Everyone loves to take potshots at the 800-lb gorilla in the room — provided there is little danger of retaliation. And in the unipolar world we live in today following the collapse of the USSR, the gorilla is the United States of America. And when the potshots take the form of stinging words, one is immune to payback by way of desert storms, desert strikes, drones, and the like.
For many decades after Independence, Indian governments were pro-Soviet and therefore, anti-American. This trend was begun by India’s first prime minister, Nehru, who was educated in England, where he came under the influence of Fabian socialism. There were many in the India media who had similar ideological leanings, and when my father went to America in the 1950s for his PhD, he used to show samples of these anti-American writings to his American friends. They were, however a sporting lot and far from taking offense, used to take the baiting in their stride.
One such America baiter, a contemporary of Nehru, was Shankar, the famous cartoonist from Kerala who worked in Delhi. He founded a satirical magazine called Shankar’s Weekly, in which he gave free rein to his pro-Communist leanings. One of his stinging cartoons on the Korean war is typical of his style. North Korea had invaded South Korea, and America, with forces close by in Japan, rushed to South Korea’s aid. The North Koreans, hopelessly outgunned, were soon retreating to the border, the 38th Parallel, with the Americans in hot pursuit.
At this stage, China conveyed a warning to Truman through Nehru: if the Americans crossed the border into North Korea — and there was every indication that they would, with the goal of bringing down the Communist North Korean regime and unifying Korea — China would not remain an idle spectator. Truman disregarded this warning, and the American forces soon crossed the 38th Parallel and were making their way toward the Yalu river.
China now intervened on a massive scale, and the Americans were soon forced into a disorderly retreat back toward the 38th Parallel. It was at this juncture that a cartoon appeared in Shankar’s Weekly, showing Truman running, in full flight, coat tails flying, hat falling to the ground; he’s fleeing toward the 38th Parallel, watched by Nehru, and he’s shouting to Nehru: “Did I not tell you I would not stop at the 38th Parallel?” The American friend to whom my father described this cartoon, laughed, and remarked, “Unhappy days those were!” A piece by another Communist sympathizer suggested that large-scale emigration from Europe by the criminal class had turned America into “a country of sadistic criminals.” This, however, was too much for my father’s American friends to digest.
M.J. Akbar’s book, Have Pen, Will Travel, consistently pokes gentle fun at America; indeed, he seems unable to take America seriously. He begins a chapter on his travels in America by asking, what does being the richest country in the world actually mean? He quickly disposes of plausible answers such as a rising NASDAQ, clean streets, cars, clothes, etc., to finally deliver the answer: food! Here is how Akbar puts it:
America smells of food and stinks of indigestion. Television would collapse without the advertisements for food and the cures for its consequences. One half of the great American economy sells food, and the other half sells medicines for the after-effects. When the drug companies leave the television screen, their poorer cousins, the exercise conmen, take over. The scam is so huge that no stupidity is beyond the imagination of the health sellers. One quack, successful enough to sell his wares in the middle of a popular serial like MASH, was telling his let-us-pay disciples that all they had to do to remain healthy was, when in office, drop a pencil on the floor and pick it up, drop it on the floor and pick it up, drop it on the floor and pick it up …Try doing that in an Indian office, and you will need another job (Except, of course, in a government job, where you could get an increment for dropping your pencil and picking it up.)
When Americans talk of a healthy economy, they mean precisely what they say. There are, broadly, two kinds of Americans. The first shows its commitment to food in folds around the navel and retreads on the chest. The second kind is absorbed almost completely in sweating out the fat that should never have reached the body in the first place. Nor is there a very defined hour for eating. The last sentence could be happily reversed: every hour is defined for eating. America would faint without hamburgers and choke with coke.
I must let a Ukranian fellow PhD student of my father have the last word, however; after some beer, he shouted in the bar, “America, unlike Russia, is great! Here they don’t ask kids to spy on their parents.”
Amen to that.