By Samir Shukla
Practically everyone thinks they are going to live forever when they are 18. That's what I thought when I hit that age, the juncture of exiting childhood and entering legal adulthood. It was summer of 1981. A sizzling hot July. A young new decade, the recently birthed eighties were teasing with possibilities. The disorienting cultural shifts of migration from India to USA, via several stops along the way and winding up in Charlotte now were smoothed.
A new decade dawned, high school was conquered, and college life beckoned at the end of the summer. Life was young and the future seemed so vast, so long, so far away. A new and former unknown road called Route 18 opened up and I didn't hesitate to get on it.
The road was bumpy, curvy, and full of distractions, with plenty hesitations, forward moves, and learning curves. It seemed an endless road of mishaps and achievements. The journey began in a car that was a beat-up American classic and the prime distraction, the lovely radio dial never further than the reach of the right hand.
Music has been my prime sustenance in the past decades, not just as a listener or attempting to play the guitar, but as a participant in the business of music, owning a record shop, recording label, a music magazine, and promoting shows. I calculate that I've seen over five thousand bands or musicians till date in various venues and stages. Let's call them music makers of varied genres, beats, melodies, and noise. My basic parameter is that I have to see a specific music maker for at least 20 minutes to say I've seen that performer, to at least get a taste of that performer's ability to perform live.
Music informed the past, drizzles the present and promises comfort into the future.
There's that word again. Future. I always looked forward to the future as a youngster. I have loved science-fiction and science fact since I learned to read. Star Trek, Star Wars, and Mahabharata along with myriad other films, TV shows, and books helped imagine a tech-infused future. I couldn't wait to have Star Trek communicators, ability to talk via video, use the device to navigate. Now that we have invented those innovations, I must confess I'm a bit underwhelmed. The initial magic of cell phones, internet and now smart phones has worn off. I've got a smart phone, but do I want smart everything else?
I suppose I feel underwhelmed by technologies because at the same time I'm overwhelmed by them. I find this dilemma unhinging. My younger self is trying to reach forward through time to slap my present self. What? This is what you dreamt of, and now it is prevalent the youngster tells me. What do you mean you are underwhelmed?
We are in the throes of unimagined technological advancement but at the same time the human disconnection is unnerving. We are connected like never before, but are becoming unconnected in unnatural ways, we are community but are becoming more tribal, self-centered. This creates a challenge to evolve new ways of thinking and I'm sure human ingenuity will make this possible but I fear massive disintegration of established orders amid dissonance and discord before a new type of society emerges. One that uses technology as a convenience, rather than a shield or hiding place or denigrator or weapon.
I adore our tech innovations, but also crave a bygone age. Simpler times. Sometimes I want to go way back to the legendary American West. But life was too hard back then and I'm too lazy to make such an adjustment.
So, I just watch old westerns and fantasize about the west. I now watch Star Trek waiting for transporters and warp drives, as other fictions of imagination have become fact. Sometimes I want to go back to the 1980s and 1990s when current technology was young, the Internet was coming of age, but you still needed to make an effort to discover and to connect. Way back when Route 18 was bursting open with possibilities of the future leading to other routes with the progress of time.
I like the ease of technology and as I'm dictating parts of this essay to my phone, which is typing it out for me. The clunker still makes a lot of mistakes and misreads what I say, but it's useful. After a while I just want to put the phone down, hit the road and get lost driving, pulling out creased old paper maps to find my way. The radio playing favorite tunes.
Maybe I'm just age-softened, the murky blend of memories and experiences slapped around by reality keeping me grounded.
I'm much more comfortable in my own skin now. I don't want to be anyone else but myself. Unlike my younger self dreaming of being one of my favorite musicians, actors, scientists, or simply being someone else.
A simple wisdom I've acquired traveling the routes of the possibilities and inevitabilities of life is a cold and hard one, try as you may but you can't run away from yourself. You can't unzip your skin and inhabit someone else. The restlessness of youth was never quite being happy with yourself.
You can go to the Himalayas to meditate, go to Jamaica and join a Rasta camp, go wandering the country on a motorbike, immerse yourself in dogma, or fill in your own quest on the blank line. These are all wonderful and serve a purpose on an individual basis, but you must like yourself first. If you don't like yourself, then your physicality, abilities and limitations, looks, financial constraints, all become road blocks, making elusive any attempts at happiness. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, you have to love yourself, pending self-realized improvements. Everything else then becomes manageable.
This doesn't require any deep spiritual quest, just acceptance of the physical self. Pinch yourself. Realize your talents and capabilities and then expand them. Realize your limitations and work within those parameters, while making efforts to decrease the scope of your limitations. Not everyone can do everything. “Never give up" sounds nice in a speech or committee meeting, but a smart person realizes to let go of something that simply won't work or cannot be achieved and moves on. Cut your losses and find another goal. We all have our skill sets. We have our physical beings. We must become comfortable with both.
This of course doesn't mean you can't lose weight, or work to increase stamina or find the clothing styles that make us feel confident. Learning to be alone when needed is an absolute requirement. Most people simply cannot be alone. I'm never alone. This is because I'm always with myself. I have learned to like myself. There's that corky hippy song..."If you can't be with the one you love, and then love the one you're with."
It's better to do and accomplish with your skills then daydream about something you cannot achieve. It's a hard lesson not easily learned in the throes of youth.
That old classic American car broke down and was abandoned eventually on Route 18. Others were driven on numerous routes along the way.
Today I'm driving in a comfy SUV along a straight and narrow desert road that evokes a sense of infinity. The road and journey seem endless. It's a similar feeling as when one is embarking on life in youth, often on unpredictable and narrow paths.
This drive through the desert is in a dream. It's a continuation of the actual drive through the West Texas desert from a couple months earlier. It's a hypnotic drive that breaks the trance only when another crossroad appears. The desert road has no exits and minimal distractions, while a sense of clarity hangs in the hot air.
I spot a road coming up that I need to turn on. The white rectangular sign with black markings appears. I pull onto the road and am now motoring along on Route 55. That's the road I need today. The road is smooth and well-traveled. The July heat swirls off the tar. Route 18 was taken with throttle in full gear, no map in hand, the words GPS still far in the distance, screeching tires and burning rubber occasionally welcome. Route 55 is just as fun, wide open and beckoning, but damn if the foot doesn't remain constantly alert, ready and hovering near the brake pedal.
By Samir Shukla
Score: The Doctor from India
Rachel Grimes has composed a delicate homage and backdrop to the documentary film, The Doctor from India. The subtle piano and strings evoke a solemn mood but is filled with a cheerfulness. This can be enjoyed outside of the documentary as a unique piece of music to be enjoyed at twilight with the light still filtering through the trees or, better yet, around midnight. Grimes is a composer and pianist who has a long and varied catalog, including her work with the eclectic combo Rachel's.
This recording is meditative and features piano, violin, harp, saxophone, and strings with sprinklings of tender sounds. It is classical, minimalist, and subtly jazzy. The Doctor from India is a documentary film by Jeremy Frindel that tells the story of Dr. Vasant Lad, a holistic health pioneer whose approach centers around the ancient practice of Ayurveda.
He has spent his life promoting and bringing the system of whole health known as Ayurveda to the West.
One may feel that a soundtrack to a documentary about an Indian doctor should feature some Indian music, maybe sitar or sarod gently floating along. But Grimes' music cozily fits and enhances the film's aura and storytelling. It's another notch in Grimes' eclectic works.
By Samir Shukla
When was the last time you were bored? Let me rephrase that. When was the last time you shut off the phone, TV, computer, something electronic, and spent some time just sitting, maybe on a porch, or in a comfortable chair somewhere around the house, reveling in self-induced boredom?
Spend some time completely unconnected, what the hyper-connected digital generation may consider being bored? This is not about being bored; it's about reconnecting with our innate natural order.
We are so digitally connected that we don't allow ourselves the space to just, well, not think for a spell, the kind that is free of digital information. We don't allow ourselves to be bored because we don't like the thought of being bored. One may even think it a waste of time to induce nothingness, a bit of thoughtless boredom, even for a few moments. But I have come to believe we need that disconnection, those moments of do nothingness, and it will actually advance productivity and clarity in daily matters.
We have access to so much information, so much entertainment, that its power to inform as well as counter our boredom rapidly diminishes. We often wind up simply swiping quickly to get through the unending incoming messages and information, lest we fall behind. We become jaded to even the occasional gem of information sent our way.
I noticed this recently when watching a movie, something I love to do. With access to so many movies on different platforms, I sometimes become jaded even toward my favorite films. It is this availability and access to so many films that I take their artistic value of escape or inspiration for granted. This thought hit me quite succinctly one night when I was watching a movie recorded on our DVR. Even though it was a film I've wanted to see for many years, I found myself grabbing the remote control and flipping over to another recorded movie, and after a few minutes flipping to another.
It was a moment of entertainment saturation. An activity I love became a bore itself.
I turned the TV off, and just stared at the surroundings in the living room. The quiet of midnight, the sounds of the night, or the lack thereof, entertained me and cleared my head till I became sleepy. The darkness of the night further induced visual-free bliss.
We all need some time to just clearly think in our daily busyness, but it is just as important to set aside moments to not think at all. One may suggest that meditation is an escape from information overload. I'm suggesting something beyond meditation.
I'm suggesting complete nothingness. Even meditation is a practiced ritual, the breathing, the attempt to connect to something inside us, or whatever your meditation quest is. Meditation, of course, has tremendous value. I'm saying just laze yourself into mind-cleansing, if that is such a thing. I suggest something blanker, beyond meditation.
This would require a return to our simpler, less technological times, even if for, let's say, a half-hour every day. I call it the “thinkless thirty" and allow ourselves to be just bored or just roam aimlessly in our own minds. Your “thinkless thirty" could be broken into two segments to be practiced during different times of day, or could be simply a few minutes, say five minutes. Let's give it a name, ahh, “freebie five."
Clearly we are social creatures, and what I suggest maybe anathema to someone living alone, craving social connection, either via face-to-face or social media. What I'm suggesting is for most people to disconnect briefly when possible.
This idea further brewed inside my head during my family's trip to Big Bend National Park in West Texas last month. There are areas in that vast expanse where there is simply no cell signal. The disconnection was liberating, making the desert, what many would consider to be a drab environment, come alive in its own multi-sensory grandeur.
Of course a lack of connection can create anxiety for many, even if only for a few minutes. Am I missing something? How many posts on social media have I missed? What if someone texts me?
So, what do I mean by “thinkless thirty" or whatever is your chosen time of unthinking?
Let's make it simple.
Allow me to demonstrate.
Ok. Thanks for observing.
How was that?
This makes sense if you now fill in your own nonthoughts inside the little white space above.
See, it's simple. Now, by all means, you may return to your regular programming.
Happy unthinking boredom!
By Samir Shukla
“Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
The other day I found a photo frame my son had made years earlier when he was in the Boy Scouts. It was stamped “my hero dad" on the sides. It got me to wonder about the meaning of the word hero. Have I lived up to those words stamped on that frame? Instead of coming up with a meaning, I thought about what constitutes a contemporary hero.
Every act of guidance, protection, discipline, mentoring, is open for critique with the passage of time. We may not be heroes in the valiant, stereotypical sense, but we give it our best shot. That in itself is heroic.
Our children aggregate all we gave, spoke, delivered or failed to deliver, and will eventually forge their own ideals and paths. The world is a wily and complex jungle filled with heroes and villains not very clearly defined. The years pass and we pat our now grown kids on the back and send them off to navigate that jungle.
Add the toxic political atmosphere that we live in into that jungle and the search for a stalwart, ethical hero gets even tougher. Where have they all gone?
In this age of incessant connectivity via social media and pervasive surveillance, people put on pedestals as heroes by others unhinge themselves via their sometimes minor or sometimes unforgivable misdeeds.
One day they are tall, strong, inspiring the world, the next they are mere mortals bringing shame on themselves by getting caught with their pants down, or their hands in a pot of illicit money, or succumbing to the seductive, soul-crushing charms of power.
A hero becomes just another pale human being when he misplaces or loses his own moral compass.
Shine a bright light and that tall, dark and strong hero suddenly seems pale. When you watch old B&W films, there were always the occasional closeups of beautiful stars and handsome heroes. They were shown in soft light, where all unseemly facial features and their shortcomings as humans were rendered unseen with the magic of light and movies. In today's high-definition world all the scars and warts are exposed on our big screen TVs and especially on the little screens we carry around all day long.
Even the celluloid heroes of old can't escape our voyeuristic, overexposing world.
Heroes become lesser the more we know about them.
Overexposure taints the sustaining of perceived heroes. Even the quotes of philosophical masters are undone in our unending exchanges in the muddles of social media. They are read for a brief moment and then swished away with the motion of the finger, on to the next incoming post. Do we really follow words of wisdom on a consistent basis?
Sometimes long-respected heroes disappoint when they turn out to be as ordinary as the path you walk on. Some of humanity's beloved heroes over the centuries were disheveled, lesser men and women when they were alive. Yet, their actions or even a single action or invention or inspiration turned them into heroes; people willing to cast aside their other foibles or misdeeds.
My heroes were always obtuse, imbued with steady yet disruptive genius. Sometimes it was Gandhi, often it was Captain Picard, and on the musical front if I chose one it would likely be Pete Townsend.
But these men are more inspirers than heroes. They were disruptive in a manner to affect change in art or politics. I tend to gravitate toward anything that unfurls the status quo into something better.
I have also always admired the myth of the American frontier cowboy, relying totally on himself to make a living or survive. But even that cowboy is a blend of multiple other cowboys, with my admiration overlooking their oft-destructive machismo.
There's the teacher in high school that pushed me to write better, inspiring me to engage in a life of words. The more I ponder; it was the act of a stern teacher guiding me that I remember most, not the person so much. I cannot say she was a hero, but I will always remember her for nimble edits that made learning the craft of writing a joy.
I suppose I don't know what a perfect hero is. There can be no such thing. We have to accept someone as a hero with all the caveats and boils that go with that person, for there is no perfect hero.
Competence alone is not heroic. Doing something positive that sets one back or is maybe personally damaging but is helpful to many others is heroic. We salute soldiers and call them heroes but it is only the soldiers who have faced death and brought death upon others that truly understand their perceived heroism. For them it may have been simply about survival, not heroism.
Sometimes you just have to take facets of different people and create your own hero, again via the actions they have taken that you admire while setting aside the ill-tempered, narcissistic, or amoral persons they may be.
Putting one's life in danger to save others is always honorable, but even that comes with a footnote. A while back I read of someone saving several kids in an accident, the temporary hero was later judged differently when people learned that he was a convicted felon.
We must accept that heroes today are as fleeting as the bursts of images in our daily, oversaturated electronic world. A simple act of kindness or lending a steady hand can become the hero of the day and not necessarily the person behind the act that betters someone's life just enough for them to pass on a similar act to another.
I don't know if I can be a hero to anyone, but I can always pass on a bit of wisdom or lend a helping hand. Maybe, in the end it is such simple acts that will sustain us, the pale heroes in us all.
By Samir Shukla
The Milk Lady of Bangalore
By Shoba Narayan
Cows and their lore are wholly intermingled with India's culture and religions, especially Hinduism.
Writer Shoba Narayan lived and worked in the US for 20 years and moved back to India with her family (husband and two young daughters) to the South Indian city of Bangalore (now formally known as Bengaluru).
Sarala, the milk lady, lives across the street from Narayan family's new digs, a modern apartment complex. Sarala and her family own several cows, keep them in sheds near their simple home and sell fresh milk to people in the vicinity. Narayan meets Sarala and the two women slowly strike up a friendship and over the course of the book expound on life, family, and all things milk.
Narayan develops this backdrop and writes from the crossroads of centuries old traditions (folks selling fresh milk daily) crossing paths with the 21st century modernity of Bangalore.
Cows are part of the fabric of India. They are everywhere, lazing on roads and highways, sauntering about where they please. They are bringers of good luck and are used to bless everything from apartments to auspicious occasions.
The Milk Lady of Bangalore is a wonderful non-fiction account of the friendship between a world-traveled and educated woman and a local, illiterate milk seller. Narayan documents many encounters and adventures with Sarala in everything cows, their milk, dung and even urine in her wit-filled book.
Narayan follows Sarala and her family of milk sellers, their connection to their cows, and their constant need for money. The working poor of India are forever in debt and trying to make ends meet, but are also passionate for life.
Eventually Narayan embarks on a journey to buy a cow she wants to give to Sarala, guiding readers into the unseen world of cow markets in South Indian villages with their unique ways of bargaining and socializing.
The book is a travelogue through a world so common in India, yet its struggles and ethos unknown to most. She writes with the keen reporting of a journalist combining fluid prose and storytelling, stitched with first-hand research.
The following passage gives the essence of India's connection with the cow and the premise of the book perfectly.
“The elevator door opens. A cow stands inside, angled diagonally to fit. It doesn't look uncomfortable, merely impatient. “It is for the housewarming ceremony on the third floor," explains the woman who stands behind the cow, holding it loosely with a rope. She has the sheepish look of a person caught in a strange situation who is trying to act as normal as possible. She introduces herself as Sarala and smiles reassuringly. The door closes. I shake my head and suppress a grin. It is good to be back."
By Samir Shukla
NY-based group Akshara's debut album In Time fuses timeless Indian music with layers of contemporary musical ethos. The album's five tracks weave South Indian (Carnatic) classical with jazzy, western classical and folk rhythms into an intriguing blend. The astute musicians infuse bansuri flute, cello, mridangam, cello, violin and tabla with vocal scats.
“At its root, Carnatic music is very complex and mathematical," explains classically trained, New York-based mridangam (South Indian double-headed drum) player Bala Skandan in the liner notes. “That makes it interesting rhythmically, even for seasoned Indian musicians."
Skandan is the ensemble's leader and composer.
The album's five tracks (clocking in at more than 50 minutes total) are an exploration of possibilities of Indian music that are meditative, trance-inducing, and joyfully percussive.
“Mind the Gap" opens the collection with galloping tablas and foretells, musically, of what's to come.
“Mohana Blues" opens with a meditative bansuri and highlights both konnakol (spoken rhythmic patterns) and tabla, as well as floating strings.
“Urban Kriti" is a rolling work beginning with hammered dulcimer that sounds like santoor. The cello moves in and out like a slithering creature. Tabla and mridangam play happily along with each other, picking up speed and building layers.
“Opus in 5" is the longest track and emphasizes the scatting, percussion and violin.
“Shadjam" could be an ideal track to accompany a Bharat Natyam dancer, emphasizing scats and violin.
Other than the vocal scats (konnakol), this is an instrumental recording.
More details at www.aksharamusic.com
The North Carolina Music Hall of Fame will celebrate its 10th Annual induction with seven new inductees being inducted into its Hall of Fame this fall. The induction ceremony will take place on Thursday, October 18, 2018 in Kannapolis, NC. Those being inducted are:
John Tesh: Pianist, composer, singer, and outstanding national broadcaster who studied music, radio, and communications at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. John’s Power of Love album was Grammy nominated in 2003 for "Best Pop Instrumental Album". John has six music Emmys, two Grammy nominations, three gold records, and several Public Television specials.
Chris Daughtry: 2006 American Idol contestant from Roanoke Rapids, NC. His chart-topping song “It’s Not Over”, performed by his rock band Daughtry, was nominated for “Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance” by a Duo or Group with Vocal at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards.
Dolphus Ramseur: Record Executive and founder of Ramseur Records, an independent record label based in North Carolina. Dolphus is responsible for successful artists such as The Avett Brothers and Steep Canyon Rangers. Dolphus was born and raised in Concord, NC.
Luther Barnes: Stellar Award winning and Grammy nominated gospel singer, songwriter and producer. Barnes was born in Rocky Mount, NC where he currently pastors the Restoration Worship Center.
Calvin Richardson: R&B/Soul singer-songwriter and producer from Monroe, NC. Calvin has received multiple Grammy nominations.
The Hoppers: The Hoppers have been singing to global audiences for over 60 years with appearances ranging from presidential religious inaugural ceremonies and New York’s Carnegie Hall to singing conventions and church platforms.
Blind Boy Fuller: Piedmont Blues guitarist famed for his fingerpicking style of the 1930’s. Fuller was born in Wadesboro, NC.
The Hall is located at 600 Dale Earnhardt Blvd., Kannapolis, NC.
For more details visit, www.northcarolinamusichalloffame.org.
By Samir Shukla
It's time for reimagining. We are not strolling into the future; we are “skipping" into the future, into the beyond, where every step skips several steps in between toward the awaiting new worlds. Don't sit still for long lest the cobwebs tie you down and leave you there to dry up and blow away. We are creating, with the dissonant and reshaping power of technologies, new worlds that will further unhinge norms, bring ease and unease, and increase rapidity and automation in everything.
New worlds wait around the bend of time, ones that are constantly being molded and created, while remaining unimagined in their potential to dishevel the rootedness of humanity. In the meantime we must reckon with a sense of loss, of simplicity and nature. The challenge for humans will be to strike a balance between the digital and the analog, the natural and the superficial, the habitual and the constantly changing, and most importantly, human intelligence and artificial intelligence, the real and the virtual.
These various balances must be guided by our generation. We are that last line of defense and reckoning, because the rapid pace of incoming technology will make it difficult to realign human values and ethos at later times. Our children are at the cusp of this unhinging. We are the bridge, along with today's digitized kids, for the reimagining of human communities while thwarting increasing tribalism and compartmentalization of tech-infused social ethos. This is the challenge of our generation.
Humanity is incessantly gliding toward unparalleled advances including rapid urbanization, because that is where opportunity waits. Current cities will double or triple in size in the near beyond. But the real unknown is in the cities that don't even currently exist, ones yet unimagined. New cities will be built in the desert, atop mountains, floating on the oceans, lurking on ocean floors, and etched out of forbidding landscapes on the moon. Everywhere we decide to inhabit, we have done it and will do so in unforeseen manners in the beyond, the future.
This will become even more necessary as the numbers of humans on this planet continue to increase and changing climate rearranges natural orders and habitats.
The challenge is to find the balance, between dizzying urban lives and our need for places of solitude and of spirituality. They can and do coexist. New cities will require such spaces if for nothing else than to maintain our sanity. Think of verdant places of escape in the midst of massive cities that currently exist – Central Park in New York, Hyde Park in London, and Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai.
They offer respite to the chaos of urbanism, the isolation of technology.
Our survival has always depended on our ingenuity. Changing climate and increasing population will require more of this ingenuity.
Of course we are a cunning species. If we can survive each other, we can survive anything. We are enterprising, creative, but most important we are adaptable. We adapt or perish. We are unique in that we survive at the peril of all other species.
We are creating a new planet that will require fewer humans to run it. This is the undesirable side effect. This is a dilemma as we continue to increase our numbers and simply will not be able to supply enough jobs for these incoming humans.
There are so many redundant and inefficient “occupations" in the world today, that disruptions to economies around the world are inevitable. Countries will have to adapt. We often hear arguments that technologies replacing human capital will create whole new fields and jobs. Yes, new jobs, sure, but much fewer jobs will be created, while many inefficient jobs will be eliminated. There will be simply not enough jobs for those seeking work. There will be experts, politicians, and economists telling you
that obsolete occupations and jobs will be replaced by others. They are wrong and are selling you nonsense. Any logical or common sense analysis will reveal this.
But this doesn't have to be a bad thing. New ways of thinking and living will have to emerge. Families will have to revert to a main breadwinner bringing home the major portion of the income while other members will become part-time workers, volunteers, artists, caretakers, gardeners, musicians, mentors, teachers...pick your personal passion and go for it.
One can argue most families need two full-time incomes to survive. Sure, today that is a reality for many. We cannot possibly employ all the folks in the world who seek work today, forget about trying to employ two billion more workers that will arrive in coming decades. Think of it this way. If we as a society can solve two main dilemmas - affordable housing and affordable health care for all - then a new society can emerge. I don't mean more government sponsorship of people. I mean a combination of players - governmental, corporations, NGOs, and religious institutions that converge to make this possible. It won't be easy, as the first thing required is consensus. Getting past ideological and partisan bickering will take time.
People, men especially, will need to reeducate and retrain themselves to become the workers, no a better word is participants, of the new beyond. I call them “productive participants" and not workers or employees. Women are much more adaptable to rapidly changing social norms. An increasingly autonomous world offers new ways of living. The denizens of this “beyond tomorrow" world won't care about patriarchy or matriarchy, climbing the corporate ladder or wealth acquisition; they will care about what works and productive, creative participation. No one will judge anyone as long as they are participants. That is one possible outcome.
Can we create communities, caressed with nature and humanness, within our tech-infused urban environments while supporting thriving, new means of commerce and living?
Worlds reimagined await the adaptable and forward thinkers of this fast incoming future.
By Samir Shukla
One cold January night, while flipping through channels, my wife and I happened upon a movie that had just begun playing on TCM. The B&W film, Hold Back the Dawn, drew us in within a few moments with its layered story. It's a wonderful film that I had never seen or heard of before. TCM's narrator Ben Mankiewicz later recapped the film and said it had received six Oscar nominations including for Best Picture, back in 1941.
The film is about immigrants trying to get into the United States. You can guess by the year that they are all Europeans escaping fascism and war in Europe. They have made it to Mexico on the California border somehow and have applied for visas in their own manners and await their fate. The protagonist is a con artist and womanizer who finds out the “quota" for his country of origin, Romania, is very small and he would have to wait several years to legally acquire entrance into the US.
He is passing the days in Mexico for months until an old girlfriend shows up and tells him how she acquired a legal way to get into the States, by marrying an American. She ditched her husband once she acquired a visa to get into the States, of course. Our protagonist now gets the idea and targets a young American school teacher he accidentally meets when she brings a group of school children to Mexico for a daylong trip.
Well, without going into the whole story let's just say he tricks and then later charms her and manages to marry her within 24 hours. The rest of the film is an exploration of this story. Other characters in the film include a pregnant woman who realizes she is about to give birth and crosses the border one day (it was surprisingly easy to walk through the gate) and has a child on the American side, and now instantly her child is an American citizen. There are other tales of future Americans-in-waiting woven into the whole story. The film's plot and the interwoven characters all make it worth seeing.
I thought of contemporary debates about immigration while watching the film. DACA, H1B, jumping the border, marrying American citizens and other means of entering the country seem to have parallels in the film, which takes place over 75 years ago at a very different time in American history. The film's characters, much like millions around the world today, were simply trying to find ways to enter the land of their dreams.
There is clearly a rise in anti-immigrant feeling under the Trump administration, but his supporters' arguments against chain migration, worker visas taking American jobs, added stress on social services, and reducing illegal immigration by any means, are all valid concerns. I don't write them off loosely as all hate speech or rising intolerance. There are genuine fears for underemployed Americans, even though a lot of the fear doesn't pan out statistically, while the prime ethos remains in place, that Americans are generally very tolerant and welcoming people.
The current increase in anti-immigration sentiment is not new. My family has been here since 1974 and has received much love and support though the years, but I can recall several negative personal experiences. The first year I was in the States, a self-important and pudgy classmate, whose thick accent gave away his own recent arrival from Britain, taunted me several times saying, “We civilized you." Meaning the Brits civilized Indians. His overall meaning was also “What the hell are you doing here? You don't belong here." Alas, I couldn't come up with a retort at the time to put that little punk in his place.
In the early 80s, while strolling through a New York City store during a vacation with family members, the clerk nonchalantly blurted out, “See all Indians are same… they won't buy anything..." I can almost hear him mumble under his breath, “Why don't you go home." His attitude clearly implied that Indians are cheapskates and brought their frugal ways with them, even though there were many other people who strolled through the store and walked out without buying anything, as tourists do in touristy areas and shops around the world.
When I owned a record store, a young black male accosted me more than once to say “You Indians are taking our jobs. Why don't you go back to where you came from?" That was in the 90s.
There have been other instances, but I don't take them as general hostile nature of average Americans. Here, we have been afforded opportunities that would not have been possible elsewhere. I am a product of the best elements of two cultures. I am an American and I am proud of my Indian heritage. I have always said I don't have any issues with my duality.
Human migration to other lands has always been marked with dissonance and fear, the natives sometimes uncomfortable with new arrivals. Some migrants have also wrought devastation of lands and cultures. Just ask Native Americans. White Europeans didn't take away jobs from Native Americans when they migrated to America, they took their souls.
Steady immigration has had a positive impact on America and conversely on those who immigrate here. Most Americans know and understand this. There will always be a small percentage of haters, but most who want to reduce immigration into this country, both legal and illegal, aren't necessarily all haters or racists. They have legitimate economic fears. I get it. It's when politicians skew numbers, espouse fearmongering, and inflame passions that haters and racists crawl out of the woodwork. They feel empowered and bogus narratives are formed. This can lead to further degradation of the real American story, one that evolves with each wave of immigrants into something better.
There are plenty of bipartisan possibilities to weave long-term immigration solutions. It requires courage and that is hard for policymakers, many genuinely want to effect positive change, when the next election and loud partisans always loom around the corner.
This piece first appeared in the February 2018 edition of Saathee magazine.
By Samir Shukla
The brighter light of a supermoon sliced the dark night. That particular moon was parked behind an insignificant cloud, as seen from my deck, and somehow made the cool air feel warmer. It also brought a sense of newness, alighted by nature. The still of that night faded into the chilled morning. That supermoon teased its newness in early December and went about its business slowly waning into the same old typical moon in subsequent nights. Meanwhile, the jingles and the bells rang daily as the month of holidays strolled forward to meet its end and to begin a new year.
The town's denizens now competed with the moon, brightening the night with lights of red and green, blue and white, yellow and purple.
I was sitting on my favorite wooden chair one night in the living room, in the waning final days of December, the glow from the neighbor's Christmas lights filtered through the window. It was late. The TV was flickering about its business. My fingers were flipping through some favorite channels.
I landed on Turner Classic Movies and a smile formed on my face. A movie was playing, as it usually does on TCM. It was a western. Jimmy Stewart was riding a horse. His lanky body swaying in the heat of the desert he rode through. My sleepy eyes widened as westerns are among my favorite genres.
I was halfway through a beer, a rather potent IPA, and put the remote down to watch Stewart ramble about his western business while I polished off the beer. I wasn't planning on having another, but popped one open. It must have been the dry desert that Stewart was riding through that further jostled my thirst.
The movie rolled on. My eyes fought sleep as I drifted off and suddenly I was on a horse riding through the desert at night. My lanky body was swaying along to the rhythmic movements of the horse. The vastness of the American west was lit up by a giant supermoon. I rode on and on, into the next moment, around the next bend, and into the future.
I woke up when my head bobbed hard. The western and my dream were over and another movie was now rolling.
I turned the TV off, abandoned the last few gulps of the beer down the kitchen sink and crawled up the stairs to meet my bed.
While I drifted back into slumber, I thought of December winding down and the incoming year. The earlier supermoon that visited us and the moon in my western dream, were both hanging in the sky like portals into the future. They looked like gateways into something new, or some sort of newness, if you will. I vaguely remember dreaming of reaching up to the portals, looking for a latch to open them. A beer-infused sleep can be a restless one.
I don't seem to feel much newness anymore when the end of the year rolls around and a new one is lurking around the corner. The arrival of each fresh year spars with the older one about to wrap up, and the older one always loses, leaving itself behind to be judged by history, but all the while laughing at me and adding another notch to my years lived. Ha! There you go pal, the oldster says, one second past midnight.
I'm approaching the halfway point of my sixth decade on this fair planet, and now every year just rams into the next one in the churn of busyness.
So here I am in late December, and once again, toying with me, New Year's Eve approaches. For some it's just another evening, for most it is about the start of something fresh. It's a marker to erase some of the old and a chance to write new stories, a time to reflect on the year gone by and wager on the one incoming.
This past year was unique as of course all the others have been in their own manners. The year presented celestial wonders, a supermoon and a total solar eclipse gliding across America one afternoon.
It was also a year of political madness rarely seen in this lovely country. People who are generally nice, friends and neighbors became angrier, more separate, succumbing to shallow political arguments. Maybe the incoming year will soften some of the increasing disjointedness. Politics are politics, full of self-serving ideologies. It is up to reasonable people to affect positive movement and deflect long-term societal degradation.
Once again the New Year's Day will arrive. The day will progress into the week, the week into the month. Winter's hard grip will linger for a couple of months and then another renewal, a sense of freshness, will arrive with spring.
Resolutions have become passing fancies. This year, though, I resolve to do more of what I'm doing now, putting words down on paper. Tell some stories I haven't told or even thought of. Document the year as it unfolds. We will spend the eve of the incoming year in our own manners. Some will spend it quietly, others in the throes of lights, music and dance.
After the clock strikes midnight, with the old year tucked away into history, I'll dream of that American west and ride through the desert while I slumber in my warm bed. This time the horse will be riding with the wind, on a soft summer night, maybe a new supermoon will be hanging over the horizon, laughing and teasing with the promises and pitfalls of a new day and a new year ahead.
This piece originally appeared in the January 2018 edition of Saathee magazine.