in the town of Manderson and owned a convenience store – daintily called Pinky’s Store. As I drove into the parking lot, I saw several men lounging aimlessly outside: Pine Ridge was wracked with poverty and unemployment.

Pinky was not in. I stood outside pondering my next step when I saw one of the loitering men staring at me, a strange smile on his face. He was tall, skinny and dressed in military fatigues. There was a glazed look to his eyes suggesting he may have been drunk. It was still morning.

“Taliban!” he said, still smiling, a triumphant look on his face.

I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. I stared back.

At the same time, another loiterer approached me. He was friendly, also tall, and somewhat chubby; the skin on his face was blotched and his teeth were bad – this was true of many men I met in the reservation. He asked if I needed help with directions. I did. But after he’d explained which road led to which town and what was worth seeing on the reservation, he cleverly asked for a couple of quarters.

“I need it for a cigarette.”

As I searched for coins, I stole a glance at the man in the military dress. He was still looking at me and he still had that annoying smile.

“Taliban!” he said again, with something approaching glee.

I was now sure of what I’d heard. The remark was clearly directed at me. Bemused and somewhat puzzled, I stared back at him even as I took in the insult. But I wasn't sure how to respond or start a conversation, so I left shortly after.

Why, I wondered later, had he called me Taliban? I can never know for sure, but I can certainly speculate. The young Ogallala man had probably served in the US military; he had probably been posted in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Perhaps he was no longer serving now, or had returned home for a break. The typical Taliban recruit is probably not as dark-skinned as me; yet our soldier might have come across enough men with that unmistakably South Asian skin tone – that distinctive shade of brown – that all of us from the subcontinent share.

Then, out of the blue that morning, this Ogallala Indian soldier had seen me. He had seen me in the reservation, of all places. And in me he had recognized that same shade of brown he had come across frequently while serving in Pakistan or Afghanistan. And drunk that he was, he had simply associated me with the Taliban. It was his way of having fun; his way of teasing me. Hence the smile.

An Indian from India travels to an isolated, poverty-stricken corner of South Dakota and finds himself among other Indians. And here, seemingly far away from where the much advertised “war on terror” was being fought, he finds himself being cheekily associated with some of the extreme elements of that war.

Strange how the weirdest connections can materialize in the unlikeliest places. But that is how the world is today: strands of one place and people are linked, however tenuously, with strands of another place and people. It is stating the obvious, but for good or bad and whether we like it or not, we are all tied together -- inextricably tied together.


Heather said...

Wow ~ a very captivating account of this brief moment in your life Hari! I loved it ~ thank you for sharing your amazing gift of words!

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