I hate taking pictures. We go back to them only when our phones are out of memory. Naturally, my mom loves it. On a crisp winter evening in my hometown in Central India, as I am boarding a train to Mumbai, she wants to take one of me and my dad. My instinct tells me to rebel, but what if this ends up being my last picture with my dad? When your dad is in his 70s and you are going away for a year, your optimism and stubbornness take a back seat. As my mom shows me the picture, there is a palpable sadness lurking under his smile, but in the new, nationalist India, I can’t seem to find his soul anymore.
On a cold, windy night in January 1969, a few months before James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, my dad landed in Des Moines. A freshly minted doctor from India, he had delivered milk as a medical student, gone to Ceylon to take the qualifying test USMLE, and scored a residency in the United States. In those days, there were very few Indian immigrants in America, and virtually none in Iowa. A brown man in the heart of white America, with the segregationist social structures around him crumbling, my dad was ready to build his career.
For the next decade and a half, he had a dream run. In the early 1970s, with the anti-Vietnam War protests raging across the country, he completed his residency and moved to Chicago. As Richard Nixon was resigning, preparing for a life of ignominy, my dad was busy visiting India, searching for an arranged marriage bride. After meeting 60-70 eligible bachelorettes, he settled on my mom and married her in 1976. By the time stagflation stifled the American economy and Jimmy Carter brought up American malaise, she had had two kids.
By the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, as he became the darling of American politics, my dad took up a Clinical Research Fellow position at one of the top medical schools in Boston and became the first non-white person to be awarded the Seat of Honor for his work. All along, my mom was like a deer in headlights, thrown into an alien culture with a stiff language barrier, watching Sesame Street with her two sons to build her English vocabulary. Racism was a burning issue and, while its intensity has reduced, remains unresolved. Yet, America welcomed her with open arms.
With the impending fall of the Berlin Wall, America was on the verge of winning the Cold War, ushering it into a prolonged period of economic growth and global dominance. But my dad had bigger fish to fry. To take care of his aging parents, he whisked us all away from Boston to his tiny Indian hometown, angering my mom in the process. From a capitalist country with a hundred options for anything you want to buy, we went to a country with a twisted form of socialism in which replacing an empty cooking gas cylinder would take weeks, a new phone line would take months, and we had only two models of cars to choose from. Unaware of our parents’ struggles to adjust to this new life, I was busy jumping through the hoops of India’s rigid education system.
From cutting-edge clinical research in Boston, dad started dealing with issues like absence of the latest cancer treatment options in small-town India, inability of patients to pay for treatment, and their lack of education to understand thorny issues in oncology. Yet, he kept his flag of idealism flying high. The socio-cultural wars of America were dying down when he left America, but the ones in India were just getting started.
Barring the two years following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s emergency in 1977, India had been led by the Congress Party since Independence. In spite of three wars, one of which India lost to China, Indians didn’t give much credence to politicians opposing the Congress. While their socialist economic policies had ruined Indian entrepreneurial spirit, the Congress leadership had successfully promoted unity in diversity and – against all odds – kept religious tensions at bay.
That was about to change as dad set up shop in India in 1984. As we welcomed our newborn little sister, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, which was followed by one of the worst communal riots in independent India’s history, targetting Sikhs. The Congress alienated Sikhs and Hindus when several of its top leaders instrumental in inciting anti-Sikh violence walked away scot-free. Her son Rajiv Gandhi rode a wave of sympathy to become the next prime minister, only to make things worse.
In the Shah Bano case judgement, the Supreme Court upheld a poor Muslim woman’s right to alimony under the equality clause of the Constitution. Within a year, at the behest of the powerful Muslim men’s lobby, Rajiv Gandhi’s party nullified the judgement by passing a law granting them a loophole. My dad was honoring the Hippocratic Oath in medically underserved towns and villages of India while the government was indulging in vote-bank politics by appeasing a minority.
As word of my dad’s practice started spreading across India, so did the religious fault lines. I became politically active when everything ailing India was blamed on the decades-old Congress rule and Muslims. Since the government controlled all sectors of the economy with a tight fist, it was easy to buy into arguments like getting the government out of the business of doing business. The balance-of-payments crisis of 1991, in which the Indian government was on the verge of selling its sovereign gold just to meet its external debt obligations, strengthened my belief in capitalism and fiscal conservatism.
More ominous was the religious conservatism engulfing Indian politics. In his farewell speech, Ronald Reagan proclaimed America as the shining city on the hill while the India around me was calling it curtains on religious tolerance of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation. In spite of being an atheist, I wholeheartedly supported the right-wing Hindu agenda of relitigating history.
Tired of the Congress’s appeasement of Muslims, Hindus were building a mass movement to raze the Babri Masjid, a mosque built in the 1520s, allegedly at the birthplace of Lord Ram. Hindus claimed that it was built by destroying a centuries-old temple of Ram and it was time to destroy the mosque, build a temple, and teach Muslims a lesson. I didn’t have any Muslim friends and didn’t know anything about Islam, but with my moral support, Hindutva supporters razed the mosque in 1992. My dad was toiling 12-14 hours a day, still offering the same treatment options to Hindus and Muslims, leaving us no time to discuss politics at home.
In the mid-1990s, Indian economy was modernising through long overdue free-market reforms, but religious tensions were opening centuries-old wounds. Riots, terrorist attacks in major cities and turmoil in Jammu & Kashmir dominated the headlines. In 1996, as I entered engineering college, India got its first Hindu nationalist government, albeit short lived, led by the moderate Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Political activity is banned in Indian professional colleges, depriving us budding engineers of the opportunity to mature politically. There was only one Muslim student in our class of 65 whom I rarely interacted with. The Bharatiya Janata Party conducted nuclear tests in 1999. India had arrived on the world stage and everything seemed right.
As the world ushered into the 21st century, I flirted with the idea of working in the burgeoning Indian software industry before moving back to the US for graduate studies, but dad thought it would be better to experience the American higher education system. I flew to the US and studied biophysics and then neuroscience, but my education didn’t stop there. For the first time in my adult life, I belonged to a minority. In my first few years in America, I made more Muslim friends than I had in my entire life in India and became a liberal.
9/11 shocked the world and Bush, Jr. announced that Islam is not America’s enemy, but its twisted interpretation by the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Within a year of 9/11, to retaliate against miscreants burning 58 Hindu pilgrims in a train bogie in Gujarat, Hindutva supporters attacked innocent Muslims across the state. The prolonged riots left an estimated 2,000 people dead, the majority of them Muslim. Most of the world and my Indian friends were stunned, but some friends openly supported the pogrom. Dad and I had never developed a vocabulary to discuss politics. We just assumed we were on the same page. Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat. Till date, he has not expressed any remorse for the tragedy under his watch.
Over the next decade, I delved deeper into the brain and understood human biases, joined an American start-up and became a fiscal conservative, internalised the beauty of American and Indian constitutions, and backpacked around the world to realise that we humans are all the same. America elected its first black president. I learned that huge investments in education and R&D, separation of church and state, freedom of expression, due process and assorted other things allow Americans to challenge authority, innovate, maintain a strong economy, and dominate the world. By the time I was ready to move back to India, which is still where my emotional heart is, I knew that my intellectual heart belonged to the irreverent and iconoclastic United States.
By 2013, Vajpayee was long gone, and the Congress had had uninterrupted power for almost a decade. Inflation and corruption were high. A raft of new freebies was introduced. Yet, the GDP was growing at 7%-8% and the start-up scene was thriving. Modi had transformed Gujarat into an economic growth engine and the world was optimistic about India as a bulwark against authoritarian China. By promising to root out corruption, reduce red tape, build infrastructure, and serve all Indians without fear of favor, Modi became the prime minister in 2014. I was concerned about his past religious bigotry, but he seemed like the lesser of two evils.
In the same year, as I co-founded a start-up in Bangalore, dad was semi-retired and spending more time volunteering to run a blood bank in our hometown. It is owned by the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, fountainhead of Hindutva ideology Modi grew up professing. A year later, a young Muslim Indian Air Force technician’s 52-year-old dad in the Uttar Pradesh town of Dadri was lynched by a mob suspecting he had beef in his refrigerator. There was outrage in liberal Indian quarters, but majority of Indians shrugged it off. Some even supported it.
I was hoping Modi would immediately admonish the lynch mob and remind Indians about his son’s service to the nation. That would make him a true nationalist, but he turned out to be a pseudo-nationalist. When I talked to my dad about it, he chose to doubt the credibility of the media reports rather than unequivocally condemn it. Mahatma Gandhi might have inspired the American Civil Rights movement through his message of peace and nonviolence, but my dad took home the message of religious bigotry when he moved back to India.
In the five years since the lynching, India has seen a few bright spots like a new bankruptcy tribunal, handful of infrastructure projects, and financial inclusion initiatives, but the economy is down in the dumps. Assault on freedom of expression is nearing emergency-era excesses. India’s new rulers have unleashed majoritarian monsters and are more interested in rewriting history than building a tolerant future. Modi has revealed his soul, but more revealing to me is dad’s blind faith in Modi.
The coronavirus pandemic is a perfect example. The poor implementation of travel restrictions, below-capacity testing, and failed quarantining measures till mid-March precipitated the lockdown. The economic blow of the Covid-19 crisis could have been softened if Modi had not raided the Reserve Bank of India dividends to cover up his mismanagement of government finances. His penchant for shock-and-awe tactics and lack of foresight while announcing the lockdown precipitated a migrant worker disaster. He conveniently left it to the states to sort it out. Instead of facing the media to answer questions, he hides behind carefully crafted national addresses.
When asked about the crisis, my dad repeats all the right-wing talking points. This is a Chinese biological weapon. Why would China unleash a weapon with 1%-2% death rate and ruin its own economy in the process? No answer. Indians have higher immunity to Covid-19 compared to other countries. How do we know it unless we run enough tests? No answer. India is a poor country and cannot afford mass testing. I thought Modi was going to be India’s messiah and usher it into “acche din”. Why are we still a poor country? No answer. Shouldn’t Modi be holding press conferences and answering such questions? Silence. Why is his party promoting unproven remedies against Covid-19? But United States is doing worse than India! … Tablighi Jamaat!
I don’t resent some of my father’s anger about the idea of minority appeasement. I support enacting Uniform Civil Code. It would not only undo the Shah Bano episode, but also apply the same marriage laws to other non-Muslim sects in India practicing polygamy. I want a just and peaceful resettlement of Kashmiri Hindus who fled violence in the 1980s and 1990s perpetrated by militant Islamists.
But the hypothesis tester of Boston now paints all Muslims with the same color and openly peddles political conspiracy theories. He supports suppressing freedom of speech and, instead of checking facts, questions the motives of anyone writing against Modi. Political debates at home devolve into shouting matches followed by his assertion that he wants a Hindu Rashtra. Not a country that treats everyone equally but offers preferential treatment to Hindus.
As I am waving goodbye to my parents, I wonder where that brown man who thrived in American meritocracy as a minority and experienced the Civil Rights Era has disappeared. I get my fearlessness of death from my dad, but I am not sure why he wants to leave this world as a bitter man. What went wrong? As the train is taking me away from him, perhaps he is looking at me and wondering the same.
Mauktik Kulkarni is an engineer, neuroscientist, entrepreneur, author and a filmmaker. He is the author of A Ghost of Che and Packing Up Without Looking Back. He has co-produced and co-anchored a travel film titled Riding on a Sunbeam with several others in the pipeline.