A Passage to America

How May I Help You?
Deepak Singh (DS) is a writer, radio producer, and journalist. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s The World and has written for The New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe and The Atlantic. His new book, How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage by UCPress in Feb 2017. We are happy to carry a conversation between Singh and long-time CM friend Aftab Ahmad. Aftab Ahmad (AA) earned his PhD in Urdu literature from Jawahar Lal Nehru University, specializing in Urdu humor and satire. He was the director of AIIS, Urdu Language Program at Lucknow, for four years. He published Bombay Stories (Random House India, 2012, and Vintage International, 2014) and Mirages of The Mind (Random House India, 2014, and A New Directions Book, 2015) with co-translator Matt Reeck. Recipient of PEN Translation Grant, he has taught at UC-Berkeley. He now teaches Urdu language and literature at Columbia University.

AA: For the benefit of those who have not read the book yet could you say briefly what is this book about and what in your own opinion have you achieved and accomplished through this book?

DS: This book is about my experiences as a ‘fresh off the plane’ immigrant in the United States of America, selling electronics in a retail store in a small town Virginia, where I learned about the struggles of my colleagues and I adapted to my job and my new life. There are a lot of qualified, educated Indians and immigrants in general, staffing the many motels, grocery stores, super markets in the United States. They came to the U.S. looking for a better life, but we often take for granted what they had to give up to be here, the sacrifices they made. We can’t paint all immigrants by a single brush. By telling stories of low-wage employees, I have attempted to bring openness and humanity to debates about work, race, ethnicity and immigration in the United States.

AA: This goes back and forth about your experiences in the USA and India. Each compelling experience in USA brings some memories back to your mind from your life in India. While writing the book did you have to suppress certain experiences that you thought wouldn’t go well with Indians – that would have brought a negative image of India? Did you feel the burden of not saying anything about India that could throw a negative light on it?

DS: Throughout the writing process I constantly asked myself if I was being true to myself in expressing my experiences and my feelings. Most days, I sat and cried at my desk before I typed the first word. I have tried my best to bare my heart in this book and I tried to live by the famous Robert Frost quote: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I do hope that my honesty comes through for my reader.

AA: In India we only hear about Pakistan and people over there. We get immediately riled up just by the mention of Pakistan. Our patriotism is aroused.  We just live with a certain image of Pakistan without any real experiences with people. Most people in India die even without ever seeing a Pakistani man or woman. In the USA, we get the opportunity to meet people from all parts of the world.  Would you like to say something about your experiences with Pakistani people in the USA?

DS: This book has taken place almost entirely on the sales floor, where I did meet a few Pakistanis, but wasn’t able to engage in a meaningful conversation. To answer your question, I’d say yes, I would’ve never met a person from Pakistan if I hadn’t left India. I had a certain perception about Pakistanis before I arrived in the U.S. Laughing and joking with folks from Pakistan in the U.S., I’d often forget they were not from India. And, I’d often think, “They aren’t all that different from me, are they?”


AA: Would you like to say something to your readers that you would have said if you wrote the book today, in the light of recent political developments in both India (including the new CM in UP and the rise in Hindu nationalism) and America? 

DS: Growing up a high caste Hindu in Lucknow, India, I wasn’t aware of the privilege it afforded me. Although, most of my friends were Muslims, I didn’t know what it was like to be a minority, or to not be a Hindu in a Hindu majority nation. No one questioned my patriotism for India, or treated me as if I didn’t belong to the country, or asked me to leave India if I didn’t like it. I joked and criticized its government without worrying that someone might think of me as an antinationalist. Coming to the United States, I became a part of the minority. It took me a while, but I learned what it feels like to belong to the lower strata of the society—a society that is underprivileged, disadvantaged. The book took 6 years to write. I wasn’t writing every single day of the last six years and the most of the revision happened in the last year. I don’t know what I would say if I was writing the book today, but I do want to say that my heart grieves to know what’s going on with minorities—be it India, Pakistan, or the United States.


AA: What fundamental differences do you see in the thinking and attitudes of people in India and the United States in general?  I’m thinking about differences that reflect deeper cultural orientations to the world. Your analogy of Black Friday and Kumbh Fair in India brings this question to mind. A vast majority of people in India live on pathetic wages. They seem to be barely scraping by and many times living by gathering debt. Yet they appear to be happy. Are they really happy?

DS: I left India about 13 years ago and since then the country has changed drastically. Smart phones and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram didn’t exist then. Home phones were a luxury and cellphones had just been introduced in early 2000s. No one knew the word ‘selfie. Working in retail in America, I noticed that Americans didn’t hesitate to buy something on credit. They actually seemed thrilled if they were able to purchase something on credit and often times people planned to spend their paycheck that they were expecting in two weeks’ time. I noticed they indulged in shopping to forget about their sadness, depression. I think it is hard to be poor in a rich country. There’s a stigma attached to being poor in America. You’re considered to be a slacker, someone who is lazy. Where as in India, poverty is everywhere. You can’t spend a single day without witnessing a hungry child on a street. I don’t know what I am trying to say here, but the point is that people in India seem to have other things—their family—to hold on to when they are down and out, where as in the U.S. you’re on your own after a certain age.

How to See

I was invited to speak on Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner’s 2014 (already seminal) book Memory, Power, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600. It was awarded the 2016 Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize at the Association for Asian Studies. Alongside Cynthia Talbot’s The Last Hindu Emperor (2015)– about which I wrote here— and Shahid Amin’s Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (2015), this book represents a significant turn in South Asian studies towards ‘memory studies’ broadly speaking. Due to the travel EO, I chose not to attend the festivities in Toronto but Professor Nile Green (the Chair of the panel) was gracious enough to read my comments. I post here a shortened version for your edification.


Two of the works that were significant in my own intellectual formation belong to Phillip Wagoner and to Richard Eaton. Wagoner’s Tidings of the King: A Translation and Ethnohistorical Analysis of Rāyavācakamu (1999) taught me the invaluable lesson that historical texts can pretend a pre-textual history as its own– and that any prima facie reading of such texts can compound historiographic errors over generations. Wagoner’s effort in re-situating Rāyavācakamu as an early-seventeenth century text, as opposed to it’s own claim to be an early sixteenth century text, and in thinking about the genre as a source of historical emplotment, gave me a method to interrogate my primary concern– a thirteenth century Persian text claiming to be a translation of an eighth century Arabic work– anew. Eaton’s landmark study Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India (1978) was itself methodologically innovative in considering texts emerging from within or about Sufi households alongside legal declarations and historical narratives. In my own research on thirteenth century Sindh, I was guided by Eaton’s example of creating a social network for a distant past by tracing textual and material networks that continuously cross borders enacted by historical or historiographic sensibilities.

I want to start with this particular perspective– of thinking about method for studying Indian medieval pasts. It is my contention that Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600 (2014) invocation and use of “Memory” begins from their methodology of walking the secondary regional centers to compile their GIS maps. In effect, walking provided the means with which the authors ‘see’ the landscape– both in its contemporary form and in its historical context.
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On FATA

Gentle Readers,

My op-ed in NYT on the recent FATA/administrative developments that connects the history of spatial politics and territorial otherness.

The nearly 40-year war in Afghanistan has produced its own idea of the “tribal” in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas — one that took the British colonial emphasis on “Pashtun” militancy and layered on top the American enemy, the Afghan Taliban. The Tribal Areas went from being a base for Pakistan and American military operations against Soviet troops to a platform for Taliban militancy against the United States and Pakistan. Deemed a geography outside the laws of the nation, the Tribal Areas were found by both the militant and the anti-militant forces a region where violence could be meted out with little regard to its inhabitants.

Pakistan has kept the frontiers in place, legally and spatially. Continuing the colonial practices, the president of Pakistan appoints a “political agent” in the Tribal Areas to keep power centralized. The political agent is the sole arbiter of law and order and one without any responsibility toward the people. The ethnic stereotyping and animosity has deliberately deprived the Tribal Areas of schools and hospitals. The war on terrorism has instead turned it into a landscape covered in police and surveillance stations.

Coming from Abroad II: Refugee Nations

I opened this conversation with the question of hospitality and a fragment of the history that the legal regimes of United States has rendered into the soil of New York. The liberal response to the banning of travel from the seven countries has been largely a variation of “Muslims are Welcome Here” with many a strands of thought dedicated to the “right” refugees have to come to America. The right is based on the wars US has waged in Somalia, Yemen, Syria or Iran. For example, NPR has focused almost exclusively on “Refugees are Welcome Here” while highlighting “justice” and “American values” as the moral grounds on which such dispossessed can claim to come.

Forgotten, perhaps dismissed, is the long and bloody of history of America making refugees of the Native people here on this soil. Let us recall the over 500 legal treaties made between the various Native nation-states and the US Congress and we know that each was broken. Let us recall that these treaties excavated legal rights to land, and created massive internal forced migrations and re-locations. Let us recall that these “refugees” did not disappear into the cultural “melting pot” but continue to live in horrendous “reservations” across United States in abject poverty and their status is legally and politically frozen in time.
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