Why Should the Senate get paid, when Federal workers do not?

This article was featured in Kolkata’s leading Bengali Language paper, Ei Samay (এই সময়). It discusses the US Government Shutdown in 2013. You can read the story behind the article on my blog. Much thanks to Tanmoy at Ei Samay for translating the article.

Here’s the original content in English:
Why does the Senate get paid, when Federal workers do not?

The country that prides itself as the “leader of the free world” is closed for business.

Extremists in Congress would rather see the U.S. burn than a budget pass with the supposedly wicked and socialist “Obamacare” intact. Since 2011 Obama and Republicans have fought a series of skirmishes over the federal government’s ability to finance it’s debt. For the first time in history the US’s credit rating has dropped below AAA because of this recurring instability.

Americans I know in Calcutta agree: the U.S. government shutdown is silly, frustrating, and a sign that the Congress is infuriatingly dysfunctional. It is sad that partisan differences can effectively hold the federal government hostage.

Despite the shutdown, Members of Congress are paid their salaries (while 800,000 federal workers are furloughed). Members of Congress should not be paid until they resolve this crisis. Surely they would compromise if they felt the pain of their own actions.

Moreover, it is unfair that one party can win more votes but have fewer seats in Congress, helping causing this mess. (Republicans won 1.8 million fewer votes in 2012 but have 50 more seats in the House.) The U.S. should proportion congressional districts using a dispassionate computer software, rather than the current state-by-state system where political parties gerrymander districts to their own advantage. Fairer congressional districts will alleviate extremism in Congress by making seats more competitive.

Let’s hope the shutdown will not cause economic reverberations here in India and worldwide. Congress needs to meet the expectations assigned to it.

This article was featured in a competition for NPR’s Above the Fray Fellowship.

Bahar and his brother Mehran sit on two rocks besides me. They’ve agreed to meet in a park in their hometown in Connecticut, down the street from the house where they grew up. The house their father bought ten years back.

Afghanistan. Nearly 20 years ago. The country remained locked in civil war with the Taliban. It’s Russian supported government had been toppled. Sensing the growing chaos, Bahar and Mehran’s grandfather, a general in the Afghan military, shepherded the family to Pakistan.

Bahar and Mehran arrived in New York in January 2000. It had been ten years since they last saw their father. “He lived here for many years before us. That actually was probably around the first couple times I actually saw my dad.”

They landed in America, with it’s fast food, strip malls and skyscrapers.

“First thing we had was like uh…my dad got us some thing from like burger king—fish sandwich. Thought it was absolutely nasty. ” Even pizza was foreign. “We’d never seen pizza before. I never even knew what pizza was. We ended up not eating it. We were like what is this? We were sort of like questioning things”

Bahar and his brother were totally immersed, assimilating quickly. Now, the family speaks English at home, supplanting their native Farsi. “Everything was English English English. And all my friends became English”

“It was fun and interesting. Yeah, at first” Then 9/11 happened. Normal teen life, with it’s insecurities and petty meanness, became much harder. “I’d get in fights actually.”

“We actually even wore clothes from Afghanistan. Oh, outside sometimes. Then as soon as 9/11 happened it’s like people just thought they knew us. They knew everything about us. Oh, I know exactly where these people are from and what they do and what they think.

Being an immigrant can be an isolating experience. Afghans elsewhere, especially in larger cities, had what they did not—a sense of community. “We’re a lot more assimilated now so it’s like we don’t feel like that anymore. But, I remember times in the past you would almost feel like, I guess like lonely I guess. There are moments where like you can’t connect with anyone.”

They found it frustrating that they could not explain Afghanistan to others. “Whenever I was trying to say anything to educate kids about it, I don’t think they were listening anyways. Yeah they don’t. They don’t listen.”

While they keep up with their family overseas, they feel a disconnect. We don’t know what to talk about, Mehran says. “My dad thinks we’ve become so American… for me I see it as one of those things where I’m blood Afghani and nothing will really change that. Now you’re an Afghan American. I guess that’s the best way to see it. I’m not either or.”

Yet, they do want to return. “We haven’t been back yet. It’s been what? 13 years? Yeah, 13 years, we haven’t seen any of them.”

Bahar and Mehran attend the University of Connecticut where Bahar studies politics and Mehran studies neuroscience. For now, away from the pressure of home, they can enjoy the day at the park.

One man claims to offer every voter free ponies.  Another wishes to govern on the 1611 King James Bible. What do they have in common? They’re all officially running for president, and they have the campaign songs — boom boxes included —  to prove it. Reported by Andrew Otis and produced by Alexandra Dukakis. Featured on NPR Intern Edition. Photo courtesy of ibtimes.

This article was featured on NPR Intern Edition. In this series, Where I’m From and Where I’ve Been, NPR interns told stories of the cities and towns where they grew up and the many adventures they’ve had along the way.

I’ve never written this story down before. I think it is time.

Have you ever heard of a bhang lassi?

It’s a cannabis milkshake.

To travelers, the town of Hampi in Karnataka, India is famous for two things: it’s incredible archaeological ruins, and its bhang lassis. The ruins are the remains of the powerful Vijayanagar empire, what was possibly the second largest city in the world over five hundred years ago. Massive monolithic stone statues, abandoned elephant stables, and magnificent architecture jut out of the rocky terrain.

That day had been sunny and hot, like the rest of South India. We had rented four single gear motorcycles and took them zooming around Hampi and the surroundings, crossing the Tungabhadra river on rickety spherical wicker rafts where some of us volunteered to work in the rice paddies. After a long day, we returned to Hampi to relax and enjoy our treat, the bhang lassis.

At the time, Hampi had two main locations that sold bhang lassis. Local authorities had shut down one of them for making their lassis a little extra special. So we chose the “Chill Out Cafe,” nestled near the center of town on the roof of a two story building. We ordered four strong lassis for the eight of us and brought the total up to five when another traveler said he didn’t want his.

A few sips is enough to get one sufficiently high. A whole lassi is enough to bring you to a terrifying state.

The effects were delayed. But when they came on, they were immediate. The result of the bhang lassi was a heightened experience that was far too much, far too quick for someone who doesn’t like getting high.

Not having had much food to eat that day, we climbed down from “Chill Out Cafe” and attempted to find a restaurant near our hotel to get some food. I decided I needed to go back to the hotel.

“Brandon, I—I don’t feel well. I need to lie down”

Next, I remember lying in one of the hotel rooms as the world began to spin. Unable to find food, everyone else soon returned to the hotel, and we crammed into one room as we clung on to sanity.

Hysteria has a way of feeding off itself when no one is sober. Ana was on the floor vomiting. I was in the fetal position and had vomited a few times. Tom and Eugene were far far gone. Mary escaped the worst of it and fell asleep. Then we began to hallucinate. Lauren thought her boyfriend Brandon had turned into the devil, and tried to kill him.

Sean, the most sober of us, corralled us all into our rooms, turned off the lights, and told us to sleep. The darkness made the experience more isolating. Soon I began telling Sean I needed to go to the hospital.

“No, You’ll be fine. You just need to relax,” Sean said.

I became more persistent as the situation became more horrifying, and Sean asked the hotel owner (who gave us a queer look) for a rickshaw.  The first doctor we saw was having a house party and told us to go away. The second doctor said I needed to go to a “special hospital.” As I was listening to him speak, I thought I heard the words “Stomach pumping,” “permanent psychological damage,” and “tranquilizer.” Around this time, I lost all lucidity.

“Sean. What was in there?”

“Sean. Do I have schizophrenia?”

“Sean. Was there LSD in there?”

“Sean. Was there ketamine in there?”

“Sean. Am I going to die?”

I remember nearly nothing from this point forward. I do remember entering a building that had white washed walls, men sleeping on the floor on mats, red plastic chairs, and a Hindi children’s show on television. I think it was some form of an asylum.

Later that night, I was released. I vomited a few times more on the ride back.  I thought back to a friend who had warned us before our trip:  ”If you want a near death experience, try the bhang lassis.” He wasn’t joking. At least, as I felt the rickshaw cutting through the wind, I had a smile on my face.

I woke up the next morning with the worst hangover of my life.

This article was also featured in the Zimbabwean and was written about the growing refugee crisis in South Africa. It was based on a visit to De Doorns refugee camp, outside Cape Town, where one thousand five hundred people lived in canvas tents on a football field-sized patch of dirt.