Sunday, November 12, 2017

Monday Musings 295 - the US Diaries

The US diaries.

I am in a perpetual state of search – of tales particularly. Sometimes the stories unravel around me and sometimes through me, but the essence is always to search a story in the events. Bereft of stories, events are left with no soul. Most of the times the story in the events is obvious, sometimes it has to be sought and worst cases, the story has to be wrenched out. My favourite is the third one. It is this frame I resorted to the most during my maiden trip to the US. On the basis of my readings and without visiting neither US nor Europe, I must confess the latter has always fascinated me more than the former – so this trip was not coloured by the usual overwhelm of a gawky teenager meeting the love interest for the first time; rather it was a discovery of a soul mate so gradual that it might even pass notice.
I describe my top four fascinations and two interactions as anchors of tales in the following paragraphs.

While growing up I heard this parroted ad nauseum that India’s soul lives in its villages – which I became increasingly doubtful about as I grew up. In fact by the time I became sufficiently sure of my own views, I started to quip, that more than the soul of India living in Indian villages, I was becoming surer of the fact that the soul of India died in its villages. My first visit through the countryside of US cemented my conclusion for the contrast it painfully highlighted. I think US is what it is because of its countryside – vast, beautiful, leisurely, connected yet isolated, in no hurry to become a city. It is very so sure of itself – sufficiently provided for and yet not hungry to multiply mindlessly lest it lost its essence. It is comfortable under its skin. It is not tough on itself. It enjoys the small things and is obsessed in preserving it – like enjoying the sun, the sky, the silence, the space and a general idyll.

The first thing that I noticed about the US is the absolutely stunning network of roads – they support the country like the numerous and complex system of arteries and veins supporting our body. Understanding them is an education in itself – the interstate, intrastate, freeways and parkways; it is clear that the country cannot be understood without understanding its roads. It supports life and its quality like nothing else. Each road has a character – its beat, its rhythm, its tempo. Long miles sweep under you so effortlessly that you wonder if you even moved despite having done so. There is an avuncular concern in the free flow, in smoothness of the surface and the ease of the turns – as if someone has been very mindful of your comfort while designing your home.

 The third and final thing is the visible absence of the ‘machinery of monitoring’ that we are so accustomed to here – either of the state or of private ownership. In my limited travel I found that the tolls are unmanned, many shopping counters are unmanned, the fuel stations are unmanned, traffic signals are unmanned, and the streets, houses, hotels, housing complexes etc do not have heavy and visible bandobast of guards and personnel. I am sure that the country has very advanced and sophisticated ways of protecting itself – but on a day to day level everyone trusts each other to do what is right. There is no larger than life, visible, on-your-face machinery of monitoring that keeps reminding you that ‘you are being observed’. Remarkably everyone does behave themselves.

I got a taste of what it takes to reinforce the sense of nationhood – and why Americans have always took the concept of nationhood so seriously. Washington DC is called the museum capital of the world. There must be a dozen or so museums in a closed few mile radius, each one surpassing the other in terms of size, collection and sheer richness. Many of them have rich documentation of building of the American way of life, of the history that precedes, the toil that the ancestors have gone through to build this country. Even though one can argue that this representation captures only the American perspective – but the emphasis to capture the sweep of time, so that the coming generation learns from and keeps the memory of that struggle alive is impressive. As waves and waves of school children visit these places, the next generation American is getting built – without any need to be loud and jingoistic about it. I spent the most time at the Holocaust Museum at the behest of a very close friend; the one which captures the gruesome and bone chilling history of the Holocaust. A poster outside remarked something like this ‘’...we must remember what happened; so that it does not happen the next time’’. I immediately wondered if we will ever have a museum on the various riots, pogroms and genocides in India. There is something about nation building that the Americans definitely know a thing or two about.

The two human interactions I have chosen to write about are fascinating in their own way.
Rahmat, the Pakistani Uber driver who came to pick me up for a short drive in downtown Manhattan, soon realised that he was ferrying Indians. We started talking. Soon he laughed on his own joke that it was so difficult to get away from a traffic ticket in New York – had it been Peshawar a fifty rupee would have taken care of any rule violation. We were gone only half the distance that he closed the trip on his mobile, saying that had it been Peshawar he would have treated guests with Tea – but this is the least he could do as hospitality. I was fascinated, stunned and overwhelmed at his gesture – frankly not knowing what to feel and how to react at the unexpected warm display of hospitality by an unknown Pakistani. He had the right name I guess – Rehmat, an Urdu word for Kindness, Blessings.

Chemal, pronounced as Shemal, was a young college educated Turkish driver who took us for a quick tour of downtown Manhattan. It was fascinating talking to him about the growing deterioration of Turkish politics, its increasing flirtation with overt religiousness in public life, the utter lack of infrastructure in Istanbul – which frankly could be the story of a Mumbai or a Delhi too. I asked him if he wanted to buy more vehicles – to which he smiles and answers ‘’ I want to open a business soon. US is a great place to start a business.’’ I am touched by his fiery ambition, his clarity and finally his groundedness as he bids me goodbye with a parting comment ‘’Next time you come, my English will be better’’.

Post Script – Fairly impressed by US, I asked this only once to my friend, but I must admit it struck me more than once – ‘’How such a fine country chose someone like Trump’’!!

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