An Empire State of Mind

It’s easy to find blogposts and listicles about how important it is to travel in your 20’s. The writers of these posts say inspiring things about how travel builds perspective, travel doesn’t have to be the provence of the rich, travel brings you face to face with people and situations you would never expect. I’ve seen so many of these, some of them with agendas more clearly discernible than others (for instance, there’s one about how girls should travel in their 20’s rather than get married. I have a problem with posts like these simply because they seem to judge those who do choose to get married in their 20’s, which I find a little discomfiting. People should be able to get married whenever the hell they want, and that includes in their 20’s), but rants aside, they all make this one point: travel broadens horizons, and really, you should do it.

I would describe myself as an indifferent traveler. I don’t really enjoy meeting new people all the time, neither do I need to throw myself into particularly ‘exciting’ and ‘new’ experiences in order to find my life enriching and fulfilling (I think I do well enough building and dispensing drama on my own—just ask any of my close friends). Certainly I enjoy seeing famous and touristy places, but my ambition does not include that oft cited by so many people: ‘I want to see the world’.

Having said all this, there are a few places I would like to visit, a short list of countries that includes, for various reasons, Peru, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Morocco, Canada and one particular city: New York.

top-of-the-rock-photo-ispI visited New York for a day in 2009. It was a there and back again trip, consisting of a hurried Chipotle lunch with cousins, a quick trip through the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), three hours standing in line waiting for tickets to a Broadway show at Times Square, hurried gobbling of cheesecake, strolling through a little bit of Central Park—I remember rocks—and then rushing to Majestic Theatre, where I lost my heart to a singing Phantom and his Gothic tunes. We then took a night train back to the domestic haven of New Jersey, and New York and its treats were left behind.

This quick visit was enough to give me what I thought of as a ‘sense’ of the city, and the only word I could use to describe it was ‘life’. The moment I stepped out of Penn Station’s underground caverns and onto the street, I felt an almost electric thrill shoot through me. Here, I thought, is where I want to be. Ever since then I’ve dreamt of walking down fifth, sixth or seventh avenue, clutching a rapidly cooling coffee as I make my way to my skyscraper-housed office. This vision may or may not have been unduly influenced by The Devil Wears Prada movie. Given how much importance that movie and various other NY-based books/TV shows (cough Gossip Girl cough) have in my imagination, I wouldn’t be surprised.

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Totes going to be me some day.

I finally had the opportunity to stay in the Big Apple. I crashed at a close friend’s place on 125th and Broadway (like a true New Yorker, I have learned to locate places based on street and avenue number/name), very close to Columbia University. I took the Subway on my own—woohoo!—and travelled about Manhattan. I met a range of interesting people, old friends and new as the cliche goes, and undertook the grand mission known as ‘finding oneself’. I walked past humongous skyscrapers multiple times, looking up at the windows and wondering when I would sit inside and look out upon the commuters and tourists scurrying below. I stood outside the NewsCorp office for a full five minutes and plotted takeover, even messaged a partner in crime about how we would one day rule the publishing and television world from there. 

I have very small dreams, you see.

New York was everything I dreamed it would be. Granted, I spent only ten days there and didn’t actually have to brave rush hour crowds, eke out a living and pay a humongous rent, so my picture of the city is rather rose-tinted. But it felt, more than anything, like a bigger, more international version of Delhi, perhaps shinier and the teensiest bit safer, in some ways. In other ways, more dangerous.

Perhaps this, its Delhi-like feel, made me even more desperate to be seen as ‘part’ of the city, a true ‘local’. It’s impossible, at a glance, to tell who is from New York. It houses people from every race, every country probably, ever sort of social, economic and religious background. Given the smorgasbord of humanity, it’s easy enough to blend in, be perceived as someone completely at home here. I figured out the easiest way to pass off as a local, i.e, not a clueless tourist (which, whatever I say, I was) was to plaster a confident, vaguely arrogant expression on my face and just stride off in the direction I thought I was supposed to take. Luckily for me, my face assumes this expression almost by default, and even when I took the wrong exit from a subway, quick glances at the street corners enabled me to reroute myself properly.

Why was I so desperate to blend in? Perhaps I just wanted to extend the illusion of being part of the city, convince myself that yes, I am here and I will be here. If people validate this notion, all the better.

Did traveling to New York give me the much vaunted ‘perspective’? Yes. It taught me how very much I want to be seen as successful, creative, a force to be reckoned with—all images one associates, thanks to pop culture, with NYC. More than that, it showed me that I want to be all those things there. I want the skyscraper-housed office, the overpriced coffee, the snootiness of an Upper East or West side address. Impossible to get? Well, like Jay-Z said, ‘If I can make it here/I can make it anywhere’.

Challenge accepted. 

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Bring. It. On.

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The Magic of Prague

Earlier this week, one of my cousins came to visit. He lives in Dusseldorf in Germany, and during the course of our conversation, we wandered onto the topic of living in the grand old continent, Europe. My European experience is fairly limited; I spent ten days in and around Berlin, traveling outwards to Prague, Vienna and Salzburg. During that period however, what really soaked into me was a sense of historical weight, the muted but still undeniably present sense of guilt and memory that was laced into every brass square I spotted on the pavements. Each one was a jolt, causing my stomach to drop just a little bit as the immediacy of the World Wars and their consequences was seared into me anew.

I told my cousin that I couldn’t imagine living in a ‘place like that’, where tragedy seems such an inherent part of the city. Sure, Indian cities, especially places like Delhi, have seen more than their fair share of terrible happenings and years, but (for better or worse) those histories are not sanctified and made a part of the everyday in the manner that Berlin (at least) seemed to do for the Second World War and the Holocaust. Perhaps our tragedies are just so overridden by the struggle of making it through a day, with all that dirt and grime and the sheer volume of people and noise, that we don’t really notice it. Or perhaps, as long-term residents, we Indians have sort of immunized ourselves against the daily drama of human suffering that we see every day, and since we already have to shut so much of it out, our senses really cannot take any more in the form of self-flagellation over past sufferings.

But I’m meandering now. What my cousins’s visit, and the conversation we had, really brought back to me was the European sojourn I had enjoyed, and I found myself, continue to find myself, thinking of Prague.

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Prague played host to me for two days and one night. My mother and I stayed in a little hotel walking distance from Wenceslas Square, one of the hubs of culture and business in the city. We walked around our part of the city, past old towers and museums and concert halls, took a bus to Prague Castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral, panted up the cathedral’s bell tower, saw the famous Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square, visited a synagogue, cruised along the Vlatva and (my favourite part) visited Franz Kafka’s house. We also managed to watch a production of Swan Lake before boarding the midnight train to Vienna.

Yes, it was all most wonderfully culturally enriching.

I suppose it is natural for me to be fascinated by Prague. I’m a fantasy enthusiast, and Prague is so very rich in the mystical and magical. More than the surreal struggles recorded by Kafka in his work, what tugged at me was the layers of folktale that seemed to cast a mist over everything in the Old Town: tales of the golem, of ancient magics, of powerful words that could make and unmake life, all these secrets hidden away in narrow, stone-paved lanes and shuttered houses. Fantasy writers have of course celebrated these aspects of the city in their work, usually in connection with the legend of the golem, that animated clay-guardian of the Jewish quarter. Jonathan Stroud, for instance, in The Golem’s Eye (the second book of The Bartimaeus Trilogy)has a few chapters set in a slightly altered, but nonetheless recognizable Prague. The sinister, morbid magic of this bohemian capital brings out the melodrama in staid British gentlemen and plays host to life-draining, archaic magics that our hero, Nathanial, can barely comprehend.

Another book that slips in and out of Prague (very quickly) is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.  Though this is not, strictly speaking, a fantasy book (it’s got very little ‘magic’ or otherworldly stuff happening), there is a kavalier and clayportion— set in Prague—that gave me goosebumps. It’s right at the start, when Jakob Kavalier is smuggled out of the country in a golem’s coffin, with the golem inside. Jakob leaves Prague right before things become truly terrible for the city’s Jewish population, and when he next meets the golem, it has attained quite a different, and rather chilling, form.

Both these books play on that one aspect of Prague: its dark, understated tone of magic, a kind that manifests itself not in flashes and sparkles and tight little spells (as ‘English’ magic seems to in Harry Potter), but one that came into being as a defensive force, built from the viscera of its people. Magic is in the cobbles of this city, flowing in broken currents down the Vlatva, embedded in the stones of St. Vitus’. That was the sense I got from my short visit, standing in the Old Town Square, or even in front of my little tucked-away hotel.

Or perhaps that’s what I saw, since I expected it. Perhaps I just closed my eyes to the ‘mundane’ things: the showrooms, the cars, the people with lives not much different from me, walking to work and back. Instead of light and quick reads, I saw second hand bookstores stuffed with obscure texts written in Cyrillic script. Instead of work-exhausted office workers, I saw brooding café patrons who, no doubt, inspired Kafka.

I think I usually see the world through a patina of literature, anyway, and Prague, being the kind of city it is, fit admirably into that frame. All said and done though, I stand by my statement: I couldn’t live there. Call me a coward, but that kind of magic, that sense of tragedy would do me in all too soon.