It’s no mistake I happened upon Bharat Krishnan’s Privilege, Book 1 of the WP Trilogy, during this time of social and political change (do I dare say upheval?) in our country and around the world. Power and politics go hand-in-hand, imbuing every aspect of society from the nabobs to the powerless masses. Privilege, an #ownvoices political thriller, takes a hard look at privilege and power in the U.S.— who holds it, how one can achieve it, and who is barred from it. Krishnan claims politics seep into every aspect of society and believes we can’t understand each other without a firm, constant knowledge of how politics affect us.
The story is told by several characters, foremost, Rakshan Baliga, an Indian-American working for a profitable hedge fund in New York City. His boss, Aditya Shetty, has risen into the ranks of the rich and powerful, including acquiring the sought after WP, a drug with magical-like properties, causing consumers to be stronger, smarter, and more prosperous than mere mortals.
WP by law is forbidden to non-whites. But Rakshan wants his share. He also wants to marry Sadiya and have a family. Rakshan has an engagement ring made containing WP and proposes. Once on her finger, she realizes he is not what she wants and breaks up with him. He is determined to win her back and comes up with a plan to steal Aditya’s WP and take over the hedge fund with the help of his best friends. With the WP he can spin a tale the world will believe and avoid arrest. His dreams will come true. That is, if he isn’t killed in the process.
Meanwhile, Sadiya has fallen for her best friend from childhood, Maadhini, and they travel back to India to tell her parents they are going to get married. Although Sadiya drags her feet on the revelation, the tension eases as the story’s themes shift to family and values.
Even though he’s got his WP, things have not gone well for Rakshan, who alienates his friends in his drugged quest. He becomes involved with a congressional hearing to consider legalization of WP for all Americans and aligns with the mother of a boy murdered by the police to give testimony. The current president opposes legalization. The country is in the balance—and the story tension and pacing ratchet up. This story might have been ripped from today’s headlines.
The peek behind closed congressional doors was realistic and chilling. Privilege makes me wonder how any real change can be made and equity for all citizens be achieved with the madness of “privilege” addling our brains. I don’t come from an immigrant experience and have had many advantages in my life. Seeing our country through the “other’s” eyes has given me new understanding and fresh resolve to help with the solution. It’s time to unify our society under an inclusive and equitable system where we all can live healthy, productive and secure lives. How many more massacres at schools can we live with? Privilege is telling us to choose.
An interview with Bharat Krishnan
am: What presidential campaigns did you work on and when?
BK: I started my career with the Obama campaign way back in June 2007. Over the next decade, I traveled the country not just on his campaign but also managing local campaigns across the country, from school board and city council to state legislature. I’ve worked in just about every geographic region of the country, from Los Angeles to Louisiana to Virginia to New Hampshire.
am: What kind of educational background prepares you for this work?
BK: I have my BA in political science, with a certificate in political campaign management which is something my alma matter, American University, specialized in. I later got my MBA at Louisiana State University. Going there and working in places like Wichita, Kansas, I found how much state schools like LSU and Wichita State relied on foreign students who also worked at the schools as grad assistants.
am: How has your education and experience influenced this trilogy?
BK: My knowledge of politics seeped into every aspect of the trilogy, from how presidential campaigns really work on a practical level (i.e., what staffers do) to some legal stuff (i.e., book three has a super PAC in it).
am: Did you have a foursome of friends from school and childhood like Rakshan?
BK: Rakshan and his buddies are based on me and my three childhood friends. I put aspects of me and my life into each one of the five characters: Rakshan, Abhinav, Krish, Ash, and Ravi.
am: When did your family come to the US? How are the characters’ experiences like yours or your family’s?
BK: I really wanted to highlight the first-generation Indian-American experience, and also call out the differences and similarities. Most of Rakshan’s friends grew up here, but you still have Krish who came to the US only later in life. There’s no homogenous experience and I wanted to show that. For myself, my family came to the U.S. when I was about two years old.
am: What are your views on immigration?
BK: We need to do more to encourage immigration. Especially since Trump’s election, people are now afraid to come here and it’s a damn shame we’ve nurtured that type of environment. There’s a long history of immigrants coming here for their education and staying, and to the extent we can encourage that with a more relaxed visa policy, the better.
am: Will we find out what happens to Rakshan, Sandiya and Maadhini?
BK: All three of these characters get an ending that makes sense for them! Everything will be clear by the end of the trilogy.
am: What do you hope readers will take away from Privilege?
BK: I use a story telling device I created myself called STOP. It stands for Story, Theme, Origin, and Plot. I try to sum up all my novels’ stories in one or two sentences, and for the trilogy I’d say it’s this: Power and Happiness are two separate things, and you have to choose which one you want.
am: Where are we going in the next two books? Will there be any happiness?
BK: Book one was just about New York, but in Book two we go to D.C. and India, and in Book three you’ll go to Belize and Guatemala as well! And yes! There is happiness, but it takes big, bold choices and it doesn’t always look the way we expect.
am: What else would you like to say to readers?
BK: I try to make the through-line in my novels radical emotional honesty, with politics always sprinkled in, because everything is political in my opinion. I’m very proud of Privilege for winning “Best Adult Fiction” in Ohio last year, and I hope you have a chance to check it out and my other stuff at www.bharatkrishnan.com.
Bharat calls himself a professional storyteller and amateur cook. After 10 years of working in politics, he’s tried to explain how the country went from Barack Obama to Donald Trump by writing Confessions of a Campaign Manager. Then he wrote Oasis, a desert-fantasy novel that examined what makes a family and how refugees should be treated. Now the WP Trilogy. Looks like he’s on a roll with themes of immigration, equity and power! If you enjoyed reading House of Cards, you’ll enjoy Privilege.
“Krishnan has created a genre-bending ride that reimagines how we tell stories about class in America. A must read. “
– Reeshi Ray, Author of One Nation Under Gods
United We Stand by Cliff Zyskowski
Certain days in our lives leave a permanent imprint, like a hot poker brand on cattle, a tattoo, charged with total recall, like it happened just yesterday.
United We Stand
9/11 I’m visiting clinical sites in Vallejo. My psych tech students are completing their internships at an out patient treatment center for folks with dual diagnosis. Autism, bi-polar, schizophrenia, developmental delays, head injuries: the students get to experience a patch work mental health quilt of many varied sizes, shapes and colors.
Ziggy cries out, “Why did they do this?” as we all watch the horror play out on the big screen TV in the day hall that morning. He has Down Syndrome. He is sensitive. He is a caring, loving human being laid to waste by tears as the story of the epic destruction of those twin towers unfolds.
Several of the participants begin to pace the perimeter of the room, their anxiety building, their coping strategies pushed to the brink. A staff person ushers Artie into a side conference room.
“Breathe Artie. Your breath like the ocean, remember? Breathe in the relaxation, breathe out the tension. You can handle this,” she implores. He’s hyperventilating, sweating, eyes open wide, piercing, pupils dilated, biting his hand, rocking back and forth at an increasing rate. She pages the off-site nurse for a PRN medication.
“I knew those Commie Pinko Fags were coming to get us. I heard them scheming last night. Their time has come. Our time is up…we’re next,” exclaims Josh.
Josh has paranoid schizophrenia. He’s hiding under a chair in the far corner of the room. Silently screaming in his mind’s eye, rubbing his head along the underside lip of the chair.
Mitch, the director, enters the room with authority. Turns off the TV. “Break up into groups of five. Today’s discussion: addressing our greatest fears. What is it that scares us? How do we cope with what we can’t control? How have we overcome obstacles in our past? How do we muster the courage and conviction to face our fears head-on? Meet back here at 10:30 before break.”
Divided We Fall
July, 1966 Hot, muggy, Mid-western summer day. No breeze off the Lake. Mom rounds up us four kids from the yard into the house early before lunch. Me and my best friend Vinnie had planned on riding our Schwinn bikes down Rumble Hill to visit the old man with his roost of homing pigeons. Not today.
“The blacks are marching past Portage Park to Norwood Park. They say 800 people will pass by our neighborhood and walk right past St. Monica’s church down the block from us. We’re all staying inside. People been throwing rocks at the marchers. I won’t let any of you kids get hurt. We’re not causing any trouble.” Not today. She looks worried, scared, pale. We obey without a fuss.
There are no black folks living in our neighborhood. This is the summer of the Chicago Freedom Movement. Martin Luther King is marching for equal housing rights. I’ve never even met a black person. Dad says when they move in, we move out ‘cuz, “They cause the property values to crash.”
“But isn’t your favorite baseball player Ernie Banks, a black guy?” I ask him.
While Mom shakes Jiffy Pop with one hand and stirs the cherry Kool-Aid with the other, my curiosity runs rampant. I sneak downstairs and climb out thru the basement window. I hear hundreds of voices singing in the distance. This Little Light of Mine, We Shall Overcome, the voices gather strength, rising louder and more boisterous as the throng approaches the corner of Nottingham and Carmen Avenues and the steps leading to the entrance of St. Monica’s Church. Nobody out in the streets but them. Vinnie’s mom, Mrs. Funsch, peers out between the drapes of her front room window. I’m hiding in the bushes across the street from the Rectory. MLK, the man himself, approaches the church entrance. He silences the crowd by raising his right hand, palm open to the sky, as he surveys his followers with steely determination. Gesturing with both arms raised to the heavens, he gets down on one knee and says, “Let us pray.”
“Almighty Lord,” he cries out. “Hear our prayer,” respond the marchers, all genuflected on one knee. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, thy kingdom come thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”
Heads bowed to the earth, prostrated on one knee, the congregation recites the Our Father…the same prayer I recite every night before bed. I find myself praying along, flushed out of the hiding brush, bent on one knee, “. . . forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, Amen.”
They pray, they feel, they sing, they kneel—just like us. My cup runneth over with faith in humanity.
Smile a Little Smile
Fall 1969 Summer of love passes. The annual 8th grade fall dance held in the basement of St. Monica’s rectory. I’m a nerd. One of three classmates wearing horn-rimmed glasses. Teacher’s pet. Too smart for my own good. But I made the basketball team. Tom Kowalski felt sorry for me and gave a fellow Polack a chance. In class, I sit behind Joanne Arcaro, 8th grade cheerleader. I whisper her a few answers during the math exams. Sister Felice proctors the tests. She is deaf.
Joanne believes in me somehow. When it’s time for the last slow dance, she comes up to me and grabs my arm without a word, pulls me across the room to the middle of the dance floor. The 45 drops onto the Magnavox turntable playing Smile a Little Smile for Me. This isn’t one of those tightly held slow dances. Sister Jeanette wouldn’t allow such behavior. For the first time, I feel like a man—a woman asked me to be her dance partner. I find a cure for my case of nerd fever.
For the first verse, we alone take center stage. She looks straight into my eyes, smiles, as we rock back and forth in unison to the song’s chorus, breathing as one, the class nerd making waves with the babe of his dreams. Loving kindness endlessly travels through time captured by a memory.
Birds, by the thousands, drop dead from the orange.
Ravens chant Nevermore.
A robin picks at a toasted worm, upended
from the parched terrain.
Bees labor back to the hive with ash-laden pollen.
Sunflowers strain to lift their heads to the sky.
There is no sun.
My mask blocks the virus, filters the smoke,
hides the shame we face:
Profit over Planet.
“They muddy the waters to make it seem deep.”
What legacy will we leave our children?
“You guys just stood around while
watching the West Coast burn?”
Who will unite ranchers, developers,
Who is prepared to build a coalition,
a consensus among polarities, concerning issues of
Black Lives Matter,
Immigration and Customs Enforcement,
“We are the first generation
to feel the impact of climate change
and the last generation
that can do something about it.”
United We Stand, Divided We Fall
Save the Earth,
Value its worth,
Before we dread
The sky bleeding red.
September 9th, 2020 The Day the Sky Bled Orange
Cliff Zyskowski is a retired psychiatric technician and a Chicago native now living the good life in wine country. When not hashing out a long-winded memoir, he plays the piano for inspiration. His work has appeared in The Bohemian and The Sonoma Sun.
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Tagged as #BlackLivesMatter, #immigration, #vote2020, global warming, wildfires