Being Indian in New York

Living in Oklahoma, it is easy to miss how much Indians are becoming part of the American fabric.

For example, this was an ad on the train from Manhattan to Newark:
The ad is for TV coverage of a pretty minor cricket tournament!

On August 15, Indian Independence Day, I happened to be working at a bank in the New York area. How tony and upscale is this bank? Well, this was the view from the window of the nondescript space that I was stuck in for two days:
That's Ellis Island, Liberty Island in the foreground and Verrazano Narrows bridge off in the horizon.  Since offices with views are hot commodities anywhere, it will take an embarrassment of riches before 2-day visitors are offered this view.

The bank had been plastered with variations on this flyer:
In case, you can't quite read it, it talks about an Independence Day celebration in the company cafeteria and asks people to show up, if possible, in Indian Ethnic apparel.

Quite a few people showed up to work on Thursday wearing Indian clothes.  And not all of those people were of Indian origin. Not me, alas. I had packed only shirts and pants.

How long do you think it will be before there is something Indian on the American calendar? On the lines of Columbus Day or St. Patrick's Day ...

New mansions come to Chettinad

This is what the area around a small pond in my parents' village used to look like:

And this is what it looks like now:

The five-story building that is coming up is being built by a nouveau-riche family who have built their fortune in the new India.  They do not live in the village of course -- they only visit. The arid villages of South India have never been the place to get rich. Even the original mansion that flanked the pond (and that has been recently repainted) was built out of fortunes created during the British empire (the trading network flanked as far away as Burma, Ceylon and Malaya). And if you go into the old mansions, you'll see Burmese teak, Ceylonese elephants and statues of the goddess Lakshmi flanked by British soldiers -- the traders knew who kept the peace that kept their networks humming.

As Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Vietnam, etc. became independent, they threw the foreign Indian merchants out and the go-go era of mansion building in my parents' village ended. I used to think that the village was now forever stuck in the slow lane.

Seems not.

How Shakespeare Changed Everything

When a book's title is "How Shakespeare Changed Everything", one expects either hyperbole or an underwhelming list.  But Shakespeare, it turns out, did change everything.

He changed the nature of adolescence.  When he wrote "Romeo and Juliet", most children (whether rich or poor) were expected to become apprentices at around the age of 10 or 12. It was Shakespeare who described roving bands of young people, thugs and mall rats, and the impact of raging hormones.  Essentially, he invented teenagers and how society perceives them.

He of course changed the English language but I was surprised by the extent to which he did.  Apparently, even in his day, a full 30% of the language would be new. How he could get people into a noisy, unmiked theater where they couldn't understand a significant portion of the words is beyond me.  The author points out how so many phrases we use are Shakespearean in origin. Without even knowing it, we quote Shakespeare every day.

But where the book really excels is in talking about how Shakespeare, without really meaning to, changed the world. For example, Othello is a racist play, relying for much of its power on the audience's visceral reaction to seeing a black man and a white woman on stage. Yet, the play did change how we see race. Similarly, the character of Shylock was anti-Semitic, and even the famous "I am a Jew, do I not bleed" speech only attributes animal characteristics to Jews. Yet, it too changed the world. Slowly, but surely.

The funniest part of the book is the story of how Shakespeare was indirectly responsible for some of the worst environmental damage the United States has experienced.  Some Connecticut banker, obsessed with introducing every bird Shakespeare mentioned in his plays to the US, brought in nightingales and starlings. The nightingales died off but the starlings became a major pest, and continue to be responsible for much environmental disaster.

Towards the end of the book, the author loses his way. The book would have been good at 150 pages. But his publisher probably made the author pad it, and that spoils the book. Still, this is a book worth savoring.