The First Time I the Heard N Word Employed

As far as words go, the n-word is likely one of the most offensive in the world. Right up there with the c-word employed while referring to a woman. Although the c-word seems more acceptable across the pond in ol’ England. That’s probably why when I heard a black person called the n-word on an airplane the other day I was shocked. It is more a reflection of the sheltered existence I have had perhaps but it was quite jarring to me. I have heard black people use that word among themselves, I’ve heard it on screen and in hip-hop lyrics but never to a black person’s face in real life. Not that I can recall anyways.  I don’t suppose to know what some black folk mean when they say using the word among themselves takes the power out of it and whatnot and I certainly don’t pretend to know whether is is right or wrong that some black folk choose to use it among themselves. What I do know is that I can’t imagine how the woman it was used against felt. But then, it is quite likely that wasn’t the first time someone had called her a “fucking n***** bitch.” Now, what outrage this woman could have possibly perpetrated to be called such an offensive epithet you might ask. And that is a valid question. So allow me to explain.

This has happened to me before. I’ve ponied up the ten or fifteen dollars for in flight internet access and have had darned the thing not work. In fact the two trips right after I had signed up for the monthly plan (forty dollars per month no less) from one of the providers on a specific airline, the internet access didn’t work. The first time I called the flight attendant over to complain she simply said “We’ve had this problem all day today. We’ve complained but they haven’t fixed it.” That was that. She said she was sorry about the inconvenience, I said it wasn’t her fault and I resigned myself to the outrage of having no internet access, paraphrasing the comedian Louis CK,  “while flying thirty thousand feet above sea level sitting in a comfortable chair” for a whole three hours. The poor choice for the source of my quote is not lost one me but that’s the most appropriate one I can think of. I don’t remember what happened the second time but it wasn’t anything eventful or worth remembering evidently. I canceled my subscription before the next billing cycle and moved on. I wish I could say that I have conducted myself this rationally, not having been a donkey’s ass every time in every frustrating customer service situation but I would be lying if I did.

I relate this story because this is exactly what happened last week, and coincidentally, it happened on a flight to the City of Angels like it had with me on those two occasions. This time the outrage was perpetrated against a man in a #23 Lakers jersey, apparently one so excited about LeBron’s arrival in Los Angeles that he couldn’t wait until the season began to buy the jersey. How the man’s sartorial sense, or the lack of it, has to do with any of this I do not know. But I do know this: Nobody wants to sit next to a man in a freaking basketball jersey on a cross country flight with nothing underneath showing all his disgusting armpit hair to the world. Certainly not with his arms raised above his shoulders behind his head the whole time. The man was frustrated that the internet he had paid for wasn’t working. The flight attendant tried to help him but obviously she wasn’t a technical expert and couldn’t help beyond what she’d been taught. Although she tried more than most. She asked him to make sure he is connected to the Gogo in-flight wireless network. She asked him to open the browser on his phone and go to the Gogo in flight website directly using the browser and a couple of other steps that could have helped.  It is at this point that I heard the flight attendant say “Sir please do not talk to me like that.” The man said something else and the flight attendant went “Sir you are being incredibly rude. I will not be spoken to like that. This is when I heard, clear as day, him saying: “Just leave me alone you fucking n**** bitch.”

I heard it and so had a few others around us but no-one (myself included) said anything to the man or confronted him. To not be impolite I suppose. Just like the time I did not stand up and speak out against overt acts of caste discrimination by my own family members back in India. But this post isn’t about my cowardice. Speaking of not wanting to be impolite, what could possibly be more impolite and outrageous than using the most offensive racial slur against someone, no matter what the provocation, I do not know. What kind of decorum I was trying to maintain, do not ask me. My excuse, like that of many is that I do not quite have the right words and right response in the heat of the moment. I can think at least ten things I could have said after the fact but I find myself tongue tied and unable to respond at that very moment. The flight attendant, rightly outraged by what she heard, brought one of her coworkers and said “I’m not giving that man a single thing to drink or eat on this flight.” She also went on the intercom and spoke with the captain about what happened. A few minutes later another flight attendant came along with a piece of paper and explained something to the man. I presume it was some kind of warning or rebuke. Hopefully one that said he isn’t allowed to fly on any flight operated by that airline henceforth but I am not sure what it was and can only hope that is indeed what transpired. All I know was the man nodded defiantly that he understood what was being explained to him. The flight attendant was a bigger person than I could ever be and asked the man during drink service whether he would like some ice water. The woman was exceedingly polite to everyone else on the flight including myself. I do that myself sometimes. When I am in disagreement or have been outraged by someone’s comment in a gathering I go out of my way to be nicer to everyone else around. Just to prove a point that I’m not the asshole here. Although the flight attendant probably was just nice like that always.

While I was deplaning I had an impulse to stop by and tell her that I thought she was a bigger person than I and that I admired her poise and grace. That if she were ever to complain or otherwise pursue some sort of action as a consequence for this passenger I would do everything I could to be on her side. That here was my phone number and contact information. But I didn’t because I didn’t know how she would react. Or I told myself that anyways. Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda. The story of my life.
You’ve indulged me twice in a day so thank you again.

Lakshman Hariharan
08.26.18
Prosper, TX.

Perspective

I struggle with keeping things in perspective, as I assume many of us do. I found myself seated at lunch a few weeks go with a gentleman from Iraq who had worked for the US Embassy in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion and found his way to the United States via a special visa program. He recalled how he once heard one of his American coworkers at the embassy lament the long forty five minute commute to work back in the States and thought about his own commute to work. For perspective, the Iraqi gentleman said that when he worked for the US Embassy in Baghdad, he had to, if he wanted to make it to his desk on time by 9:00 a.m., leave his house at 5:00 a.m. to go through all the security checkpoints and barriers before he could enter the embassy.  Four hours. Or that a man of decidedly higher intelligence than most people with better, more cushy jobs that I run into on a daily basis had to work as a PC technician at the US Embassy for twelve years before he could be eligible for the special visa.  I told him I admired his resilience and I could relate, albeit remotely,  because I never had to suffer such hardship. Because I came from a place where everything moved at a glacial pace (at least when I lived there) and now I find myself complaining if the old lady in front of me at the grocery line takes a few extra seconds to pull out her coupons. I also told him I hoped he would be a better man (and by all indications that he is) than I and wouldn’t find himself complaining about his commute to and from work in the nation’s capital in a couple of years, when the sheen and novelty of immigrating to the States has worn off. By all appearances he did seem a better man than I, seeing  how patient he was with things like people taking forever to pull out of a parking space and the patience he showed with cars that have right of way taking forever to make that right turn so you could make your left turn. And the joy he took in all the things we take for granted here in the States. Call it Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or the problem of plenitude but I wish I could keep things in perspective like that.
I also found myself wanting to be like him for the genuine joy he took in spending time with his children every day after work, although I suppose most good fathers are like that. Not that its an excuse for indiscipline but I try to remind myself every time I’m upset with my ten year old for leaving his soccer cleats laying around or with my seven year old for leaving his Legos all over the place that there are thousands, likely hundreds of thousands, if not millions of couples that would love to be able to have a chance to put those soccer cleats or the Lego pieces away but cannot, for one reason or another.

Or when I complain about having to walk a few extra steps in the scorching Texas sun because I didn’t find a closer parking spot at the grocery store. I then see a man in a wheelchair and try to be grateful that I have legs. Try being the operative word, because, as a friend says, it lasts about seven minutes. Before I’m back to complaining that my Mercedes doesn’t parallel park itself or that my Ducati doesn’t have cruise control. Or the time I was stuck behind a garbage truck for a whopping two minutes in traffic on the highway and couldn’t stand the stench. The next day happened to be trash pickup day in the neighborhood and I saw the guy hanging off the back of the garbage truck emptying the contents of our garbage cans into the truck and resolved to be grateful that I don’t have to ride in or drive a garbage truck for a living. Or the time when I thought the janitor (custodian, if the word janitor is offensive) at the office was rude not to acknowledge my “thank you” and smile as I walked by her. I had to ask myself how appreciative I would be of someone’s thank you if I had to clean toilets for a living.

I also try to put it in perspective to my ten year old when he complains about not having WiFi for a few minutes on the three hour or so drive to Austin, or when he is outraged that he will be in middle school next year and still doesn’t have an iPhone. But as a wise man once told me: They do as you do, not as you say. Its possible that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t set quite the right example with my reaction to the car tailgating me on the way to soccer practice, or the time the car in front of me was going forty miles an hour where the speed limit was fifty five.

Thanks for indulging me and reading. Now please excuse me as I get on an online forum and bitch about how the fifty thousand dollar electric vehicle I ordered is taking forever to enter production.

Lakshman Hariharan
08/26/18
Prosper, TX.
P.S.: I own neither a Mercedes nor a Ducati, although I wish I did.

Summer Reading

Barack Obama and Bill Gates publish their summer reading lists, so I figured why not me? Because, you know, I’m just as accomplished and the world is waiting to know what I’m reading.
Its been a good summer for reading so far. I knocked off my reading bucket list a few works of fiction considered modern classics: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and the Orwellian classics Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm.  I enjoyed most, to the surprise of almost no one that knows me, the dystopian Nineteen Eighty Four and the satiric Animal Farm. Although the latter I found less of a satire and more a grim and ultimately sad depiction of what has been in some parts of the world and what could happen over here. I’d heard that the sales of these books, especially the former had skyrocketed since the 2016 November elections here stateside. Now I know why. Animal Farm was first published in 1945 and Nineteen Eighty Four in 1949. The dates of publication are important because of how Orwell foretold events as they unfolded in the former Soviet Union before anyone knew how they would eventually unfold. It is fair to say that when these books were written,  in much of the world outside the United States and the countries then commonly referred to as the Western Democracies  — loosely comprised of the countries that fought Nazi Germany minus the Soviet Union — the jury was still out on which form of government was the best. As the historian Ram Guha writes, the Nehruvian tilt to socialism and the Soviet Union is a case in point that the matter wasn’t quite settled in everyone’s mind, as obvious as it sounds now. Orwell’s prescience is a testament to his brilliance. I enjoyed his most famous works of fiction so much that I have started reading Homage to Catalonia; his experiences during the Spanish Civil War that went on to shape his views on authoritarianism.
No seasonal reading for me is ever complete without reading a work or two by the late Christopher Hitches, so I picked up The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Provocative title aside, no one can quite put it like Hitchens. One line in particular jumps out. Writing about the time when Mother Teresa was asked what poor people without money or power can do to make the world a better place and she answered: “Smile More”,  Hitchens writes that it is a “…fortune cookie maxim of such cretinous condescension”. Reminds me of a certain Be Best campaign, if one can even call it a campaign. That is just one line that jumped out in a brilliant work. The book (or pamphlet rather) has been called at various times by various people a vicious attack on Mother Teresa, a polemic and a screed. All it is is an honest questioning of why she chose to associate with authoritarians and where exactly did the millions raised by The Sisters of Charity go? Why the affectation of poverty? And the questioning of faux naif as Hitchens puts it and what the real motives were.

When my ten year old and I visited the holocaust museum (which is where I picked up this next book incidentally)  in Washington DC earlier this summer I saw NEVER AGAIN plastered on the walls so many places that I remarked remarked: “Yet it still happens.” My ten year old asked:  “You mean like in Syria?”I told him not quite but he was partly right I suppose. A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power is a powerful, if sad read. The story of genocide in the twentieth century and America’s inaction in the face of it. Starting with Turkey’s genocide of ethnic Armenians it traces America’s response (or lack of it) through the twentieth century; the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda. Learned a lot about a man named Raphael Lemkin who coined the word genocide and several other United States lawmakers that were crusaders for American intervention in cases of genocide. A great read I would recommend to anyone trying to understand genocide.

In addition I read some of Tom Paine’s works, The Age of Reason and Rights of Man. It helped that I read Christopher Hitchens’ interpretation of Paine’s Rights of Man  before diving into the actual works. I’m working on a separate post, if it ever sees the light of day, on Paine, Rights of Man, the contrasting viewpoints of his and Edmund Burke’s and their pamphlet wars. According to the author Yuval Levin in his book (another summer read) The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Left and Right” what we call in American politics as Conservative and Liberal originated here. Along the same lines, an interesting tidbit I did not know was where the terms left and right as applied to our politics originated. During the French Revolution it seems. Hitchens writes: “It is from this period that we derive our most common as well as our most crude political metaphor. The Jacobin faction began to sit to the left of the president’s chair in the assembly and the Girondin faction to his right.”

Another read, Lincoln On Race and Slavery edited by Henry Louise Gates Jr. deserves its own separate post.

Now a couple of final thoughts on the Orwellian works I had referred to earlier.

Take this exchange between O’Brien and the protagonist Winston in Nineteen Eighty Four:

“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

What is sometimes five and sometimes three and sometimes all at once is two plus two. Because the Party insists that two plus two is not four. Earlier in the novel Winston writes in his diary: “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two is four. If that is guaranteed all else follows.”

Now, consider this tweet from the President of the United States and assure me with a straight face we’re not headed toward some Orwellian nightmare.

Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Or his counsel’s statement that “Truth is not truth”.

Animal Farm of course reminded me of characters from the twentieth century, mostly from the former Soviet Union. Here are the analogies I could draw
Major — Lenin.
Napoleon — Stalin
Snowball — Trotsky
Squealer — Molotov, Beria, Goebbels..take your pick.

That has been the list so far for the summer of ’18.

Thanks for indulging me.

Lakshman Hariharan

A Game on Life Support

I can barely stand to listen to the news these days , a sentiment that many of us agree with, no doubt. I can neither tolerate the bellicosity of right wing talk radio nor the we are so much better than the other side smug elitism of public radio. That is not to say that I believe this “both sides are to blame” nonsense though. Plus these aren’t exactly peachy times for a liberal left of center listener like me. So I do what every responsible citizen would do in such a situation: disengage. Disengage and let someone else figure it out while I bitch and moan about how bad things are. Which means I listen to a lot of sports radio while in the car or traveling. I oftentimes hear the hosts on the radio station I listen to discussing how some baseball games are so long and something needs to be done about it if the game is to sustain the viewership and patronage of younger viewers. Which brings me to the topic of this post: Test cricket.

The Indian born Chief Executive of Microsoft, when asked by an interviewer how he would explain cricket to an American had one word: Impossible. He added, in the same interview, that his most valuable possession is a cricket bat signed by the great Sachin Tendulkar. More on that later. His comment regarding the impossibility of explaining the sport of cricket (and especially Test cricket) to Americans has nothing to do with the average American’s ability to understand the game and has everything to do with what an anachronism Test cricket is in this day and age. Players step out in spotless whites like they did over two hundred years ago, there are breaks for lunch and breaks for high tea and the game is played over five days; sometimes with no result. Right. With no result. High Tea aren’t exactly the words that come to mind while trying to conjure up in one’s imagination an exciting and absorbing sport. In fact just typing the words high tea feels like I’ve been transported to the Victorian era. Yet here I was, up at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning glued to my computer screen watching India play England in a test match. There is a certain love for a game that one grew up watching and the team one grew up rooting for that no other game or team can replace I suppose. Or I’m just a sports fan with way too much time on my hands. Time that could be put to better use elsewhere.  For someone with not one athletic bone in his body I watch way too much sports. The ratio of time spent watching sports to time spent playing sports is heavily skewed in favor of the number left of the colon, or the numerator, if you would.  I love the Dallas Cowboys, the Dallas Mavericks and heck I’ll even jump on the bandwagon when the Texas Rangers are in a pennant race or in the playoffs. Baseball. A game I don’t even understand fully. The first time I went to a baseball game with some coworkers I actually asked one of them when halftime was.

But nothing quite compares to the joy that accompanies the Indian national cricket team’s victories. Anybody that has been to Indian subcontinent, has an Indian or a Pakistani friend or has generally spent a few days with anyone from the subcontinent knows that the game is a religion in India. A Malayalam poet named C.P. Surendran once wrote, describing the love and passion Indian people have for cricket and one gentleman particularly : “Batsmen walk out into the middle alone. Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena.” Enough has been said about society’s tendency to overvalue sports and Indians’ penchant for deifying cricket stars and this one in particular so I’ll spare the reader that lecture. Suffice to say that there has likely never been a sports figure more revered in the history of all sport. The Indian team’s victories are especially sweet for me when India beats England. Something about sticking it to the former colonial masters in the game they taught us to play is gratifying like few other things are for me.

I am, in a sense different from the average Indian cricket fan that a win over the arch rivals west of India’s disputed border is less satisfying to me than a victory against England.  The writer Wright Thompson, describing the India — Pakistan rivalry wrote “Its just like Auburn vs Alabama.” Yes, he added “just like that, except for the constant threat of nuclear holocaust.” Yes, it is India — Pakistan, not Pakistan — India, and yes it matters just like it is Texas — OU and not OU — Texas. But as I grow older I find myself becoming less partisan and more of a fan of the game itself than individuals or teams. Finally, after thirty something years of watching cricket and sports in general, I understand the cliche that no individual is bigger than the game.
No other game that I know of on the planet has different formats played over different time spans, save the sport of running. In any case, no other sport that involves bat and ball is played in three formats. Yet, as most intelligent commentators and former players would tell you, Test cricket is the pinnacle of the game requiring the endurance, patience and fitness levels that if a team wants to compete at that level, can be in the very least, daunting. Don’t let the portly cricketers from the past — a famous former cricketer from Sri Lanka comes immediately to mind — let you belie the fitness levels the longest format of the game demands. I’m also old school in that club cricket, of the type most popular with the youth of today, has no appeal for me. I watch all formats of the game but I’m only emotionally invested in the fortunes of the Indian national cricket team. In fact the only times this grown ass man can recall having shed shed tears over sports is twice: Once when India failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the 2007–2008 World Cup Not Test cricket or the shortest format but a third format that is played over a whole day. Take that basketball! and once when the great Sachin Tendulkar retired from the sport.

To say that the game is struggling would be an understatement. I don’t know of any other game that is played to empty stands and still manages to survive. The shorter more “exciting” formats of the game sustain Test cricket and they allow the lesser teams to be competitive. I oftentimes wonder how many kids in the subcontinent under the age of twenty five really care about and answer it myself. Not many. And as the history of boxing shows, a game that cannot sustain the interest of the younger generations cannot survive. But I don’t know what the solution is. A game played over five days is more suited to 1818 not 2018. The stodgy powers that be running the sport are finally waking up to the reality that something needs to be done if the game is to survive. That includes trying some innovative things like day night (pink ball) Test cricket. Yes, there’s red ball cricket, white ball cricket and now, pink ball cricket. There was a child in the stands holding a sign, clearly written by an adult, which read: “KEEP TEST CRICKET ALIVE FOR THE NEXT GENERATION.”
Amen to that. The game is on life support and this fan hopes it survives. Now excuse me as I go back to doing what every concerned and responsible patron of the game would do. Sit around and mope about the future of the game.

Thanks for indulging me and reading.

Lakshman Hariharan
08/04/2018 Prosper, TX.