Yash didn't mind Rani being late. The School of Architecture was the most beautiful building on campus, and he had a perfect view of it from his bench on the North Mall. His books kept a spot for Rani, whenever she decided to show up. Until then, he got to enjoy the crisp fall air, the last of the green in the grass, and a stunning, sunlight view of the School of Architecture.
Yash snuggled down in his jacket. The cool was comfortable, but only when your body kept warm. A few high clouds scudded southward as the minutes passed.
"Sorry I'm late."
Yash turned to see Rani jogging toward his bench. He quickly moved his book bag and Rani sat close by. "I would have been here sooner, but my History professor just went on and on."
"Diwali starts day after tomorrow! What was he thinking?"
"Nothing fazes him. We got out, regular time."
"Well, at least we have the rest of the day. My afternoon classes all canceled."
"I still have an Organic Chemistry lab I have to make up this afternoon."
"In about an hour."
"When's it over?"
"At, uh... five."
"No, sorry. Four. Only three hours."
"I was about to say... We'll still make our flight back to Delhi."
"Yeah. I'm all packed."
"Great." Yash enjoyed a little quiet next to his love.
"So where are we eating?"
"Huh? Oh, I don't know. What do you feel like?"
"How about that American place?"
Yash grabbed his bags. "Sounds good. I could use some quesadillas about now."
Rani and Yash headed over to the main drag and crossed the street, from the campus to the part of the real world devoted to supporting the needs of the ivory towers. Two blocks later, they were at their favorite American dive. Yash ordered his precious quesadillas, topped with a myriad of sliced jalapenos. Rani opted for a milder plate of cheese enchiladas. They sat down to eat on the patio, where they could do some people-watching while they ate.
"Why'd you get the bland stuff?"
"They're not bland, Yash, they're just not hot."
"So what good is it if it's not hot?"
"Not everything is Indian. Come on, open your mind. You're still eating Indian food, with all those peppers."
"I like my food hot. What's wrong with that?"
"Whatever. If it's not Indian, you have to make it Indian."
"You're like Chopra."
"My History prof."
"I just said. Making everything Indian. All he does is glorify India, India, India. Maybe a little China, but they pale in comparison to India."
"India's the greatest nation in the world, how is he wrong?"
"All right." Yash ate some more quesadilla. "So how is teaching the great things about India bad?"
"Because it's not the whole story. It's chauvinistic."
Yash tried to resist the temptation to argue with his girlfriend. He failed. "Chauvinistic? Realistic. India and Indians are what keeps this planet together. We've got the dominant culture for a reason."
"Dominance doesn't equate with moral high ground. Empires have always banked on might making right, because that's all they have to base their legitimacy on at the end of the day: might."
"India's not an empire. It's a democracy, and keeps out of other nations' affairs. It's avoided the American mistake. Right makes right in India."
Rani leaned closer to Yash. "Economically, India's a bully. Either you're with it or against it. Same with China."
"We've got free trade."
"But look at interest rates and current-account balances in other countries and you'll see them setting policy on what benefits the money men in Delhi instead of their local economy."
Yash waved to the waitress for more water. "That goes with being in a currency zone. Try again."
"But are they in the currency zone voluntarily? Or is it a matter of retaining eligibility for foreign aid? Preferential treatment in the World Council? Come on, Yash."
"Say what you will, the World Council's kept the peace for the last 150 years."
"You mean Indian palm grease. India buys its way out of problems."
"You rather they pay in blood instead?"
Rani folded her arms. "It may lead to that."
"What are you talking about? Violence leads to blood. Ahimsa leads to peace. We're the homeland of ahimsa. Buddha, Mahavira, Gandhi, Mukhopadhyay, Subramani, Srivastava, the list goes on. Look at the menu here: no meat. That's ahimsa around the world. Nobody wants blood anymore and India's to thank."
"Some ahimsa. We're doing economic violence to others. That'll eventually lead to blood violence, if history's any guide. That's what the Age of Revolutions was all about."
"Economic violence? India rebuilt the world single-handedly after the collapse of the American Empire. China owes us for its growth - and democracy. Same for America, Europe, Africa, and anywhere else humans live on this world. They all owe us."
"That's the attitude I'm talking about!" Rani's finger threatened Yash's chest. "They owe us. Please! It's like we're charging them interest for an act of charity. If we collect on that debt, could you imagine the collective karmic doom we'd face as a nation?"
"I don't see it that way. I think they should have a little more gratitude for their prosperity and peace. Imagine their karmic doom if they don't express proper gratitude?"
"It's not for us to judge."
Yash didn't want to argue anymore. Rani was beautiful when she got into a dark mood, but it could hardly bode well for the marathon trip home later tonight. He'd have to find a common ground. "OK, so we don't judge. But we still provide more than we take away."
"Name one thing."
"It started in Greece."
"The Greeks had limited democracy. Only rich men could vote."
"OK, the British and Americans started it."
"Representative democracy, but that fell off its wheels within 250 years of its birth. India is the true home of direct democracy. Every one of its three billion citizens votes on every law. We are the legislative branch of our government, not some gang of thieves in the pay of special interests."
"But the interests of minorities get overrun."
"You're looking at small percentages of the population."
"When you've got three billions, small percentages still equate to large groups of people."
"OK, so our democracy isn't perfect, but it beats the alternatives."
"Then some other place will be the birthplace of true democracy. We're a stepping stone, like Greece and Britain."
Yash frowned. "All right. Peace. Whether we're one of your hysterical empires or a true democracy, there's still a pax Hindustania in effect, and it's going to last a long, long time."
"How long? Like the Egyptians? Greeks? Romans? Chinese? British? Americans? We may have the shorter-lived empires beat, but we haven't even matched the 350 years the American Empire kept order in the world."
"But the American Empire, like all the others, was built on blood. We're non-violent. We're different. We don't seek to destroy our neighbors. We don't even try to cheat them. We believe in fairness, honesty, and equality. Others have claimed them at times, but we've made them Indian virtues."
"Are you some kind of travel brochure?"
Yash pursed his lips a moment. This wasn't going in the right direction. "You're hardly being fair. Look around, see how the people look at us?"
"If they even bother."
"Precisely! It's no big deal to see Indians."
"Well, we're everywhere. Strength in numbers."
"So be it. But we're not hated. No sidelong glances. No plots of violence against us. We're not like the Romans, or Greeks, or Persians, or Americans. Or British. We're certainly not the British. If it's an empire we've got, it's not one of blood and pain. It's peaceful and voluntary. And I object to you calling the Indian state an empire."
"So maybe I'm too cynical. But only on some grounds. Look at how Indian culture is destroying indigenous folkways."
Yash rolled his eyes.
"What? You never take me seriously. I'm trying to have an adult discussion here, and you're treating me like a schoolgirl."
"I'm sorry, OK? I'm just tired of hearing the 'Indian cultural superiority' bit over and over and over."
"Well, it's true."
"It's what people want. Every major world power puts its stamp during its age. You rattled off all those past powers, what else did they do besides conquer the world? They converted the world they conquered. We all celebrate the glories of Greek civilization, but I daresay those under the conqueror's heel felt so cheery about becoming Hellenized. This time, it's Hindi that sells, and nobody is forced to leave behind their old ways for ours."
"Don't we lose variety and creativity when we lose those cultures? Think what it would be like if everything to eat was Indian?"
Yash smiled. "You already said I'm eating Indian food. No problem for me."
"Well, it's a problem for me." Rani took a bite of her enchilada with a particular vengeance.
"Hardly a real problem. There are lots of cuisines with thousands of years behind them. They're not going anywhere because they're delicious. I just add more heat when I eat them, that's all. Hardly Hindustani, really."
"Stop being so patronizing."
"Sorry." Yash felt a touch of winter chill in the air. "But do you see my point, at least?"
"I see where you're going, and I don't like it. You're discounting all the contributions to civilization made by the great states of the past. India's on top right now, so it's the best of them all, you're saying. Well, every other major power's been laid low: When will India's turn come, hm?"
"I can't really see the day."
"But you know it'll happen."
Yash swallowed. "Yeah. It'll happen. It will happen."
"So how can India be the greatest, when some other country will replace it one day?"
"It's the greatest now."
"Ephemeral compared to the dinosaurs."
"Humans are ephemeral. Sheesh."
Rani finished off her enchilada. "Dinosaurs were unfair, I'll admit. But even they passed on. All things originate, flourish, and collapse back into the dust. When is it ever otherwise?"
"Every religion teaches that."
"There you go." Rani scraped at the sauce to get another bite. "We all realize the mortality of this world."
"And thanks to Indians, religion's finally got a safe role in the lives of people. We taught tolerance and reverence."
"I'll concede that one."
"Really? So I win."
"No you don't. I brought it up, Yash."
"Then in so doing, I won the meta-argument."
"The argument surrounding the one we're having. It subsumes many other arguments, hence its 'meta' designation."
"You mean you're a sore loser and want a moral victory."
"My way of putting it is far more genteel."
"Your way is a lot more bullcrap."
"What's in a word?"
"Hey! Enough of the abuse!"
"You know you like it." Yash couldn't argue with Rani's smile. Of course he liked it. Of all the things that had come and gone in the human experience, a lover never did and never would argue with the smile of his beloved. Women would always win arguments, forever and ever. Yash let the smile wash over him, surrounding him in an ocean of affection. Drenched, he gave no resistance to his urge to submit.
"I'll miss you during your lab."
"I'll get sick of you on the jet."
"You're still totally paagal."
Yash pouted and smiled. Rani probably would get totally sick of him on the jet, but what else could she do when she loved him so? He tugged his ear and Rani's smile grew more benevolent.
"All right, Yash, I forgive you." Yash reached for Rani's feet, but she stopped him. "I love you, yaar."
"Why don't we hang out in the park before your lab?"
"MY LAB! Oh my gosh! I've got to go!" Rani jumped up. She blew a gentle kiss to Yash before storming off to the Chem building.
Yash leaned back in his chair and watched Rani disappear into the heart of the university. He now had three hours to kill, so he decided he'd take a stroll down to the Brandenburg Gate and enjoy a little more Berlin before he went back to Delhi.
Maybe a little sauerkraut would be good. Sure, he'd eat it with mango chutney and loads of peppers, but Rani didn't need to know about that part.
by Dean Webb