Tag Archives: America

Home of horrors

Jnavayanaoe Sacco and Chris Hedges combine efforts to draw a poignant, disturbing picture of post-capitalist America ♦

Black and white truth has little place in the slippery grey of liberal opinion. Poverty porn or slum tourism are easy dismissals of writing on the human fallout of consumer capitalism. And plenty of people make a fetish of poverty for personal or political gain. But some artists bring the dying places of the world to life in their work with such searing conviction that it burns through the smog. Like cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco, whose work is a reminder that moral uncertainty is all too often a veil of self-deception – that if looking at poverty can be exploitative, we’re still not justified in averting our eyes.

If in urban India we’re quite used to looking away from our own inequalities, oppression in the US is practically a sight unseen by the rest of the world. The new South Asian edition of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a 2012 collaboration between Sacco and Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges, could change that. Published by Delhi’s Navayana, which engages with caste and other forms of inequality, the book reports on the American communities hard-hit by globalisation, the so-called “sacrifice zones” of unchecked capitalism. The book is split into five chapters, four of which consist mostly of Hedges’ written reportage from America’s deepest circles of hell: the Native American reservation of Pine Ridge, South Dakota; the violent city of Camden, New Jersey; Welch, in an area of West Virginia devastated by coal mining; and Immokalee, Florida, an agricultural region reliant on undocumented immigrant labour. Sacco’s illustrations are interspersed: sound-bite portraits and a few short story-length histories of representative individuals.

The stories are relentlessly horrific. There’s senseless murder, forced prostitution, alcoholism, pill addiction, obesity, homelessness, genocide fuelled by suicide, and more grit than some readers might be able to stomach. “Take a look at the American dream,” says the manager of a tent town in Camden. “In today’s society, no one is exempt… Everybody is one paycheck away from being here.”


Both Sacco and Hedges let such characters do a lot of the talking, but Hedges is also an opinionated presence in these pages and he makes no apologies for it. At times he gets almost biblical, which might invigorate or irritate, depending on the reader. “To stand on the sidelines and say ‘I am innocent’ is to bear the mark of Cain,” Hedges proclaims.

Founding editor of Navayana, S Anand is a believer. “This charge of being biased and pedantic… frankly it is tiresome,” he wrote over email. “The crisis they [Hedges and Sacco] are documenting is vulgar. The hard-hitting documentary style is effective.” Anand and Sacco had been on each other’s radars even before the latter blurbed Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, a graphic novel inspired by Ambedkar’s life and illustrated by two Pardhan-Gond artists. (Sacco also addressed caste in his reporting from Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh.) The cartoonist was instrumental in getting Navayana the South Asian rights.

The edition, Anand said, is aimed at English-speaking upper and middle class members who believe in “following the American model… a blind imitation of a crass consumerist capitalistic ethic”. And while it complicates the idea of America, the bookinevitably stirs up comparisons between poverty in “developed” versus “developing” nations.

“One of the key reasons I did this book is to try and create a template for similar books in India,” said Anand, who, besides cowriting Bhimayana, also published A Gardener in the Wasteland, a graphic interpretation of Jotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri. “I want to publish such a book on Koodankulam for instance, a sacrifice zone in the making,” he said. “There’s no dearth of issues; there’s a dearth of writers and artists. Sadly, in India, the graphic novel form is considered merely cool, quirky, fashionable. It’s like a boys’ club. That [it] can be political is granted, but is rarely attempted.”

Days of Destruction… isn’t perfect – some of the academic interludes sit awkwardly within personal narratives; occasionally there are abrupt switches from one character to another, past to present or fact to opinion. What Hedges is especially good at, though, is underscoring how downtrodden people turn against each other, and how oppressors encourage this to their advantage.

In the spirit of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Hedges and Sacco are also good at looking for resistance. These “bright spots” range from union history to community organising groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to intelligent, outspoken individuals who defy the stereotype of hapless sacrificial victims. The final chapter is devoted to the Occupy movement, which the authors see as evidence that discontent with capitalism is spreading to those who are well-placed to protest it. Whatever Occupy’s potential to inspire revolt may be; the chapter is a valuable, clear-eyed, insider dissection of the movement. Anand pointed out that “many of the poor in India have no choice but to ‘occupy’ or squat. These acts are not seen, unfortunately, as political… Only when the middle class of the US, mostly whites, staged Occupy did it become newsworthy.” Still, Occupy is an important example for elites anywhere whose sense of justice can often outpace a willingness to acknowledge, as Anand put it, “their endorsement of a capitalistic ethic; their own culpability through consumption”. And in an age of global industry, creating links between oppression and revolt in different parts of the world is an important endeavor in itself. Cutting through the smokescreen of “neutral” reporting, Days of Destruction… is a reminder that “Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers… It passes on another narrative.” And radical dissent can start as simply as exercising one’s right to unselfish action.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Nayavana ₹595.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2013.

Published: October 11, 2013

Mission accomplished

An American architect in Delhi ♦

scan0004Some of Delhi’s most beautiful buildings sit on foreign soil. In Chanakyapuri, the American Embassy’s Chancery and Ambassador’s residence are two of independent India’s oldest diplomatic buildings – and arguably the most successful at blending modern minimalism with motifs from Mughal and British architecture. Architect Edward Durell Stone, who had already co-designed the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, completed the Chancery in 1959. The Ambassador’s residence, called Roosevelt House, opened in 1963.

The complex was much admired in the West, garnering a Time magazine feature and the praise of Frank Lloyd Wright, who called it “a perfectly beautiful building”. The Delhi buildings were especially celebrated because they were the first to implement a new American diplomatic policy of building foreign missions in a culturally sensitive manner. After a trip to Agra, Stone was inspired by the Taj Mahal, and drew on Indian elements to design a climate-sensitive building. A roof canopy above the top-floor ceiling dissipates the heat, and there was extensive jali-work in the residence, which became climbing walls for Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith and his sons in the ’60s. It became a tradition for guests, including Jackie Onassis Kennedy, to step across the water garden in the Chancery’s central courtyard. Once, a visiting US Colonel marched straight into the pond.

The building contracts went to Mohan Singh and his sons, who would later extend American influence in Delhi by partnering with Coca Cola when it arrived here. Stone formed long-lasting friendships with the Singh family: Stone’s son Hicks told us that the Singhs nicknamed the building the “Taj Maria”, after Edward’s new wife, who had helped him through a low point in his career just before the Embassy project. Besides being the backdrop for 50 years of diplomacy between Delhi and Washington, DC, the Embassy buildings had a far-reaching architectural impact. Stone took the same ideas and spun them into landmark buildings in the US, notably the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, back in the American capital.

Watch a newsreel of the inauguration of the US Embassy in New Delhi:

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2011.

Published: September 5, 2011

Welcome to Americastan

Jabeen Akhtar knocks stereotypes out of focus ♦

americastanSamira Tanweer just wants to be left alone. Unfortunately for the former political analyst, being back in the bosom of her Pakistani-American family isn’t going to make it easy for her to put back together the pieces of her recently shattered life.

Samira indulges in a fair amount of wallowing, before succumbing to the demanding force of her parent’s love. The book threatens to overflow with Samira’s claustrophobic cultural baggage and self-pitying tears (she’s landed herself on the FBI terror watch list for att­empting to run over her two-timing ex). Her confessional passages sound awkwardly authorial, but what kept us reading was Akhtar’s knack for poignant scenes and conversations, which knock stereotypes satisfyingly out of focus.

Akhtar also manages to press all this tragedy into the service of comedy. Using both wry and warm humour, she sends Samira through a redemptive cycle from loathing to self-deprecation to sanity. Along the way are witty encounters with the inhabitants of Cary, North Carolina: discount store racists and apologists, alcohol-drinking Muslims and overly affectionate cousins.

Akhtar occasionally veers tow­ards purple prose and the novel seems to hang between multi-culti coming-of-age story, chick lit and dear diary. Yet, while Welcome to Americastan might not have the plot twists of Zadie Smith’s first novel nor the magical realist ambitions of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, its lack of pretension make it worth all the woe.

Welcome to Americastan, Penguin, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2011.

Published: September 4, 2011