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Sunday, January 12, 2003
Five questions in

Here in Kolkata, it doesn't take long for someone to ask me about America and Iraq. In fact, it happens in every conversation. One exchange I had this morning was quite telling.

I went to see a great uncle. He's my father's mother's brother. He's well into his 90s. He is almost blind and cannot walk without assistance. He spends most of his time in a village in West Bengal, but a few weeks out of the year, he's in Kolkata. Since he was in town, I went to visit. My visit was quite representative and telling. He did not get out of his chair (being frail), but he asked the following questions, in order of when I walked in the room (I've not included my replies, since they aren't as interesting as the questions; everything is translated from Bengali):

1. How tall are you? [I'm quite tall for a Bengali man -- I get the question a lot. Usually not as the first one, though].
2. How is your Bengali?
3. How is your reading and writing [in Bengali]?
4. What do you do for a living?
5. What is America going to do in Iraq?
6. What do Americans think about it?
7. What do American muslims think?
8. Has the WTO headquarters been rebuilt? [I didn't understand, so I asked him to repeat the question]
9. Has the World Trade Organization headquarters been rebuilt?

A few things I gathered from his questioning.

First, India and the rest of the 3rd World is quite concerned about America's intentions towards Iraq. They don't see it as part of the war on terrorism; it's seen as imperalism. Going through the UN hasn't changed matters. Unless the UN inspectors actually find Iraq in violation, this won't change. The administration may not care what the third world thinks, but it's what they think.

Second, there is a deep and abiding admiration in American democracy. We do it like nobody else. Everybody understands this. What Americans think actually matters when it comes to policy decisions. And, America is a diverse place; everybody understands this too.

Third, a lot of people don't really understand what was attacked on 9/11. It wasn't the WTO, of course. I wonder how pervalent this view is.

Fourth, there is a great confidence in America's ability to do anything. He asked if the World Trade Center had already been rebuilt. In India, there is no question that it will be rebuilt. American will do that. It has the money, it has the ability, and it has the will.

Admiration is not sufficent to describe how America is held. Awe is better. Admiration and awe. And, if it invades Iraq, imperalist.

More updates on the view from Kolkata to come.

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