[ places - october 06 ]by Timeri N Murari.
Once upon a time America was a sunny country. By 'sunny' I mean its disposition towards the world. The reason I remember that sunny America is because a friend and I talked about those days. We're both of that age when we were drawn to America - not to make money but because it seemed a magical place - and it does not seem that long ago. We both come from older civilisations, tired ones even then, and America then was a cool, seductive breeze blowing through our minds and hearts. Of course I saw America from a great distance too and I will try to remember what I saw that so drew me to that innocent country. America had the values of justice, goodness, ethics, morality, freedom, even happiness, that all men have cherished and searched for. No one had any ill-will towards America, with the exception of the USSR.
It was a heroic country. There is little doubt that without America throwing its might in with the allies in WWII, the world would now be a different place. It wasn't really America's war, being fought in distant Europe, and it was safe behind the formidable barriers of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Of course I wasn't there but my father was and he spoke affectionately of the American soldiers he had met on the battlefields. And of course when the war was over, we saw the Hollywood films with heroic Americans - John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Robert Mitchum, Errol Flynn - battling the enemy. Though I was later told that Hollywood did exaggerate when Errol Flynn won the Burmese front single-handedly and British soldiers duly protested. But that was to be expected, and we knew it was just a movie. Death in those movies wasn't bloody and real, except for All Quiet on the Western Front but that was from WWI and the more realistic German view of the carnage. The American heroes were clean cut, always clean shaven, uniforms immaculate, they may have smoked, but they were always courteous and polite, even to the enemy, and treated their Prisoners of War strictly according to the Geneva Convention.
Europe had been ravaged by the war, and America once more showed her generosity and kindness. The Marshall Plan helped re-built the destroyed cities. America pumped in $13 billions - on the conditions that the European nations acted as a single economic unit and that all the necessary material be bought from America on American ships - and by 1953 Europe was back on its feet. Long before WWII, Mohandas Gandhi had been campaigning for Indian Independence and America had always supported his campaign. America wanted an end to colonialism and the suppression in the colonised nations, as it did genuinely believe in both freedom and democracy.
These were events of the past before I even became aware of this country. I suppose my introduction to America and its value came first through the magazines that entered my house. There was the Saturday Evening Post, a glossy, cheerful magazine about the American way of life. Often as not the covers were the paintings of an artist called Norman Rockwell. He painted a happy America - kids playing baseball or basketball, a cop with a kid in a soda parlour, a boy in a doctor's surgery, a family in prayer over a thanksgiving dinner. His subjects were white as far I remember, and their world seemed seductive and serene. No other racial colours intruded, and because of that I wasn't aware others existed in that America. Life magazine was equally glossy with a vision not only of America but the world and it had a stark black and white reality that was powerful and moving. At times it revealed a darker side of the nation.
American movies captivated not only me but the whole world - 'Made in Hollywood' was the end credit. In Madras we sat in darkened theatres - Roxy, Minerva, Midland, Elphinstone - and watched America unfold before our eyes. Cartoons, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, slapstick comedies Laurel & Hardy, Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, the great Marx Brothers movies and gentle comedies like It's a Wonderful Life with James Stewart, High Society with Cary Grant, the most urbane sophisticated star. And if you were male those Hollywood Westerns - Shane, High Noon and even the run-of-the-mill Cowboys and Indians - mesmerized us. No other nation could make Westerns like a John Ford. And who can forget the sensual innocence of Marilyn Monroe. But it wasn't all sunny in American movies. There was the dark underbelly of injustice on the screen. Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath (made before I was born but I caught it somewhere as it took a slow boat to India), I was a Member of the Chain Gang, and film noir gangster films The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity to name a few that came to the city. And even such Westerns as The Searchers were dark. The cult film of that time was East Rider with its tragic finale. These films were in a different universe to the Saturday Evening Post and yet they still revealed the American heart that such films could be made. America wasn't all apple pie.
There was the music too reaching us across the radio - Sinatra, Crosby, Damone, Page- and the exciting jazz of Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, MJQ, Davis. The best novelists were American - Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, O'Hara - writers to be emulated.
When I finally arrived in America in the 60s, it was as I'd expected it to be. It was the age of the baby boomers, those 70 million teenagers conceived after WWII. They were changing America from its staid conservative past with their eager revolutionary idea on art, education, life styles and in politics. What better definition of the age of innocence than the Barbie doll, which was created in the 60s and swept America, and the world. I decided to drive across this nation and took a car out of Detroit heading towards Seattle. It was a Pontiac Bonneville, powder blue convertible the size of a small ship with fins like a shark and it drank gas like an alcoholic boozes. Pontiac is now as extinct as the dinosaur but it raced like a silken dream. America reeled out like her movies and magazines, the landscapes were so familiar, the music on the radio still evocative. The air was electric and heady with the wide open space and the freedom from time and identity.
I passed through small towns where A Wonderful Life could have been shot and saw the buttes and plains of John Ford's westerns. Wherever I stopped - to sleep or eat - I was met with both curiosity and kindness. There was a mood of calm and boundless optimism in the society. The Americans I met later in the suburbs and invited into their homes were boundlessly hospitable, contented, and if I can say so from this distance, happy with their lot.
The population was then around 177 million and the average salary around $4700 per annum. And of course they were the affluent society that Kenneth Galbraith wrote about. There wasn't any greed and the measuring rod for wealth were the Rockefellers, (immortalised by Cole Porter in a song) worth a few hundred million dollars back then but it sounded astronomical. Only the American budget ran into a few billions. The people were quietly religious and respected other religions. Billy Graham was the most popular preacher but he never breathed out brimstone or invectives.
It was the days when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, the first time seen live ever in America, and the ratings went through the roof. The Beatles even elbowed out Elvis Presley and other white singers like Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka and Jerry Lee Lewis. It would seem the true creators of the blues and rock would never be acknowledge but Motown Records introduced Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, the Supremes and other black artists who, for the first time, rocketed up the music charts. The drug culture changed the music again and America invented psychedelic rock and new bands like The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Aeroplane pumped out high decibel music. And of course there was that legendary Woodstock a three-day festival that drew 400,000 young people to sing, dance, smoke pot and zonk out on acid. No, I never got to Woodstock. I had meant to but I was on the other side of the continent. This was counter culture age of the hippies who had originated in San Francisco and spread across the country. Long hair and beads and chanting mantra became popular and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi giggled his way to a fortune. I never followed him though I wrote about those charlatans. In sports a young light middleweight boxer, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) won a gold in the 1960 Olympics and came to dominate the sport through the 60s and 70s and was the most famous man on the planet.
Eisenhower had finished his term in office and America had elected JFK. He was young, he had a sense of wit and purpose to make America a more just country with his plans for desegregation. He and his administration - 'the best and the brightest' - were admired in America and around the world. All seemed right both in America and the World with his coming. Though we all lived under a nuclear nightmare than nearly came too real in the Cuban missile crisis. One of my all time favourite novels Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, one satirising WWII and the other American society were published during this time. While on television M*A*S*H, a satire on the Korean War, was a hit series. It was also the time of the Civil Rights movement and the black people invisible in those Norman Rockwell paintings were pushing their way onto the canvas. I was on the steps of my university hall when I heard of his assassination. And despite the mourning, America hadn't yet lost its verve. But gradually, the Vietnam War, that original quagmire, began to take its toll on the American spirit. And changed the world's perception of this marvellous country. A protesting student in Kent State University was shot dead. The My Lai massacre and the napalming of children soured my perception of America. The war had its terrible toll - over 58,000 American, many of them conscripted through the draft, 230,000 South Vietnamese and between 1.5 to 3 million north Vietnamese died in that war. The countryside was devastated through Agent Orange and other chemicals. The American government was starting to flex its military might around the world, even invading tiny Grenada when a few American students were roughed up. In Chile, the CIA assassinated the legitimately elected president, Allende and replaced him with the monstrous Pinochet.
The moral compass that had guided America began to swing away. The first Gulf War may have been justifiable but the sanctions that followed on Iraq killed thousands of children. The Secretary of State under President Clinton, Madeline Albright, callously called that 'collateral damage'. I suppose that was mild in comparison of what followed. America squandered all the world's compassion after 9/1 with its reckless might. The reason for second invasion of Iraq was built on a quicksand of lies and deceptions of the American people as the War on Terror. Today, America is Kafka country - illegal detentions, torture, renditions, secret prisons, wire tapping, spying on its citizens, the Supreme Court perverted, rigged presidential elections. Any cheap dictator would be proud to exercise such powers.
My friend and I remembered that once upon a time America dreamt of Camelot.