A few days ago, my cousin asked me whether there is one scene, a single image, that describes USA to me. He asked the question because one of his friends had said that the scene that comes to his mind when he thinks of America is a row of car lights on the highway, red on one side and white on the other. Something like this:
|Disclaimer: I was not driving the truck from which this photo was taken.|
I wasn't so sure of the answer at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I converged on the single image that describes America to me. Not cars on the highway, not trees covered with orange leaves or snow covered houses. Not even Niagara or the Grand Canyon. It is the sight that took my breath away five years ago.
|Again, this photo was not taken while driving on Route 1|
And as I was entering US Route 1 while driving to Virginia last Sunday, and the skyline loomed up in front of my windshield, I suddenly realized that I would not be seeing this sight regularly anymore. It is a sight which people from across the world come to see, a sight which I have become so used to during the last five years that I don't even notice it all the time. From now on when I see that sight, it will be as a visitor, not as a person who can call New York his own city.
|Clearly, research leaves me with a lot of free time|
|People at the Grand Central Terminal. Some people are busy and some are not.|
|I have no idea what was going on here|
So what is the city like? I have been asked to write a blog on NYC several times, and I never did it, though I wrote blog posts about DC, Boston, Chicago and Las Vegas. At first sight, New York is not pleasant at all. A concrete jungle with sun-deprived alleyways perpetually in the shadow of skyscrapers, overcrowded, expensive and dirty (as my American-born nephew put it, "It smells like India"). People have no time for each other, they are always running. Cars jump stop signs, people jaywalk blatantly. In short, utterly chaotic. But then, as you get to know the back alleys of Brooklyn and the Bronx, the Egyptian Temple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the people, the food carts, the parks, the quaint little coffee shops, the ceiling of the Grand Central Terminal, you see the real New York City. The city where seemingly busy people will still stop and pose for a photo, the city where in the middle of a thousand glaring neon signs you suddenly see a small banner saying "টাইমস স্কোয়্যারে স্বাগতম", the city where on certain days, traffic comes to a standstill due to photographers shooting the sunset. A city where you take a photo of a bird's nest, only to have a group of elderly birdwatchers swoop down upon you with all kinds of information about that bird species.
|Seen in Central Park|
Nothing can match the energy and grandeur of Kolkata during Durga Puja, but New York puts up a brave attempt during the Christmas week. The crowd around the huge Christmas trees at Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center is something that you rarely come across in this country. And on New Year's Eve, thousands brave sub-zero temperatures and bone-chilling winds to see the ball drop at Times Square. I haven't been part of the last mentioned madness, but when I see the rest of it, something somewhere, reminds me of Kolkata, where crowds gather for the smallest of reasons.
|Wall Street on a winter day|
Sometime, in these five years, unknowingly, New York City became my city. Kuntala calls New York a nest of lunatics. I feel at home among its multitudes of lunatics, because I know there is a fair bit of craziness inside me. I bristle when someone criticizes the city or its people. I have served as a NYC tourist guide for scores of friends, relatives and ultimately my parents, and showed them New York with the same pride that one associates with one's hometown. I would take them to the best viewpoints, at the best times, and then, when they were drinking in the visual treat in front of them, I would derive the ultimate joy from their awestruck expressions.
|Sunset behind Liberty|
Which brings us to the biggest reason why I loved New York City so much. Even after these five years, even after so much familiarity, New York City still surprises me on every visit. Each time I visit the city, I come across something --- a public art installation, a little shop that I had not seen before, a person dressed like a wizard, a gentleman walking a goat on a leash, a sign written in Bengali, a frozen fountain --- that surprises me. During my initial visits, the phenomenon was understandable, but it never stopped when the places became old and known to me, and I started stepping beyond the usual tourist traps. In fact, on my very first visit to the city I saw the aforementioned Bengali sign and on my very last visit I saw some amazing things inside the public library that I didn't know were there. New York has been throwing these surprises at me for the last five years, and I hope it won't stop.
Because although I have bid farewell to New York and moved to Virginia, which is in the suburb of Washington DC, I plan to keep visiting NYC whenever I get a chance. I really love surprises.