Tuesday, May 21, 2002

The Dean’s Box

“By the time I moved to Calcutta [in the late Seventies], a
communist government had come to power in Bengal. One
of its first acts was to name the street on which the US
Consulate stood after Ho Chi Minh. Otherwise too the
intellectual climate was suffused with hostility to America.
Our heroes were Marx and Mao, and, moving on, writers
who had taken our side in the Cold War, such as Jean Paul
Sartre and Gabriel García Márquez.

I became a member of the local British Council, but would
not enter the library of the United States Information Service.
Then my wife got a scholarship to Yale, and I reluctantly
followed. I reached New Haven on a Friday, and was
introduced to the Dean of the School where I was to teach.
On Sunday I was taking a walk through the campus when I
saw the Dean park his car, take a large carton out of the
boot, and carry it across the road to the School and up
three flights to his office.

That sight of the boss as his own coolie was a body blow to
my anti-Americanism. My father and grandfather had both
been heads of Indian research laboratories; any material
they took to work or back—even a slim file with a single
piece of paper in it—would be placed in the car by one
flunkey and carried inside by another. (Doubtless the
Warden of an Oxford College can likewise call upon a willing
porter.) Over the years, I have often been struck by the
dignity of labour in America, by the ease with which high-
ranking Americans carry their own loads, fix their own
fences, and mow their own lawns. This, it seems to me, is
part of a wider absence of caste or class distinctions.
Indian intellectuals have tended to downplay these
American achievements: the respect for the individual, the
remarkable social mobility, the searching scrutiny to which
public officials and state agencies are subjected. They see
only the imperial power, the exploiter and the bully, the
invader of faraway lands and the manipulator of international
organizations to serve the interests of the American
economy. The Gulf War, as one friend of mine put it, was
undertaken ‘in defence of the American way of driving’.”
   — Ramachandra Guha, “What We Think of America,” Granta 77, 3/28/02

A dean totes his box up the stairs,
Confounding an onlooker’s code:
In what land does an eminent chair
Serve as coolie, disgraced by his load?

A people who seek subjugation—
Inveterate bullies, the lot—
Who plunder to fatten their nation
And would rather be cruel than not,

With a lust for power demonic
And a fondness for robbing the poor,
Hellbent on a world hegemonic,
Just itching to start up a war?

Or a country concerned with essentials,
Tired of customs with no useful part,
Where hard work is perceived quintessential
And the practical raised to an art,

Where careers are thrown open to talents,
Where caste has been left behind,
Where mobility generates balance
And competence stands enshrined?

Is it bullies in search of new servants
Or a people too busy for airs?
Let seekers of truth be observant
Of that dean with his box on the stairs.