Monday, November 22, 2010

Forty Seven Years Ago

In November 1963 I was in the Foreign Service living in Calcutta. I was working for the U.S. Information Agency and my job was to establish relationships with Indian college students. To do that we organized educational and cultural programs in the major universities of Eastern India.

When possible I’d combine business and pleasure. So while I was delivering a University Program in the State of Orissa south of Calcutta, Kit (my wife at the time) and our daughter Lys were spending time in Puri, a seaside town on the Bay of Bengal. My plan was to join them in Puri when I’d finished working.

On the morning of November 23, we awoke to find a note under our door. It was from an English woman we’d met who was staying in our hotel. The note (I don’t remember the exact words, but this is close) said: “We are devastated by what has happened. We feel the loss as if it had been our Queen.”

While we were sleeping John F. Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. Like everyone, we were in a state of shock. We returned to Calcutta as soon as we could and found that the impact of Kennedy’s death among Indians was astounding. By the thousands they lined up to sign a condolence book in the Consulate, as they did at the Embassy in Delhi and our other Consulates in Bombay and Madras. The public outpouring of grief surprised me. I knew that in India, as elsewhere, Kennedy connected with people more than any American in memory had. Even so, I was taken aback by the breadth and depth of their feelings.

I asked myself what was going on here. And in the process of answering my question I learned something important. While the Indians in those days complained a lot about the U.S., our policies, our racism, our power, with Kennedy as our leader we represented a beacon of hope for the future that they couldn’t find anywhere else. So with Kennedy dead, the outlook for what was possible was significantly diminished. For millions of Indians it was personal. A member of their family had died prematurely.

In a way this conflicted with something else I’d noticed in India. My assumption about the U.S. was that we were a young, vibrant country, with enormous energy and countless new ideas. We weren’t old and tired like, say, some of our European friends. But I realized that many Indians, especially students, didn’t see us that way at all. To them we were old with old ideas. After all, they’d been independent for less than 20 years; they were really young. We were going on 200 years. Really old.

I’d never questioned my assumption about us. So to see that others didn’t have the same assumption, quite the reverse, was surprising. Having said that, it was clear that Kennedy poked a bit of a hole in the Indian assumption. Would that opening for a more positive future disappear with his death? Only time would tell.

As it turned out, even though it took a while relations between India and the U.S. have matured nicely in recent years. It is a totally different country than it was 47 years ago. And so are we. In their eyes we are even older than we were in 1963 and they’ve moved into middle age. We still have the respect of many Indians, but we’re no longer a beacon of hope. In many areas we have mutually overlapping areas of self-interest. Our current friendly relationship is based on this self-interest.

There is a downside to yearning for the past. I prefer to live in the present and don’t look back with nostalgia. India is living up to its promise very well. We, I regret to say, have lost our way. We are still powerful and relevant in the world, but our ability to inspire others, Kennedy-like, is long gone.


Anonymous nick said...

i wonder if your mind set does not reflect the position of a power (usa) who by circumstance often gets the the wrong wrong interpetan due to it's postion in the world power.

7:26 PM  

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