India Abroad Piece
'India Abroad' carried the following comment in its issue of Sept 24, 2004.
Two Faces of America
By T.P. Sreenivasan
“Within the next 20 hours or so, my wife and I will be taking off from the Vienna International Airport. We have done that many times before, but this time, it will be to leave behind a land and a people we have learnt to admire, to leave behind many friends we have made and to leave behind a little of ourselves.”
As I spoke thus to my diplomatic colleagues at my farewell reception hosted by the Secretary General of the Austrian Foreign Office, the poignancy of parting was tempered by a comforting thought that I would soon be with my friends in the United States, where I had spent some of the best years of my career. I knew that, apart from children and grandchildren, there would be others who would welcome us with open arms. We were gaining America for the loss of Austria.
We were not disappointed on arrival at Newark. The toothless smiles of Durga and Krishna in the arms of my son, Sree, were a welcome sight. Also at the airport were old friends not just from the U.S., but also from back home -- stars, writers, poets and politicians, who had come to greet their countrymen across the sea for a convention of Keralites.
The excitement of meeting gave way to exhaustion as the promised limousines did not show up and we moved around with luggage trolleys and handbags. And finally, when a convention bus pulled up to fetch us, there was a mad rush to put the baggage in and to get to the hotel. I put my black leather briefcase down for just enough time to push the suitcases in and when I picked it again, it felt lighter and smaller. I was quick to reach the conclusion that someone had erroneously picked up my briefcase and I offered it to all in the bus in exchange for mine. It dawned on me all too soon that I had just encountered the dark side of America, a side I had heard much about, but never experienced in the last 25 years of association, 10 out of which were spent living there.
People would talk as though visitors would be mugged on the immigration line and if lucky, they would reach the hotel unscathed, but they would be robbed in the lobby or the elevator. A paranoid friend of mine began running when he saw a suspicious looking man in Manhattan staring at him. The man followed him at greater speed and caught up with him after a few blocks just to tell him that there was nothing to be afraid. He told my friend that he should not take the rumors about New York too seriously. There are more unsafe places in the world than New York, he said.
After former Mayor Giuliani cleaned up the streets of Manhattan, the criminals seem to have moved to the airports. How much effort goes into carrying a decent looking briefcase filled with junk and waiting for someone to appear with a similar case and exchange it? But it was well worth the effort in my case as it was a treasure house of cash, jewelry and electronic gadgets, which only someone who had just retired and relocating would carry. How did the criminal, or a gang, as the police believe, know that I had just retired and that the strange banking traditions of Austria made people keep cash under their pillows?
Shock, anger and frustration gave way to resignation as I spent the first few days of my retirement and eventually to a faint hope that the travel insurance I had obtained in Austria might compensate for the loss in some way. The next morning, I realized that I had not even filed a formal complaint with the police as our friends at the airport said that it was futile to engage in a wild goose chase. My son, Sree, and I decided to go on a trip to Newark Airport to get a police report, with little hope of finding even the right police post. The directions we got from different sources for the police post sounded like a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
Sree and I headed straight to the scene of the crime just to refresh our memory and there we encountered the bright side of America, the helpful, efficient and friendly America. We saw a police car parked right there, where the theft took place, with two New Jersey Port Authority policemen hovering around. We just asked for directions to the right police post and one of them began asking for details of the incident. I thought that it was idle talk, but I was struck by what he said when I mentioned the amount I lost. “That must be hurtful, not for everyone, but for people like you, who must have earned it the hard way.” Then he took us to another floor of the airport and promptly wrote out a police report in the prescribed format, saying that it was not necessary to go to the police post.
He held out no hope to recover the briefcase, but gave us great sympathy and valuable advice we could never have got from anyone else. He noticed our surprise at his helpfulness and told us the police was a much maligned force in the U.S. When he learnt that Sree appeared on ABC television, he said that it would be nice to hear something good about the police on television for a change. We noticed his name in the report: Police Officer Porigow. Later on, he had one of his colleagues call us to follow-up on the report.
I encountered the two faces of America in one incident and I was richer by the experience, though poorer on account of the lost money. America deserves a better reputation.
Years ago at a seminar on “The Ugly American,” a U.S. diplomat told us a story to illustrate how the Americans were perceived to be wrong abroad, whatever they did. Once a young American soldier, after rigorous training in Europe, boarded a British train in Paris. He walked the entire length and breadth of the train to look for a seat to rest his fatigued frame. The only “unoccupied” seat in the train had a dog curled on it and next to it was an old English lady, perhaps a Duchess of sorts. The young American approached the lady and said politely that there was no vacant seat in the train and that he would appreciate it if the dog could be moved to the floor to make space for him to sit. “You are an American, aren’t you? How could you be so cruel to a poor dog?” she asked in anger and the soldier made a quick retreat. But he came back after walking up and down the train with his heavy bag as he was now totally exhausted. “Madam, let me keep your lovely dog in my lap after I sit down in that seat. I promise I shall not hurt it in any way.” he said. This time the Duchess was even angrier: “You Americans are not only cruel, but also positively offensive.” The American made one more effort to find a seat, but having failed; he came back to the compartment, picked up the dog, threw it out the window and sat down. The Duchess was too shocked for words and sat in stunned silence. Watching all these with a corner of his eye was an Englishman, who had occupied the third seat in the row. He spoke for the first time to the young American: “You Americans cannot do a thing right. You drive on the wrong side of the road; you make a mess of English spelling and grammar. And look what you have done now. You have thrown the wrong bitch out of the train!”
(The writer, T.P. Sreenivasan, was, till recently, India’s Ambassador to Austria and a Governor of the International Atomic Energy Agency.)
Former Ambassador of India to the United Nations,Vienna,
Former Governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency,Vienna.