Indian History Happens Elsewhere. In Chicago, For Instance

Amitava Kumar

“I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city…” That was Saul Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March, introducing us to a city in motion, a city made of immigrants whose energy, and whose words, the stories that they forged for themselves, were changing America. But Bellow’s first-generation immigrants and even their offspring spoke with “an unerasable Yiddish twang”. His Chicago wasn’t made up of Indians or Pakistanis or Sri Lankans or Bangladeshis, the mixed nation of what one desi rapper has called “oblique brown.” But they are there, and from this distance they are shaping events, for good and for bad, in their homelands too.

For the past several days, I have been following the tweets of reporters inside the Chicago courtroom where former Pakistani Army doctor Tahawwur Rana was standing trial. Late last evening there was a tweet from Chicago Sun-Times reporter Rummana Hussain: “#Ranatrial: There is a verdict!”

The jury was split. It found Rana guilty of providing material support to Lashkar-e-Taiba as well as participating in the conspiracy to commit terrorist acts against the Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. However, the jury acquitted Rana of what might be regarded as the principal charge, of involvement in the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. At one point in its deliberations, the jury asked the judge some questions about Rana’s perception that he was doing ISI work in the Mumbai operation – which is to say, he was spying rather than carrying out a terrorist act.

As Colin Freeze from the Globe and Mail had tweeted the previous day “#Ranatrial jury questions could signal it’s weighing a defense: If R thought he was doing ISI work, he is no ‘terrorist’.” Freeze’s report in his paper also cited an exchange between Rana and the FBI interrogators where Rana explained that “Major Iqbal” from the ISI had contacted him. Many years earlier, Rana had deserted from the Pakistani Army; the caller suggested that he could sort out the problem if he received a favor in return, this being a demand for help for David Headley, the man who was later to conduct the surveillance for the Mumbai attacks.

On the evening of November 26, 2008, ten men would arrive by sea from Karachi and launch their spectacularly devastating attack on various locations in Mumbai. The assault went on for more than sixty hours; partly because of the intense coverage, the trauma felt further prolonged and magnified. By the time the attackers had been killed, and the sole survivor among them overpowered and arrested, 164 people were dead and more than 300 wounded.

The survivor among the attackers, Ajmal Kasab, was tried in an Indian court and sentenced to death. The trial in Chicago was a different matter, using Headley’s testimony to prosecute the Chicago-based Rana. Headley was not extradited to India, nor has the ISI taken responsibility. The case hasn’t achieved “closure.” It is a complicated story, rich in layers of machination and cover-up. But not for Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi who, in tweets sent out a few hours after the verdict was delivered, declared: “US declaring Tahawwur Rana innocent in Mumbai attack has disgraced the sovereignty of India & it is a ‘major foreign policy setback’”; and then, “Just to please Pakistan, US has unlocked the ways for all the 26/11 ‘Mumbai attack’ terrorists to be free of guilt”; and then, “The masterminds active behind the terrorist movements in India, will now seek justice in the courts of America.” And so on.

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If we set aside Modi’s bellicose certainties for a moment, let us reflect what the eight women and four women of the jury, mostly minorites, were faced with. Here is a Colin Freeze tweet on the very first day of the trial, May 23: “Jury enters. Multicultural cross-section of working class Chicago. How will lawyers argue the murky, twisty Mumbai plot to them?” (And a little later, referring to a novel: “Jurors have been given a War-and-Peace-sized cast of shady characters. Rana smiles and nods at family.”)

I’m not talking as a political pundit. My interest here is as a novelist. How do you write about Patna for someone in Peoria? You are told that if you are loyal to what is specific in your story, your story will also become universal. It is not easy. Once the trial got underway, Freeze tweeted: “Jurors look shellshocked. Trying to absorb twisty roles of Rana/Headley/Iqbal/Kasmiri/LeT/ISI/USDEA/Pasha/Mumbai/Denmark/etc.”

The truth is that the war on terror has meant that our divided worlds collide daily. The courtroom is only one battlefield. The 9/11 Commission Report had made a pointed observation about American insularity: “To us, Afghanistan seemed very far away. To members of Al Qaeda, America seemed very close. In a sense, they were more globalized than we were.” The Report also said that in the fight against terrorism, “the whole planet was the American homeland.”

That world has now come to pass. Not simply in the ways in which the US has exerted its presence in the war in Iraq or the commando raid inside Pakistani territory to eliminate Osama Bin Laden. No, I mean it in smaller ways like the Rana trial in Chicago. The subcontinental feud and its intricacies were being discussed and debated among people who, on the one hand, were unfamiliar with them and, on the other, felt that they had a huge stake in them.

In Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses there is a quip about England—the trouble with the English is that their history happened overseas, so they don’t know what it means. But as I read the tweets from the trial the thought struck me that Indian history, through its diaspora, also takes place elsewhere. David Headley’s own history abroad is a result of subcontinental scattering, and so, ironically enough, was the pretext for his return to India, when he went to Mumbai to open a front office for Rana’s business. Which, let’s not forget, was called “First World Immigration Services, Inc.” Again, a tweet from Freeze: “‘An immigration consultant is a person of great influence in India,’ Headley says.”

The arrival of immigrants like myself here in the US doesn’t mean that we are the only ones acquiring new knowledge or identities. While writing my last book, I went to the offices of the US attorneys who had prosecuted a Pakistani man for supporting terrorism inside Indian Punjab. Near the desk of the Assistant US Attorney, Kelly Currie, was a picture of his office-mates in the Golden Temple in Amritsar. In the photograph, the Americans were sitting in the langar with their heads covered in the traditional Sikh manner. Another detective showed me a Punjabi newspaper he had brought back from Chandigarh because it showed the news of Saddam Hussein’s capture in Tikrit. On his bookshelf there were books on Sikhism. He also had a copy of the Holy Qu’ran. Three cheers for diversity, but it doesn’t get even close to the heart of the immigrant experience.

What would be a more identifiable immigrant story? For me it happened when Freeze tweeted that Headley had spoken about his living in a “big” house in Lahore and having in his employ a “manservant.” And, quickly after that, “Headley testifies PM of Pakistan attended his father’s funeral.” What was he saying? To me it seemed he was saying that I came to this room in the morning in handcuffs but once I was somebody. In my experience, that is the plot behind the plot the police or the FBI lay out in every case in this war on terror. In each terror trial held in America in recent years, you will see immigrant men, often failed men, articulate visions of past glory, whether in their own lives or in the history of their culture or religion. When you hear the story in the court you begin to realize that the elsewhere you had imagined is not a place but a time and it is now forever gone.

Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb

5 Responses to Indian History Happens Elsewhere. In Chicago, For Instance

  1. Sampat says:

    Amen, bobby. Kumar and his ilk are the retailers of South Asianess in the US, which affords a convenient cover for the jehadi-immigrant from Pakistan and Bangladesh, now that their own brand is irretrievably damaged in the West. It is a given that a trained physician and a successful immigrant businessman like Rana wouldn’t have hesitated twice to collude with other jehadis to slaughter Kumar for the simple reason that he was born a kaffir. Rana even visited family members in Mumbai some months before the 26/11 massacre, and could still gloat with Headley that the Indians had it coming. So much for the shared South Asian experience! And his defense is that he believed that he was helping the ISI, and that somehow this doesn’t constitute aiding terrorism? Even if he is given the benefit of doubt that he wasn’t aware of what exactly was being planned, once he learned of the horrific killings that he was “inadvertently” an accessory to, he could have immediately gone to the Feds and come clean. But he didn’t and he never would have, except that he was belatedly being wire-tapped. And yet Kumar continues to seek for the common immigrant story and identity when there isn’t one.

  2. Sankaran Krishna says:

    Lovely piece with some great one-liners. As I read the title I thought it would have to do with the authoritative narration of Indian history by the University of Chicago’s South Asian studies department – and braced myself for the usual run of academic prose. The worrying thing about reading pieces like this they remind me yet again of the need to get hip to things like twitter ;(

  3. Kat says:

    As a native Chicagoan and one of the journalists who briefly covered the Rana case in the final days, I really enjoyed reading your perspective on the trial and its broader implications. Thanks for posting.

  4. Vivek says:

    Fantastic article! You have made some perceptive insights into the tragedy of Mumbai and the trial of Rana in Chicago.

  5. bobby says:

    Making jehadis as representative of the poignancy of the immigrant experience in America is a fetish that is utterly insulting to immigrants.

    And the delusions of past glory that infect the minds of extremists are delusions of domination, hatred, and their own fantasies of religious imperialism.

    Amitava Kumar is the premier fetishist of the jehadi-immigrant ‘tragedy’

    As a British Indian, I detest how the prejudices of religious extremists have become a perverse standard of the second – third generation ‘desi’ narrative. I find it repulsive, in fact.

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