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Short Fiction: Two Views of a Street

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I.

The white sedan crawled down the Indian thoroughfare. In front, the driver gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, ever alert, ever watchful. A child ran in front of the car, and with a slight a motion, he pressed the brake. A cacophony of noise surrounded the vehicle; thousands of bodies swarmed in and out of shops lining the street. The road lay choked with vehicles blaring their horns and contributing to the white haze hanging above. It was a starry night.

Behind the driver, in the spacious rear compartment, Mohan was taking his family out to dinner – or trying to. His wife, docile and uneducated, gave her restaurant preference as she did all else: “You know what is best.” Mohan, having just grown richer through a series of land deals outside the city, wanted to spend the evening in style. Their son, Kumar, age 16, sulked in the back, not saying a word. They decided upon Pizza Hut, which they referred to as “Pidja Hut”.

It was an awkward journey. Mohan, his mind still reeling from the millions of rupees he pulled in that week, thought of what he could do with it. The smart thing, these days, was to give it to the Americans. Now they knew how to make money! You give a cool million to some white entrepreneur, watch your money double! Stock market, buildings, IT sector – it was all booming. You just had to be careful not to invest in a fraud, something Mohan was sure his American partner would be able to avoid.

At the back of his mind he thought of his teenage son. His wife had found a small bottle of liquor in his backpack two weeks ago, and they still hadn’t confronted him. Mohan began to wonder if they would – or should. After all, were these not the same freedoms he worked so hard to provide for his son? The freedom to be rebellious, to be free of tradition, from the need to work incessantly not to starve? A confrontation would only alienate their son – and he was all they had.

Mohan looked out the window and saw a man and his daughter huddled beneath an overpass. Their filthy rags gleamed in the streetlight. Mohan’s wife, Parvati, looked out the same window at the same scene – and perhaps thought the same as Mohan: That is what we worked to avoid. Our son may be a lout, but at least he’s a rich lout!

As if reading their thoughts, Kumar piped up: “Listen, when will you get me those Reebok shoes? You know I need them for school.”

Mohan laughed, a booming laugh: “Oh, we’ll get them tomorrow, I suppose, but for now, aren’t you excited? You love Pidja Hut.”

Kumar sniffed. They were driving through an affluent portion of town, and dozens of signs and billboards assaulted Kumar’s eyes: Reebok, Nike, McDonald’s, Ralph Lauren, Levi’s. Kumar wanted them all.

“Look, the store’s right here,” he whined, “Couldn’t we just stop and get them now? In America they say: ‘Shoes make the man.’.”

“Ah, but we are not in America!” Mohan was in a playful mood. The transgression with the liquor momentarily forgotten, he ribbed his son. “Reebok-Geebok – what is all this? You know when I was your age I wore sandals made of old tires!”

“When you were my age, you couldn’t get Reebok in India,” Kumar said, “All of my classmates have them – why shouldn’t I? They’ll make fun of me! I’ll be miserable without them. What kind of father are you, anyway?” Kumar’s tone was not playful.

Mohan laughed, nervously this time, “Take it easy, Kumar – I’ll get them for you.”

Parvati watched the exchange in silence. She had seen it play out a thousand times, for brand-name clothes, for a television in Kumar’s room, to justify Kumar’s school-marks which descended every year, for Kumar’s ever-growing allowance. She wondered where her son spent the thousands of rupees monthly, and refrained from asking only out of fear for the answer.

Mohan was proud of the things he could buy his son, proud of the business acumen which allowed him to rise above the teeming millions, but he wondered whether his long work hours and scarce interaction had poisoned his relationship with Kumar. At such times he always made an effort to connect with his son, efforts which he increasingly believed were a waste. They followed a similar pattern.

Mohan cleared his throat. “So, Kumar, tell me… how are your studies?”

Kumar looked up from his cell phone, on which he was writing a text message to his friends: “meet at pub 10:30 PM”. “Fine,” he said, “why do you ask?”

“Any subject you’re interested in particularly?”, asked Mohan.

“No, not really…”

“Have you given any thought to what you would like to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be rich like you.”

“What do you think will be your vehicle to riches?”

At this point, Kumar invariably grew irritated. “How should I know?”, he snapped, “I’m only 16! What, don’t you make enough money to support us? I’ll think of some way when the time comes.”

“Your grades have been slipping,” Mohan said hesitantly. It was a sensitive subject.

“Not this again! I told you, I’ll improve them! What more do you want from me? I’m doing the best I can!” Kumar crossed his arms and began to pout.

“All right, all right,” said Mohan, not wanting to fight, “So how are your friends doing?”

“They’re fine,” said Kumar.

Mohan could not think of what else to ask. Kumar broke the silence.

“Oh, speaking of them, I need some money. Maybe 2,000 rupees?”

“2,000?” Mohan feigned shock. “I just gave you 5,000 last week! What did you spend it on?”

Kumar shifted uncomfortably, “Oh, you know, this and that – I went out a couple times with my friends – you know how it is.” He did not want to say he would spend it that night after dinner at the pub.

“Well, I’m sorry, Kumar”, said Mohan, “I need to teach you to be responsible with money.”

Kumar turned red. “Mom!” he exploded, “Tell Dad to give me some money! I’m a good soon to you aren’t I? I don’t deserve this! All my friends get to go out with money in their pockets – how can I show up like a pauper?”

“Oh, Mohan, just give him what he wants, poor thing – he doesn’t ask us for much, does he?” said Parvati, “How much did you make this week? What’s a paltry 5,000 rupees?”

Mohan quailed. He could not stand up to both Parvati and Kumar. He knew would give his son the money he asked, but did not want to know what he would spend it on.

This world of pubs and girls, of drinking and partying, of drugs and alcohol, was totally alien to Mohan. They had none of those things when Mohan grew up. For him it was study, study, study – and face a beating if you did not make the grade. He worked hard, miserable, throughout high school and university, and slogged his way through the ranks of a construction company, where he was an overseer, before leaving to work as an independent contractor. A few well-placed bribes, some insightful business deals, and Mohan could give his son the youth he never had. He would send Kumar to England to study – maybe even the United States. There he would learn business. There he would live the life Mohan could only dream of.

Kumar thought of the fun he would have after this ordeal with his parents. One of his friends had scored some marijuana; there would be girls, cigarettes, and plenty of beer at the pub. He felt not a tinge of guilt for deceiving his parents. Was this not what life was about? These nerds who sat up all night studying, they were dead – worse than dead; they were their parents’ creature. Kumar was free.

Parvati thought of the television shows she was missing on this excursion. She wondered if their servant had completed the housework.

Kumar said, “Listen, you just take the driver home after dinner; I’ll meet up with my friends and take a cab.”

Mohan said, “What will you and your friends be doing?”

Kumar said with irritation, “Look, I don’t know. We’ll figure it out when we meet. Why do you ask? You don’t trust me?”

Mohan was silent.

Parvati said, “Well, have fun. Don’t stay out too late.”

Kumar said, “Why not? I don’t have school tomorrow.”

Parvati was silent.

The driver heard everything.

II.

On a busy thoroughfare in India, a white sedan passed Gopal, who lived with his family underneath an overpass. This was their home, noisy and open though it was, and Gopal was proud of it. A migrant laborer, his experiences included working on a cotton plantation, standing in ankle-deep water for hours picking rice, and moving to the city to join the million day laborers who made the buildings rise. An accident at a construction site (for which he received no compensation) ended his industrial career and left him with a gamey leg and no employment prospects.

He had taken to rooting through garbage dumpsters for recyclable goods at night to earn an extra few rupees. He spent his days under the scorching sun by the roadside, begging what loose change could be extracted from the wealthy inhabitants of the neighborhood. Lately, they had grown stingy. On a good day, he could scrape together enough for some rice and lentils for him and his children. On a bad day, they went without lentils. His wife had died nine years before, giving birth to his second child, Pallavi. His son Sunil, age 15, and his daughter were all he had in the world.

It had been a good day. Gopal had returned three hundred bottles and netted 75 rupees. Sunil would return with at least 100 rupees. They would have lentils tonight, and could maybe even splurge on a bottle of Kinley brand fresh water.

Out of the rushing chaos in the street, Gopal saw Sunil approach.

“What kind of work did you find today, son?” he asked.

“Oh, father! I got a job at a shopping mall! Security, top class! They gave 150 rupees for the day!”

This was an unexpected windfall. Gopal hated that his son had to work, but with a 9-year-old sister and a crippled father, Sunil had little choice. Regular employment was far out of Sunil’s reach; instead, like many children of his economic means, he took odd jobs as they came: one day as construction worker, another as an amateur mechanic, a third serving tea in one of the city’s innumerable cafes. Few employers were looking for regular help – it was so much easier, after all, to hire unskilled labor by the day. You pay them less that way. Sunil was flush with pleasure – mall security was one of the most sought-after jobs for children like him: simple and lucrative.

Pallavi stirred from her bed, a heap of rags.

“Sunil! I was worried abut you. What did you bring me?”

She grinned a gap-toothed smile.

“Ah, little sister, do you think I had forgotten you? Here, one of the pakkas at the mall dropped this.”

In his outstretched hand lay a plastic guitar pick.

“What is it?” she asked before putting it in her mouth.

“No, no, this is what they use to play guitar. You know, like the rock stars.” Sunil pantomimed a rock star. “Here, with this you’ll grow up to be the most famous musician in India!”

Pallavi laughed with pleasure, but a passing bus obscured the sound.

Gopal looked around for a police officer and started a small fire. Fires were illegal, but one of the few ways for the city’s homeless to cook their food.

“Here Pallavi” he said, “go get two bottles of water and some buttermilk. When you come back we’ll have nice, hot rice and dal.”

Pallavi smiled and sprang to action.

When she was gone, Gopal turned to Sunil.

“Did you have a good day at work?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, father,” said Sunil, “The sun was not so hot today, and they let me go after only ten hours.”

Gopal’s face assumed a pained expression. “You shouldn’t have to work like this,” he began, “A boy your age… you should be in school. I wish you were in school.”

“No, no. Not at all,” said Sunil. This was a frequent conversation between him and his father, one in which he refused to feel the slightest self-pity. “I tell you, I am happy working to feed my family. Listen, at the mall today I saw so many kids my age. They had the nice clothes – the jeans, the T-shirt – walking in and out of the stores. They must have spent thousands of rupees on those clothes. And food! KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut. But then I think – it all looks the same when it comes out the other end, doesn’t it?” Sunil smiled, “This rice and dal we eat, those pizzas they eat – it’s all the same in the end, isn’t it?”

“What a good son I have,” said Gopal, “I only wish he had as good a father.”

“You are a good father, and I am a good brother,” said Sunil, “We must think now of Pallavi, the little one. If we can avoid taking her out of school, at least we will have that success. She’s a smart girl – who knows? Maybe she’ll be the next CEO of Pepsi!”

Gopal laughed. “And maybe my leg will heal itself.”

Sunil smiled, “It isn’t so improbable as all that. Anyway, my life is pretty much set. What university will take an 8th class dropout? But Pallavi – if we can make sure she stays in school and gets good grades, she could easily get a place at a top university.”

Tears sprang to Gopal’s eyes. “You are truly your mother’s son,” he said, “Now let us tend to the food. The water is boiling – do you have the rice?”

They poured four cups of rice into the boiling water, covered the tin pail, and began preparing to boil the lentils. Gopal sang softly to himself. He had raised two fine children, alone, and with a game leg to boot. He felt proud. He was happy.

Half a kilometer away, a crowd began to form. Gopal and Sunil could hear sirens in the distance.

Gopal shouted to a friend across the street: “What’s going on? Some big-shot actor with police protection?”

His friend shouted back: “I think there was an accident. Let me go find out!”

He left and returned.

“I couldn’t get through the crowd,” he reported, “But I think a little girl was struck by a car. All anyone could make out was a white vehicle speeding away. A hit and run! The bastards!”

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Written by pavanvan

March 24, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Obama Extends Patriot Act

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Say it ain’t so, Barack!

And, of course, the US media can’t be bothered to give this story any more than a couple perfunctory paragraphs. The Times and The Post fail to mention it whatsoever, Reuters gives it a lukewarm 300-word summary, and no one else even tried.

Let’s not forget the serious evidence of systemic abuses within the Patriot Act’s framework. The act has no mechanisms for oversight and no way for anyone to know what the FBI is doing with the massive information to which they now have access.

So in short, President Obama believes in:

Wiretapping any and all American telephones for any reason or no reason at all.

Depriving habeas corpus to anyone he deems a “terrorist”, effectively allowing for indefinite detention, interrogation by torture, and “rendition” to any part of the globe. Also, they don’t get to see a lawyer.

State – sanctioned assassinations (read: murder) of any US citizen he deems to be a “terrorist”.

Suspension of the 4th Amendment, allowing for unlimited searches and seizures without a warrant, including credit records, medical history – pretty much anything they want

Deporting any legal immigrant or citizens accused of “supporting terrorism”.

Ordering FBI surveillance based on how you exercise your First Amendment Rights.

Seizing the Assets of anyone engaging in civil disobedience.

Fabulous.

Flip-Flops and Assassinations

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Is anyone even remotely surprised that President Obama reserves the right to assassinate US citizens for any reason (or no reason at all)? Should you be so unfortunate as to incur Mr. Obama’s displeasure, you may wake up one morning to find yourself on the business end of an M-16 assault rifle and a grimly determined marine dispatched to “take out the threat” (i.e. you). You need not be on a battlefield  or even have committed any crime – Mr. Obama merely has to label you an “enemy combatant”. You can gain this unfortunate moniker for such acts as speaking out against the American occupation of your country, consorting with “unknown elements”, or, indeed, no reason at all.

It is clear, as Mr. Greenwald repeatedly points out, that such extra-judicial presidential murders are unconstitutional and a dangerous new investment of power into the Executive Branch. One recalls the massive powers President Bush gave himself as a “war president” to craft legislation (via “signing statements), unilaterally declare war, imprison “enemy combatants” without trial or habeas corpus, interrogate by torture, and send CIA hit squads all around the globe. One wonders, however, if even Mr. Bush would have assumed the right to kill American citizens wherever, whenever, and however he wished.

During his campaign, Mr. Obama naturally spoke out against the vast powers accumulated under the Bush Administration. Mr. Bush was terribly unpopular, after all, and Mr. Obama had to distance himself from him as best he could. Let’s take a look at what he said then:

Regarding warrantless wiretapping and Telecom immunity:

1/28/2008, Campaign statement: “I strongly oppose retroactive immunity in the FISA bill. Ever since 9/11, this Administration has put forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand. The FISA court works. The separation of power works. We can trace, track down and take out terrorists while ensuring that our actions are subject to vigorous oversight, and do not undermine the very laws and freedom that we are fighting to defend.”

Mr. Obama voted for the FISA bill (which he “strongly opposed”), only six months later.

Regarding separation of powers:

10/2/2007, Speech at DePaul University: “We face real threats. Any President needs the latitude to confront them swiftly and surely. But we’ve paid a heavy price for having a President whose priority is expanding his own power. The Constitution is treated like a nuisance. Matters of war and peace are used as political tools to bludgeon the other side.”

We continue to pay that “heavy price”, as Mr. Obama has taken for himself powers which even Mr. Bush would have blushed to demand.

Regarding indefinite detention:

Q: Does the Constitution permit a president to detain US citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants?

A: No. I reject the Bush Administration’s claim that the President has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.

Boston Globe Questionaire, December, 2007

Well, apparently he didn’t like that answer, because almost immediately after his inaguaration, he redacted it. Now, not only does he think the Constitution allows detention without charges, Mr. Obama has come to believe that under the Constitution, the President has the power to impose arbitary death sentances upon any of his subjects who dare incur his wrath.

Here is the most tragic part:

2/26/2008, Speech in Cleveland: “It’s time to give our intelligence and law enforcement agencies the tools they need to track down and take out terrorists, while ensuring that their actions are subject to vigorous oversight that protects our freedom. So let me be perfectly clear: I have taught the Constitution, I understand the Constitution, and I will obey the Constitution when I am President of the United States.”

You see, once upon a time, before being seduced by the Dark Side, Mr. Obama was an upstanding constitutional lawyer, and even taught classes on the subject. In fact, that was a major appeal to his candidacy – since he was a constitutional lawyer by profession he would surely have more respect for that document than his predecessor Mr. Bush, who likely had never once read it. I have no idea what happened to Mr. Obama between 2/26/2008 and his inauguration, but something has surely changed his mind on these issues.

Blackwater Murdered 9-year-old

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Jeremy Scahill continues his sublime reporting on Blackwater:

As Mohammed and Ali drove through Baghdad that hot and sunny Sunday, they passed a newly rebuilt park downtown. Ali gazed at the park and then turned to his father and asked, “Daddy, when are you gonna bring us here?”

“Next week,” Mohammed replied. “If God wills it, son.”

Ali would never visit that park. Within a few hours, he would be dead from a gunshot wound to the head. While you may have never heard his name, you probably know something about how Ali Mohammed Hafedh Kinani died. He was the youngest person killed by Blackwater forces in the infamous Nisour Square massacre.

In May 2008 Mohammed flew to Washington to testify in front of a grand jury investigating the shooting. It was his first time out of Iraq. The US Attorney, Jeffrey Taylor, praised Mohammed for his “commendable courage.” A year after the shooting, in December 2008, five Blackwater guards were indicted on manslaughter charges, while a sixth guard pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed Iraqi. American justice, it seemed to Mohammed, was working. “I’m a true believer in the justness and fairness of American law,” Mohammed said.

But this past New Year’s Eve, federal Judge Ricardo Urbina threw out all the criminal charges against the five Blackwater guards. At least seventeen Iraqis died that day, and prosecutors believed they could prove fourteen of the killings were unjustified. The manslaughter charges were dismissed not because of a lack of evidence but because of what Urbina called serious misconduct on the part of the prosecutors.

Read the whole article.

Written by pavanvan

January 29, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Immigrant Guantanamo

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The Times with a great front-page report that just doesn’t go far enough. The article, about the official cover-up of immigrant deaths during detention, gives some fantastic reporting on the cover-up itself, but fails to emphasize how these poor immigrants actually died.

The meat of the article states that:

The documents show how officials — some still in key positions — used their role as overseers to cover up evidence of mistreatment, deflect scrutiny by the news media or prepare exculpatory public statements after gathering facts that pointed to substandard care or abuse.

As one man lay dying of head injuries suffered in a New Jersey immigration jail in 2007, for example, a spokesman for the federal agency told The Times that he could learn nothing about the case from government authorities. In fact, the records show, the spokesman had alerted those officials to the reporter’s inquiry, and they conferred at length about sending the man back to Africa to avoid embarrassing publicity.

Okay. So The Times revealed how immigrant officials tried to cover up this guy’s death. Pretty shocking. But how did he receive those “head injuries” in the first place? To me, it seems like that should be the crux of the article – not the cover-up. Unless this guy was somehow captured with pre-existing fatal head injuries, he must have been injured while in detention. Then who injured him? Shouldn’t we be trying to find the culprit? I mean, that guy is basically a murderer. Right?

The article also mentions that “unbearable, untreated pain had been a significant factor in the suicide of a 22-year-old detainee at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey”.

Why was this 22-year-old in “unbearable, untreated pain”? Did he have some condition that causes constant pain? Was he tortured? Nobody knows!

The article suggests later that the detention facility tried various means of getting rid of Mr. Bah (the man with the mysterious head injury), including sending him back to his native Africa, but he died before they could.

Eventually, faced with paying $10,000 a month for nursing home care, officials settled on a third course: “humanitarian release” to cousins in New York who had protested that they had no way to care for him. But days before the planned release, Mr. Bah died.

If it’s true that Mr. Bah was tortured and murdered while in detention, this lends a whole new cynicism to our treatment of “immigrant detainees”. I can imagine their dialogue: “We cracked this guy’s skull, and now they want us to pay $10,000 for a nursing home?” “You know, forget it – let’s just send him back to Africa and call it even.” That, I would think, is the true outrage – not the subsequent cover-up.

And come to think of it, The Times never once tells us why Mr. Bah was in jail. Was he some sort of lunatic? A violent sociopath? A petty thief? Was he innocent? The article doesn’t say! But to judge from The Nation’s (vastly superior) article on this matter, “illegal” immigrants often end up in detention for no reason at all.

As James Pendergraph, the director of our immigrant detention facilities once remarked, “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear.” Wouldn’t that be important for The Times to mention?

Nevertheless, this is a nice bit of muckraking from the generally orthodox Times. The article strongly hints that all these injuries were sustained while in detention, and I guess it expects us to connect the dots and conclude that many US prison guards are also brutal murderers. But by leaving the cause of these detainee’s deaths totally ambiguous (save for one reference to ‘abuses’) and by focusing instead on the subsequent cover-up, The Times does more than its part in condoning this sort of behavior.

Written by pavanvan

January 10, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Happy New Year, Afghanistan!

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How could we forget our friends across the Arabian Sea: those poor impoverished Afghans on whom we are doing our darnedest to bestow our patented, copyrighted gifts of “freedom” and democracy”! Do they not deserve some New Year’s fireworks? Well, worry not! The US government is happy to oblige.

From the LA Times:

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan – An Afghan provincial governor said Monday that an apparent U.S. airstrike killed 10 Afghan civilians, and President Hamid Karzai — who has harshly criticized such incidents — ordered an immediate investigation.

If the reports are borne out, it would be the most serious instance of Western forces mistakenly killing Afghan civilians in months.

Oh, what a fanciful drama now playing out in the Karzai cabinet, what a precise farce! The US openly supported Karzai during his 2009 electoral fraud, largely so that he could continue supporting the US presence in his country. But, of course, Mr. Karzai has his electorate to worry about, even though he regards them with utter contempt. Thus the public condemnations of US “aggression”, the constant criticisms of such “incidents”, but no real action of which to speak.

It seems clear that the US has entered a secret agreement with Karzai, just as they have with the Pakistani government. The deal is simple: the United States gets to pummel Pakistani villages with drone attacks, while its government (head by Zardari) makes pious noises “condemning” the attacks. Meanwhile, however, the two governments work together (behind the scenes) to make those attacks possible. If true, this would certainly explain the US government’s consistent support for a corrupt heroin dealer known as Hamid Karzai.

Written by pavanvan

January 2, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Who cares about Yemen?

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Continuing its wanton disregard for other nation’s sovereignty, and, indeed, the right of their citizens not to be bombed to oblivion, the United States unleashed a massive “drone” attack upon the Yemeni shores late last week. Of course, the standard excuse of “suspected terrorists” was deployed in defense of the strike, but curiously, no “terrorists” were confirmed to have been killed.

The US did manage to murder more than 49 Yemeni civilians, including 23 children and 17 women, who, one assumes, feel quite dreadful about their “suspected terrorism”. Needless to say, this mini-atrocity saw almost no coverage in the US media, and the few papers who bothered to address the event did not see fit to mention the women and children deceased.

Man, Obama is earning that Nobel Peace Prize!

Written by pavanvan

December 22, 2009 at 6:40 pm