This is New York

The last time I was there, it was in June 1999. As I looked out of the window of my rented apartment, the lights from the Manhattan skyline could be seen far away in the distance. Yes, this is it I thought. I am in New York.
Twelve years later on 25th June 2010, it was the same feeling. Only this time I was looking out of the window of a hotel room at Newark Penn Station. Its sprawling greyish brown expanse eating up the entire stretch of the road. A clock stood up in the centre of the building. But far away in the distance was the Manhattan skyline again. I wondered why it seemed less brighter than it did
the last time or was it just my imagination. The next day I stepped out early in the morning, map in hand, determined to reach the Newyork Metropolitan Museum by subway. It wasn’t easy. But I decided to behave like a complete newcomer and started with the enquiry counter. Newark Penn Station to 33rd Street on PATH, Crossover from 33rd Street PATH to 34th Street Herald
Square Yellow Line and take the train to 14th Street Union Square. Crossover to Green Line and take the train to 77th Street. It was the easiest thing to do! The trick was to do the reverse in the correct order. But I managed to do even that. At the Union Square station I waited a while to listen to a South American band. They had a decent collection of green notes in the upturned hat kept for the purpose.
At 77th Street as I looked about trying to decide which way to go, I was acousted by a woman with three teenagers – two boys and a girl. From the quiet friendliness of the group, I concluded the woman to be their aunt not mother. They asked me the way to Central Park. I told them I was a visitor like them and trying to find my way to the same destination. A man walked by and they
asked him. “I am a tourist” he said. So map in hand, the teenagers and aunt decided on a way and walked ahead. I went on too after crossing over to the other side of the road. As we approached Central Park, we realised we had found the way and waved to each other across the street. Walking along the park, I reached the Met Museum. Had someone told me I would spend four hours there alone, I would not have believed it. I did spend four hours. But I was never alone. I skipped the Asian and Medieval sections and went on to the American section. The complete sets of furniture from 18th and 19th century America were a treat to watch, especially the tiny chairs with bright yellow tapestry crafted for children.
Among the European painters Picasso was the favourite with everyone and such a great collection spanning an entire lifetime. The Man with the Lollipop was my favourite.At the museum shop I bought five postcards with painting prints. 4 Picasso of which one is a portrait of writer Gertrude Stein and a self-portrait. 1 each of Van Gogh and Monet. The sixth postcard was free. Walking back from the museum I stopped at the artists displaying their works on the street along
Central Park. From a glass sculptor I bought two tiny red beetles and a white and blue turtle to go with it. A cartoonist had his creations titled “Manhattan Cocktails”. None of the artists allowed photography but when I told this one I wanted only his Signboard and would put it up on Facebook and Twitter, he let me take a photo. “This price has already been pre-haggled” it said.
It reminded me of Puneri Patya!

On the way back in the train, a woman stood in the centre of the two rows of seated people facing each other. Her dark glasses made it difficult to see her eyes. She was pregnant and attired in a way that would make it impossible for her to sit. A red t-shirt covered her slim torso and stomach. A pair of denim shorts were slipped on somehow, the front zip fully open gaping at the
swollen stomach. The woman said something about her baby being happy while she stood up. No one was looking at her except probably me. After a while she proclaimed loudly, “I’m sorry all you people. I apologize for my appearance and my clothes. But I’m homeless.” I could only imagine the expression in her eyes. There was complete silence from everyone. After a while, the woman walked away to the other side. Yes, I thought to myself. This is it. This is New York.

Looking at the world from small airplanes

It was in 1977 that I first sat in a small airplane, an Indian Airlines flight from Bombay to Nagpur in an Avro 748 aircraft. I could feel the clouds nudging it from below, or that is what I thought at that time. When it moved from side to side, we would tilt sideways. It was like sitting on a motorbike, only in an enclosed space and high above the ground.
Thirty years later after that first slightly frightful experience in a small airplane, I had a more pleasurable experience. Recently, I sat on commuter aircraft on a Continental Airlines flight – a de Havilland DMC8-200 from Columbus to Cleveland in Ohio. I could see the land below as the white-and-blue plane flew above it. Yep, Ohio is flat. As flat as flat can be. Compared to large aircrafts, we were flying so low that I could say with a little dose of writers’ exaggeration that I could almost read the street signs! What I saw on the ground were toy houses and toy cars followed by rectangular patches of green fields, and brown toy factories emitting thin streaks of grey smoke. Like neat drawings by girls and boys at a drawing class in school. Just before touch-down, I saw from my window the side wheels coming out in a gentle movement like the feet of a ballerina touching the ground.

A memorable flight in a small airplane was the first one that Meryl Streep took on an all yellow de Havilland Gypsy Moth biplane with Robert Redford in the film Out of Africa. “When did you learn to fly” she asks him as she adjusts her head gear while the plane takes off. “Yesterday” he says, startling her. But it is too late to continue that line of conversation as they are already in air. Seconds later, the screen is filled with the sight that they share – herds of zebra, elephants, deer and giraffes running below in uniform parallel rows; a large flock of white birds over a river, opening out their wings in unison like a rush of petals in early spring. Baroness Karen von Blixen played by Streep reaches out to Denys Finch Hatton played by Redford and they hold hands just for a moment. It is the moment that gave me a lump in my throat when I first watched the film with the mixed feeling of happiness they must have shared and the anticipation of tragedy that I feared might follow, as it always does in great films that are beautifully made. They are so much like real life.

Two days after flying into Cleveland, I took a flight to Detroit on Northwest Airlink in an all red plane, a Saab SF340A that felt like a toy plane inside. The flight was more fascinating as we criss-crossed the great lakes. Tiny paper boats sailed below over miniature waves. As we approached Detroit, the airport was visible from a distance, a sight that is not usually possible to see from a larger aircraft. Although there is still a miniscule feeling of danger and risk lurking at the back of my mind when it comes to flying in small aircraft, there is also a reasonable feeling of acceptance of the safety that we take for granted from simply flying often that has created a new craving for flying in small aircraft for the sheer experience of it.

India as a Business Destination

It’s been over two months into this year 2009 and not a single blog post yet .. shame on me.. I promise to write more often. Sensible stuff, not just ramblings.

In November 2008, an article of mine on India/Delhi as a business destination got published in Business Traveler magazine in its US edition. A tragic irony that the Mumbai attacks happened the same month. But we have bounced back, inspite of ourselves: the corruption, the politics, the infrastructure backlog. And inspite of the terrorists. One day, they would have to give up or give in. Give in to global development, peace and general happiness. I don’t know where all this optimism comes from, perhaps from the bottom of my soul. So here’s the link to my article titled:

Playing the India Card

Really glad to be writing about India. Hope you enjoy reading this one!

Mumbai under attack

I have been watching the coverage on television of the horrific attacks on Mumbai in last few days. Shocking is an inadequate word to use. In fact, there are not enough words in my vocabulary or any dictionary that could articulate what I have been feeling. Emotions have moved from anger, horror, fear, sadness and a sense of emptiness at the futility of such violence. While I think of so many things that need to be done to prevent such attacks in future, a question that creeps up again and again is – will anything be ever enough?

Roof over my head – II

Nearly a week is over since my last post on this topic. Those people who sent warnings about breaking down the homes in slums did not come. Probably, the corporator had done the job of keeping them at bay. So said the maid. But yesterday I saw lines of worry on her face. Since it did not happen at the appointed time, it may now happen any time. I guess that is the thought that might be worrying her. I did not ask her. How does one live with this kind of uncertainty?

Roof over my head

Essential to normal living is a roof over our heads. Like most people I know, this is something I have taken for granted. This morning I was looking at an advert about a real estate exhibition and mulled over the idea, expense and exertion of buying and maintaining a second home. It would be nice to have a second home I have often thought but the idea of keeping it in good order when my current is not in perfect order has deterred me from doing anything constructive about this half-expressed desire.

An hour later, my maid rang the doorbell and gave a detailed explanation on why she was delayed to come to work today. She and her family members along with several neighbours had gone to meet their corporater. Two days from today, their homes in a nearby slum area would be broken down. A notice had been put up yesterday to this effect. While I listened to her open mouthed, she had already picked up the broom and went about the daily task with her usual deftness. I asked her where her father lives as I knew he takes care of her two-year old daughter when she comes to work. She said he lived some distance away, not in the same slum area.

After some time I asked her what they would do if and when their homes were broken down. She smiled. Nothing, she said. After they finish breaking, we will make it again and with a flick of her right hand she returned the broom to its place in the corner and took up the swabbing of the floor.

I am still a little dazed thinking about what would happen to her life after two days. But there is no clarity or purpose to my thinking. Except that the idea of buying a second home seems a little redundant and an unnecessary extravagance. Let appreciate the value of what I already have and try to keep it in perfect order is a recurring thought.

Oh Calcutta!

A two day trip, my first visit to Calcutta. Ok, alright, Kolkata for those who insist on using current names of streets, squares, cities, countries and people.


To take back my footwear from the stall, I handed over the much soiled token and gave a ten rupee note to the boy handling the exchange. He cribbed about not getting the three rupee charge in exact amount before returning my seven rupees. A girl in dirty clothes and dishevelled hair tugged my kurta sleeve and asked for money. She had a bunch of others behind her. Pressing her case, she said they would all share whatever I gave and have a meal. Then I did what I knew I shouldn’t have done. I handed over a five rupee coin to her and walked out of there briskly. But not before some other begger kids in the vicinity had spotted the Rs 5 transaction. To my dismay, I had a whole troop of kids following me all the way to the parking lot. When I got into the hired taxi, the kids had gheraod the car and continued begging for money. A few kids were talking among themselves about the chances of me actually giving them some more money. Just before the driver got into the car, one of the kids, a girl, said very smartly to the others, “she’s not going to give us anything.” Maybe she saw my expression, the relief on my face when I saw the driver about to get in. Smart kid.

This was at the Dakshineshwar Mandir that is over an hour’s drive away from Kolkata. I reached there at around 5 o’clock in the evening. I queued up at the side door for a view of Kali as the main entrance was crowded with devotees holding on to their flower and other offerings. The idol could not be viewed as the priests were busy with the evening rituals before the public viewing could begin. The inner portion of the temple was covered in a red and gold cloth while the rituals went on inside. People were craning their necks all the time to keep watch on when the cloth would be taken off.

While I waited there, an old woman in a white sari struck up a conversation with one of the temple priests standing on the other side of the iron grill that kept us out of the inner premises of the temple. I couldn’t follow the details as they spoke in Bengali, but the names of the villages they hailed from were exchanged and then they spoke a little more about the conditions in his village. Then, the lady went into a monologue during which, the priest slipped away inside. Unfazed, the lady continued talking, shifting her gaze to me. I listened and pretended to understand. But she caught-on I think, and shifted her attention to another onlooker. A younger lady who wanted to know what was going on inside. My old friend continued – that the idol was being washed with milk and honey and etc. etc.

Suddenly, there was movement inside & the red and gold cloth was taken off, revealing Kali in all her finery. My eyes were riveted by the long red tongue that flowed out of the open mouth of the goddess,the alert large eyes and the fallen demon, crushed at her feet. The place soon got more crowded as devotees rushed to get in. I backed off and left after making a silent mental offering to the goddess for I carried no garland of flowers, nor any sweets for the diety.

Belur Math

This part is still in progress….

Why do women sell papayas

Ever wondered this – why do women sell papayas and men sell water melons? When I asked this question aloud to no one in particular, a teenaged girl sitting next to me rolled her eyes up and said – its because water melons are heavier. But that answered only the second part of the question.

I don’t know how it is in the town or city or village that you live. I live in Pune and suddenly today realised this. It was always women that sold papayas and they were almost always middle-aged or old. Sitting on the side of roads, they placed the papayas gently one by one on a gunnysack spread out on the floor. Useful things gunnysacks. They are used for the first time to transport grain, cement or miscellaneous goods and once those items are emptied from it, the gunnysack has millions of other uses. My grandmother used to use them for wiping feet and had placed one folded gunnysack at the entrance of every room in our house. She would duly wipe her feet on them before entering each room, recycling and redistributing the dust from one room to another with her feet. A lady visitor once asked me why we had so many gunnysacks in our house and only then did I realise that it was not a common custom. But until then, I had got so used to them that I thought this is what most people do in their houses as well. Its funny how when you are young, your view of the world is influenced by what goes on in your own house. But that was in the days when television was not so much a part of our lives. Atleast not a 24×7 feature as it is now.
But I have digressed and if you forgive me, I promise to find an answer to the question asked in the beginning, before I end this musing.

Papayas have a slight peculiar smell. For that reason my mother never bought them and I had not eaten one until after I got married. As you may have guessed, the favourite fruit of everyone in my new household was – yes, the now world-famous papaya that we are talking about. But with that tiny diversion squashed, I promise to strictly stick to the subject. (can you say that three times without going wrong: strictly-stick, strictly-stick, strictly-stick..)

Papaya – known as mamao in Brazil, papao in Sri Lanka, Tree Melon in Chinese and du du in Vietnamese – has medicinal properties in both its green/unripe and ripe form. The enzyme papain found in green papaya can tenderize meat and has long been used for this purpose in South America where the fruit is first said to have originated.It is cultivated in most tropical countries and women in South Asia have long used the fruit for its contraceptive properties. Hmm… that must be making it easier for a papaya-seeking woman to quickly buy a papaya from another one of her sisters.

If you look carefully, you’ll notice that the papaya-selling-women have about a dozen and never more than two dozen papayas to sell. A nice small number to finish selling by afternoon and go back home in time for other jobs and chores at home. Look around Pune in the evening and you will not find a single woman selling papayas. One evening, I wanted to pick up a papaya on the way home from work and found all those nice women gone. They were busy I’m sure with other kinds of work so they can return next morning to their appointed places on the side of roads and display the juicy yellow-orange colored papayas, arranging them neatly on a gunnysack. I’m glad that women sell papayas. Such a nice, simple, useful, sensible, straight-forward thing to do.
Why do women sell papayas?? Now, who has been asking that silly question again and again? Who?

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