Thursday, November 27, 2008

In Security

I called my dad today after watching the 27-hour saga unfold at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai and asked him how he still felt about his advice to me just before he left the United States in mid-November.

I recalled his enthusiasm on November 4th.

“Get your American passport NOW. Obama seems like a nice man,” he said to me while watching the acceptance speech by the president-elect in Chicago. “He’ll make sure things go smoothly for you if you send in your application for citizenship.”

At 85, dad gives off the impression that he understands how everything works simply because he has outlived almost everyone he meets. But really dad, I wanted to say, Obama has far more pressing issues on his mind than processing citizenship papers for a middle-aged mother of two whose only claim to fame is that she bakes a fabulous Eggless Banana Cake spiced up with cardamom and orange zest.

I told my dad that watching the Mumbai incident unravel confirmed my deepest discomfort over becoming an American citizen. I’m happy where I am - a cat on the wall, a green card holder. I told dad that my fears weren’t unfounded.

“Did you hear? Those terrorists were looking for American passport holders. I know I’m always under fire from you for something or other but, really, you want to feed me to these bad elements?” I asked. “Is this the way to treat a daughter who cooked for you for four straight months when you came to live with her – even if some of her cooking was not up to par?”

Dad fired back an answer, however vague, right away.

“No…no…don’t be silly…no connection between American citizenship and what’s happening.”

Did dad play golf with Bush’s National Security Advisor? What intelligence is my dad privy to that the FBI and others don’t know?

“No connection to Americans. The problem is the countries around us, you know. I don’t want you to mention names on these telephone lines. We don’t know how safe this is…”

I reminded dad that his doubts had just been broadcast on CNN every hour for the last 24 hours. Since the India-Pakistan face-off was being discussed on every news panel around the globe on live television, he really didn’t have to worry about being found out on a wiretap.

Still, I will admit dad knows a whole lot. My father is a well-read gentleman, an accidental intellectual, if you will. Between the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, Forbes and Business Week, he has most of his news feeds covered. Fortunately for him, he’s a historian who was part of the ‘Quit India’ movement in 1942. I suppose when you’re 85 you acquire a halo simply because you’ve lived through most events. It becomes an unfair advantage for the rest of us for no fault of our own.

He can impress me sometimes. Take the time he called me last July in my Delhi hotel when he found out I was sightseeing the town alone with my kids for three days.

“Do you know how unsafe Delhi can be? A woman with two young children! Who knows who may be watching you? And one look at you, everyone in India knows you’re from abroad.”

I reassured dad that while the children were once in diapers and bottle-fed and all, one of them was a rising freshman in college and perfectly capable of taking care of herself.

“Dad, nothing can happen in a place like this. It’s the Taj Palace Hotel. It’s a Delhi landmark.” I said. “And it’s right on Safdarjung Enclave, Delhi’s diplomatic district.”

Dad caved in after hearing the last bullet point - just like anyone who has seen India in the days of the Raj. In retrospect, however, I’m compelled to applaud dad’s omniscience. Perhaps his fears were based on a deeper understanding of covert activities and secret service missions, after all. He did warn about not trusting so much. The best hotels are crawling with enemies. Taj Palace? So what? Five star hotels with high security? Who knows?

Dad hasn’t yet said “I told you so” yet but he will when the ashes of the latest incident cool.

For now he’s still firm in his resolve that my safest strategy is to become an American citizen. He’s now holding the gun to my head with a new, blunt point.

“I really don’t want you to wait in another line when you travel. You know, your children and your husband in one line. You in another. I don’t like it.”

Dad. At his age, he’s on all kinds of medications. It is indeed quite possible that he’s slowing down. Even though he can throw a verbal grenade or two.

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