March 27, 2016

Embracing the West

An Introduction to the 2012 e-book edition of “From the Ganges to the Snake River

By Sharon Lynn Sieber 

Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature
Editor, Rendezvous
Idaho State University

Sometimes it takes the perspective and point-of-view of an outsider to truly see and understand your own situation, much as Kurt Vonnegut does in Breakfast of Champions, as he causes us to see our everyday actions as alien and our conventions as ridiculous, and ourselves as outsiders in the face of time-honored, conforming so-called tradition. Debu Majumdar does just that in his imaginative collection of creative nonfiction essays on the West, From the Ganges to the Snake River. His tales of hunting, fishing and going in search of the real American Indian, as opposed to the pre-packaged image presented by the U.S. government, bring home to us the real image of ourselves.

Who owns the West? I mean the image of the West, with its swashbuckling cowboys and trigger-happy sharp shooters for justice (and its opposite), and fierce images of American Indians as truly worthy opponents, occasionally surprising all and winning a paradigm-shifting battle and bringing down a Custer, and in so doing, changing the history of the world. These images are so young, so imaginative and so vivid in our collective memories compared to an Odysseus who lived more than two millennia ago, that we often want to romanticize that past for a young country that calls itself America, that was founded upon, of all things (taking into consideration other governments that have wanted to honor their leaders as some kind of old-time Pharaohs, leaving the citizens to fend for themselves), “the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.” And although America occasionally has taken roads that have excluded that pursuit for some based on race, creed, or currently, gender identity, America has always had the ability to examine itself and its collective conscience, expose the diseased elements and call for an end, and a remedy, to whatever unjust situation has arisen. However, the right to a cultural heritage is understood as having a right to the diversity expressed by one’s own ethnicity and the traditions and values embodied within that one ethnic birthright and inheritance. This brings up issues and questions as to whose heritage, whose traditions, whose legacy?

And so again, the question arises of who owns the West? The Wild, Wild West to be sure, the youngest home (by comparison with the Old World) of New World mythic heroes and villains, epic conquest and battle glory before they became spoiled by political enlightenment and a re-examination of our human values in a modern age. Europe, in fact the whole world, had been enchanted by the wonders, the marvelous and magical real of everyday happenings in the new world that had of course been around a long time before its discovery by fortune seekers, mercenaries, explorers and adventurers. We feel a kinship with the Aztecs, the Cherokees, the Lakota, and the Shoshone Bannocks, as much as or perhaps more than the Austrians, the British or the Spanish, quite simply because we are in love with the issues, and with the plights and challenges that individuals face as they live out their lives in this landscape we call history.

No longer can we hide behind the tired and battle-worn old glories of a Virgil or a Cortez. Political Correctness has endeavored to make sure that everyone now knows it is wrong to wage war for greed, money and power. As a cultural phenomenon, however, cowboys and Indians made it far beyond the boundaries of the West, and even the far West, turning full circle to the East, to the childhood home of Debu Majumdar in Calcutta, India. It would become far more significant to him as he made another home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, within practically a stone’s throw from the place, if not the time, of the Wild Western theater of war, and whose action and drama were certainly seen and re-enacted countless times in practically every movie house in the world. But what about the people and country Columbus had looked for and failed to find, considering that all they (the Spaniards) ever really wanted were spices for cooking, but instead they came back with gold, silver, and precious stones for physical adornment? They, the real Indians, who were the inventors and caretakers of exquisite curries and other spices, spiritual legacies such as the Bhagavad Gita, and of course, the Buddha and a diverse combination and communion of religions. Much to Columbus’ amazement, they were quite literally, on the other side of the world. It is a world that Debu brings to the reader of his collection of essays as he thoughtfully communicates his observations of difference and sameness of cultural value-shifting that takes place as he confronts the newness of place with an openness that is as startling as it is refreshing.

Debu’s essays, which first appeared in Idaho State University’s journal of arts and letters, Rendezvous, are a retelling of Western history from his unique cultural perspective, and amount to almost a “seeding” of the West, so that those of us who are fortunate enough to live here might experience our everyday world as a new discovery. We might even take a thoughtful look once more at the plight of Native Americans in America, and all other so-called “outsiders” who are treated as foreigners no matter how much more history and tradition they may have in this place, or those who may be culturally more aware of U.S. history, tradition and conventions than those who have been born here. Sometimes the Idahoans’ naïve questions reveal more about themselves and their own backgrounds than they realize, such as their lack of culture, education and experience. Debu’s anecdote about his friend Donna, an African-American anesthesiologist in Idaho Falls, represents well the idea that many Americans have of “foreignness” as she serenely dealt with questions of “how she liked this country,” when her family could trace its history in America back more than 200 years. That is much longer than Idahoans can trace the history of their state, as Debu points out with dry humor, and places them not very high on the scale of the knowledgeable global citizen.

And so these questions of “culture” also bring up the issue of “no culture,” or more pointedly, a lack of education in a broad sense that could only be assuaged by a liberal education, i.e., liberally educated in the arts, as is not currently practiced in the U.S. by those seeking degrees in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematical (STEM) disciplines. Debu is certainly an exception to the practice of one-sided education; with a Ph.D. in physics, he is the epitome of culture, education and understanding, a true global citizen with a broad, liberal education. He courageously takes on current issues such as the need for individual value fulfillment and education within the context of work so that we might take up our position as global citizens of the world, in which we have the knowledge and wisdom to pick and choose our histories, our interests and our loves, and not the ones given to us by blood, nationality or ancestry. This kind of cultural knowledge and intelligence is high play for those who are gifted with the understanding that our heritage is a legacy for everyone, as our cultures co-exist simultaneously and exist as an invitation to a greater understanding of humanity within a greater context of knowledge integration. Wikipedia asserts that bio-diversity and cultural diversity “may be vital for the long-term survival of humanity; and that the conservation of indigenous cultures may be as important to humankind as the conservation of species and ecosystems is to life in general” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_diversity). Obviously, we are enriched by our contact with others and with the other. As citizens of the world, we can’t afford to lose any of our heritages. Education and the Humanities keep them going and seed new generations with a love of ideas, and an openness to culture, and to cultures.

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