If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there.
Most people in Manipur must have heard this song released on May 13 1967, during the height of the Hippie movement and Flower Power.
One hundred thousand people from all over the world converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco in the summer of 1967 to celebrate the Monterey pop festival, called the ‘Summer of Love’. There were free food, free drugs, free love, and free clinics at the Golden Gate Park.
The etymology of the term ‘Hippie’ is from hipster and simply means a person from Haight-Ashbury. They kept long hair and looked unkempt with Pocahontas head band (originally worn by Pocahontas Red Indians). Women wore mini or micro skirt (those with good legs) with a chain belt and boots. Men wore jeans, leather vests, jackets, shirts- anything that could be fringed. They financed themselves into a commune.
In the early1960s groups of young people in America, ranging from the ages of 15 to 25, declared themselves independent from the alleged ‘authoritarian order’ of America. Some rejected their parents’ ideas; some just wanted to get away. Some others were simply outcasts. Most Hippies came from wealthy middle class families. They formed a radical society that rejected established culture and advocated extreme liberation in politics and lifestyle. They came to be known as Hippies. They flocked to a certain area of San Francisco, the Haight-Ashbury District. The Hippie movement was in essence, a culture of drugs, psychedelic music, psychedelic art and social permissiveness. The single most important event that put the Hippies on the map was the “Summer of Love” festival – a week long festival designed to celebrate the LSD experience. Before this new drug came into their culture Marijuana was the most used drug, as in Dev Anand’s 1971 hit film: Hare Rama Hare Krishna, with Zeenat Aman swinging her hip with Dam marro dam.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s the Hippie movement used the slogan “Flower Power” as a symbol of passive resistance and non-violence ideology in opposition to the Vietnam War. These Hippies symbolised by dressing in clothing with embroidered flowers and vibrant colours, wearing flowers in their hair, and distributing flowers to the public and becoming known as Flower Children. It was an American culture and was hated in the UK. Once at Piccadilly Circus in London, some black girls were offering flowers to some English men. They simply told them get lost and go back to where they came from.
I am not going to write about San Francisco as such, but only some highlights and incidental anecdotes which are tributary to the narrative. The youths of Manipur are becoming more knowledgeable about the world. With the spread of technology and information systems these youngsters are becoming more plugged-in than ever before. They have access to instant knowledge at the touch of button anywhere in Manipur.
The story began in 1990 when I with an Indian doctor colleague went to San Francisco to attend the largest, 6th International World AIDS conference in San Francisco. The International AIDS Society (IAS) is the custodian of the biennial International AIDS conference.
We both applied for the American Visa for two weeks only. He had an Indian passport. I had a British passport. His surname is Mohanty. His visa came in a couple of weeks but not mine. One week before the departure date, I was told over the phone by the American Embassy in London to appear personally. My wife and I stood in the queue from 8 AM. By about 1 PM my turn came. After half and hour’s interview my visa was issued but on a piece of paper, stamped and stapled on to a page of my passport and valid for only one week. I did not know why.
On our way back home, my friend and I checked in at the ticket counter of the San Francisco Airport that was entirely staffed by the Chinese community. A Chinese man studied my friend’s passport first and it was okay. When he looked at mine his facial expression hardened and said ‘excuse me’ and disappeared through a door into the next room. After about 10 minutes he came out and said okay. I asked him what was wrong with my passport. He told me that the problem was my surname. I looked Chinese, but the surname was Singh. About that time people with ‘Singh’ surnames, after arriving in the country for a short stay, were in the habit of disappearing, often hiding in the vast country of Canada, where the Khalistan movement started.
‘Singh’ is the Achilles heel in my name, which stymied me in various humiliating circumstances. During the Khalistan movement, whenever I landed at Delhi International Airport, there were always delays because of my surname. The plot often thickened because of my looks with a topping of Irengbam. The immigration officers were just given computers for checking; but they had difficulty in finding letters on the keyboard. So after a bit they would say- “wait there” while they dealt with other passengers behind me. Here, in the UK, when buying goods by credit card, there were times when the signature did not exactly tally with the one on the card and embarrassing questions were asked in front of the people in the queue. Once in Bombay I went to deposit a cheque at a HSBC bank. It was a Sikh fellow who refused to accept it despite the fact that I was depositing money and not cashing the cheque. After a row the supervisor overruled him, and it turned out that the bottom part of ‘g’ was tilted the other way – just an excuse for disbelief in my surname.
The pseudo-Rajput surnames of Singh and Debi – given to Mongoloid Meiteis by firstname.lastname@example.org should be systematically removed from our children’s names. They should go back to old-fashioned Meitei names that are cool. Wherever possible, even for adults, names should be changed by deed-pole without Singh. It distorts body image as though you are in someone else’s body, in India as well as abroad. It is a private nuisance.
San Francisco has a Chinese community in Chinatown, the oldest and one of the largest in North America. The city has a variety of ethnic settlements such as Japan town and Latin American town. The legacy of the Californian Gold Rush of 1849 turned San Francisco into a principal banking and financial centre of the West Coast. Across the bay is the Californian University, Berkeley, where the atomic scientist, Robert Oppenheimer researched, and there is a large model of the Double Helix of DNA. Tourism is the backbone of San Francisco’s economy. It attracts the third highest number of foreign tourists of any city in the US with over 16 million people every year. Pier 39, near Fisherman’s wharf is the third most popular tourist attraction in the nation.
Historically, in 1776 the Spanish established a fort at the Golden Gate (where the famous Golden Gate Bridge was later constructed) and a mission named for Francis of Assisi (the most beloved Catholic saint) on the site. San Francisco is renowned for a mild temperature, steep rolling hills. Because of the terrain, the streets roll up and down. That’s why you see cars bobbing up and down during a TV car chase drama in the City. By law, when you park a vehicle in the street, the front wheels must always be turned to the curb, to prevent the car from rolling down. Its famous land marks are the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, and Chinatown. Alcatraz island prison that became famous after Al Capone’s imprisonment is another tourist attraction. It is reachable by boat from Fisherman’s cove at the San Francisco Bay. It takes 15 minutes but it will take half a day to walk up and around the prison with a pre-recorded cassette player.
San Francisco is famous for its gay population, which is so large that they have created a politically and culturally active community over many decades, developing a powerful presence in the city’s civic life. During the AIDS conference a large number of gay people demonstrated including Elizabeth Taylor who did so for her friend Rock Hudson who died of AIDS. It is the most popular destination for international gay tourists. The city hosts ‘San Francisco Pride’, which is the largest and oldest of the world’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride celebration with a parade and festival in June every year. It attracts a crowd of 200,000 people from all around the world.
The writer is based in the UK.