Monday, September 29, 2008

The Brooklyn Bridge

The way the human brain associates certain sights, sounds and smells with certain places or incidents is quite amazing, and it never fails to surprise me how a particular tune on radio or a particular smell brings old memories flooding into the mind. However, when I started walking on the Brooklyn Bridge from Lower Manhattan last Sunday afternoon, I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams what feelings that walk would bring back.

The walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back reminded me of the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. To be more precise, I was reminded of walking over the wooden pontoon bridges built across the Ganga during the Kumbh Mela on a winter afternoon in Allahabad.

Absurd as it may seem, there were indeed a few points of similarity between the two experiences. The pontoon bridges are made of wooden planks covered by steel plates; the walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge is also made of wooden planks. A cold wind was blowing despite the strong sun, and the temperature was just right to remind of the sunny January afternoon in north India. The walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge is above the road level, and only walking or cycling is allowed on it. In the Kumbh Mela too, no vehicles are allowed on the crowded days. Only people walking.

Hordes of people walking together, for the same purpose. For a pilgrimage. That's what I felt walking on the Brooklyn Bridge: people had come on a pilgrimage.

Hundreds of people, from all over the world. From all age groups. From all ethnic and religious groups. In retrospect, I realise that this was the biggest point of similarity that brought back the memories of the Kumbh Mela to my mind. Walking among those hundreds of people who were all behaving like excited children gave me that feeling. Some people were alone, some in pairs, and some had large groups. Some had large SLRs, some had small point-and-shoot cameras and some were content to shoot with their cell phones. But everyone was behaving very similarly. Some were sitting down in the middle of the road to capture a low angle shot of the bridge, some others were excitedly pointing out the downtown and midtown skylines to their companions, some people were busy matching the downtown skyscrapers with their engraved pictures and names on the bridge. Some single travellers (like me) and some couples requested others to take their photos with the skyline as the background. Some others grinned at their camera held in their outstretched hand and tried to take photos of themselves. Some were wandering onto the bike lane with childlike care freeness only to be screamed at by the bicycle riders. It was very clear that they had come to enjoy every moment of it.

And as I was one of this crowd, I can testify to the fact that this excitement and exhilaration was justified. As one looks from the Brooklyn Bridge towards the Lower Manhattan skyline, "awe" is the only word that comes to mind. "Manhattan doesn't have a distinctive skyline anymore after 9/11," my cousin brother says. "Dubai or Singapore is much more unique than that," he adds. He is probably right. But one has to remember, the name Manhattan and the word skyscraper have been used together for so long, and so many of the worlds tallest buildings have come up in this city time and again, that just looking at the skyline creates a fantastic feeling. Then there is the New York Harbour and the Statue of Liberty in the distance, and Manhattan midtown and the Manhattan Bridge on the other side: it's a view only seen to be believed. I'm sure the others shared my feelings. Besides, Osama Bin Laden might have destroyed the World Trade Center twin towers, but he can never destroy the millions of images of those towers both in print and in the peoples' minds, and they look even taller and more magnificent than they really were on that skyline when imagination is superimposed with reality.
On my fifth birthday, my uncle presented me with a book called "Encyclopaedia of the World". Even before I could read and understand that book, I used to love a photo that was spread over the first two pages of that large book: it showed lower Manhattan from the air, and those buildings seemed so fascinating to me then that I spent hours looking at that photo. Besides, a person whose first movie experience was watching "King Kong" hiding his face in his mother's breast naturally grows up loving this city, even if it is on the other side of the world. And as I stood gazing at the New York skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge last Sunday, I suddenly realised how the bridge cables nearly formed the famous message printed on peoples' T-shirts all around me. I had to only supply a little "love" to get this photo!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Puja Preparations

This is New Jersey, not West Bengal. The season here isn’t autumn, it’s fall.

Those flowers aren’t kash – they just look somewhat similar.
Yet, the combination of that sky and the waving grass flowers underneath are enough to remind me of my home. It seems like a heavenly message that tomorrow is Vishwakarma Puja in India, and the pandels for Durga Puja are halfway done, and the artists of Kumortuli are having their busiest season. And in this season, it doesn’t matter if I am sitting in the most powerful nation in the world amidst all the comforts one can imagine – I just want to be back home. I want to be back amidst the dirt and noise and crowd and mosquitoes and load shedding. I want to be back in the only country that I’ll ever be able to call ‘home’.
Since that is not possible this year, I have decided to go for the next best thing possible. I’ll be buying a Puja ‘package’. I have to choose between two options:

Puja Committee A:

  • Cultural programmes for three days (includes Cactus on Friday, Bratati on Saturday, Babul Supriyo on Sunday).
  • Students pay slightly less ($40) for all 3 days - families pay $130.

Puja Committee B:

  • Mostly programmes by local artists, except Raghab and Sumana Chakraborty. Programme is only on Saturday and Sunday.
  • Families pay slightly less ($110), students pay $45.

I think option 1 gives more value for my hard earned money and so I'll probably choose that. I have to register now on the committee's website or I won't be allowed to enter the premises on those days.

Wow! Buying a ticket to a Durga Puja! I'm already excited about the idea. I guess this is going to be a whole new experience in this strange new country. I'll just have to enjoy it and stop missing the sounds and lights and the insects under those lights back home for those three days.

After all, I can't let my $40 go down the drain just because of some silly homesicknes!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

My New House

Last week I moved into the attic of a creaky old house.

Perhaps that would be a fitting statement coming from a ghost, but that statement is mine. I really did move into a large old house. The wooden flooring has been redone newly and that creaks with every footstep that falls anywhere in the house. And yes, I seem to hear creaks and thuds sometimes when I’m alone in the house, and I’m not sure if they are just inside my head or it’s one of ‘them’.

The house is three-storied above the ground with a basement underneath and a garage large enough to hold two cars. There are two rooms and a bathroom in the attic: I and my Turkish friend Sonay Aikan live in these two rooms and share the bathroom. We share the kitchen on the ground floor with the landlord who is also a professor in our university. He has just bought this house and so that makes all three of us new inhabitants. Unfortunately, this lovely house tends to remind me of old English suspense and horror movies. There is a large drawing room on the ground floor that is connected to the Flu Network (in mugglespeak, that means it has an old fashioned fireplace) and has huge mirrors on both sides of the mantelpiece. Also, there is a dining room apart from the kitchen on this floor. There’s a fully livable apartment in the basement as well, complete with a bathtubbed bathroom and a fully equipped kitchen. There are three bedrooms on the second floor (now that I’m in the US, I won’t call it the first floor anymore) and a hall. The rooms in the attic are large, full-sized rooms. However, since these rooms are fit under a sloping roof, part of the ceiling is sloping and the windows on my south wall are rounded in shape which, according to my sister, gives the room a ‘Hobbity’ appearance.

But the thing that excited me most in this house was my discovery of a stack of old gramophone records. It contains an assortment of Western Classical, Spanish music, Christmas songs, old Broadway musicals and I’m not sure what else. I’m crazy about LPs and the sound quality they offer, and so I’m trying to get hold of a turntable so that I can listen to them. People in this country seem to be irritated about the fact that winter is approaching, but since I have never seen snow in my life, I am pretty excited about the visions of a white Christmas spent listening to old LP records (like we always did back home) sitting in front of a fireplace.

Maybe things won’t look so rosy when I have to plough my driveway in the morning before walking to the university through knee deep snow and bone chilling wind, but there’s no harm in daydreaming till then!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Life in the USA

I was promising to write this post on how life in the US is different from life in India for some time, and putting it off repeatedly. In the meantime, I had my first week of classes and the assignments hit me like a bolt from the blue. I thought that would further delay my blog post. Then I received an assignment from my English class to describe my experiences on visiting a new place, and I thought I would kill two birds with a single stone, and so here's that promised post.

When I came out of the Newark Liberty International Airport on the night of the 13th, my cousin brother and his neighbour were waiting to pick us up. I went to his neighbour's car and put my luggage in the trunk. Then I went beside the car to sit, and he called me and said, "Not there, you go on the other side." I was so used to the fact that the driver's seat is on the right side of the car that I had unthinkingly moved to the left side. This was only the first of the little differences that I was going to encounter over the next few days. I will write mainly about these little things because the big things like weather, cleanliness, rules and discipline are much written about everywhere, whereas the small things that we leave to our subconscious mind are the ones that really surprised me more.

Once the car started moving, I noticed that it was going on the right side of the road. I was going all queer in my head as I was anticipating wrong turns at every crossing. After almost a month in this country, I can't really say I am fully used to this thing yet. I hope things get better soon, because I have obtained a bicycle and plan to start riding it next week.

Arriving at my cousin's house, I went to take a bath as I was feeling exhausted and dirty after the 24 hour long journey. The switch in the bathroom seemed upside down. Then I realised that the people of this country really try and do things differently (or maybe we Indians do it differently), for the light switches here are "On" in the position where they are "Off" back home.

The taps here are something that I really don't like; the one in the bath was so complicated that I had to call in my sister in law to show me how to operate it. I have seen several bathrooms in this country in the last month, and wherever there is a bathtub and a shower, you can open EITHER the bathtub tap OR the shower, but not both. Getting warm water whenever you want is cool though!

The next day I realised something as I stood in front of my brother's house in the morning: one is not likely to see too many people in this country in the residential areas. If you stand there for an hour you may see something like five people, and then too they would probably be driving. this is a really big change for someone who has come from India. Even on the busy streets, the traffic is never really bumper to bumper - cars maintain a distance with each other. In fact, Indian drivers are infinitely more skilful than their American counterparts. They can take their cars through narrow gaps with only an inch or so of clearance on either side and drive with very few accidents in cities with bare minimum traffic lights and rules. Here every road has a speed limit set and even small crossings have traffic lights. While it may seem to make the drivers' job more complicated, it actually does just the opposite.

Speaking of speed limits, I think there's another difference that is worth mentioning: the Americans measure their distances (and speed) in miles. This is a bit misleading, for when I saw a speed limit sign stating "50" on a highway en route Niagara, I told my brother that the United States is a slow country. However, I later realised that speed was in mph and it really translated to 80 kmph which is not a bad speed at all! It is really strange how our subconscious mind controls our conceptions about measurement.
The sun sets quite late here in New Jersey, and I was surprised to see bright sunlight at 7:30 pm on my first day here. Even at half past eight, there's light in the sky. The weather has been quite hot here since I arrived, and there were only a few days of chilly weather. But one of the things that I noticed in New York City was that while it is quite hot in the sun, it is cold in the shadow of the skyscrapers and there is always a wind blowing due to the tunnel effect of the tall buildings.
One other difference that I noticed instantly in the US is the lack of animals in the city. There are only a few cats and squirrels to be seen. No dogs, cattle, goats or pigs like back home. Very few birds are visible, though flocks of pigeons and sea gulls can be found in select places. The squirrels here are large, with huge bushy tails, and no stripes on their back. All ground is covered with grass, and where there is no grass it is covered with wooden chips so that there is no dust flying around.
I could go on and on with this post, but I must stop here as this post is becoming too long. I will further write about things that I see in this country, and will probably bust some myths about America as well. I also have to write about New York City and Niagara Falls and my new house. Let's hope I can get the Internet working on my laptop soon, and then posting will be a whole lot easier than it is at the moment.