Posts Tagged ‘history’

Goodreads tells me that I’ve read just four books since Gone Girl – nearly two months. And three of those I read in the last 10 days. Life gets busy sometimes. But I still managed to reach my original reading goal of 60 books for this year, and I just upped it to 70 (which, I realize, might be a couple of books too many).

On my reading pile for the next few days, I have Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, Paul Farmer’s Haiti After the Earthquake, and Jacqueline Winspear’s The Mapping of Love and Death. Although I didn’t love Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (her detective), I liked her writing well enough to try another book. I was also influenced by other blogs which had nice things to say about the series.

I recently finished Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953 – in which James Bond makes his debut)I am not a James Bond fan, and probably never will be. I just saw the book on the husband’s pile and thought why not. Though far less poignant, and certainly less intense, Casino Royale reminded me of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007). I also read Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West that chronicles Shin In Guen’s escape from one of North Korea’s infamous political prison camps. Although aspects of day-to-day life (or what passed for life) at the camp in many ways resembled that in concentration camps from half a century ago, Shin had no yardstick to assess the quality of his life – he was born in the camp, the product of a camp-sanctioned reward marriage. Camp life was mostly hunger, snitching, and survival.

…while Auschwitz existed for only three years, Camp 14 is a fifty-year-old Skinner box, an ongoing longitudinal experiment in repression and mind control in which guards breed prisoners whom they control, isolate, and pit against one another from birth.

Shin escaped by what one can only describe as a series of remarkably lucky breaks. While escape meant that Shin could finally get his hands on the grilled meat that he had dreamt of all his life, assimilation continues to be a struggle. Escape from Camp 14 is very different from the only other account of life in totalitarian North Korea that I have read – Pyongyang (2007), the account of a French-Canadian cartoonist/animator in the country’s capital.

But the book I have the most to write about is 102 minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (2005) by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

102 minutes

Over a decade later, the memories of that Tuesday morning are still raw, fresh, and excruciatingly painful, even for someone who watched the drama unfold on television half a planet away. Media – first person accounts, books, and the very graphic footage of the towers’ demise, as well as the transcripts of the 911 calls made by those trapped within, continue to grip our hearts with deep anguish. My interest in the book was purely to remedy my somewhat ignorant understanding of the events of the day, although I was aware that it would be a painful exercise. 102 minutes is not quite the account I was looking to read (which I would have realized had I paid close attention to the subtitle). Gleaned from interviews with survivors and rescuers alike, and from emergency radio, phone and email transcripts, 102 minutes is Dwyer and Flynn’s attempt to reconstruct what happened inside the towers after the planes struck them, from the time the North tower was struck at 8:46 am, to when it collapsed at 10:28 am (the South tower, though struck second at 9:02 am, collapsed first at 9:59 am), a total of 102 minutes. Dwyer and Flynn’s take is that, acts of tremendous valor notwithstanding, far more people died that fateful day than those who had to:

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City reports that 2, 749 people died in the attacks on New York. Of these, 147 were passengers or crew members on the two flights; in the buildings, no more than 600 people were on floors where the planes hit, close enough to be killed immediately. Another 412 of the dead were rescue workers who came to help. The rest, more than 1,500 men and women, survived the plane crashes, but were trapped as far as twenty floors from the impact. Like the passengers on the unsinkable Titanic, many of the individuals inside the World Trade Center simply did not have the means to escape towers that were promised not to sink, even if struck by airplanes.

Dwyer and Flynn argue that the fates of these trapped men and women were sealed years ago when the towers were designed – with insufficient stairways and inadequate fireproofing, and by the long-standing malaise that characterized the relationship between the Police and Fire Departments. The towers were not built for total evacuation, rather only for evacuation of the few floors that were affected by the fire with the assumption that the fireproofing would contain the fire damage, and any fires would simply burn themselves out. Even with the haze of shock, fear and confusion taken into account, “failures of communication, coordination, and command” doomed the lives of all those desperate men and women, and the heroic firefighters who rushed in to rescue them.

Nothing can diminish the culpability of the hijackers and their masters in the murders of September 11, 2001, which stand beyond mitigation as the defining historical truth of the day. The ferocity of the attacks meant that innocent  people lived or died because they stepped back from a doorway, or hopped onto a closing elevator, or simple shifted their weight from one foot to another. That said, simply to declare that the hijackers alone killed all those people gives them far more credit as tacticians than they are due. The buildings themselves became weapons, apparently well beyond the designs of the hijackers, if not their hopes; so, too, did a sclerotic emergency response culture in New York that resisted reform, even when confronted again and again with the dangers of business as usual.

Dwyer and Flynn’s narrative certainly captures the alarm, the panic, the confusion of those wretched minutes, and its tragically cruel aftermath. While hundreds of people were desperately trying to reach 911 and family, and wetting handkerchiefs with milk and water from flower vases to help them breathe through the smoke, firefighters were rushing up in a misguided attempt to save them.

A firefighter’s turnout coat, pants, boots, and helmet weight twenty-nine and a half pounds. The mask and oxygen tank add another twenty-seven pounds, bringing the basic load to fifty-six and a half pounds. Firefighters in engine companies also carry fifty feet of hose, called a roll-up, with aluminum fittings on each end. That weighs thirty pounds, increasing the load to eighty-six and a half pounds…In the ladder companies, some firefighters carried an extinguisher and hook, thirty-eight pounds, while others toted an ax and the Halligan tool, an all-purpose pry bar, with a weight of twenty-five pounds. One firefighter from each unit also carried a lifesaving rope, 150 feet long and weighing twenty-two pounds. They all carried one or more piece of equipment: a radio, the Motorola Saber, which weighs one pound, seven ounces.

Battalion Chief Orio J. Palmer climbed 38 floors to reach the impact zone on the 78th floor of the South Tower, sometimes covering a flight of stairs in just  twenty-one seconds. Five minutes later the tower collapsed.

The Architectural Fact Sheet of the Freedom Tower at One World Trade center mentions safety features, including extra-wide pressurized stairs, additional stair exit locations at all adjacent streets and direct exits to the street from tower stairs, and a dedicated stair for use by firefighters.

Six more days, and six more books to achieve my goal.


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I must admit, somewhat shamefully, that in the past I have been woefully mistaken about diversity in the United States. What I pictured in my mind was a more or less homogeneous sea of blonde-haired, fair-skinned people. Later, I realized that darker-skinned people also called it home. I had, of course, also seen some other people in movies – people with long braided hair, wearing colorful feathered headpieces. I knew these people as Red Indians (which I later realized was politically incorrect – at that time I thought it rather odd, since these Red Indians looked neither red nor Indian) and never gave a thought to who they really were or what became of them. To my credit, I was only a child and grew up on the other side of the world much before Facebook and Google were born.

Coming from a part of the world where mono-ethnicity is the norm, I can understand why we thought that other countries were the same. We all looked more or less alike, so why should things be different elsewhere? Many, many years later, I experienced a blast of diversity – cultural, ethnic, racial, lifestyle-related, you name it – when I lived/worked in Honolulu and New York City. But not too long ago, I got food for thought when someone (who has never been out of their home country before) asked me if the dark-haired woman sitting in front of us was American. “Why, yes”, I said. “But, aren’t Americans blonde?”. In that moment, I realized my own ignorance – I had witnessed but a drop in the ocean of diversity, as Elizabeth Little proves in her road trip, Trip of the Tongue: Cross-country travels in search of America’s languages (2012).

A self-confessed language fanatic, Little drives over 25,000 miles pursuing answers to linguistic mysteries:

Why do some languages last while others fade away?…How, ultimately, has the language experience affected the American experience?…why language communities in the United States have, again and again and again, eventually yielded to the seemingly implacable preeminence of English.

What is the language experience in America like? To say that the language of America is English, is a bit like saying Americans are blonde. American language, American English if you will, is the result of the co-mingling of different tongues, that happened (and is continuing to happen) at various phases in the nation’s history. European colonization of America brought into contact European languages with Native languages; slavery added African languages to the mix; and immigration, past and recent, is continuing to add more into the pool. Little’s cross-country travels look at each of these phenomena, their influence on American English, as well as the fate of these other languages and the mechanisms of language loss, death and preservation.

Colonization and the native peoples

…it’s almost easy to overlook the fact that American English owes much of its distinctiveness to words it has acquired in the New World.

Firstly, “all Native peoples are not, in fact, part of one big, homogenous culture”, and all Native personal names are not “of the verb-preposition-animal variety”. Sources suggest, says Little, that anywhere between 250 to over 400 languages were spoken in the pre-contact population of North America, and around 175 indigenous languages are spoken in the United States. That, however, doesn’t mean that these surviving languages are in any way mainstream, or are spoken by substantial numbers of people. I am not sure I have heard a conversation in even one of them. What contributed to the decline of these languages?

Plantation life

The institution of slavery brought African languages into the continent, traces of which can be found in  creoles around the nation. Creoles are contact languages born when two groups, speaking different languages, need to communicate with each other, but are either unwilling or unable to learn each other’s language. Creoles are also a tool to understand the socio-cultural milieu of the time of their conception. They are…

a linguistic encapsulation of the power dynamics of colonization and cultural exchange.

…[an] indication of the relative social, political, and economic power of each language group. The more power one group has, the more accommodating the other group will tend to be. ..Indeed, most creoles are based on the languages of the major colonial powers.

Speaking of creole languages, which are frequent byproducts of colonization, I began to wonder about such languages existing in India. I found that several Portuguese-based creole languages did indeed exist in India’s east and west coasts. Many of these languages are now extinct. I am not quite sure why or how colonial contact around the same period should have such different outcomes – with its people learning one language (English) to eventually become a mostly bilingual nation on the one hand, while also resulting in creole languages (Portuguese) on the other. Clearly, the mechanisms of language adoption and creation are hardly simple.


“Through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment and thought; customs and habits are moulded and assimilated in the same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble  would have been gradually obliterated.”

An 1868 report quoted in Trip of the Tongue

Native and creole languages have more or less disappeared from the nation’s landscape, surviving only in pockets. Geographic isolation (such as, when some languages are spoken in less-known islands), and insulation from cultural and economic interactions that normally lead to assimilation, have facilitated the preservation of these languages in some parts. Others are in the midst of revivals, aided by determined individuals and communities. Some are struggling, and possible more are dying.

In the 19th century, a systematic campaign of forced assimilation and linguistic humiliation led to the loss of many native and creole languages. Under the pretext of civilizing the peoples, the government adopted a policy of mandatory English language instruction in schools, at the same time disparaging indigenous and creole languages, and punishing their usage. With children learning to despise their native tongues, and with parents fearing the consequences of teaching or even speaking in the language, generational language transfer ceased.

Creoles, particularly, continue to “routinely face prejudice and derision born of the mistaken assumption that their languages reflect some combination of simplicity and stupidity”. The very existence of creole languages is evidence of inequalities, and continuing to regard these languages as inferior or degenerate is a sure sign that these inequalities continue to exist in our society.

Prestige language

“…the language associated with access to power, status, respect, prestige, and economic benefits in both professional and personal life.”

Deborah House, quoted in Trip of the Tongue

The advantages of knowing English, indeed, the necessity of knowing English, has/have contributed in no small amount to the decline of these languages. Apart from its obvious economic advantages, English has evolved into a prestige language. Fluency in English is often correlated with intelligence, and poor or limited proficiency in the language is looked down upon. Such linguistic prejudice is quite common in bilingual countries, such as India (where I’m from).


Ironically, “the exploration and colonization of the Americas precipitated a rapid decline in indegenous language diversity…[and] also ushered in a new era of European language diversity”. Later immigration from Asia, and Central and South America, have only added to the diversity. A ride in the subway alone can offer you a glimpse of just how many languages are spoken in this country.

In the course of her road trip, Little finds Basque, Norwegian, Crow, Navajo, Makah, Spanish (many dialects of it), Louisiana Creole, Haitian Creole and Gullah, all in various stages of decline/revival/preservation. While she acknowledges the indispensability of English, she makes a case for the preservation of these, and other languages – these invaluable cultural artifacts.

The survival, death and dominance of languages is ultimately about privileges and inequalities.

A person’s language is necessarily a reflection of his or her own political environement, of the social and economic forces that influence survival and success. The languages of prestige are the languages of power.

Little certainly has a way with words, and combines trivia of the Jeopardy kind, with a thought-provoking commentary on the history of languages in the United States. What does the future hold for these languages? Of personal relevance to me is Little’s exploration of ethnic communities in the United States.

As ethnic communities welcome steady flows of immigrants, the usual process of language shift – limited English in the first generation, bilingual in the second generation, monolingual English in the third – is obscured, at least on the surface

Although, I see plenty of evidence of this phenomenon, a part of me was definitely saddened to imagine the loss of my native tongue in future generations (if I continue to live outside of my homeland).

Elizabeth Little is a talented writer, and I also hope to read her first book, Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic (2007).

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“I don’t understand. These were Jews escaping the Nazis? But – they were going to Shanghai?

“It was their only choice”

“What do you mean? I thought they went to other countries in Europe, or came here [United States of America].”

“Survivors did, after the war. But as the Nazis rose in the thirties, countries all over the world closed their doors. Everyone knew what was happening, but no government was willing to deal with a flood of desperate refugees.”

– From The Shanghai Moon (2009) by award-winning author S. J. Rozan

I would not have expected a lesson in world history, a tidbit that has escaped me entirely until now, from a mystery that involves a jewelry theft in New York City, but I’ve come to expect treats in unexpected places.

In Shanghai Moon, Lydia Chin and partner Bill Smith are private investigators, hired to recover jewelry that belonged to a young brother and sister who fled Austria for Shanghai in 1938. Chin and Smith’s mysterious Swiss Client informs them that the jewelry thief, a corrupt official from China, is in New York City, and is likely to sell the jewelry in Chinatown. While Chin (who is Chinese-American) and Smith navigate the crowded alleys of little China, a couple of people involved in the investigation turn up dead, and the duo realize they have something big on their hands. And that is the mystery they must solve.

Chinatown is described deliciously in the book which brought back memories of eating delicious, vegetarian, Cantonese grub on Mott Street, and looking for egg tarts and hand-pulled noodles in the area.  I found the plot complicated (in a good way), exciting, and just a little confusing and read the book from cover to cover in less than 24 hours. The denouement is reasonably satisfying, while the much of the story is told through letters and diary entries, that sound quite unnatural. And because there are so many of them, I found them a tad wearisome. But the detectives are spirited, and I did enjoy my introduction to the Chinese-American detective, and the cultural references that came with it. Also, a lot of history is interwoven into the plot, from the Japanese invasion, to the conflict between Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist troops and Mao Zedong’s Communist army, and the tumultuous climate that prevailed in Shanghai during those times.

Now, onto the history lesson. According to Encyclopedia of Diasporas: Immigrant and Refugee Cultures Around the World

From 1938 on, some 20,000 Jewish refugees from Central Europe, chiefly from Germany and Austria, escaped to Shanghai, the only place in the world that required no documents, such as visas, health certificates and financial statements.

What happened to them during the Japanese occupation of the city?

Under the pressure of Nazi Germany, the Japanese Authorities proclaimed, on 18 February 1943, the establishment of “the Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in Shanghai, ordering Jewish refugees who had arrived in Shanghai from Europe since 1937 to move into the area within a month…Confinement, poor diet and sanitation, in addition to restrictive methods of Japanese surveillance, put Jews in a difficult, unpredictable, dangerous and insufferable situation.

And? What happened when the War was over?

they were able to leave, and most made plans to go to another country to join their family or relatives. They had never planned to come to China in the first place, ending up there simply because they had no other choice. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, became their preferred destinations, but the door of most countries were not open to them. The founding of the State of Israel appeared to be an opportunity. In 1948, right after its establishment, Israel opened an office in Shanghai to welcome Jews to Israel, and about 10,000 Jews found a new home there.

There was Jewish presence in China much before theWar, and this continues today.

You learn something new everyday.

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In one North Carolina courthouse, there was a white Bible and a black bible to swear to tell the truth on.

Warmth of Other Suns

When author Isabel Wilkerson said ‘epic story’, she wasn’t kidding. It took me eight weeks to read this book from cover to cover, and I usually tend to give up if I think a book is taking me too long.

As an aside – I used to be the type that had  to finish every book that I started, until I decided that life was too short to be spent on books I found too hard to read, even if most of the world thought otherwise. And so, I have a small list of nemesis books – books I started, many times in some cases, and was never motivated to finish, or even proceed beyond page 21. So, that’s my policy. I try, but not too hard.

But with The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, I persisted. It might have taken me a while to read the book, but that was only because I was trying to take in the details and imagine a world, and a people in my head. Before I moved to the United States, I was told by many that the country had ‘no history’, because it was relatively new and did not possess the historical richness that other parts of the world, say Europe or even India, had in plenty as evidenced by their castles, collosuems, and other remains of ancient (really ancient) times. Apparently, contemporary history does not count as ‘real’ history to many. However, I find modern history fascinating – as it is ‘lived history’ it is more ‘certain’, it is easier to relate to and understand. And, there are stories (if we can get to the storytellers before they become history themselves). Little details make up the big picture, and suddenly events past are playing out in your head.

…it is the larger emotional truths, the patient retelling of people’s interior lives and motivations, that are the singular gift of the accounts in this book. With the passing of the earliest and succeeding generations of migrants, it is these stories that have become the least replaceable sources of any understanding of this great movement of people out of the South to the American North and West.

Wilkerson has done a masterful job. She employs three protagonists, who fled the South at different times of the Migration, had varied personal motivations, and struggles during and after their resettlement in the North and West, and uses their accounts to chronicle the Great Migration, which lasted over half a century and saw six million southern blacks leave the South and Jim Crow. Personal stories are powerful – they vividly illustrate individual fears, hopes, dreams, successes and struggles in a manner that no abstract account can. Millions of such stories made up the Migration, and are a part of the story of the making of Modern America.

Wilkerson begins during Reconstruction, when slavery was abolished (in name) and an explicit caste system was created in its place (much of this is reminiscent of the caste system that existed, and still exists to a certain degree, in India; and the black experience can be likened, to some extent, to that of the Dalits in India. City dwellers, such as me, can often be ignorant of the egregious discrimination  practiced in the name of caste in other parts of the country, as I realized when I read Untouchables. Indeed, Wilkerson herself alludes to the similar Nazi treatment of the Jews when she talks about the black-white relationship in the early 20th century. People everywhere are really the same). The symbiotic relationship that often existed between white masters and black slaves, gave way to extreme persecution and domination of one race by the other. Large scale migration is attributed to ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, and one can think of several reasons that might have propelled the southern blacks out of the South and to the American North and West, which Wilkerson collectively calls the Kinder Mistress.

Let’s not fool ourselves. We are far from the promised land, both North and South. In the South, we still confront segregation in its glaring and conspicuous forms. In the North we confront it in its hidden and subtle forms.

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Restrictions based on color of skin were just one of their concerns.

In the receiving cities of the North and West, the newcomers …had to worry about acceptance or rejection not only from whites they encountered but from the colored people who arrived ahead of them, who could at times be the most sneeringly judgmental of all.

At least they had their lives. And so they persisted in unfair circumstances, in crowded colonies, with rampant crime, and exposure to drugs. Wilkerson also addresses the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. In the past, the dysfunction of urban cities has often been blamed on the poor, uncouth, uneducated migrants. However, recent research, Wilkerson says, indicates otherwise, that migrants (southern blacks) tended to be better educated, likely to be and remain married, more likely to raise children in two-parent households, and more likely to be employed than northern blacks.

In cases where things went awry, it turned out that the longer the migrants were exposed to the northern cities, the more vulnerable some became to the troubles of the preexisting world they entered.

Resettlements change lives and large scale resettlements change the course of a country.


The conductor called out the name of the station and the city, and after so long a ride through the night and now into day, some passengers from the South gathered their things and stepped off the train… “Newark”. It sounded so tantalizingly close to “New York”, and maybe, some assumed, was the way northerners, clipping their words as they did, pronounced New York. It was confusing to have their intended destination preceded directly by a city with such a similar name and with an identically named station. And as they had been riding for as many as twenty-four hours and were nervous about missing their stop, some got off prematurely and, it is said, that is how Newark gained a good portion of its black population, those arriving in Newark by accident and deciding to stay.

Over half a century later, during my first ever train ride to New York City, I would make the same mistake. After all, ‘Newark Penn Station’ sounds remarkably similar to ‘New York Penn Station’ to the foreign ear, whether you were from the South or from India.

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