Narendra Modi

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Curried Narratives: An Indian Revolutionary’s View of Japan

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 31/07/2021 - 5:21am in

Published in Japan Forward 26/7/2021

Even during Tokyo’s Covid-induced state of emergency, there was a queue outside Nair’s Indian restaurant in East Ginza. Fortunately, the turnaround at midday is impressively rapid, and I didn’t have to wait long before a table became available.

I ordered the “teiban” (signature dish) known as Murugi Lunch. Excellent value at Yen 1500, it consists of a leg of chicken that has been softened by several hours of simmering, together with turmeric rice, cabbage and mashed potato.

NairJuly8 (2)

As I spooned up the multi-spiced and highly nutritious concoction, I reflected on how historical narratives differ according to who is doing the narrating. When it comes to the story of modern Japan, the signature dish was prepared by the western countries that were on the winning side of the Second World War. Let’s call it the Progressive Club Sandwich.

The Indian take is very different and likely to become more significant as India’s geopolitical footprint grows in line with its economy – which is on track to become the world’s third largest in 2030, according to Japan’s Center for Economic and Business Research. There could be no better symbol of an Indian alternative history of modern Japan than the founder of the restaurant in which I am sitting.

A. M. Nair, who died in 1990, opened his restaurant in the early years of the post-war American occupation. It would be interesting to know what he thought about the G.I.s then strolling around Ginza with their Japanese “pan-pan” good-time girls. It would be equally interesting to know what the American officers and bureaucrats who patronized his restaurant would have thought of their host, had they been fully informed of his personal history.

"Founded in 1948" “Founded in 1949”

In his memoir, “An Indian Freedom Fighter in Japan”, Nair declares that “my close friends used to whisper, after the war, that for fighting against Britain and encouraging my Japanese friends to do likewise, I should have been booked as War Criminal Number One, and that MacArthur missed out on me.”

Nair does not mention the identity of the friends who made this dark joke, but one of his closest military contacts, War Minister General Itagaki, received the death sentence at the Tokyo Trials, while another, General Umezu, died in prison.  Nair remained an Indian citizen all his life, but because of the espionage and undercover work he carried out, he was treated by Japan’s top military figures as equivalent to a major-general in rank.

Nair-san, as he was to be familiarly known, was a native of Kerala on the southwest tip of India. He arrived in Japan in 1928 at the age of 23 to study engineering at Kyoto University. Back home, he had already made a nuisance of himself, organizing India’s first school strike and agitating against caste restrictions and the British colonial authorities. Once settled in Japan, he was bowled over by what he saw.

“Here was a country which, in a matter of about a mere half-century, had progressed from a basically feudal set-up to the status of a great economic power… If Japan could do what she did, why should India at least not be able to break free from its colonial shackles?”

It is a testimony to the seriousness of Japan’s Pan-Asian ambitions that Nair, while still a hard-up student with less than perfect Japanese, was taken up by senior military men. General Yamamoto, commander of a division stationed near Kyoto, treated him “practically like a brother” and introduced him to other members of the elite.

On display in the restaurant On display in the restaurant

Soon he was lecturing far and wide and finding that his anti-British, pro-independence message was greeted with enthusiasm. As the clash of empires heated up, Nair was invited to Manchukuo (now Manchuria), the puppet state that the Japanese army had set up in 1932.

In the following years, Nair led a kind of Lawrence of Arabia existence, travelling through remote areas of Manchukuo, China and Mongolia, doing his best to damage British interests and promote Japanese influence. He disguised himself as a camel dealer, Moslem mullah and Tibetan “living Buddha.” Amongst other adventures, he foiled a British intelligence agent’s plan to map out a route to India across the Himalayas by setting ablaze the entire fuel supply for his vehicles.

When war broke out in the Pacific, Nair became the liaison officer of his mentor and fellow Japan-resident Rash Behari Bose, who led two important Japan-backed organizations, the Indian Independence League and the Indian National Army.  In his memoir, Nair makes it clear that he considers that the work of R.B. Bose has been unfairly minimized and the contributions of the more famous Subhas Chandra Bose, who took over leadership of the I.L.I. and 1943, has been greatly inflated.

In contemporary India, Subhas’s stature appears to have increased, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrating the 125th anniversary of his birth with a visit to his hometown earlier this year. There was even a series on Amazon Prime, The Forgotten Army, giving a glossy, heavily fictionalized account of the I.N.A.’s disastrous attempt to invade British India from Burma.

Nair is much less impressed. While esteeming Subhas’s charisma and patriotism, he slams his lack of realism and dictatorial tendencies.

Yet, as Nair notes, the I.N.A. indirectly helped to usher in independence. When the British Indian authorities attempted to try former members of the rebel army for treason, a storm of protest broke out nationwide and the Indian component of the Navy mutinied in Bombay. For British India, the writing was on the wall.

Nair chose to stay in Japan after the war, acting on several occasions as interpreter for Dr. R.B. Pal, the only judge at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials to find all “A-Class” (political) defendants innocent. Nair quotes Pal’s stinging counter to allegations of Japanese conspiracy to wage war: “Many powerful nations are living this sort of life, and if these acts are criminal, then the entire international community is living a criminal life.”

India was not one of the 49 nations that signed the US-Japan Peace Treaty in 1951. Nair had secured the unpublished text of the simultaneously effected US Japan Security Pact and brought it to the attention of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minster. In the Indian view, making the Peace Treaty conditional on the Security Pact violated Japanese sovereignty. Instead, Nehru concluded a separate Bilateral Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Amity with Japan in 1952.

Nair was not an uncritical admirer of Japan. He deplored brutal behaviour in China, the degradation of Korean and Japanese women in the red light districts of Manchukuo and the inability to learn from mistakes. But he saw Japan’s “Asia for the Asians” drive as the key to Indian independence – and in that he was right.

Over time, Nair’s anti-British animus appears to have abated. In 1974, he and his Japanese wife attended a reception for Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in Shinjuku Gardens. In his later years, he visited India regularly and seemed disappointed by the limited improvement in people’s lives. One wonders what he would have made of the much more dynamic India of today – and of modern Britain with four politicians of Indian subcontinental descent in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet and one of  Pakistani.

The Progressive Club Sandwich, with its assumption of Western moral superiority and Japanese backwardness, is still a popular comfort food. It has a long history, beginning with the “opening” of Japan by Commodore Perry’s gunboats in the 1850s and its influence can be found today in innumerable op-eds, books and academic papers.

Kerala cuisine is richly varied, reflecting the influences of vegetarian Hindus, first century Christians, Moslems, and the Portuguese traders who brought chili peppers from the new world.

Nair’s restaurant alerts us to a very different suite of flavours – and a very different narrative.

Why Strongmen are Losing the Fight Against Covid

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 17/05/2021 - 12:37pm in

A hospital in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, is being charged under the country’s...

I celebrated Holi in New York while in India friends and family begged for hospital beds

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 05/05/2021 - 2:36am in

As their home country is engulfed by a raging second wave of the pandemic, Indians living abroad feel helpless and guilty.

The live-in domestic help at my parents’ house in Mumbai got COVID-19. My neighbor’s entire family was infected. So was my husband’s elderly aunt in Ahmedabad. My friend’s father was hospitalized for 12 days. Everyone in India knows someone who has been affected by the raging second wave of the pandemic.

And no wonder—as of today, India is the only country other than the U.S. to have 20 million coronavirus cases, and that is likely a vast undercount.

Crematoriums across India have so many bodies piling up that some are running out of wood to build funeral pyres. At Mumbai hospitals there are long waiting lists for beds; at one, the chief medical officer died of complications from COVID-19. She was 51 years old.

There is a thriving black market for medical supplies. In Mumbai, an oxygen concentrator is selling for Rs. 75,000 to Rs. 150,000 ($1,000 to $2,000) while in the capital city of Delhi, which has been even harder hit by the pandemic, it can cost as much as Rs. 250,000. ($3,400)—in a country where the monthly per capita income just before COVID hit was less than $150. But even at these inflated prices, demand far outpaces supply.

All over social media, people are posting their desperation, sharing shaky videos and pleading words, begging for a hospital bed, for oxygen, for someone to come and help. More than 100 Indian journalists have died of COVID, with one, Vinay Srivastava, live tweeting his declining oxygen levels until he died. Meanwhile, the Modi government ordered Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to take down posts critical of its handling of the pandemic.

We hear about the tragic stories of the sick and dying in India’s cities, but almost nothing from the rural areas, where roughly two-thirds of the population lives.

Meanwhile New York City, where I live, is opening up. It’s been opening up. Indoor dining. Theaters. Gyms. Now the CDC says the vaccinated don’t need to wear masks outdoors. After a year of living in sweats, I went shopping for sundresses last week. Awkwardly, we hug each other again.

In New York City, a return to normal

On a warm Saturday in April, Mayor Bill DeBlasio made a surprise appearance at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum where we were celebrating Holi, the Indian festival of color, with live musicians, dancers, and samosas for guests to snack on.

During the last half hour of our time slot, which was limited to comply with COVID precautions, the mayor and a dhol player led a procession to the park next door. We played Holi, flinging colorful powder in the air and smearing each other’s clothes and hair with red, green, yellow, and pink, while catchy Bollywood songs playing in the background.

But even as I laughed and shrieked with friends, grateful that the receding threat of COVID had allowed me to enjoy my favorite festival, I celebrated with a clammy feeling of guilt. How could I turn my face to the sun while my country was being battered by a vicious second surge of the virus?

How India’s second wave happened

About 10 days before I celebrated Holi in Brooklyn, the Kumbh Mela took place in the northern Indian city of Haridwar. Government authorities estimate that approximately 3.5 million Hindu pilgrims traveled to the banks of the holy Ganga River for the days-long festival, despite a sharp increase in COVID cases in the country—and amid calls for the government to cancel the event.

But Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister, had already declared victory over the pandemic at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Dialogue in January. While the rest of the world warned that the number of cases was set to increase precipitously, Modi boasted that India had not only looked after its own population but was also saving lives by exporting 60 million doses of domestically produced vaccines around the world.

Even as the country was making global front-page headlines for its rising infection numbers, Modi and his home minister appeared without masks at massive political rallies leading up to state elections in West Bengal, where Modi expressed admiration for the size of the crowds. (The election results were announced Monday and Modi’s party, the BJP, suffered a major loss in the state.)

Last week, the Madras High Court handed down severe criticism of the Election Commission of India (ECI) for permitting political rallies during the pandemic. In response to a claim from a spokesperson for the ECI that COVID safety protocols had been enforced at the mass rallies, the chief justice asked, “Were you on another planet when political rallies were being held?” The justice underlined his outrage by adding that the ECI was “singularly responsible” for the massive second wave of COVID-19 in India, adding that commission officials “should be booked on murder charges” for sponsoring mass political rallies that turned into super spreader events.

Living in fear

At around the same time in Mumbai, the older sister of a close friend was running ragged trying to take care of her family. Her husband works at the airport and the docks, in “import-export.” His job is essential, since he oversees the import of critical supplies into the country, including oxygen, which is in desperately short supply. A colleague in the customs division has already succumbed to COVID-19. He himself is not fully vaccinated.

“He’s endangering himself every day, he has to travel for his job, and he can’t get the second dose, because they’ve run out,” my friend said.

My friend’s sister lives in a multi-generational home with her in-laws; recently, two of her in-laws’ cousins also came to stay with them. For a time, there were four elderly people at home, with 10 human beings squeezing into the three-bedroom apartment. Last week, one of the cousins, who was in her 80s, tested positive. One of my friend’s nieces has juvenile diabetes, which puts her at increased risk from the virus; her sister asked the elderly cousin to isolate at her own house. The woman died the next day.

Karna Basu’s maternal grandmother passed away before the second surge hit. His grandmother had COVID, but it was the cancer that took her life. The COVID made it hard for her to access treatment, though. They were close, and he regrets not being able to travel from New York, where he lives, to see her before she passed.

The news from his wife’s family is worse. For the last several weeks, the WhatsApp group of her extended family in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, has been bringing news of two new deaths from the virus each week.

“The family is getting depleted,” Basu says. “It’s so painful you don’t even want to think about it.”

An old classmate of mine in Mumbai is on a WhatsApp group full of wealthy professionals—the kind of people who, in India’s deeply unequal society, usually know someone in authority and thus are able to jump the queue. But even they are having trouble accessing resources.

“I’m reading their messages of desperation—they’re not able to get their hands on medicine and oxygen,” my classmate told me over the phone. “If they can’t do it, what is happening to the middle class and lower middle class in the country?”

When she had to get a hospital bed for her cousin, who tested positive a week before the state of Maharashtra went into lockdown, my friend realized just how dire the situation had become.

“We were hearing that there were no beds available, but only when I started calling hospitals did I realize how bad it was,” she said. The only reason they were able to secure a bed, she added, was because they knew someone high up in a hospital.

Even before the world had heard of COVID-19, India ranked 155 out of 167 countries in hospital bed capacity.

A New York friend spent a recent morning trying to find either medical oxygen or an oxygen concentrator, a device that take in ambient air and increases its oxygen concentration by stripping away the nitrogen, for a former employee of his in Delhi. He made 23 calls, only to be put on waitlist after waitlist. Eventually the employee found a hospital bed; she is now on a ventilator.

Aid is now coming into India now from several countries, including the United States, but President Joe Biden has been criticized for hoarding vaccines, while other wealthy countries continue to store vaccines in excess of their needs. In India, meanwhile, many states have run out.

My New York friend is angry at Modi’s government for not doing enough. “It’s all fucked up,” he says. “Not stockpiling enough vaccines is fucked up. Not having more structured lockdowns is fucked up. Silencing anyone who says anything bad about them is fucked up.”

Last year, the central government tried to force independent news outlets to submit their pandemic coverage to authorities for approval before publication. Just last month Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and a key Modi ally, directed police to confiscate the property of anyone who posted about oxygen shortages online.

Meanwhile an increasing number of countries have limited or suspended travel from India, with Australia even criminalizing its own citizens for returning home from the subcontinent. Indians who live abroad can’t go back to be with loved ones during their last days or mourn with their families.

Ann, an American woman married a South Indian man, is now barred from traveling to northern India to finalize the adoption of a teenage girl. This would have been the family’s second adoption, and fourth child. Meanwhile, the young girl they were supposed to bring back to Texas this month is having a hard time in her orphanage. She’s the oldest one there, close to aging out of care. Every time they speak on the phone, Ann says, the girl is either crying or holding back tears.

“The only thing I have to say to you is come get me,” she says on their weekly calls. “When are you coming?”

Sending money is the only thing you can do

On the WhatsApp groups that I’m a part of, we exchange the names of aid organizations on the ground. “Is it vetted?” people ask. “Can you send me a list of reputable groups?”

When you’re 9,000 miles away, sending money is about the only thing you can do.

Meanwhile, I got my second dose of the vaccine last week. In New York, the tulips are blooming. Over the weekend, I met friends for an outdoor lunch and then enjoyed the sun on my shoulders at a nearby park. Around us picnickers spread out on blankets; a guitarist riffed nearby. I felt the grass brushing my bare legs and played mock battles with my son. The shoulder where I got the jab was still sore, and I was glad for the pain.


Here is a list of 12 places you can donate to help India. 

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