The American Dream

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I had the honor of attending a US Naturalization Ceremony today. It’s an event where immigrants who have gone through the system are officially granted citizenship… the proverbial end of the long winding road.

The event happened at Faneuil Hall (Fannie Hall) in Boston, in a hall quite similar to the Ellis Island Immigration Hall in New York harbor. The immigrants are seated in the main floor area, which has a dais and a row of desks in front of it. Guests sit in balcony seats looking down upon their friends and family on their special day.

Faneuil Hall

The first step is called a check-in. The immigrants line up and walk over to the desks upfront. Men, women, and children of all colors, shapes, ages, and sizes, representing countries from every corner of the globe… each of them coming from their own unique walks of life but ending up on the same road, inside this hall.

They now have to verify some documents, have one last look at their green cards before submitting them in, and in return, are given another document along with a handheld-sized US flag. As they stand in line you see a mix of excitement and nerves. For some, this is the end of a tiresome journey towards the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But as they stand but a few feet from it, I wonder if some of them stutter in their next step at the thought of renouncing their home country’s citizenship, something that has defined a major part of their identity through this very immigration process.

They pick up the flag and turn around to walk up the center aisle back to their seats. And the raw emotion at that moment is there for all to see. Pride, joy, relief, euphoria, almost every emotion you can associate with success and accomplishment. They look up at their family/friends in the balcony and wave the flag like a trophy, with a big smile on their faces. I even noticed a balding, upper-middle-aged man with furrowed brows and a stern, labored expression standing in line. After submitting his papers and picking up his flag, he turned around and look down upon it. He too stared at it for a couple of seconds and broke into half a humble smile as he continued his walk back. It was a look of a tired man who was probably thinking to himself, “wow, I made it!

The rest of the event was fairly ceremonial. A US district court judge arrived and sat on the dais. The representative of the USCIS proposed a motion to grant the immigrants citizenship under recommendation from the USCIS and Department of Homeland Security, and the judge subsequently granted the motion. This was followed by the judge presiding over the en-masse taking of The Oath of Allegiance, at which point each of those immigrants officially became a Citizen of The United States.

Oath of Allegiance

Before leaving the hall, the judge spoke to the audience. She gave a poignant speech about what it means to be an American… a naturalized immigrant in a nation of immigrants. She spoke about their rights, privileges, and responsibilities, and their duty to the world to always represent America as the symbol of hope and freedom for everyone, everywhere. She even named the 72 countries from across the planet that had contributed their own colors to America’s rainbow of diversity in that hour. She then presided over an en-masse recital of the Pledge of Allegiance.

While I had heard that these ceremonies were an interesting but quiet affair, the thing that stood out the most was the humanity of it all. As the newly anointed American citizens walked out of the hall with brand new certificates of citizenship, you could see what being an American meant to many of them. Tears of joy streamed down the faces of two women, a daughter who was able to bring her burqa-clad mother into the country, possibly from an oppressive war-torn one. An African (now African American) couple who were with their interpreter, expressing their happiness, an Indian man and his wife who had probably started their journey more than 15 years ago… and many more people probably feeling for the first time in their lives, what it truly means to be free.

Today, for the first time in my 6 years in this country, I watched America being America. And it was a beautiful thing to have experienced.

Tryst With Democracy – Happy Valentine’s Day

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Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

These were the famous first words spoken by Jawaharlal Nehru on Aug 14, 1947… The first ever speech by a Prime Minister of Independent India. A speech that would later find its place among the best speeches of the 20th Century, and rightly so. It was inspiring. Each word was so carefully chosen, relevant and had a hard-hitting purpose to it. Every time I read it, I get small goosebumps.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘tryst’ as an agreement (as between lovers) to meet at an appointed time or meeting place… In essence, a planned date. I truly believe that Nehru made a conscious decision with that word. The romanticization of destiny and freedom could not have been more poetic than on the occasion of India’s freedom after decades of struggle.

He then sat down to write The Constitution of India, which after several amendments, provides us the Freedom of Speech with reasonable restrictions.

And therein lies the rub. Our false sense of freedom gives us a right to speak, do or express our views and feelings as long as we’re sure we don’t offend a broad spectrum of people. A country of a billion with a billion opinions. We think we are left at the mercy of the powerful (and mostly uneducated) people in administrative positions of responsibility to exercise their version of reasonable to make decisions. Or are we?

It’s been an interesting few months for India.

All India Bakchod, possibly the most successful group of comedians in India came together with some of the biggest stars of Bollywood to participate in India’s very first Roast (#AIBRoast). They uploaded a highly edited version of it (believe me when I say that. I was there for the live show) on YouTube. While a majority of the viewers were thoroughly entertained, a fraction of them weren’t. This is India… So as usual, we had people getting offended and making a fuss about it, calling for bans and legal action since it really wasn’t akin to their taste in humor… and also, Would you take your mother and sister to watch this?

So much that Indian Censor Board member, Ashoke Pandit, tweeted this about Karan Johar for an ‘Anal Sex’ joke he cracked on himself during the show. Karan of course, classy as ever in his response.

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Of course it’s alright when women and sex are objectified for humor and entertainment in Music and Cinema. We have movies like Grand Masti and Delhi Belly and songs like Baby Doll, Chikni Chameli (and every Yo Yo Honey Singh song ever) that can pass all censorships and what not, but when consenting comedians and film-stars do it to each other for the sake of comedy and charity, it’s public obscenity and ruining the clean image of the Indian culture & women.

The video was soon taken down under pressure and as of this date, FIRs have been filed against AIB, Karan Johar and some other actors who were a part of it…

Reasonable restriction on Freedom of Expression.

Arvind Kejriwal became possibly the most hated man in India early last year. His party swept aside in the National elections after he lost the faith of the country to his resignation and the Modi wave. Today, he will be (or has been) sworn in again as the Chief Minister of Delhi after a mandate that puts words like ‘landslide’ and ‘unprecedented’ to shame… 67/70 seats.

Why BJP lost is not for us to decide… Was it their lack of a clear manifesto, Kiran Bedi, perceived inaction from Modi at the Center or maybe all of it combined? Fact remains, BJPs complacent efforts in Delhi had been directed towards setting all the big guns out to attack Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party instead of showing Delhi why they should be elected.

New Delhi wanted a government to be run by a man who had a clear plan of action for almost all of their real problems. Of The People. By The People. For The People.

Even in the times of Modi waves and sensationally biased media, Democracy wins.

Valentine’s Day is here! A few years ago, couples in India used to think of excuses and lies to tell their parents about V-day dates (Mine was: no, Mom. I’m in college). Nowadays we have a new problem… Some Hindu groups, primarly The Hindu Mahasabha  have threatened to marry off couples if they see them on the streets doing PDA, holding hands, or even roses and teddy bears. Curiously, most of them seem to have the support of staunch Hindu babas, pundits and thousands of their disciples who have nothing better to do in life.

What’s more worrisome is that the cops will not bother intervening coz it’s an issue with a religious group. The government obviously won’t hurt anyone remotely trying to defend Hindu sentiments and culture and all that sort of thing coz that’s where their vote bank lies. They’ll just be busy defending rapists as little boys who made a mistake or watching porn in the assembly while innocent couples spend their day worrying about getting caught, bullied by religious extremists and married off instead of spending time with their loved ones.

From the President’s son calling Delhi rape victim, Nirbhaya’s protestors Dainted-Painted women to current PM Narendra Modi calling Sunanda Pushkar a 50-crore girlfriend and his former stooge and God Man, Baba Ramdev guaranteeing that he has a cure for homosexuality, here’s a list of things these powerful men of India have said about social issues merely by exercising their right to freedom of speech and expression with reasonable restriction (or lack, thereof): Credits to The Times of India and DNA.

You see, the point here is the subjective interpretation of reason coupled with an imbalance in power. A group of comedians cannot participate in a form of comedy that is meant to consensually insult and tear people’s reputation apart coz a guy in the censor board thought that’s only meant for A rated movies, not for comedy. A man can ogle and lech at women all over the country without any fear but a couple can’t spend a peaceful day in the city without being threatened. But the people with power and political connections can say all sorts of things about other religions, customs, countries and women.

Double standards, anyone?

If only they found the countless rapes, moral policing and corruption as offensive as they find Valentine’s Day, the movie PK and the AIB Roast, India would be a better place.

It all comes down to education and a will to open minds to the true freedom of expression and freedom from imposed opinions due to fear of powerful barbarians… and also to respect that everyone has a right to express themselves and their opinions, even if a majority of the population may disagree. The people of Delhi just proved that democracy is still alive… that even though we have to fight hard for it, these powers are ultimately at our mercy, and not the other way round. We have made our tryst with democracy… The time is now close for us to redeem our pledge.

To close, I leave you with the last few lines of the very speech with which I started this piece.

We are citizens of a great country, on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.

To the nations and people of the world we send greetings and pledge ourselves to cooperate with them in furthering peace, freedom and democracy.

And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service.

Jai Hind.