The crossroads of history

- by Viswam Sundar


It is always a moving and absorbing experience to live in a foreign country when it is going through a crisis. That is when one gets to see the true character of its people, the strength of its institutions and relevance of its social and political processes.


Crises occur in oneís own country no doubt, but one is too enmeshed in its parts to ever see the whole. The daily struggle for survival breeds disillusioned cynicism and stifles objective analysis. On the other hand, a foreign country compels detachment and allows you the opportunity to learn your lessons more by dispassionate observation than by active participation.


I was in a certain country when it decided to allow its women to work. To most Westerners, this would seem insignificant. But for a country that requires all its women to cover even their hands and hair in black cloth the moment they step out of their homes, this was a decision of inconceivable importance. Till then, women had only been allowed to work as doctors, nurses or teachers, in a country where expatriates numbered one-third the population. At one stroke, this decision would double their workforce.Everything would change. No office building had been built to accommodate women workers. Entire floors, sometimes entire buildings had to be converted to provide for women.


But that was only physical change. Think of what it did to an absolutely male-dominated society.


Barred from doing anything else with their lives, the women had studied abroad and acquired qualifications that the men had never aspired to, as they never saw the need. Many of the women spoke English and a foreign language, having spent a lot of time abroad. This added to their self-assurance and aggressiveness, backed by the confidence of unlimited wealth. Now, when they were allowed to work, some of them were qualified and confident enough to be leaders and managers - of men.


If they were allowed to.


And that question is the basis of a conflict that will indeed fester in that society for a long time to come and turn its social system on its head.


It was a tremendous time for any discerning observer and despite being an outsider, I could not but feel the agitation of a society in the throes of what I can only call a sea change.


And now in America, we are once again in the midst of a sea change, albeit of a totally different kind.


Pause for a moment and feel the enormity of what has happened in this country in just the last couple of years.


America ended the last century with a plunging economy and an ambiguous election result that caused so much bitterness. Terrorism hit its shores on a magnitude unimaginable to the sane mind.. Allegations of monetary misdeeds and the collapse of some of its most prestigious business houses not only eroded trust in its financial system but also reduced the life earnings of millions to rubble.Job losses continue till today as corporations struggle to stay afloat. The country has been in the grip of severe drought conditions for quite some time now.A madman continues to scream his demonic challenges from the mountains of Tora Bora. The ominous shadow of another war looms on its horizon.


The country seethes as it chronicles the doings of profiteers who exchanged their souls for the bottom line. It writhes, stung by a beehive of burning questions stirred up by the devotees of terror, questions of morality, of history, of immigration, of race and religion.


A lesser country would have gone under. That one September day alone would have resulted in a communal bloodbath of unthinkable proportions.


Misfortune tests not only the quality of the fiber but also the resilience of the weave for that is what truly makes the cloth.


We have seen this country in mortal agony. We have seen it search its soul and come up with the stuff that made it what it is. We have seen a country unite unwaveringly behind a leader whose election it questioned just sometime back. We have seen the power of patriotism, the vibrancy of a free press and the process of disciplined national debate. We have seen a nation at work.


It is not often that one gets to see a sleeping giant being awakened - all over again.


There are lessons to be learnt. There are lessons to be carried back to our own shores.


As the only superpower in the world, the decisions that America makes in the next few months will change the course of world history.We, citizens of another country, standing as we are at its crossroads, must consider ourselves fortunate to be witness to this momentous process, and in doing so, to become a part of it.