One way to allow a new country and a great city not overwhelm you is to break it down in the mind to manageable and understandable patterns and stereotypes that you already familiar with. Over the years I have often heard Bombay being called the New York of India. I have never been to Bombay but in its own way, New York City reminds me a great deal of Bangalore. Bangalore's Brigade Road and MG Road become Times Square and Broadway. Walk a little distance from MG Road and you have the popular shopping destination, Commercial Street - a few blocks off Times Square you have the world famous shopping street Fifth Avenue. Bang in the middle of a bustling city you have a huge mass of greenery - the Lalbagh of Bangalore transmogrifies itself into the Central Park of NYC. (Notes to self: Don't get carried away and commit the blasphemy of calling the Public Utility Building as the Empire State Building of Bangalore.) The similarity became even more telling when I noticed that a certain section of the working class of both the cities have a similar pop-culture icon. I noticed a couple of Yellow Cabs sport a bright hoarding over their heads saying 'Robert DeNiro is Taxi Driver' with the mug shot of Travis Bickle in his mohawk. My mind instantly went back to the ubiquitous cutouts of the bearded Shankar Nag that stare out of every auto stand worth its manipulated meter in Bangalore. Robert DeNiro in and as ‘Taxi Driver’ in New York City is the philosophical equivalent of Shankar Nag in and as 'Auto Raja' in Bangalore. The parallels take a very personal turn when I reflect that in 1993 I left my hometown to start life in an Engineering College on the outskirts of Bangalore and now I left Bangalore to restart a new life on the outskirts of New York City.
The short of it is, I do miss Bangalore very much. I often feel nostalgic, forlorn and homesick. I miss my friends, my erstwhile home, my books, my movie posters, my DVDs and my almost perfect life. As one of my dear friends famously mentioned the night before I left Bangalore, it is indeed the end of an era. It was the 'Jazz Age' of my life - parties, movies, late nights, laughter, friends... When I follow the happenings around my family and friends in India through email, chat and other social networking channels, I often surmise that this, in a way, is an opportunity to get a glimpse of my world and my loved ones and how they would be getting on with life if I were dead and gone.
The thing about being in a new and strange place is that the sense organs that are otherwise used to the routine of a familiar place become active and alert to digest the new surroundings. Once again one becomes like a child trying to understand how to use his hands, feet and other senses to go about the world. Things like buying and using a train ticket, lighting a cigarette, running a washing machine become exciting adventures in themselves. Learning that frozen yogurt and ice-cream are two different things becomes enlightening. Before I came to know about it, I had had frozen yogurt with relish thinking that it was ice-cream. It reminded me of Ashwatthama running cheerfully to his daddy Drona claiming he was having milk while holding a pale mixture of rice and water in his hand. In a country which is extremely user-friendly, it distresses me every time I take out my wallet to pay by cash. All the currency notes are of the same colour and size and I always need to double check that I haven’t pulled out a $5 or $20 note instead of a $1 note. Back home in India, it is so easy to handle cash because each denomination comes in its own distinct colour and size. Another disappointing thing I have noticed is the size of the screens in the movie halls over here. In India, you walk into a random theatre in a random town and you are dazzled with huge wide screens. The screens here are so small and underwhelming that sometimes you wonder if they are running the movie with a projecter and a oversized television. It is like the emperor’s new clothes. Nobody talks about them. Just to cite one example, I went to watch 'The Dark Knight Rises - The IMAX experience' and what was touted as the IMAX screen in front of me was much smaller than any other screen I ever watched a movie in. As you know from here, I come from a State where cinema halls matter a great deal. Plus, cinema halls over here don't have the concept of 'Interval' and the films themselves mostly have forgotton Alfred Hitchcock's advice that the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder. If one ends up choosing to go to an Indian movie, one has to endure the insufferable tittering, mewling, running around and other assorted noises of children brought into the movie halls by their loving parents. I once went through the harrowing experience of seeing a very bright parent hand over his/her iPhone to shut the kid up. If Ulysses were sandwiched between the noisy kids and the lights of phones while watching a film he would beg and plead to be thrown back between Scylla and Charybdis.
Let me share something funny that happened a few days after I arrived here. I bought a bottle of whiskey and some cigarettes. Before I lit up, the contemplative side of me wondered if there are any smoke detectors in the house and if they would come to life and wake up the whole neighborhood late in the evening. In that state of tentativeness and uncertainty, I called up a friend who has been living in the US for many years and asked him if we can smoke inside the house or if alarms go off. He suggested that it would be judicious not to take the risk. We hunted for a while here and there around the house on video chat and figured out a contraption that could be a smoke detector. I didn’t take chances and stepped out for a smoke... and then started wondering if it is allowed to smoke in the neighborhood. All this stressed me out so much so that the next day I checked with the apartment management and they clarified that I can smoke in the apartment (as long as I am not 'smoking' something illegal) and the contraption is meant for something else - not before my 'interesting question', as I called it, provided them sufficient amusement. So, here's what you got to do as my dear reader. Spread a story that I actually lip up a cigarette and had hells bells ringing. The whole neighborhood was at my door step catching me with a whiskey glass and cigarette in hand. Fire engines came buzzing. The management came and I ended up being fined and utterly embarrassed - the humiliation would be complete.
Bahut khoobsoorat hai har baat lekin, agar dil bhi hota toh kya baat hoti...
Another interesting experience I had is related to getting my cell phone connection up and running. For some unfortunate reason the usual steps to activate the phone didn’t work and I had to call up the customer support. The customer support tries to activate it without success. I am told "I truly apologise for the inconvenience but I have to put you on hold for a few minutes" and then passed on to another department. Same story repeats. After attempting this exercise for 3 days, 2 hours each day and multiple restarts of the phone which always opens with a nice tune and a logo with a slogan that reads 'Rethink Possible' I told the latest customer service representative on the other end of the line after being on the phone for half an hour "I do hope you have a sense of humour... You guys ought to change the slogan to 'Nothing Possible'". What I get in response is a flat "I truly apologise for the inconvenience but i have to put you on hold for a few minutes". It greatly surprises me that I am able to laugh at my own misery while the folks trained to mechanically go through the motions by rote forget that they can sometimes be human too. Oftentimes such incidents remind of the Orwellian world that we are slowly turning into.
But all is not lost. Here's what happened while I was in a train from the NYC Penn Station to Secaucus Junction. I typically buy a ticket and enter the train. The ticket collector comes and punches a hole in the ticket and hands it back to me. I frequently notice that he also has tickets in his hand and there are a few people to whom he sells the ticket in the train. This piqued my curiosity and I once stopped and asked him “What happens if I board the train without a ticket?” He answered “You pay $5 more and buy a ticket in the train”. I always stick to the simple philosophy - When in doubt, act like an idiot. After a few minutes he passed by my seat and asked “Where did you say you were going?” I mentioned Secaucus Junction and he pointed out that that is the next stop I had to get down at. I had already travelled in that route several times but didn’t attempt to reply that I know it - he felt that I was new around here and was only trying to help a stranger in a new country. It was about 10.05pm and as I was preparing to get down, I heard an announcement that I generally don’t hear - "We are at Secaucus Junction and the train to Dover is at 10.13pm. This announcement is for the 23 people who are on the wrong train". There was laughter all around the compartment and I went home with a smile on my face. You see, folks do have a nice sense of humour if they wish to.
As I mentioned earlier, our sense organs are very alert when we are in a new place. The other day, I overheard a young lady on phone while walking in the corridor - "...do the pictures match the voice..." I nodded knowingly to myself thinking this could be the beginning of a great love story.
Speaking of overhearing, 4 years ago as I was stepping out of LA Airport, I overheard another young lady (African American - I say this because it has relevance to what follows) over phone saying - "...he said he likes Obama. I thought it was corny”. That must have been a popular pick-up line back in those days; why! may be even now it is since another election is just round the corner.