how the world sees america


June 21, 2007 4:28 PM

En Route to India

Mumbai, site of this market, is on my list to visit in India as well as Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore.
I showered, shaved, and lightened my backpack so it wasn't a mess of computer wires and cameras. Figured I should check that stuff rather than carry it through airport security.

Conveniently, an American accent seems to help at the airport. Not sure why, but it's either that or my winning smile. And my passport seems to get the benefit of the doubt even though its flooded with stamps to far off places from Antarctica to Morocco to the United Arab Emirates (just Arabic script). So glad that, after a bit of a hassle, I have a press visa in there for my destination.

Have to run to catch my flight. I plan on using the time on board to ponder my experiences in the UK, write some reflective thoughts and regroup for what's up next! Have suggestions for what I should explore in India? Share them below.

June 25, 2007 9:39 AM

Dadi Ma Loses Her Family to America

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I was born American because of Brigadier General Amar Bakshi, my grandfather and namesake. Boisterous and demanding, he ordered his three children to migrate to the “Land of Opportunity” just before dying of a stroke thirty-seven years ago.

Last night I asked my grandmother, a.k.a. “Dadi Ma,” to tell me why the well-respected Indian general was so committed to sending his family to America.

“I never thought of America until your grandfather one day said the children must go there,” she tells me. “At first I thought I would miss them very much…I wanted them to stay, but then I thought I was being selfish….And whatever your dada would say, I would do.”

Any conversation with Dadi Ma inevitably becomes a conversation about her. This annoys her three children to no end, my father included. But for me, young and with some time to spare, it just seems comical, if sometimes sad.

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June 26, 2007 3:51 PM

Why Clinical Research in India Outpaces U.S.

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“Opportunities to develop cutting edge [medical practices] are fast disappearing in…the United States,” says Dr. Kushagra Katariya, who was born in New Delhi, specialized in New York, and recently returned to India. He says that when it comes to developing a new, improved way to treat patients, he can do it “quicker, develop it better, and have the ingredients to really take it much further" than he could in the same amount of time in the U.S.

His decision to first go to the U.S. for advanced medical study was an easy one: “It was obvious that education of all forms was...the best there [in America]. If you had to be the best at what you did,” you “had to go” to America.

He spent almost two decades in the U.S., first in New York training to be a cardiothoracic surgeon and then as an associate professor at the University of Miami. While abroad, he dreamed up the Artemis Medical Institute and developed the contacts he needed to make it real. Here in Gurgaon, ten days from now, the clinic will move from soft-launch into full-scale operations.

Katariya tells me he held on to a “passion for coming back to India…I do belong here.” But when he did finally return, his reasons were far more than emotional. Here, he can combine his clinical practice with scientific research and technological development, all at a breakneck pace.

"Clinical research and translational research is down 70% in the U.S.," he tells me, laying out two primary explanations:

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June 27, 2007 6:30 PM

American-Style Consumerism in India

Noida and Gurgaon, India’s outsourcing and call center capitals, are making big bucks from Americans, and spending a lot of it on U.S. goods from Pizza Hut lunches to Levi's Jeans. In these booming suburbs of Delhi, consumers and retailers tell me an "aspirational lifestyle" has taken hold. The growing Indian middle class has money to spend, and so they do. I'm wondering: are they trying to spend it like Americans, arguably the inventors of conspicuous consumption, or do they just really like listening to their music on iPods, nodding designer sunglasses to the beat?

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June 28, 2007 8:13 AM

Upcoming Interview: Chellaney on India Nuclear Deal

What do you think about the U.S.-India nuclear deal: A golden opportunity? Hypocrisy? I'm meeting Professor Brahma Chellaney from India's Center for Policy Research tomorrow at 11:30am Delhi-time, 2am EST. When it comes to the India-U.S. nuclear deal, PG panelist MJ Akbar said he's the best guy to talk to.

Chellaney is a Member of the Policy Advisory Group headed by the Foreign Minister of India and has written a bunch of books on international security and arms control. In this article, India Has Sold Its Nuclear Soul to the U.S., he argues India is being duped by America. Check it out and post or email me any questions you'd like me to ask him.

June 29, 2007 3:24 PM

Professor Disappointed by U.S.-India Nuclear Deal

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India is not “America’s ally,” Professor Brahma Chellaney emphasizes, it is its "strategic partner.” After World War II, Japan and Germany were America’s allies obeying America in a “patron-client” relationship because “they had no other choice.” That would have worked in the 20th century, with countries defeated in war and -- in the case of Eastern Europe -- running to America after the Cold War, “But in the 21st century…any new friend America going to seek a semblance of equality in the relationship. It is important for U.S. policy-makers to understand a different mindset in a country like India and respect it.”

And anyway, Chellaney says, America doesn’t need so much control to achieve its geopolitical objectives. In fact, Washington’s forceful attitude and "outdated" mindset actually works against it. The failing India-U.S. nuclear deal is a prime example...

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July 3, 2007 10:19 AM

Indians Protest U.S. Aircraft Carrier, But Some Welcome Sailors

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I arrive in Chennai, a city on the southeast coast of India, at the same time as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, drops anchor right off the coast. Though it was the arrival of the latter that made headlines across India, we both faced an angry communist greeting.

At 5:00 p.m., the Communist Party of India (CPI) staged a protest near the Chennai Port. I went straight there to check out the scene. Demonstrators decried “American imperialism.” To them, the massive carrier signified the American threat to the developing world. Operating under the pretense of friendship, these CPI members argued that America was helping India stand up while stepping on its head.

The communists here tell me that America has a long history of undermining India’s growth, from support for China and Pakistan in the Indo-China War of 1971 to the sketchy nuclear deal today. Now this war vessel comes to their shores after active duty in the Persian Gulf, supporting a war many Indians oppose.

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July 4, 2007 6:30 AM

Indian-American Fourth of July

Me at a local food stand (to the right of the striped shirt, can you tell?).
Chennai - Until now I've been exploring what people around the world think of America. But at times like last night, drinking rum and cokes with U.S. sailors in a Chennai club, or today wondering how to commemorate America's Independence Day so far away, I confront how others see me.

I met the sailors the way I do most new faces on this trip. “Hi” I said to a 22 year-old from Oregon. He stared at me quizzically: “You don’t have that funny accent?”

“No, man, I’m a DC lifer!” I slap his back. With that, the distance between us slammed shut and we passed the rest of the night exchanging horror stories abroad. I’m American.

But before I opened my mouth, I wasn’t, at least not to him. That’s certainly reasonable: I’m a brown-skinned guy in India, after all. But at the time, I really wished he’d recognize me as an American right away.

Indians here seem to have some sixth sense for Americans. Before I speak they know I am one, or at least that I’m Western. This is unsettling, not just because I have to bargain harder, but because deep down, I do want to be recognized and trusted here right away too.

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July 5, 2007 10:33 AM

Inside an Indian Call Center: "Spread the Wealth"

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Chennai - We’ve all talked to “Jennifer,” the girl who calls you up on Saturday afternoons trying to offload a Direct TV subscription, or "Alan" who answers the tech support line when your HP printer busts again. Ever wondered who these people really are and what they think of you?

Twenty minutes from the center of Chennai, down a narrow ally on the second floor of an old yellowing building, the Call Center InfoSearch buzzes and the phones never stop. Sixty English-speaking employees call Australia in the morning, England in the afternoon, and America all night.

I talked to 23-year-old Saravama Jothi, a.k.a. “Alan,” and 27-year-old Vimesh Valaalan, a.k.a. “Jim,” about their experience braving the toughest but most lucrative shift: America overnight.

Straight out of college, the two went into BPOs (Business Process Outsourcing) because they could earn more money faster than in any other industry. Their starting monthly salary was 10,000 rupees, a little under US $300. Every three months they stayed on the job, monthly pay grew by 3,000 rupees. There’s a big incentive to start young and hang out as long as you can stand it. The average call center employee is 22. And it doesn't take too long to rise through the ranks. In about seven years one of 60 callers can realistically become one of four managers.

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July 6, 2007 8:23 AM

An Indian's Long-Lost American Pen-Pal

Kumar still remembers his pen-pals' addresses by heart.
Chennai - As a kid, you may have shared letters with distant strangers to learn about another country -- or just to procrastinate. But did you pour your heart and soul into it? From a small village in south India, Kumar Chellapan spent his teenage years living for his two American pen-pals. Then one day they stopped writing, and it broke his heart.

Why did this 15-year-old boy care so much about these American friends he knew only on paper?

Kumar was always a loner. He did poorly in school and couldn’t talk to girls. He turned to reading, writing, and fantasizing. Surprise, he’s now a journalist.

Back in 1977, at age 15, he developed a keen interest in America even though his communist teachers said the USSR was heaven. Word of mouth and newspaper scraps convinced him America was the “Great Country;” fantastic lunar landings and charismatic leaders awed him.

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July 10, 2007 2:14 PM

Bollywood Chaos over Hollywood Dreams

Clash of movie star cultures: Hollywood star Richard Gere got into serious local trouble for kissing Bollywood's Shilpa Shetty in April.
Mumbai - "A Bombay [performer] wouldn't dream of world fame. But an American in Los Angeles would," says Shubra Swaroop, an aspiring independent screenwriter in India who got her master's degree at CalArts just outside LA. She's listened to the dreams of film-star-wannabees in both India and America, and chooses India to pursue her own.

At age 25 after completing a master's in literature in Bombay University, she decided to join her high school boyfriend, an aspiring filmmaker in America. She applied for creative programs in California on a hunch that she wanted to be a writer, like her poet mother. It was her first time out of the house and she expected "to feel more maladjusted than I was." But she "loved the freedom of it." The "education system in India is more stifling" but in America she found she could "create her own path; the professors asked me to use my head, not tell me what was right…The system allows you to experiment with what you want to do."

She did have to adjust: she was used to the "larger-than-life characters," stark contrasts and "loud emotions" of Indian movies. In California she adapted to a "more subtle" U.S. style. At the same time, she adopted some of the professional expectations of Los Angeles, putting her manuscripts in a "particular format, particular script, particular font, typed in a certain way." It was part of the systematic industry she saw in America. "It's definitely far more professional in Hollywood, run by corporate houses and executives…Here it's more chaotic."

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July 11, 2007 4:36 PM

An American Girl's Love Life in Mumbai

Sabrina with a group of Indian women.
Sabrina B. calls herself "a middle class, average American girl." But in India, she's been treated like a "god." Within months of getting here, she starred in a TV sitcom, "jumped five years ahead" in her career and hooked up with a suave Indian actor.

After a Georgia State study abroad program in India, she "fell head over heels in love" with the country. People cared for her meticulously because she was a visitor and the extra attention "had a very romantic effect on me." So she left college midway through to see if Mumbai was as good a place to live in as it was to visit.

Things started out great. She rose up the ladder at The Times of India to quickly become a full-time features writer -- her dream job -- in under a year. "It was something I could never get so fast in the U.S." she says. Being American didn't hurt. And on top of this she was solicited by Bollywood to act in ads and on TV for thousands of rupees a day, since white women are in high demand as actresses. Socially, she found herself frequently the main attraction at parties, although sometimes crowds would make her recite Hindi curse words.

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July 13, 2007 9:27 AM

Inside an Indian Madrassa: Peacefully Awaiting America's Fall

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Malegaon, Maharashtra - Mufti Mohammed Ismail, the leading cleric of Malegaon, a 75% Muslim town known for its many madrassas, tells me the religious schools here try hard to avoid discussion of America and global politics, but "there's a restlessness among students" who raise difficult questions. When teachers themselves believe "America has a systematic conspiracy to eradicate Islam" how can they explain "America's cruel and violent actions around the world" to curious students without inspiring hatred? The answer, I'm told, is in history and religion: "power is not permanent," "the cruel reap what they sow" and so "America will die its own death." In short, be patient.

Madrassa Tajweed-Ul-Quran lies three miles down East Iqbaal Road outside Malegaon, which itself is two hundred miles from Mumbai, the nearest city. The madrassa houses 150 students ages 7 to 15 for ten months a year. All of their possessions including sleeping mats fit in three-square-foot tin boxes.

Every morning the students wake up at 7:00am and spend the next four hours memorizing the Quran's 6,666 verses, which they usually achieve by age 12. After lunch, they spend four hours on general education: math, English, science. There is no TV, Internet, radio or newspapers. So after school they use their free time to play on a green patch of land between the mosque and the madrassa before nightfall. The small complex is surrounded on all sides by grasslands littered with hobbling horses whose feet have been tied to keep them from running off.

After eight years of study, the students will go on to be teachers at madrassas, perhaps this same one, imams at mosques, or candidates for higher degrees in theological studies at centers in India or Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. That's usually when the study of world politics might begin, I'm told.

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July 16, 2007 12:19 PM

American Literature Can Inspire Secularism

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Malegaon, Maharashtra - In 2004, American Embassy representatives visited Malegaon to scope out its Muslim population and donated US$9000 worth of books to Professor Mustufa Khan’s secular university. But they gave nothing to the many madrassas they toured. This was a grave mistake, Khan tells me after prayers at Jamia Mohammadia Mansoora Madrassa.

The sprightly English professor speaks as though he’s reading aloud from a book in his mind, describing how American literature opened a world to him fifty years ago. Mark Twain passed through Malegaon’s main road over a century ago as he toured India, broke. Khan, among the few in the town to learn English, was curious and read Huckleberry Finn. He was transfixed by Huck’s “chicanery,” liberation and sense of equality. He went on to write a PhD dissertation on Twain and become an English professor, and still dreams of visiting the U.S.

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July 18, 2007 12:33 PM

Kerala's Communists Balk at U.S. Stores -- and U.S. Jobs

A highway or a river? On the road in Kerala, India during ferocious monsoons.
Trivandrum, Kerala - It's raining so hard the highway looks like a river and the windshield wipers can't move fast enough to clear the glass. But Reji Shokla, my fearless driver, races on past a woman swimming to her house, a grove of battered coconut trees, a Western Union billboard and a poster of Che Guevarra. Was that a cow with blue horns mooing at me? Welcome to Kerala.

At the southernmost tip of India, this diverse state is grappling with change -- and resisting, as well as it can. Citizens have mounted campaigns against liberalization, globalization and Westernization, while benefiting from them as well. I've talked to a lot of different people over the past few days, and what I hear is: change brings good and bad; but when bad comes, America is most often the face of it.

First the good: Kerala has the highest literacy rate (for men and women), life expectancy and standard of living in India. It has a religiously mixed population of roughly 55% Hindu, 25% Muslim and 20% Christian, and is relatively peaceful (though there is evidence of mounting extremism in the north). The economy is driven largely by remittances from overseas, which account for about one fifth of the state's income. Kerala educates workers who go abroad as nurses and technicians and send cash home.

Now the bad: Kerala has relatively high unemployment (20%), domestic abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. Tourism creates a somewhat unstable economy that, for example, was badly shaken by September 11, 2001 and by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Farmers are losing their livelihoods to competition. Remitted money is often spent on huge houses for lucky individuals with relatives abroad rather than on infrastructure development for the community.

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July 20, 2007 10:32 AM

A Professor Praises Terrorism


Calicut, Kerala - “I was very happy, excited, on September 11th. Someone called me to switch on BBC and I saw the aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center and I saw it crumbling down -- down like the United States and I was laughing… Osama Bin Laden gave Americans back what they had done to the world. It was a wonderful thing! What else can a helpless people do? There should be more of it [terrorism] in U.S. Why not?”

P. Koya is one of the 13 Supreme Council members of the National Democratic Front (NDF), an Islamic organization based in Calicut, Kerala. He is also one of the founding members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned by the BJP government in 2001 for supporting terror and was accused of involvement in the 2003 train bombings in Mumbai.

But Koya doesn’t look radical. He sits in a small wood-paned office behind a desk stacked with Western magazines like Time and The Economist. He looks like Richard Pryor with a bushy mustache, wearing a checked brown button-down shirt. And he addresses me casually, as though we’d met many times before.

He was once an English professor and speaks English authoritatively, adjusting his thin metal-framed glasses after finishing each point -- reminding me of my college professors. And he loves to talk about books: Arundhati Roy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens. Chomsky, Sartre, Camus, Pilger.

But why this violent hatred? I ask him.

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July 23, 2007 9:05 AM

"Coca-Colanization" or "Just Bitter Water" in Kerala Plant

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Vilayedi Venugopal, the leader of the Anti-Coca-Cola Agitation Committee, has been protesting against the Coke plant in Plachimada, Kerala for the past five years, even though its been shut since 2004. He lives 12km away, but comes regularly to sit in a thatched hut just outside the sprawling complex, which he calls “the exploitative arm of American Empire.” But do the villagers living right next to the plant also link Coke to America?

Plachimada glows green with rice patties. These soggy fields form the backbone of the local economy and are sustained by a vital supply of ground and rainwater. In 2002, two years after Coca-Cola opened its factory, relative drought hit the area. Fields and wells reportedly started drying up, and the water that remained “started tasting bitter,” local farmer Shakti Vel tells me. Coke denies responsibility, but locals took to the streets.

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July 24, 2007 9:19 AM

America's (Over?) Educated Consumers

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Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu -- What’s the thread count of your pillowcase? If you’re American, Shanthi Srinivasan, the CEO & Managing Director of Premier Fine Linens, thinks you’re more likely to know than any other consumer in the world. Flattered? Don’t be.

Working to break into the U.S. market, Shanthi realized just how brand-obsessed and labeling-oriented American consumers are. Unlike Europeans, she says, who are content with standard 300 thread count bed fabrics, Americans demand higher and higher thread counts because U.S. companies have taught them this equals higher quality. To a point this is true, she says, but when Americans order 1000 thread count fabrics, it becomes comical "because they are so heavy...they become uncomfortable."

Shanthi first came on board her great-grandfather's yarn spinning company, tucked into a hilly region just outside industrial Coimbatore in southern India, when the U.S. textile industry still imported large quantities of unfinished yarn. In the past decade, American textiles have nearly vanished, so Coimbatore has moved into production of finished textiles. Shanthi focused on tapping this growing American market for imported fabrics, and was surprised at just how knowledgeable her new consumers were.

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July 25, 2007 12:25 PM

Independent Woman and Good Indian Girl Too?

Sukanya Rajarathimam, president of her local Panchayat.
Vellimallipattinam, Tamil Nadu -- Can you be too free? I just met two women -- a sixty-two-year-old politician and a twenty-two-year-old musician -- who are inspired by the freedom American women enjoy but are wary of becoming too much like them. They look to professional American women as role models of empowerment, but are concerned about the decay of the American family and of American morality.

“Women in America aren’t controlled by men like they are in India,” says Sukanya Rajarathimam, the president of her local panchayat (village government). She’s lived in a 5,000-person village outside Coimbatore almost her whole life. She earned a master's degree in geography and wanted to be a teacher, but upon marrying a farmer at 21, she gave up her career and became a full-time mom. She says she was happy to do so, but then again never really had a choice.

“America saved me from arranged marriage,” the young musician from Cochin tells me. Let’s call her Swati. She demands I withhold her identity for fear of being disowned by her family. Hers is an upper-middle class conservative family grooming her for marriage. But through good grades and a bit of luck, she got a scholarship to study in the U.S. and this experienced “opened up my life,” she says. If she hadn’t gone, “I’d have studied accounting or something and become a wife.” But in America she discovered her passion for music, “which never would have happened here.” She was also able to experiment with love before marriage with, heaven forbid, interracial boyfriends.

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July 27, 2007 5:48 AM

My Press Visa to Pakistan Has Arrived!

Me, bearded.
New Delhi - I was supposed to fly home yesterday to Washington DC to recoup for a few weeks before pushing off to Syria or Indonesia. But just five hours before my flight, I got an unexpected call from the Pakistani Embassy. My press visa has come through. Four months after applying for it, I’m now allowed to spend one week in Pakistan. Not a lifetime, but better than nothing.

Life in this business does seem to turn on the tiniest intervals of time. So I’ve canceled my flight home, and in its place booked a flight to Lahore for next week.

I admit, my emotions are mixed. Yesterday I felt tired, ready for a break, ready to see my rabbits -- Bonbon and Kimchi -- and my family after an over-stimulating two months. Part of me is afraid of going to Pakistan. From the media reports I read at home, it looks a bit like a lawless land. Old images of a besieged U.S. embassy and a decapitated Daniel Pearl fill my thoughts. My mother isn't pleased. I reassure her and myself: I’m brown and I haven’t shaved in about a month. This surely helps.

Mentors in India like Surjit Bhalla, Ali Asani, and MJ Akbar assure me I have nothing to fear in Pakistan, as long as I stay away from tribal areas. “It’s a beautiful country, strikingly like India,” says Surjit. “American media paint a dire picture of Pakistan but it’s not so bad at all.” Next week I’ll be there, and we’ll see…

July 31, 2007 9:09 AM

Hate America; Hate Amar Too?

"Bush Fire: Is India Falling Into a Foreign Policy Trap?"
New Delhi - “This is Amar Bakshi from The Washington Post,” I introduce myself.

“Daniel Pearl was Mossad. You must be CIA,” comes the response. Then I’m told to go upstairs.

It’s an eerie telecom greeting from Pala Koya, a self-proclaimed enemy of America who heads a hardcore Islamist outfit in Calicut, Kerala. But on the top floor I meet an old man who offers me masala chai. We drink and exchange pleasantries before he gleefully prophesies America’s demise.

Lately, I’ve spoken to a number of people who condone the killing of average Americans and say they celebrate 9-11 anniversaries with sweets. It’s disturbing talk, especially when they're so forthcoming with it to my face, as an American visiting them on their turf. But I’m not sure they mean it…

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August 2, 2007 12:34 PM

How India Sees America

AIIMS central lawn, where my father studied medicine
New Delhi - In 1976, my father graduated from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the best public med-schools and hospitals in the country. Tens of thousands apply, 50 are accepted; then the Indian government sponsors their topnotch education. But like well-known author alum Deepak Chopra and more than half his class, my dad left for the United States after graduating. Three decades later, I visit AIIMS to see if students are still leaving for America in droves.

The med-school isn’t the gleaming structure my dad described. It’s dark and dilapidated. Thousands of patients of all ages huddle on the ground awaiting treatment, stretched out on mats in the sweltering heat. Monkeys swing on exposed pipes. It’s a stark contrast to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where my dad now treats his predominantly geriatric clientèle in cool bleached rooms.

Cardio-thoracic surgeon Dr. Balram Airan is among the few members of my father’s class to stay in India, practicing and teaching. Outside his office a sea of bodies throb, jockeying for attention. I take a minute of his time to ask if his students are leaving India for America in the numbers his classmates once did. “No,” he says, “many more are staying put.”

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August 6, 2007 2:46 PM

Kashmiri Insurgent Puts Hope in America

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Srinagar, Kashmir - Yasin Malik introduced the Kalashnikov to Kashmir. That’s what villagers in Pampur say. He’s a folk hero here among the thousands who share his dream of independence. Malik tells me that America is essential to realizing that dream. From the schoolyard to the interrogation room, he has always thought so.

India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir ever since its king acceded his predominantly Muslim state to India in 1947. Over the decades, the India-administered portion has demanded independence, growing increasingly violent as the Indian army swelled to suppress militants.

Yasin Malik was born in 1966. His father was a government servant in Ladakh. He had three sisters, no brothers. His childhood was relatively normal. “When I was ten,” he tells me, “even that young, I had great hope for America.” Classmates and Malik giddily exchanged rumors that “Americans would send troops for the Kashmiris” to help them achieve independence. America distrusted the non-aligned India during the Cold War and cooperated with Pakistan to oppose the Soviet presence in neighboring Afghanistan, so the rumors grew easily that America would also side with Pakistan and Kashmir's Muslims over India's territorial claims. “We had great faith in America.”

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PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send your comments, questions and suggestions for PostGlobal to Lauren Keane, its editor and producer.