By Samir Shukla
Among my personal joys of summer? Long drives. Ones where you cross a few states on your way to a destination. It could be a sun-blasted drive, while odd knots of clouds paint the sky above. Sometimes clouds blot out the sun, and then there maybe rain, a gentle sprinkle or torrential downpour. You pass quaint farms and sad small towns clinging to country roads, exits for connecting roads, towns and cities, humanity going with you in one direction while others are going where you just left, passing by in flashes of cars, trucks, vans, motorcycles. Certain vehicles become a part of your journey, like that blue truck hauling some kind of pipes you passed a while back and catches up with you again down the road because you took a pee break at a rest area. You spot it again somewhere down the road, it is as if it came along to give you company.
All this becomes a soundtrack of the drive. All the sights and sounds of American highways and byways, yes, the whole journey is enhanced by this music of the road. You insert favorite songs into this soundtrack of the drive and make it your own. Conversations make the long miles seem shorter, while music adds a different element. On solo drives, music is indispensable. Tapping into songs with lyrics specific to the geography you are currently passing lends a sense of place. Songs about towns, states or specific locations add markers along the drive, bringing the places to life even if you are just passing through.
You can't drive through Alabama and not listen to “Sweet Home Alabama." Right? Or not hum a few lines of one of myriad songs about the city that never sleeps while driving or strolling around New York City Streets. “I'm in a New York state of mind…" croons Billy Joel somewhere in those streets at any given moment.
So, the summer drive at hand. We headed out of Charlotte while James Taylor mellowed the early part of the journey with “Carolina in My Mind." We were now on the road with about 700 miles beckoning. The hell with the GPS telling me exactly the miles and the anticipated drive time. I like my mind's maps, especially on a summer drive where you have allotted some extra time for counting the trees along the way, if you will.
It's also unplanned stops along the way at the oft missed and forgotten places that add stories to summertime drives. That waterfront scenic spot, mountaintop lookout, a curio shop on a rural road, a historic marker, boiled peanuts, well, you know what I mean.
The Rolling Stones' “Sweet Virginia" kept us company for a few minutes along the sliver of Virginia we drove through on this trek to our destination on a jaunt headed northwest. It was the 4th of July, adding a patriotic flair especially driving through Virginia while listening to Springsteen's philosophical lyrics about this wonderful country.
The car rolled along and popped out of a mountain tunnel and West Virginia appeared on a welcome sign. Ok, so you know one of the songs played while driving through the state. “Country roads, take me home, to the place…"
The mountains now conquered and the entire breadth of Ohio remained, where along the way Neil Young told a bit of the story of Kent State in his song “Ohio."
No long drive is complete without Kishore Kumar's “Musafir Hun Yaaron (I'm a traveler my friends)."
There's no reason that Kishore Kumar can't mingle with Coldplay or Arijit Singh handing over the mic to Bruce Springsteen on this drive's soundtrack or any other for that matter. The added advantage of streaming services now means any song that pops in your head can be commissioned to play via the cell phone.
On this drive, through the states and American byways, the wildly varied clouds, the blazing July sun, the sameness of the highway, oft broken by sections like an old bridge over a lonely river, at the end of this long drive, we pulled into the outskirts of Motor City. Detroit. We were just outside the city, in the burbs to absorb talks of the philosopher Guru Morari Bapu for a couple of days. Our intention was also to explore a bit of Detroit.
One drizzly afternoon we entered the city limits of this once industrial powerhouse while rockers Kiss blasted out “Detroit Rock City" on the speakers.
The next moment The Temptations began to sing “I got sunshine on a cloudy day..." We were in Motown. If New York City has inspired a hundred songs, Motown has shaped generations of American music. Born and bred in Detroit, the “Motown sound" (born as Tamla Records in 1959 and soon renamed Motown Records) redirected American music. It was black music, loved by one and all. Sixty years have passed and the classics of Motown never fade.
We stopped off to feel the aura of the place and the sounds in the air at the Motown Museum, which is really the small house where Motown began, with its offices and a recording studio. Hitsville USA as it became known. This little corner of Detroit serves as a spiritual gathering and reminder of the power of music to bind generations, in this case the “Motown sound." Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross are among the icons of this timeless sound.
This drive is now rounded out with a return trip to Charlotte, which of course had its own musical accompaniments. Summer is not over yet. The next road trip awaits its own soundtrack.
By Samir Shukla
I have always preferred the influencing power of words over the preciseness of numbers. Two plus two will always equal four, but have two people sit on a park bench, look straight ahead and quickly write down what they observe and you will get two variations. Numbers and their wizardry came easy to me in school years. Today words inform my life, give me comfort, and light the much worn as well as newer paths.
In my thoughts, in June, I stroll on such a path, awaiting the sizzle of July, scouting the spot where I will jump to the other half of my fifth decade on this globe. Every year the month begins with the bombast of fireworks and ends with the soft blinking of fireflies.
I'm sitting on the upper wooden deck behind my house on a breezy June night. A thin moon dimly lights the clouds, nocturnal insects break the quiet with occasional chirping. The night is deepening while smooth bourbon mingles with the ice in a thick glass sitting atop a small table to the right of me. The sips help navigate the jumble of thoughts disturbing the night, or does it jumble the thoughts navigating the night? The bourbon will have the last word.
I left work earlier in the day and drove home and landed in my driveway but couldn't remember any landmarks or turns I made. Don't remember accelerating or braking. I simply made it back home as if I had transported from one location to the next. It's a drive I've done countless times. The only thing I remember is shifting from the NPR radio station to a classic rock station somewhere along the route. Damn if I could remember the drive, but I recount flipping from a chatty segment on immigration and nodding my head to an Aerosmith power ballad. This is among the thoughts this night as I take another sip.
A brick wall about the height of an average basketball player separates my backyard from the street. I sit facing the wall, looking down at it and the dark backyard while the night mellows. A car passes by, its usual noise softened by the bank of trees on the either side of the wall and the wall itself.
The engine noise sounds like a heavy cardboard box dragged across sand, approaching, amplifying and then fading. The single headlight does double duty for the other broken headlight while evoking a low flying UFO hovering just above the street. The bourbon enhances its spectrum.
I tap the nearly empty glass and sniff out the last drop which whispers to me to call it a day. The numbers 11:58pm light up the phone that's been set aside. Two plus two sure equals four, and now two more minutes and the thin moon will cough up another day that the sun will embellish in its own manner in a few hours and backslap it on its way.
The words and thoughts swirling around my brain now fade while the numbers win the night once again, ticktocking along while I quietly open the back door and tip toe through the kitchen and up the stairs into the awaiting midnight slumber.
By Samir Shukla
The Republic of Modi's 2019 election is over. India once again became its prime minister. Yes, sure, I've purposely mixed up the words here, but make no mistake. Narendra Modi was reelected India's Prime Minister by a large margin and a bigger mandate. He has infused himself into India's ethos unlike any former Prime Minister. He is now larger and will be an even bigger self-proclaimed charger; further sprinkling his vision and policies into the country, which some will hail and others will curse.
It takes two terms, whether for Presidents or Prime Ministers, to fully flex the vision and policies for long-term effect. Those are fighting words for Modi detractors, albeit too late now, and, even more so for Trump detractors, who would love to deny him a second term in 2020.
It will be up to a man or woman with the word Democrat attached to their name to accomplish that task. The democrats vying for the party's nomination are becoming louder, as they must. Someone has to get ahead of the pack and stay ahead. Their policies are, for the most part, in line with progressive ideology. There is no “out of nowhere" outlier like Trump was during the Republican primaries in 2016. Each candidate will have to work hard.
Joe Biden remains the frontrunner, but there are four or five other candidates chomping at the bits that have a chance at the nomination. I can't imagine most of them will get too far, but they may be already angling for a cabinet position, if a democrat wins the White House.
The first debates have taken place in late June (after we went to press for the July issue). More debates are coming up in July. Much convincing and fundraising await the candidates.
In politics, as in much of life, it's all about persuading. My modus operandi has always been, if I can go see it, I will, if I can touch it I will. If I can hear it, smell it and taste it, I will. That is a prime way to inform myself. Now the nearly two dozen folks running for the Democratic nomination must inform the voters and persuade people to vote for them when the primaries crank up early next year. The long slog continues.
Upcoming Democratic Debates:
July 30 & July 31, 2019: CNN (9-11pm), Detroit
I invite you to follow me on Twitter: @ShuklaWrites
By Samir Shukla
Every few weeks there is news of a mass shooting somewhere in the United States. This time it hit home. Charlotte's name came up on this day, April 30, 2019, the last day of classes for the spring semester at University of North Carolina at Charlotte (my alma mater and the university that my daughter is currently attending), as the news quickly spread of an active shooter on campus. A shooter entered a classroom and began shooting.
One of the students ran toward the shooter and physically attempted to stop him. The student along with another died and four more were injured. The shooter, a young guy who for unknown reasons decided to shoot his fellow students, was quickly taken into custody by the police.
Once again debates about guns flared up. Here is the reality. We are a gun country, have been and always will be. Whatever is your interpretation of the second amendment, guns are in America's DNA. There are no simple solutions to gun violence, or most types of violence for that matter.
There is a bigger underlying dilemma here. It concerns half of the human species. I'm talking about males. I've written before that an overwhelming majority of violence of all sorts are conducted by my gender.
I often think about this. Yes, thoughtful regulations and background checks would help, more readily available and affordable mental health care would help, but more laws and rules still don't deter the innate male tendency toward violence. This is why we need a different, long-term approach.
What's really needed is a massive societal effort geared toward, let's call it, “Male Care." Yeah, it sounds odd, what is male care and why is something like that needed? The better question is what is it that drives males to violence? Females also experience physical, financial, and mental problems that males experience, but they don't resort to violence to try to “solve" those problems.
The overwhelming numbers of violent incidents, including shootings, brawls, domestic violence, religious extremism, wars, road rage, you name it, are spewed by males. We can make more laws and instill tougher punishment, but that doesn't get to the source of the problem.
A global effort involving multiple forces to reach out to boys in a “father figure manner" is a must, especially for boys who lack such figures in their lives. This is a complex discussion, but I guess what we really in the long term is a holistic manner of raising boys, if that makes sense, where they are able to find their place in the daily dissonance and rapidly evolving ethos of humankind as strong and stable men.
It's where males are instilled with a discipline and restraint that can be accessed when the dark forces of violence lurking beneath threaten to overtake them. This may be the only real remedy to reduce violence of all manners.
By Samir Shukla
The Battle of the Dans
The unfinished business of electing the representative for NC's 9th congressional district is once again moving forward. The race should have ended with Election Day in 2018. But a new special election was called after the state elections board found last year's election was tainted when Republican Mark Harris used a political operative who improperly handled mail-in ballots. Harris, who narrowly led after November's votes were counted, opted not to run again. His opponent in that election Democrat Dan McCready is running again and didn't have any primary challengers.
Now, after a primary with 10 candidates, the Republicans have chosen their candidate and the battle lines are drawn once again. Call it the Battle of the Dans. The Democrat Dan McCready is running against Republican Dan Bishop. This special election is attracting national attention. Lots of money is being poured into both sides. The district has been in Republican hands since 1963. It would be a huge embarrassment for the NC Republican party if McCready wins.
The special election for NC 9th District will be held on September 10.
Here are a few helpful sites to help find your Congressional District or Representative:
The Democratic Debates
There are now 23 folks running for the Democratic nomination for President. It is the most diverse field ever. Women, men, white, black, gay, straight, old, young, non-Christian and bi-racial folks are running. Clearly, it's a brawl with 4-5 major candidates and the rest trying to figure out how to get their names and heads above the water line. Joe Biden is clearly the guy to beat at the moment.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) will host 12 official debates, set to begin in June 2019, with six debates in 2019 and the remaining six to be scheduled during the first four months of 2020. The debates will be split over two days as there are so many candidates.
Upcoming Confirmed Democratic Debates:
June 26 & June 27, 2019: 9–11pm Miami (NBC)
July 30 & July 31, 2019: 9-11pm, Detroit (CNN)
By Samir Shukla
Sanya Malhotra and Nawazuddin Siddiqui appear in Photograph by Ritesh Batra
-- Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios
Directed by Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazzudin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar
In our video-driven world, a still photograph can still impact lives. The film Photograph is a quiet tale of friendship and romance opened by a single photograph. A very subtle entanglement of the characters guides the film, written and directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox). He takes time unfolding the story. Rafi (Nawazzudin Siddiqui), a struggling photographer, and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), a shy middle-class student, cross paths at the Gateway of India in Mumbai. Rafi convinces a hesitant Miloni to take her photo and prints it out on a portable printer in his backpack while she waits. He loses track of her when she is called away by a family member, taking the photo without getting a chance to pay Rafi.
Rafi is working in Mumbai to help pay off family debt back in his native village. He lives in a dark, grungy room with several male roommates while saving money to send back home. His grandmother, dadi (Farrukh Jaffar), meanwhile writes to him that she refuses to take her medicine unless he finally finds a wife. Rafi decides to track Miloni down and asks her to play along and pretend she is his fiancée, so dadi will resume her meds. Miloni goes along with Rafi's scheme while living out her life, even meeting potential suitors her parents arrange for her, in her comfortable middle class home.
In the meantime, feisty dadi decides to visit her grandson and meet his future bride. No, the film doesn't turn into a comedic farce at that point. Batra deftly guides the story and characters further into a study of friendship, longing, class and caste differences that inform people's lives. Both Rafi and Miloni keep up the charade to please dadi, who of course in no amateur in such matters.
Rafi and Miloni begin to develop a friendship that slowly suggests a budding romance. Photograph is a nuanced, slow strolling film. It's the space between the silence and subdued conversations that make it tender without being coy or corny. Interspersed with Hindi and Gujarati dialogue, the film unfolds ever so gently, while navigating cultural differences, societal expectations and the invisible forces that attract two people.
The film gives nods to classic Bollywood while Batra and the cinematographers capture the daily lives of street denizens of Mumbai - the taxi drivers, chai sellers, vendors, small shopkeepers. The densely packed lives of Mumbai streets come alive where the different inhabitants in Rafi's local street market all have heard that his grandmother wants him to find a wife or she will not take her medicine.
Somewhere along the way I was expecting tense moments, conflict between the two protagonists, maybe harsh words being exchanged, some physical action even, but Batra sticks with a serene mood. Both Siddiqui and Malhotra, respectively playing middle aged man and young student, work their parts with subtle warmth. Jaffar steals more than one scene as the world weary grandmother.
By Samir Shukla
It's the slow thickening of summer. The soft spring is rapidly dissolving. The road to the 2020 American election is also hardening month by month. Special Counsel Robert Mueller released his report in April, and reset the political parameters. I'll let you make up your mind, and, sure, there's no smoking gun pointing to President Trump on matters of collusion. But there are layers of untruths, most of them unnecessary for governing, surrounding this most amoral of a president. The ball will continue its roll, history will judge.
Bernie Sanders did a townhall on Fox News and it was a hit for him, he is on a roll and already making other candidates as well as the general Democratic political establishment nervous. Joe Biden has now tossed his name in the ring, further shaking up the Democratic tree.
This historically diverse slate of candidates is now gathering money, chatting up talk shows, and will go into next month ready to prep for the first two Democratic debates…slated for late June on NBC and late July on CNN. Each will be spread over two days. It is yet to be determined how the Democratic National Committee will mix up the batch of candidates to make the debates fair to all. Each of them will have shorter times to explain their agendas. Trump was the “way off the grid" outlier in 2016, Bernie is already emerging as the expected outlier of 2020.
Will the new generation of Democrats elbow their way upfront and take the reins or will the old guard tamp down the youngsters and emerge as frontrunners saying, “Not so fast young'uns."
The first order of business is the tug of war between the young squad and the “we're saving these seats" squad of grizzled political veterans, namely Biden, Warren, and Bernie. There are many intriguing characters in the young squad. Finding the balance between exciting the activists and partisans and getting noticed by the wider mainstream is the challenge for all here.
In the meantime, India is in the midst of its massive election. The voting will wrap around the third week of May and the Commission will announce victors a few days later.
By Samir Shukla
The serene sounds of the Appalachians, American music and more, with chatting banjos, guitars, the vocalists, piano, drums, will once again fill the air at MerleFest.
The annual family-geared music festival, sorry no booze served, is spread over four days in the foothills of North Carolina. Music literally fills every corner and hilltop at various indoor and outdoor stages of varying sizes. Organizers tag MerleFest as a celebration of “traditional plus" music of the Appalachian region. I say it's a celebration of music. Period. You can expect plenty of bluegrass, country, rock, Celtic, folk, gospel, blues and more. Over the past several years, I've learned to jaunt about the stages, spread around on the campus of Wilkes Barre Community College, to make the most of the performances.
One of many special features this year include the Steep Canyon Rangers premiering the “North Carolina Songbook" set on the Watson stage on Sunday afternoon, which will feature the band covering music from NC luminaries including Earl Scruggs, James Taylor, Thelonious Monk and many more.
Among the dozens of performers lined up this year, highlights include Brandi Carlile, The Trailblazers, Pete Wernick, Si Kahn, The Avett Brothers, Steep Canyon Rangers, and Wynonna and the Big Noise.
MerleFest, founded in 1988, is held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC. The annual event has become the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.
MerleFest takes place April 25 – 28, 2019. Full artist lineup and other details can be found at www.merlefest.org.
By Samir Shukla
Ok, so the 2018 American election is still not over, at least in a neck of the North Carolina woods. The debacle of North Carolina 9th Congressional District shows how fraud can undermine the voting process. An investigation into possible election fraud is under way. Republican Mark Harris looked as though he won in the 2018 election in November, defeating Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. Not so fast. After reviewing the numbers, the NC State Board of Elections has ordered a new election, citing irregularities among mail-in absentee ballots.
We are off to a redo. The NC State Board decided to first hold a primary election on May 14. After that, September 10 will either be the date of the runoff primary election, if it's necessary, or the general election. If a runoff primary is needed, the general election will be held November 5. The sad part is that the winner will be seated in the House of Representatives for about a year; in essence the winner will start working for reelection just as soon as being seated.
McCready is running again, unopposed in the Democratic primary, while 10 Republicans are going to fight it out in the Republican primary to get a chance to take on McCready.
Turning to the mushrooming numbers of Democrats running for president, now Beto O'Rourke has tossed his name into the ring. Joe Biden is pretty much going to run, he's just taking his time to announce. He is still a landline kind of guy.
I have said this and will continue to say that, in the end, the Democrats need a close-to-center candidate to beat Trump. I can hear the howls of left-wing Dems giving me an evil eye already. Let me put it this way, all the talk of reparations, taxing the wealthy, Medicare for all, increasing social security taxes, New Green Deal, may fire up the progressive base, but unless they are spelled out in fiscal detail, they are just talk. Primarily, even if the money is worked out, they require massive changes in people's habits, behavior, and status quo. There's a substantial number of Republicans and Conservatives looking for someone to vote for that's not named Trump. They are not going to look at the increasingly hard left turn of Democrats, just as they are turned off by the hard right turn of the Republicans.
Also, Republicans have become masters of simplifying their message where the average Joe can grab onto it. Simple words, simple concepts. I know the primaries are where the hard-progressives and hard-conservatives lurk. The Democratic candidate that can learn to balance the activists with a message of workable policy, long-term views, specific incremental changes, and, yes, fiscal responsibility, will emerge ahead of the pack, even victorious.
Imagine a Democrat talking about fiscal responsibility when the current crop of Republicans and so-called conservatives are spending money like drunken gamblers.
A simple advice to all the progressives duking it out with other progressives on social media, it's way too early, don't eat your own, it will sort out.
It's funny how we are becoming more tribal in the political sphere, but at the same time during events such as sports and music, we untangle our usual tribalism and weave a different community. A couple of Carolina or NC State fans high-fiving each other every time their team scores maybe politically polar opposite, but in that one moment, after a slam dunk, or during a soaring guitar solo in a concert, the tribes merge into a whole. Candidates that understand these commonalities will prevail.
The Democratic National Convention 2020 will be held in Milwaukee. That's a smart move as Trump flipped Wisconsin, along with Michigan and Pennsylvania (three states Hillary Clinton was expected to win) in 2016.
The decision by Democratic National Committee to not do any debates on Fox News shows a sign of weakness and, more importantly, a missed opportunity. If you want to win back independents and soft Republicans, don't preach to the choir. Go into the lion's den and defend your beliefs.
The current crops of politicians are admirable in that they want to do something big. Big economic policies and social policies. Slow down folks. You can talk of going as big as you want, but in the long-term, incremental changes tend to stick and do the greater good. Big economic changes tend to help a certain segment while screwing another segment. There is never a win-win. Social change doesn't do big and quick. It is naturally slow. That's where a stroll is better than a road race.
By Samir Shukla
India's national election is now underway. The numbers are mind boggling. There are nearly 900 million eligible voters. Think about that. It is an exercise in democracy unprecedented in human history. The closest cousin in numbers is of course the United States.
India's Election Commission has announced the elections will be held in seven phases, between April 11 and May 19, 2019. The results will be declared on May 23.
The big battle is set. Narendra Modi is running for reelection while Rahul Gandhi challenges him for the seat of Prime Minister.
Social media played a large part in Modi's rise in 2014. Now, five years later, social media, especially WhatsApp, will have a huge effect on the elections.
There's no way to conduct India's election in a single day. India's Parliamentary system has myriad political parties that must form coalitions to win and survive. United States' two-party system is not going anywhere for a while.
The world's biggest democracy and the world's most powerful democracy are brothers in arms and natural economic partners, not to mention the most diverse countries in the world.
If America's upcoming presidential election is a rumbling road race, India's national elections are a double-barreled locomotive, fully-loaded and brimming with people hanging on to every corner, compartment, doorway and rooftop, while careening toward the horizon. The awaiting future.