The Un-American American

You have gazed at the world from distant shores; you have lived far away from the center of action. You know how it feels to be an outsider, not only because of the color of your skin, but also because of your past. You are as comfortable in South Asia as you are in Europe; one of your closest college friends happens to be a Pakistani. You have resided on three different continents, two of which are Asian in character. You have been a part of the Islamic world. You are of the new earth, where the melting pot is the norm.

Endowed with a writer’s sensibility, you can’t help seeing all sides of a problem. Introspection and self-analysis come naturally to you.

You are a cultural critic. Words and stories matter to you. Browsing the list of your all-time favorite TV shows, movies, songs, and books, I am moved to the core. Your list is so identical to mine we might as well be soul mates. You are the first man I have come across who loves the work of Marilyn Robinson, the writer. Many haven’t even heard of her. When you interviewed her in 2015, I wished I was sitting beside you so I could ask her where the idea for Housekeeping, her tragic surrealistic novel had come from. You are a fan of Al Green, the soul and blues singer; you once broke into a rendering of I am so in love on a public occasion. Breaking Bad is your favorite TV show; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest your favorite movie. You admired Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, a book so feminist I can’t imagine a man reading it, let alone getting it.

It is not just the island fever and the marginality and the worldly sensibility that we have in common. You have written a memoir. A memoir so moving, one day it will become an icon of our era.

Surely, our paths have crossed. Along that misty trail bordered by ferns and hibiscus we have walked, from the university campus to the lush rain forest beyond, dotted with Japanese bungalows and koi ponds. Past the wooden pagodas we have ambled, to the waterfalls and beyond, during those evenings of the late nineteen-seventies, when the world seemed such a big place and every nation possessed a unique identity. At the Safeway in the valley we have stopped on occasion for a snack. Our skins have tingled with the same liquid sunshine as we hiked up the mountain dividing the leeward side from the windward side.

Now that you are going away, I realize what a gift it has been to know you.

Elsewhere in the world, you would have been heralded as the usher of a new beginning. But you are in America, where half the population does not even understand you. Where being ignorant is the hallmark of being a “regular guy.” Where being erudite is being a sissy. Where aggressiveness is mistaken for strength, where humility is seen as a weakness, where peace is confused with surrender, where war is the status quo.

An Indian writer once recounted a bus trip he had taken across America. The woman sitting next to him had asked what he was reading. Hemingway, he had replied. “Is it very good?” She had asked. The incident had highlighted for him the national character of America, he had said afterwards. For he could not envision taking a bus trip across India and being asked if Tagore was any good. The difference between America and the rest of the world, he had commented, was that in the latter, being cultured was an asset, while, in the former, it was a liability.

Still, you did try to be a regular guy; you attempted to fit in. But the system just chewed you up and spat you out until I could hardly recognize you. I got frustrated with you. I wished then that you possessed the swagger of a John Wayne and the glibness of a Ronald Reagan. Your problem was that, like many intellectuals, you knew that the purpose of education was to know what you did not know. So you agonized over every decision. You inspected every step in the light of history. You reached out to your self-proclaimed enemies.

Like leaders of the stature of Nehru, Gandhi, and King, you attempted to elevate your world to a higher plane. But a leader is only as effective as his followers. People could not envision a higher level of consciousness, a greater good, a world built on love and compassion. You faced such hatred, opposition, and blockade that all you could do was to maintain a semblance of civility.

At times, instead of executing the promise you had made to your people, you seemed to carry out the legacy of those who came before you. You refused to play the power game, or maybe you did not know how to.

But I am sure history will judge you kindly.

And I will miss you terribly.

Sarita Sarvate ( has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.

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