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Identity in the Global Village

In his memoir and travelogue Tristes Tropiques (1955), the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss lamented at some length the effect of Western civilization on the world. He claimed that "journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. . . . The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted. . . ."

Speak for yourself, I remember thinking while reading these lines as a student in India, more than 30 years later. This kind of overrefined European melancholy about native savages and vanished arcadias couldn't but seem a bit patronizing to me. It didn't take into account, among other things, the possibility that the natives might occasionally want to leave their perfumed tropics and that they, too, dreamed of journeys, of traveling to the very heart of the modern world, which Lévi-Strauss thought was the source of all corruption.

Growing up in small-town India, I was one of the dreamers, and I had started early, helped by the fact that my father worked for Indian Railways, arguably one of the greatest rail companies anywhere. To go to sleep one evening on the warm plains; to wake up the next morning to coffee and cool mountain valleys; to stop at small stations on the way and savor the local delicacies; to lie in bed and watch the landscape change through the day, the rain swaying across paddy fields, bullock carts straining forward under a big sky—every route had its own romance.

But the railways in India also represented progress and reason. First laid by British colonialists in the mid 19th century, they had knit together a subcontinent of bewildering ethnic, racial, religious, and linguistic diversity. The railways had been the first step toward modernizing India and breaking down the caste system. Social hierarchies seemed mostly a crude prejudice in the mind, and individual "purity" hard to maintain, when high-caste Brahmans sat next to the low-caste Hindus they would have kept at a few arms' length in the bad old days.

Air travel, on the other hand, was a symbol of privilege, available to only a tiny minority of the Indian population. Airports were small, crabbed places populated with drab bureaucrats and businessmen, lacking entirely the vitality and egalitarianism of the massive railway stations of Bombay and Madras.

And so, when in my mid twenties I finally traveled to the West, it was thrilling to discover that its famous airports—Heathrow, Schiphol, JFK, LAX—contained a cross section of humanity much more democratic and multicultural than I had found in Indian railway stations. Mexicans, Russians, Indians, Nigerians, Iranians, Indonesians, Filipinos, Koreans—so many different human types swarmed in those vast, shiny bazaars.

It seemed that while I was growing up in India, the richness of the world had come to many people. Whether businessmen, students, tourists, or immigrants, all appeared to be easily accommodated by the modern world, where they could shed the narrow racial or national identity they had been born into and devote themselves to the making of money, the pursuit of learning, and the search for love and freedom.

It had been easy and attractive to think of oneself as part of this large busyness and movement of peoples across borders that were once remote and inaccessible. But things can change—and they had begun to change even before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In July 2001, I was about to board the Eurostar to Paris from London's Waterloo Station, when I was stopped, taken to a room with dark windows, and questioned by a man in plain clothes who said he was from the antiterrorist squad of the Metropolitan Police.

He was polite—at least until, looking through my passport, he discovered a visa issued to me by Pakistan and the then Taliban government of Afghanistan. I told him that I was a writer and had gone to these countries on behalf of an American newspaper. That was hard for him to believe. He kept asking whether I had met anyone close to Osama bin Laden and whether I knew any Islamic extremists; my truthful answers only served to work him into a kind of frenzy.

Minutes passed. I told him I had a train to catch. He said that he had to check me against certain profiles of potential terrorists, and that he had the authority to detain people for up to nine hours.

I did not like his tone, but at the same time, like many people unused to being questioned by the police, I felt nervous and almost guilty of some forgotten misdemeanor. Luckily, I had the idea of asking him to check my name on the Web sites of certain English and American periodicals. I don't know whether he did this or not when he disappeared briefly into an inner office. But he looked subdued, if still unapologetic, when he returned.

With only a few seconds remaining, I ran to my compartment. I seated myself and then discovered that my hands were shaking. I looked around. The other passengers—who were mostly French—seemed to be staring at me. I turned toward the window and saw a dark-skinned man with a quasi-Muslim beard. I looked away. The French people were still staring—and suddenly they were all menacingly white. I opened my newspaper and saw strings of meaningless words. The train started; houses, offices slid off; my mind remained paralyzed.


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