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My father was an officer in the Indian army. He came from a landed family. My maternal grandfather was the richest man in North India. He is the sole founder of Delhi's famous Hindu College. My father was a rising star in the Indian Military Academy. He was labeled a "born general." Everyone expected him to become the head of the Indian army in due course of time. But political chicanery would see him done, nay, undone.
The Indian army is one of the finest in the world. Nay, that is an understatement. It is the finest in the world. Just look at its record since the First World War. Fifty thousand men lost then. In its ranks are many warrior castes (some, like the Gurkhas and the Rajputs, are among the fiercest warriors in the world—the Gurkhas know no fear, attested British Field Marshal Montgomery -- the same Monty who utilized his Indian troops to drive the Desert Fox, the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, out of East Africa in the Second World War).
My father was very much a product of the British Raj. He was born in 1931, sixteen years before India’s independence, in 1947. Because his generation aped the Brits in style and mannerisms, they were pejoratively referred to as brown sahibs, and my father was an archetypal brown sahib.
I grew up in army bases all over India. An army base in that nation is like suburban America: it is painted and polished all over, a far cry from the teeming chaos that is the rest of the country. English is the primary language on base, both in school and at home. My mother tongue is Hindi, but my first language from the day I was born has been English. It is the language in which I think, write and speak.
Unlike my father, I am not a brown sahib. When I was growing up, America was Pakistan’s friend and, consequently, India’s enemy. India in turn became close to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, many elements of American popular culture—its comic books, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Saturday Night Fever—had invaded India. I was partly Indian, partly British, and partly American, even before I ever came to America.
Most of my formative years were spent in India, except for when I came to the United States as a raw 21-year old to pursue graduate study. I returned to India for five years, building a business there and traveling all over the country. I then returned to the U.S. in 1996. Most of my adult life has been spent in the U.S., interspersed with frequent visits to India. In 2015 and ’16, I spent more than a year in India writing as well as caring for my mom.
My childhood is full of happy memories. No childhood could be happier, even though my father drank like a fish. I played war games during the 1971 Indo-Pak war with the domestic help provided by the Indian army to its officers. I always took the side of Pakistan, to the eternal consternation of the help. Pakistan would later have an enormous influence on my life. Life was all about jumping from the house rooftop to the ground, playing in a rainwater-laden field, running miles in the scorching heat of summer and then drinking fresh buttermilk made by my mother, and jumping on tractors carrying carrots and radishes and sugarcane and what not and then stealing some by pulling them out without the driver of the tractor unable to do anything.
My father did not make it to general. He had to retire from the army as a colonel. It was a shock to his system. He started drinking ever more. We returned to our ancestral home in Delhi. Times were tough. My father was desperate to get a job, any job, what with three children to feed and educate. His job hunt took him to Iraq. I was only thirteen, and left behind at home with mother and sister. I suddenly became the “man” of the house.
I missed my father terribly. In the ninth grade, I transferred from a small convent school in which I was a shining star to a big "factory" school in which I was a nobody. I was underage by one year and only five feet tall. One girl in my class was close to six feet. I felt really small.
My mother left for Iraq to be with my dad after six months, and for six months thereafter, my 15-year old sister became my little mother or chhotti mummy as I called her. No longer was there any domestic help. We made sandwiches everyday and took them to school; in the night we made curry. The whole neighborhood was astonished at how two young kids were managing all alone. I grew sick of the cucumber sandwiches. Every Saturday then my sister would haul me in a tuk-tuk to Nirula's, a bakery in downtown Delhi, where we would gorge on American fast food and pastries. I grew to love my sister.
I topped my high school in Biology, but my parents wanted me to go to engineering school and then start a manufacturing business in India. They had the same dreams for my older brother. My high school biology teachers became really miffed: how was a biology genius being converted into a mathematician.
I myself had grotesque fears of having my hands dipping in human blood were I to become a doctor. I became too scared to become one, although in hindsight, I would have made a much better doctor than engineer. Neither my brother nor I realized my parents' dreams. My brother runs a successful Silicon Valley company. I am what I am, right in front of you.
My brother left for the States to study when I was fifteen. My sister left for America two years later. In short order, my health collapsed in my engineering school. From a 4.0 GPA, I made straight Fs one semester. Some colleagues were aghast. Others were delirious. I thought I had gone mad. It was all brushed off as an episode of unrequited love.
Students in elite Indian colleges like mine were pejoratively referred to by Indian masses as people with their bodies in India and their minds elsewhere (in America). College campuses imitated America to the hilt, with weeklong rock concerts and weed all over. This was going to be the life in the States, so why not prepare for it beforehand in India?
In college days, there was a truck stationed on campus selling Russian propaganda. Sputnik, the magazine, was their favorite tool. We students recognized their effort for what it was. At home, we subscribed to the Reader’s Digest. I lapped it up as divine gospel. Only later did I realize that it was as sheer propaganda as Sputnik. Neighbors helping one another all the time in America … bah!
In grade four, I was assigned to write the Autobiography of a Taxi. My write-up was adjudged the best in class. But I never dreamt that I would become a writer. My father was a prolific writer, whose books include Status of Indian Women: A Historical Perspective.
I grew up in a home where five languages were spoken: English, Hindi, French, Punjabi, and Urdu. I also learned German. So language was a gift, but was writing? My father used to write his three children long epistles on how to dress, what to read, and other ways on how to conduct themselves. My older brother and sister ignored him. I didn’t. I wrote back, equally long epistles. Letters from his “Little.” For that is what my father called me.
In engineering school, I lost all flair for writing. Everything was reduced to a math Q.E.D. (what has to be proved has been proved) problem. Such situation continued until I joined a company in Silicon Valley in 2000. I was quickly assigned to write all marketing collateral for the company. That was not really my remit. I was an engineer. But the president of the company liked my writing and gave me bonuses for going beyond my remit. A hundred marketing proposals later, and I knew that I could write. I could weasel my way through proposals by inserting so many weasel words that the reader would lose his head.
The recession of 2009 took my job away. And my engineering future. In December 2009, I sat alone in the computer room of my apartment complex and penned an op-ed, A new way in Afghanistan. It was about, well, it was about forging a new way in Afghanistan. I submitted it to the Pakistani paper, Dawn, for publication. It became their most popular article. I knew I was on to something.
My mother goaded me to write on clean energy, my field of work. The greens job myth appeared in the Washington Post and made it to the top five. But some hundred op-eds later, many of them in papers like the Post, I was still without a job as a journalist. I started growing bitter until a cousin suggested that I write books.
America as I Saw It is my third book. I wrote it in India. I first wrote India & America: Through Wide Eyes, a humorous take on the two countries’ various idiosyncrasies. I then wrote my misery memoir, Bipolar Anxiety and How I Conquered It. Then inspiration struck to write a travelogue on America. Something like Alexis de Tocqueville’s, Tocqueville: Democracy in America.
His book is considered as the seminal study of American institutions and the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French nobleman, spent nine months in America in 1831.
But much water has flown under the bridge since 1831. Instead of staying nine months in America, and emerging with somewhat of a hagiography as Tocqueville did, I have spent two decades in every corner of the country, and have written a bitter-sweet, dispassionate, mirror-in-your-face take on the country, which every American, and everyone interested in learning about the country should find funny, thought-provoking, and enlightening.