Every summer I spend six weeks in India where I was born and raised. I cherish the time with family and friends but by the end of my stay, I am ready to leave – the chaos, the disorder, the noise and the unpredictability of India get to me. I return home to the United States relieved to be in order and predictability.
Except, this summer, for the first time in more than a decade, I returned to my perfect suburban home in Newton, MA, my mind in complete disarray. I had left behind the external chaos of India but I carried within me a chaos, a confusion, which simply won’t go away. Of course, the political climate, the increasing violence and the racial prejudices of the United States bother me. But my internal chaos comes from a deeper, darker place – while adopting the American way of life I have simply stopped evolving.
It took a single incident to make me realize this.
I was visiting a very busy, loud and dirty part of Pune city to see a craftsman I have known for years. There is a temple right by the craftsman’s shop and I decided to go in though I don’t believe God resides in any particular place and is, instead, something indescribable for whom we still don’t have the vocabulary.
As I was leaving the temple I noticed a mirror on the wall by the door. I stopped to straighten my hair and clothes since I was going to dinner right afterwards. As I was looking at my reflection I noticed a little girl also looking in the mirror, not at herself, but at me. I turned around and smiled.
“Who are you?” she asked, staring at me unblinkingly.
“Sena, that’s my name,” I answered used to the open curiosity of Indian children and their lack of hesitation in asking strangers questions.
“Yes, but who are you?” she persisted, stressing on the “are.”
“I am a writer and journalist and I live in the United Sates, though I grew up here. I am visiting India with my husband and children. In fact, my son who is almost 11 might be your age.”
The girl in the flower-printed, frothy dress and neatly braided hair shrugged. “I am 13.”
“So who are you?” I asked in a joking tone.
“My family lives behind this temple,” she said pointing to the rear door. “We are Brahmins and my father says I am very bright. But I don’t know who I am.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, my physics teacher at school tells me that even if we are all solid, we are made of atoms and spaces. Which means we are all the same inside. But, then, my grandmother tells me that we are all different, not because of our external achievements but because we all have varying capabilities to look inside ourselves, understand who we truly are.”
“Does she really?” I asked flabbergasted at the child’s knowledge. “What else does she say?”
“She says people who don’t spend time thinking about who they are and the world around them are superficial. They are the ones who cause it the most harm.”
“I am amazed at how much you know of these things at such a young age,” I replied trying not to look stupid.
She shrugged again. “I don’t know. So many Americans like yourself come here and you all seem so confident. You seem to know exactly who you are. Ok, I should go now. My parents will be waiting and I talk too much.”
I watched her flower-printed dress disappearing in the crowd and I will probably never see her again. Later, I even wondered if that incident had really happened or if I had imagined it just as I imagine scenes and people when I am writing a story. Whatever it is, that conversation stayed with me and I returned to the United States wondering exactly what the girl was wondering – who was I?
The external order of the United States stopped reassuring me. Sure, we are technologically advanced, our infrastructure is impeccable and things, by and large, work as they should. But are we truly a progressive and evolved nation because of all this? Our lives are so mechanical, like programmed robots we go from weekday to weekend from birth to death doing more or less what everyone else does. I haven’t seen many Americans (even very educated ones) question customs, habits, traditions. Fewer still are interested in the culture and people of the world outside except when someone foreign attacks them or causes them damage. This attitude worked so far but it isn’t working anymore – while we measure progress on the basis of what we can own, buy, possess, dominate, the rest of the world is evolving in a different way – with their minds.
The rest of the world simply cannot adopt our model of happiness based on materialism and consumption. Since we use the most resources of any country on the planet there just isn’t enough to go around. In the absence of material distractions people in poor countries tend to look inwards more, be more introspective. They find happiness within themselves. They fill those empty spaces inside with humility and acceptance and merge seamlessly with the world around them. That, to me, is true evolution. And power.
So how can we call ourselves a progressive society? We reject ancient knowledge, we hardly know anything about the past, we think we know everything and we are least inclined to learn from the mistakes of many great people who existed before us. Because there is hardly any internal peace in us, we are one of the most stressed-out societies. We need coffee to wake us up, sleeping pills to put us to sleep. Buying a new car, a Prada bag, or a piece of jewelry makes us happy. We are at that precarious stage where we have lost our capacity to look inwards; instead we rely on all manner of material things to fill the emptiness of our lives.
We are at that tipping point where we are willing to make dictators of brutes, princes of drunks, and presidents of charlatans. We deserve Trump. Sure, many don’t support him but not all of Iraq supported Saddam and not all of Germany supported Hitler. Trump is simply a culmination of all our self-serving, ruthless foreign policies and politics. He represents the true self-centeredness and money-mindedness of our country. If he loses, I am sure the next candidate will be far worse. Remember when we thought Bush was a disaster? Now he looks like a scholar compared to Trump!
After the debate of a few nights ago, I neither felt anger nor frustration. I felt a deep sadness at how we have successfully cultivated a support base for people like him. We are self-destructing and these are some of the scenes of the future I see.
The courthouse is old and beautiful. People trickle out at the end of the day, glad to escape the winter chill seeping into the stone walls making the heating system useless. They all look forward to going home, even if some don’t have families. There isn’t much to do. The nightclubs and pubs have been closed by the religious extremists and the only thing you can watch on television are preachers who will tell you how you will go to hell if you don’t follow Jesus.
But just as the crowd is filing out, armed men in uniform surround them.
“Walk in single file,” they command. Hearts race, stop, grow faint but no one screams. By now, they are used to these mass abductions and following instructions without questioning.
The crowd is led to a large hall, all metal and high ceilings, and divided into groups.
Each group is shown a map of the world.
“Group 1,” an armed official barks. “This is the area of the world you are responsible for. 504.” He points to a region, glowing fluorescent green. “If you don’t follow our instructions here we can detonate this region, destroy it completely without even stepping out of this place.”
The people in the group stare at the fluorescent spot. They all have family living in that region.
“Don’t get any ideas to run away,” the man warns. “Your thoughts are now connected to sensors and even the slightest hint of dissension can be seen by us.”
The group, then, trains itself to think like its aggressors. They believe in them, follow them and, at one point, they forget they are doing it for their families living in region 504.
The school bell rings but the children don’t run out. They walk in single file through the doors, subdued. Teachers, carrying guns, accompany them to the door from where armed police lead them to buses whose drivers are also carrying weapons. The children must be taken safely home, protected from possible shooters. The children are used to this by now; they don’t know what an unarmed society looks like. They are told guns are bad but their mothers and fathers also have guns in their homes. “We all have to protect ourselves,” the adults say.
The NRA has won. It has kept its children safe surrounded by guns, rifles, assault weapons. But the mental security and stability of the future generations has been sacrificed at the altar of physical safety.
Brides, all dressed in white even though that is the color of death for some, walk through the graveyards. Every grave belongs to a woman, there are no graves of men. The men never came home. They became martyrs, reduced to ashes fighting for their ideals, their beliefs, their political aspirations. The women have no one left to marry and they roam the graves in their white bridal dresses. They have become mere instruments to carry a man’s idea of a woman forward. They have to wear white because that is the color of purity and that is what the men want of their women. But the young girls dressed in white are looking for one man, just one, who doesn’t want anything more than to stay home, love, and have a family. The women squabble amongst themselves but they know they won’t go to war. The few women who did go returned having lost all the tolerance and sensitivity of the female mind.
This is exactly how a society that has stopped evolving looks like. There is still a semblance of order in these surrealistic scenes. But what of the chaos and fear in the minds of the people in these situations?