"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Friday, June 25, 2010

A memory of Afghanistan

Due to a recently dislocated shoulder I can't type much but wanted to do an Afghanistan update, in sad observance of the fact that the US has now been there longer than we were in Vietnam. Here are some posts to revisit... http://mypersonalblogccm.blogspot.com/2010/01/forbidden-beats-of-freedom.html

My small memoir of Afghanistan, below, is based on an article I wrote for our community newsletter, but I felt like sharing it with more people, thinking others might enjoy a different perspective on Afghanistan than what we get in the media of the here-and-now. So here is a glimpse of the country I remember from decades ago. Then and now, measured against the country's long history, these decades are only the blink of an eye but the toll of human suffering and the cost of political chicanery has been enormous.

The brain is a storytelling machine and history is a narrative and who knows if this is exactly how it happened - but the diary quotes are real; and when I shared this draft with my sister, she remembered it this way too.

On our way to Kabul, 1964

[Note: In 1964, the US and the USSR were locked in a cold war to win the loyalty of Afghanistan. It seems impossibly innocent now, but in those days, instead of tanks and bombs, the struggle took the form of, among other things, a road-building competition: Afghan leaders cunningly played each side against the other and within a few years had a very fine system of roads -- some American-built, some Russian. Unfortunately for us, the roads weren’t quite finished when we were there so we didn't get to drive on them; more sadly, I doubt much is left of them now.]

By the time we got to the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, we were already seasoned travelers in Muslim areas – or so we thought. After leaving Karnataka, in South India, my father, mother, sister Andrea (21) and I (17) had driven north through several states, up the Himalayan “foothills” (mountains, anywhere else) on scary narrow roads into the disputed states of Jammu and Kashmir, then back down again to India, across Punjab, and finally into Pakistan. We were well aware of the tragic history of these beautiful areas, of the bloodletting during Partition at India's Independence, and of border skirmishes still going on between the governments of India and Pakistan. We'd all read Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh's classic novel, and in 1964 the memory of Independence was still fairly fresh.

Before we'd left South India, my father had been warned by his Indian counterparts in the town where we were living not to attempt a car trip even into North India, because of the notorious dacoits. Those were outlaws known to kidnap travelers for ransom (“How can you even think of taking such a chance with your wife and daughters?!” they said). But my father was trusting and optimistic, and my mother, charming and adventurous. They simply never worried - and most of the time, they got away with it. As for my sister and me, we were used to being dragged along on our parents' adventures, though this one was shaping up to be the mother of them all.

So there we were, in the summer of 1964, on our way to London to sell the car-- for that was the excuse for this trip -- by way of Kabul and points west. My parents did most of the driving while Andrea and I rode behind them, making up humorous verses to a song chronicling our trip (I wish now that we'd written more of them down.) The back of the car was packed solid with water containers, sleeping rolls, books, and whatever other supplies we thought we might need to survive desert crossings. To get to Kabul we had to go though the territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and then over the Khyber Pass.

We kept a little daily diary, taking turns writing in our various hands. The entry for July 2 starts with notes by my father, the fact-finding journalist:

Fighting in Khyber:

1849 – British ended Sikh rule
1878 - 2nd Afghan War
1897 – Khyber tribe uprising against British
1919 – Third Afghan War
He then noted the estimated latitude, longitude, and temperature, followed by directions:
Off to Khyber – Sulaiman Mts. Pass starts 3 mi. beyond Fort Jamrud – winds up to Ali Masjid Narrows (3147 ft) – Oasis – Then Landikotal Plateau (3517) top of the pass. Landi Khana & Torkhaur = boundary.
Next, my mother, who had a more colorful way of viewing things, added a quote from Kipling commemorating the massacre of British troops in the Khyber Pass:

A scrimmage in a border station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a 10-rupee jezail...
The flying bullet down the pass
That whistles shrill, “all flesh is grass”
My father, not to be outdone, added:
Population: Afridis who are one of 4 Pactae nations. Other tribes of Pathans, also called Pashtuns for their language = Shinwari, Mullagori, Shilmani. A Pathan is essentially a Hillman and his proverbial hospitality, courage & cheerfulness entitle him to respect. These hillmen can outpace any man in a deadly manly struggle for existence.
(That last sounds as though my father had been reading Kipling, too.) According to linguistic evidence, the Pathans had come here from Iran originally; they were the descendants of the Indo-Aryans who conquered North India in ancient times.

Andrea and I watched the rugged landscape go by as we chugged ever upward in the tough little station wagon. The road wound through canyons (perhaps these were some of Kipling's “dark defiles”) and past massive hills. Each had a small fort on top, within sight of the last, and of the next. My father explained that the British had built all these forts in an attempt to control the road to Kabul, but nobody had ever controlled these territories for long. National boundaries were never really established, even between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This country belonged to whoever held it, and now it was back to the various tribes. It all made me feel very small, I remember.

At some point in our journey, as we looked forward to the fabled Khyber Pass, my father pulled off the road and headed toward a small village. If there was a reason for this, I don't remember it. He probably just wanted to talk to someone new and get a story if he could. Parking, he left the rest of us in the car while he walked some distance to a small house where a man sat by the door, watching. He took the arrival of the American in stride, inviting him to sit and have some tea. Soon they were deep in conversation. My father sat with his back toward us. In the car, our conversation went something like this: me: “Oh, great; now he's forgotten all about us and this might go on for hours.” Andrea: “And it's getting hot in here. There's no shade.” Mother: “I wonder where the women are. I'd like some tea, too.”

Usually, when we stopped the car somewhere, curious villagers soon gathered: first the boys, then their little sisters, then the men, and eventually, sometimes, women. Everywhere we'd been, people had been welcoming to us (those who didn't like Westerners simply remained aloof) and we felt appropriately dressed for a village inspection, in our modest salwar-kameez. (This was a very comfortable and practical Indian Muslim dress, with scarf for the head if needed -- great traveling garb anywhere in the world. I wish I could find them here in Ashland.) It was unusual that we hadn't been invited for tea too; normally, the man having tea with my father would have said something to someone inside, and soon women and girls would emerge to invite us in, and we'd have a jolly time with them in their part of the house trading names and words, comparing clothes, teaching each other songs (our attempts to sing were invariably thought hilarious, a great icebreaker), and enjoying sweets. But that wasn't happening now (perhaps there were no women at home today), and we remained in our state of purdah in the car.

And gradually it dawned on us that something else was different here. As the crowd around the car thickened, we noticed that these villagers were all grown men. Also, they were getting a bit rowdy. They swaggered. They were making a party of inspecting us – but even more, the car, taking a great interest in all the car's controls. They pointed at the various knobs, the steering wheel, the gearshift, the radio, and made many apparently witty remarks to each other. As hands began to reach too close to these things we rolled the windows up and did our best to become invisible. At some point it registered that some of these men were wearing ammunition belts across their chests, filled with bullets, and many carried rifles. My sister, mother and I shared an unspoken question: should we be getting nervous?

The next entry in our diary is, again, in my father's hand:

Pashtun Code of Honor: 3 Obligations:
 “Wanawati” (right of asylum)
“Badal” (an eye for an eye)
“Melmastiya” (hospitality to all)
 It was in this last Obligation that my father, in his talent for connecting with people, was correct to trust. Just as we three women in the car were starting to feel really nervous about what might happen next, we heard a shout from the direction of the house. The men surrounding us immediately quieted down and backed away, making “Just kidding – all in good fun – but we really could have used that car and that radio!” gestures at us and at each other. We smiled back in happy relief, and then they were gone. Apparently my father had made friends with the boss; it was he who had ordered the fellows to behave themselves. They wandered off in good humor, the headman sat down again, and he and my father went back to their conversation. What had my father been doing during all this? He looked around once, gave us a little wave, and went back to taking notes.

We rolled the windows back down for whatever little breeze we could get, and resigned ourselves to more waiting. When you're a woman in a Muslim country, stoicism is a useful philosophy to cultivate. Later, when we complained to him that he shouldn't have left us there in the car that way -- it had been a little frightening -- my father airily assured us that we hadn't had anything to worry about: he'd been invited by the headman to enjoy hospitality, and we were all protected by that because of his Pashtun Code of Honor.

Could have fooled us, when those armed men were taking inventory of us and our car, but the funny thing is, my father was right. The wrong thing for him to have done in that situation would have been to act worried or try to do anything to protect his womenfolk, because that would have been to declare that he didn't trust his host – and thus lose the protection of the hospitality obligation. And in any case, one journalist wouldn't have stood a chance against a small army of the fiercest fighters in the world. However, the truth is, I really doubt we'd have been in any danger that day even if my father had been tactless to his host.

In fact, my father claimed, he'd won the group over with his first word - “Pashtuns?” He said they were so pleased that a foreigner knew their name and recognized their language, and eager to have a story written about themselves, that they were friends forever. When we commented that he was lucky to have found someone here who spoke enough English for such a long conversation, my father said, “Oh, he didn't speak any English. We used a lot of sign language. And I just wrote some things down and he thought I was quoting him.” Amid our groans he added regretfully, “I don't think I have much of a story.”

That day’s last diary note was, again, by my father:

"Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane came this way. And Aryans, 1600 BC."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Because I knew you... tribute to animal friends

Ann Southcombe, who now lives in Southern Oregon and is in my writers group, has worked with animals all her life - in zoos, rehabilitation, rescue and research. She's a wonderful writer and I hope to see her stories published soon as From Gorillas to Squirrels. Her website is http://www.atrans-specieslife.com/

For more of her YouTube videos go to her channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/courdeleon

The Cat Who'll Live Forever (book review)

Now that my cat Sugar is gone, but will live forever, my thoughts have returned to this book, which I reviewed for SLJ. I suspect that having read it helped me deal with Sugar's illness when it came. It's the third book Peter Gethers wrote about his cat Norris (and their life together) and they're all wonderful. This one came out just days before 9-11 (in an Afterword to the later paperback edition, Gethers  discusses this circumstance) and because the nation's attention was so riveted elsewhere, it didn't get the attention it deserved (the earlier volumes were bestsellers, I believe) but I trust that readers of the earlier books at least found it and that future readers will continue to find all three "Norton" books. So - here's how a real writer does justice to a cat:

The Cat Who'll Live Forever: The Final Adventures of Norton, the Perfect Cat, and His Imperfect Human by Peter Gethers (2001)

Norton, the urbane yet humble Scottish Fold, became famous as The Cat Who Went to Paris (1992) [published in the UK in 2009 as A Cat Called Norton]. He continued his adventures in Provence and other glamorous places, in A Cat Abroad (1994) [published in the UK in 2010 as For the Love of Norton] -- but, to the disappointment of his many fans, took early retirement at the age of 10.

Here, Gethers reveals the details of the feline's final years. Norton travels less than in the first two books, but he does still make an occasional appearance at Spago, takes the Concorde to Europe, and upstages film stars from Paris to the Hamptons. Though kidney failure and cancer slow him down and ultimately defeat him, Norton never loses his charm, composure, or talent for making the most of his life.

In his old age, Norton makes a farewell tour of all his favorite spots, undergoes medical procedures with dignity, and enjoys the sun on his preferred park bench--inside a most amusing dog run in New York City.

Though it's clear that Gethers has a high-powered career, he manages to portray himself simply as a callow fellow blessed with an awesome cat. As Norton's health problems gradually take over both their lives, the author learns how to care for an invalid and, ultimately, to mourn the death of a loved one.

Those who knew Norton when he was young will be grateful that Gethers shared this story. Others can find a different perspective here on medicine, aging, friendship, and grief; the value of humor; or just the meaning of life.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Revisiting English, Globish, Hinglish, and Loves's Last Madness (book reviews)

Update 6/11: another great blog post on the different Indian English accents! Not to be missed! Since Indians speak so many different languages, of course the accents are different, and Minai nails the issue. At the bottom of this post, you can find the video this favorite blogger produced, giving examples.

Update 3/11: great blog post I just found, by Jabberwock, on a lecture he attended, "The Future of Englishes"

This is the post formerly known as "New season, new look, new language," revised and expanded, updated six months later, on the other side of the year. And I have a new look for winter.

Maybe I'm just spinning my wheels waiting for summer to arrive in the southern Oregon mountains! Until my own brain starts working again, here's something amusing from someone else's:a short New Yorker review of Robert McCrum's new book, Globish , with attention paid to the role of English in India.

I think I'll have to read that book. [Update: I just read it - or rather, heard it, in excellent audiobook format. It's a very entertaining survey of English language history and fun to revisit that, though I was a bit disappointed that the material on actual Globish was rather brief, and I was surprised that a lot of things seemed to be left out about why English adapts itself so readily to other cultures. He did a lot of backgrounding there, but never quite followed through to the extent I'd have wished. Maybe that's because the subject has been covered extensively already by others. There's a lot of information about Globish out there that I, an English major but only a casual observer of Globish, have come across, that he left out. Maybe I'll follow up on that with another post.

I've also come across some interesting articles lately on the various forms of English developing in different countries - something that's been happening for a long time but has been coming into its own very fast recently with the opening of global culture.

All this reminded me of an enlightening incident from several decades ago, one which prepared me for this brave new world of global language, probably. We were living in India but hadn't been there long yet; my mother, who was there in part to teach English at the college, corrected her dear friend Sujaya (Professor of Astrology), not for the first time, on some point of usage. Sujaya evidently decided she wasn't going to put up with a whole year of this, and gently corrected my mother: "But this is Indian English. This is our language as we speak it here, just as you speak American English in your country."

That was a revelation for my mother, and she made sure the whole family took Sujaya's gyan to heart. I think it delighted her because it taught her something new about English's complexity, fluidity and flexibility. Everyone in the family (but especially my mother and I) read voraciously, absorbing the flavor of the wonderful and extensive body of literature written in English by Indians, and it's been a lifelong pleasure for me ever since to read novels written in English by Indians -- a literature now as global as it is Indian. It's a diverse literature as innovative and vital in the new generation of desi writers circling the globe as it was in the time of the more provincial (but universally human) Malgudi and Kanthapura, the iconic villages created by Narayan and Rao.

We were first exposed to South Indian English, as it happened, and when I lived in New Delhi later I regret now that I brought the Southie prejudice against Hindi with me and learned very little about it at the time; but from what I'm reading, a combination of (the North Indian language) Hindi and English is becoming quite prevalent throughout India these days. Click here for a good New York Times article on Hinglish.
That author quotes from a delightful book I happen to own:
"In The Queen's Hinglish, another recent book on the theme, Baljinder K. Mahal writes that more people speak English in South Asia than in Britain and North America combined, with India alone accounting for more than 350 million English speakers....

"Hinglish, as this modern blend of standard English, Indian English and South Asian languages is popularly known, could soon become the most widely spoken form of English on earth....The purists - as they always do - have lost the battle," she writes. "Hinglish, once seen as the lingo of the uneducated masses, is now trendy - the language of the movers and shakers."
This book is in the standard little-novelty-book format and it is indeed very amusing for the Bollywood fan. But the info in it is good and it's been very useful to me as a dictionary several times. I just wish it were bigger and longer. Wonder if I'll ever get back to my Hindi studies. Even the little bit that I did last year keeps paying off.

Yesterday I picked up again a book on the Urdu poet Sant Darshan Singh, Love's Last Madness: Poems on a Spiritual Path (written by Barry Lerner and Harbans Bedi, a wonderful man and gifted writer I was once fortunate enough to work with at the library; I would treasure the book for that reason even if it weren't so fine), and I'm amazed at how much better I understand it all now, thanks to a new smattering of Hindi (which has so much in common with Urdu) and a few more years more of life-experience to hang the content on. The book's small section on the history of Urdu was a bit of a revelation from my new vantage point... Hope I can get together a post on this book but that might not belong here in this blog.

And here's a really interesting blog post I just came across, about Hindi poetry in the 20th century, with nice translations: http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/006242.html

Anyway - back to Hinglish, Globish, and all the other language changes happening - all I can say is Shabash! The only thing that's surprising to me about this is that people over here (and England, too) still seem surprised that they're expected to accept other national forms of English as equally righteous usages - chi! - when Indians have known this all along and people like my mother and I never had a problem with the idea, we embraced it with masti. Maybe it's about truly understanding what English is: it's never been just one language, and there's never been just one pukka way to speak it. It's always been a global language - first incorporating the languages of firangis who came to the Isles, and later spreading outward from there and changing as it gained from exchanged with other cultures.

Maybe it's time to revisit Robert McCrum's earlier The Story of English, the Emmy-winning series from the Eighties, with its companion book by Robert McNeil and Robert McCrum. It made many of these points 25 years ago, but with more emphasis on English as we use it, and less of Globish as others do. Netflix has the videos.

Meanwhile, thanks to several years of infatuation with Bollywood movies and related Internet sites I finally started learning some Hindi, and actually studying it. That makes mixing it all up it even more fun, haina?

Oh, and this is too good - Thanks to @allusirish, I just learned that Twitter has a trending hashtag, #IndianEnglish . Check it out - some of them are wonderful and Hinglish speakers are obviously having a lot of fun there. 

And here's Minai's wonderful video, which I mentioned earlier. It shows the diversity of Indian English accents, identifying the locations of origin -- for, after all, Indians speak many different languages in a greater diversity of root languages than Europeans.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Hollywood the Hard Way (book review)

Hollywood the Hard Way by Patti Dickinson (1999)

Here's a book that has stuck with me for years. There's nothing quite like it. Dickinson just happened to hear this fascinating piece of American lore from some locals as she was travelling in the west; she tracked its hero down and got the facts of the epic challenge, then skillfully fictionalized the oral history just enough to make it a fully rounded-out and highly readable tale. Wow!

As the story begins, we meet 20-year-old Jerry Van Meter. He is a likeable young man from Oklahoma whose dream of becoming a pilot had been shattered in 1945 when his back was injured. Now he returns to the "Bar R," his grandfather Rolla's Oklahoma ranch, to work as a cowboy. His back is healing but his confidence still shaken when, one night, he rides back home to find his grandfather Rolla, Rolla's partner Frank, and their old friend Jimmy Wakely deep in debate. The three are lifetime friends; Rollo and Frank still work as ranchers, but Wakely went further west, became a successful Hollywood "singing cowboy," and still visits his old friends occasionally, between tours.

Here's the debate, which provides the setup for the story: Wakely laments the passing of the old-style cowboy life, especially the nonstop, 1,500-mile cattle drives  of Rolla and Frank's youth. Rolla and Frank disagree, asserting that their young Jerry could ride from the Bar R to Hollywood--the same distance as the old cattle drive -- and not only that, he could do it in under 50 days. He could get to Hollywood the hard way, not the easy way of spoiled modern youth. They bet on it.

Unfortunately, they haven't considered that though the old cattle drives were indeed a marathon of long days filled with hard and sometimes dangerous work, the cowboys on cattle drives were amply supported with supplies, chuck wagons (prepared meals), extra mounts, and human companionship. And now they are asking Jerry -- still recovering from an injury -- to undertake the grueling challenge alone, with only one horse, and unsupported.

Fortunately, all his life Jerry has been well schooled in survival and horsemanship skills by two of the best: Rolla Goodwinter and his partner Frank "Pistol Pete" Eaton are among Oklahoma's most skilled and legendary cowboys. Jerry agrees to carry their torch (or ride their horse) and begins the journey, leaving his grandfather's Oklahoma ranch with the goal of arriving at Jimmy Wakely's California ranch under the time limit the older men have bet on.

Through Jerry's experiences Dickinson reveals the mood and changing landscape of America after World War II, a postwar country recreating itself in a new image, in the time we now think of as the Fifties. And glimpses of America's earlier history are also embedded in this well-told tale; Jerry's family lore is rich in tales of famous folk and events, and as he rides his memory loops back through this oral history. In vivid vignettes, and with growing suspense, Dickinson tells of Jerry's ride across deserts, over mountains, and through many perils and twists of fate. Of course, his horse is even more of a hero than Jerry, as you'll see when you read this. Through their mutual struggle to endure and survive, the two become spritually fused for a time.

Hollywood the Hard Way is a strange tale of unnecessary suffering, celebrating a past that is in many ways very dark, really, and yet somehow it wins the reader's (at least, this reader's) sympathy. As Dickinson tells the tale, it does become important that Jerry and his horse succeed, if only to justify the effort they've made and the hardships they've endured -- and the kindnesses they've encountered from strangers along the way. Perhaps this is at heart another Sisyphean allegory. The journey matters as it happens, yet in the larger story of Jerry's life, it's only a footnote (if a high point). I still haven't made up my mind what I think of the journey itself; common sense asserts it never should have been done, this pointless challenge to win a foolish bet made by old men denying their own aging and loss of powers; yet it becomes Jerry and his horse's own challenge, and it's meaningful to them. All I know is that I can't forget this book and I want to share it. It deserves a wider readership.

Considering that this is one of the most memorable stories I've ever read, it amazes me how close it came to being lost to the collective memory. I'm so very glad that Dickinson heard about it, got the facts, and has retold it so well. It's somewhat ironic yet fitting that the book itself, like the history it's based on, has remained (as far as I know) largely overlooked. It would make a fantastic film, with timeless appeal, a hearkening back to the glory days of Hollywood westerns, but with a modern kind of nostalgia for an America that no longer exists.

[American Cowboys by C. M. Russell]

From the the book's author's page at Amazon:
Patti Dickinson was born in Oklahoma and grew up in California, where in 1982 she earned her BA in History, cum laude, from California State University Fresno. The author attributes her love of oral history to growing up on tales of her maternal grandfather, half-Cherokee Wild Bill Dickson. The other half of his ancestry, Patti's mother jokingly recalled, was a mixture of coyote and bloodhound.

The author believes it was this background that eventually led her to write Jerry Van Meter's amazing adventure. Patti happened onto the Oklahoma cowboy's story when she stopped for lunch in a Montana bar on her way to a nearby writer's conference. Five years in the making, the cowboy's 1,500 mile ride became Hollywood the Hard Way, a Cowboy's Journey.

[Notes: there is a film with the same title, but it has nothing to do with this story. Also, another unnecessary personal note of the sort I can't help cluttering my reviews up with: maybe the book hit me so hard because I too grew up with Western horses (though not on a working ranch) and the world described here-- at least the California dream the young man finds at the end of his journey -- is the one I spent my childhood in, and for the first time I really saw the land and time of my childhood in its social-historical context. I wanted to go out and buy copies for all my siblings so they could see this too, but knew they'd never get around to reading it.]

above, right: illo I fund on Google, from http://www.art.com/products/p13076445-sa-i2303821/richard-cummins-cattle-drive-sculptures-at-pioneer-plaza-dallas-texas.htm
The image kind of reminded me of Hollywood the Hard Way, in the sense of palimpsest - memory journeying (or persisting) across a landscape so changed that it's become a different world altogether. Though I probably see something rather different in it than the average Texan.