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The Human Side of My America Visit
|by Prof. Shubha Tiwari|
My America tour has been phenomenal for me. It’s been an eye-opener. I live a very comfortable life in India. I live in a small place where literally everyone knows me and if I may say, respects me as well. I live at a place where I’ve always lived. ‘Unknown’, ‘fear’, ‘insecurity’, ‘helplessness’, ‘loneliness’, ‘sudden change’- these words have always been just words for me. I’m always in a position to help others which I do as much as and as often as possible. I consider myself to be a good human being. I love reading, writing, teaching, researching. I feel I was made for my profession and my life. My family life is stable and ‘touch wood’ happy.
Visiting America has always been one of my dreams; not that it was not within my reach to go there but just that it got delayed. My desire was to attend a conference there instead of just touring as a tourist. Since I’ve lived a much protected life and have not traveled even a hundred kilometers from my place without an escort, my desire was to go there alone and on my own. I wanted to feel free. All these mental processes became clear to me once I visited the place; not before that. I realized the intensity of my desire to go to America and see it for myself only when I reached there. I realized that I had dared a lot. I had dared because it was my first time abroad and that too all alone. I had dared because I’m not used to subway trains, because I’ve never used maps to go to places, because I don’t use credit cards. I’m myself a credit card in my city. I can get whatever I want without any money because every shopkeeper knows me, not only me but my husband, parents, children, siblings, everyone. He knows that his money is safe. So, I had dared and dared substantially. I’m not used to looking at maps. I don’t understand maps. I never knew that the world goes by maps. Where ever I went, they gave me maps. I was on my own with a map in my hand which I didn’t understand even a bit. Subway map, tourist map, city map, hop on - hop off bus tour map- map, map, map… Map is an important thing. The world goes by maps. Okay, Shubha Tiwari, remember that.
My constraint is my lack of familiarity with machines. I’ve a maid who cleans utensils at my place. I’ve a gardener who tends the trees and plants of my garden. I’ve servants who clean home, wash clothes, peel and cut vegetables, bring things from market and wait upon me. I live in a sprawling house which has no first floor. I don’t have to use swash cards to enter buildings, rooms and places. Within my city I move only when I desire to drive my little car. I live within the university premises where I work. I go to the city as a luxury, never as a necessity. I know places where to park car in my city. I was totally unaware of the world where machine has a capital M in people’s lives. Everything is automatic. You buy your own ticket, fill your own fuel, and enter buildings swashing cards, using elevators all the time. The train doors open automatically. Trains run on different racks A B C D E etc. Inbound and outbound trains go in different directions. You buy your own ticket using right direction, right track, otherwise you’ll be lost in a big, big, unknown place. Okay, Shubha Tiwari!
My next constraint and a big one at that, comes in the form of my vegetarianism. I’m a vegetarian not by force but by choice. And that’s a huge point. Had I been a vegetarian out of religious pressure, things could have been argued out. My religion does not subscribe to vegetarianism alone. Multiple sects and groups with Hinduism opt for meat. It’s perfectly fine. I could have argued that occasional meat eating is fine. But vegetarianism has come to me from within. It’s part of my being. I just don’t feel like having meat. Others having meat on the same table is fine with me. But I can’t take meat. That’s a huge problem when you’re not going to live in a home. You’re at a hostel or a hotel. Meat is the most common preparation. When you walk into a McDonald saying, ‘A Veg burger; no meat, please’, the response is worth recording, ‘Oh, that’s sweet- no meat! But we don’t have Veg burgers at the moment; it’s morning time.’ Well, I can’t have meat; there’s nothing but meat available. I’m hungry. I can’t go far and wide because I’ve to catch the tourist bus and I don’t know the place and I’ll be lost if I venture out. Okay, settle for a shake, what they call ‘frappe’ and some potato. That’s how I survived.
My journey began well, ended well but in between had several interesting moments. Interesting moments may be classified as uncertain moments. Everything went well before I landed at Liberty International Airport at Newark. Our national carrier, Air India felt obliged to bring me to Newark without my baggage. I had checked in properly. I had the receipt of my luggage intact. Why? How? I don’t know. I landed in America without my suitcase courtesy, Air India. My papers, my clothes, my medicines - everything is there in my suitcase and my suitcase is one thing I don’t have. All the wise heads tell me, ‘You should’ve carried a cabin suitcase with all necessary things’. My throat fills but I don’t say, ‘Why didn’t you give me this gem of advice earlier. This is my first trip abroad. I never imagined even in my wildest dream that I’ll be without my luggage in America. I’d prepared everything so methodically. Gifts, academic papers, medicines and so on’. In retrospect, I feel that it was good that my luggage came not one but two days later. I was so vulnerable. My head was dizzy. My medicines were not with me. I was in a crisis. I tried to fight. In such times, one gets to know people. In such moments you know and you feel the milk of human kindness; you know who’s noble and who’s a scoundrel. Yes, there’re scoundrels even in such a lovely place as Newark and even if they’re relatives. There’re all kinds of people in this world; those who love and support unconditionally without any reason and those who laugh and mock and torture again without any reason. So I had my share of learning at Newark. Majority of my relatives held me lovingly with both hands in my time of this utter crisis. It was so miserable, ‘whether I’ll get my things or not? How am I going to present my paper? What about my clothes?’ Advice kept coming about claims of insurance, means of survival. Tears of helplessness flew from my eyes. I had no control over my tears. I only needed some compassion which one particular scoundrel of a relative denied me. Others compensated. One distant aunt gave her salwar kurta. My own aunt gave me my much needed BP tablet. Anyway, lessons learnt, the nightmare ended. Roma, a good girl of Air India returned my luggage to me, offered apologies and also seventy five dollars as compensation for the inconvenience. Interestingly, the rogue relative grabbed the gifts first when I got my luggage. The rascal didn’t even offer to pay for things ordered from India, which were not part of my gift plan. I was only carrying those things because they were ordered. I kept watching. Human greed is so common. I was regaining myself, my confidence. I felt normal when my relatives took things from me because that’s what I usually do in life- give people what they want, help them, make things easier for them. After all making students realize their dreams is a part of my profession.
I was dropped at the Railway Station to board train to Boston. I had absolutely no idea how railway stations work in the US. The tone of speech is so different. Everything is mechanized. I wanted my relative to stay with me till I boarded the train as it was a Sunday and there was nothing urgent. But that was not to be. Fifteen minutes were left for the train to arrive. I was left on a rather desolate platform. My throat filled. My eyes welled up.
As I was trying to muster my spirit and courage, a traditional, middle-aged Indian woman walked into the scene with her son. After initial greetings, she said, ‘Do you know how to board trains in the US. I wish to board the next train to Boston.’ Ha, ha, I said, ‘Yes, I know it very well. We’ll do it together. Don’t worry.’ I was myself again. ‘Bhagvan mere saath chamatkar karte hi rehte hai’. Anyway, the Newark chapter closed. I was heading to Boston…
Life has taught me to set priorities, to set focus. I wash negativity like a speck of dust on my kurta and move on. I come back to ponder over learning points later. God has blessed me with words. As I use words, I form my realities. A benevolent cousin is driving and I’m safely by his side at South Station. As I form these words in my mind, my reality gets framed. I know that I’m safe and sound. I’ve a good human being beside me. When I got off at the South Station, I was at my ‘vulnerable’ best. After luggage fiasco and mean behavior at Newark, I was a bit shaken. As I got down, shouts came, ‘Shubha Didi, Shubha Didi…’ My God-send cousin Akhil was there to receive me.
My relatives at Boston are a blessing. Ratan Mama and his whole family, Bhaiya Mama and his family, Deepa Mausi and her family, my cousin Manvi- all and everybody is a gem. Akhil, my dearest cousin, who booked the hostel for me and also the connecting flight to my next destination NYC, is at the Railway Station. He’s earnestly explaining the intricacies of existence in Boston. I don’t understand anything. He is very particular about my using subway trains so that I just don’t waste my precious money. He’s telling me about streets, inbound, outbound trains, Charlie card, and weekly pass. But I’m dazed. I’m caught by the glory of Almighty who has made such good human beings who selflessly care for others, their safety and happiness. God is great and so is my cousin. After showing me Boston, his own university, the places where he worked, the railway station near my place, my hostel, my room, Akhil finally leaves. What have I registered? Don’t go to Tremont Street especially when it’s dark. That’s one point I remember. I also remember his advice, ‘If you just don’t want to eat meat, say, ‘I’m allergic to meat’ and then it’ll be their responsibility.’ Other points I have made up on my own. I’m not going to use subway. I’ll hire taxi. I can afford it for some days and I deserve to be safe. No extra boldness, no unnecessary bravery! Better safe than sorry! I’ve formed the words and my world in Boston is all set. I’ll be happy, safe and secure.
At first, it’s all chaos. From where to take water, how to access internet, where to get breakfast, not to forget key card, lock my cupboard, keep bag close, not to lose passport, be careful all the time. When you travel, you adapt. That’s great. You modify your ways; you work out things; compromise with your habits. Everything is different from my place. Tea tastes different; corn tastes different; even samosa at the Indian restaurant is not we get here in India. Two samosas cost six dollars; that’s three hundred and sixty rupees! Unbelievable! The neglected, criticized and ridiculed samosa of India becomes so precious in Boston. But then I adjust. Gradually, I get into the system of the hostel and then I realize how good, how efficient it is. Many participants of my conference are staying at the hostel. We meet and talk at breakfast time. There’s great relaxing space in the lobby. For hours, I get lost in my novel. I marvel, ‘What life! What luxury!’ There’re many activities going on in the hostel- standup comedy, tours, discussions. It’s just great. It’s perfect. My roommates are an Australian, a Chinese, a German. The Australian is a middle aged lady who’s on a world tour because job conditions are not so great back home and so she’s utilizing her time. Someone’s there to attend a musical concert. Someone has come as a tourist but mostly people have come to attend conferences. The atmosphere is so cosmopolitan. I realize how people of different races look beautiful. A beautiful African, an elegant Chinese, an alluring Irish! Everybody is at one’s best. And yet, it all seems so casual, so relaxed. There’re astonishing hairdos all over. A white head with bright green border hair, a burning red at the top of the head! So many colors of hair! My stay at the hostel in Boston will always be part of me. Travelling alone has great advantages. One gets closer to oneself. The freedom, the exhilaration, the exultation that one feels can only be felt; not described. We, Indian women always travel with so much responsibility. The family is always around and so food, water, tickets, clothes - everything is to kept properly. After all the hassle when it’s finally time to relax, you have an instructor at hand, ‘Look this way. Don’t look that way. Why you laughed? Whom were you talking to? Don’t speak loudly. These are not table manners’ and so on and on. It’s strange to note that couples travel with such grim faces while single travelers are all smiles. Not that I’m an avowed single traveler but being one this time, I couldn’t help noticing the obvious advantages. It’s the secret dream of every Indian woman to roam around freely, unanchored, carefree.
The conference itself was a huge affair. Several parallel sessions were on. My turn came on 27th May 2014 at 11 in the morning. It was a multidisciplinary humanities group. Everybody had an effective presentation apart from the main body of the paper. I also had a separate power point presentation apart from the accepted paper. But as I sat, I realized that I was watching more than listening. When my turn came, I switched off the computer as I wanted everybody to listen to me for all the fifteen minutes allotted to me.
I spoke on the evolution of individual identity in multiracial societies with reference to novels by Andrea Levy and Kathryn Stokett. I spoke on the fine difference between being politically correct and being humane. Concepts of discrimination, marginalization, mainstream society, individual identity, role of self-perception- I spoke as I always do with genuine concern for the topic I had chosen. With excuse, let me say that I choose topics which are close to my heart. Academics for me is not just a profession; it’s my life. I guess I spoke well because after the session, I received not one, not two but eight invitations to speak at other international conferences. Anyway, my appetite for travel is limited. The word ‘Harvard’ had called me.
Once, my academic responsibility was over, I felt all the more light and weightless. For the next two consecutive days I opted for tours organized by the organizers. That’s how I saw Plymouth Plantation and Kennebunk Port in the province of Maine. Both the visits were excellent. The Atlantic defies all description.
It’s mighty, chilly, blue, serene, powerful… One can go on and on. My vegetarian instincts were tested to the extreme. I took my vegetarian bite among one hundred lobsterians passionately breaking and sipping and excavating meat in bright red, hot lobsters. And remember, I kept smiling all the way. I had to be courteous.
Plymouth plantation is again lovely, gives an idea of American history. This is one thing I realized during my whole visit- Americans value their history very much. They want everyone to know about it. They love to illustrate it.
I also went on freedom trail tour of Boston city. The guide was dressed in 17th century attire. When I told her that I come from Rewa, near Allahabad; she immediately said that Allahabad is associated with rivers. All the tour guides were articulate and knowledgeable.
My date with New York had come. I was off to Logan to board a Jet Blue flight to New York. JFK seemed like a very practical airport. I didn’t see much decoration. I had known Rajender Krishan of Boloji.com; definitely met a personality. Right there at the luggage belt as we waited for my once misplaced, now found Carlton, the words, the explanation, the nuances, the description, the differences - the whole lot of speech began. Rajender Krishan, Raj Chowdhry, Raj Kumar, unofficially Raja is a man with many names and one solid personality. I was finally with a regular, dominating Indian man. Words for this person are not words; they’re assertion, domination, statement, force. Words – tun, tun, tun – come out clear with lots of clarity and energy. I felt like telling him that even slower pace and volume would do fine. But energy conservation is not a mission here. He will justify, he will declare, he will simply announce. Anyway, I was again beside a good human being, easily listening. My responses were neither required nor sought. He drove on with full commentary and I was comfortable. Like a true intellectual he put things in perspective, trying hard to make sense of things, to suggest ways for India’s improvement. Rajender Krishan has a lovely wife Meera and a wonderful family. He is a man who lives in a joint family in New York- son, daughter-in-law and grand kids- all together. Meera provided me my first warm, immediately cooked chapattis in America. Just can’t thank her enough for that! RK, if I may use the short form showed me many places downtown. Finally, he left me at Kimberly, my hotel, my home in NYC for three days.
The next two days I enjoyed the most. For an Indian woman of my background and family, to be alone is a luxury. To fly like birds and sing like them, to do what you want to do, to be ‘smart’, to be happy without fear- oh God; it’s too much. I went to see the Statue of Liberty. The taxi ride, the ticket, the security checking and bang, bang…on. We just don’t realize how much and how deeply are we affected my myths. The Statue of Liberty is a modern day myth, it’s part of the collective psyche, the reservoir of collective conscience of our times, as Jung would have called it. I like almost everyone on the ferry felt thrilled at the first glimpse of the majestic lady- huge, sharp-featured, guarding the ‘new’ land.
The copper body, greenish to eyes with twenty-four carat gold flame - oh, what a sight. I could feel the sense of pride that an American might feel for the monumental monument.
I kept meeting fellow Indians all along, meeting, making acquaintance, changing cards. People from Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jaipur- all were very friendly, very benevolent. One lady offered me ‘rava’ laddu that she’d made of pure ghee. Wow, an Indian laddu on Hudson on way to Liberty- felt good. Back to Battery Park after visiting Ellis Island, I decided to take a taxi to Times Square. By this time, I had grown bold and confident. In any case I knew that I could take a taxi back to Kimberly, my abode. There was nothing to fear as such as long as you kept to yourself. I found New York very safe, vibrant and even friendly.
I didn’t change my dress or dressing style while visiting US; didn’t feel like it. Here in India as well, I dress for myself. I dress very comfortable in loose salwar karees which to my mind is just like a top and pant of oriental orientation. I love my attire and so didn’t change it. This really helped me. Everyone almost immediately recognized that I came from India. As I was waiting for taxi, one cab stopped by my side and the driver said, ‘Hanji, kahan jana hai?’ A surge of happiness took me. There’s nothing like motherland, nothing like mother tongue. I sat in the taxi and said, ‘I want o see the heart of Times Square; take me there. By the way, which part of India do you come from?’ He said, ‘I come from Pakistan.’ The friendship of two nations depended on my reaction, even in the small miniscule of an individual’s life. Had I reacted bitterly, he’d have remembered it all his life and would’ve narrated it to others. But thank, God, thank Ramji, thank Hanumanji, I’m not that person. I genuinely felt happy. I told Shakeel Bhai that I like his country and millions of Indians also love their neighbor. He kept talking and I also kept talking. He told me how his family back in Pakistan depends on his profession in NYC. He lived half of the year in NYC and half in Pakistan. Anyway, destination reached, I said, ‘How much?’ His response startled me, ‘Aap se paise nahi lenge ji. Aap to behen ho. Aap Hindustan se ho.’ Arre! I mean what? And he meant it. He was adamant. How could he take fare from a sister? Believe me, only after much persuasion, I could hand over his fare to him. Such is this world. ‘Jaaki rahi bhavna jaisi; Hari murat dekhi tin taisi’.
In fact, I met many friendly people from Pakistan - Dr. Nasreen from Islamabad, another participant from Karachi, another taxi driver and tow ladies at the Statue of Liberty. I can vouchsafe that the warmth was real. May there be no fight between us! May other nations not take advantage of our unnecessary animosity! May we be mature and sane! May we prosper!
The next day, it was all hop on and hop off. I really wonder what kinds of tourist tours they have in NYC! First, give sixty dollars, take receipt and then there’s nobody to take care of you. Go away wherever you want. Hop on a tourist bus, hop off at a place of your choice, find the way, go to the monument or place you want to see, come back to the spot from where the bus left you, every twenty minutes a bus comes and so again hop on. ‘Arre yaar, itne hi gyani hote to tourist kyo kahlate?’ But that is how it is. Be smart. Learn to move on your own. And learn quickly because you’ve only a day or two. If you’re lost, get lost. I’m proud that I saw the whole of downtown, then uptown in hop on-hop off buses without getting lost, without making any major mistake. I got a feel of the city. I loved it at Tussaud’s.
The next day, it was time to wind off. I was already home-sick.
My childhood poem was haunting me. Rajender Krishan ji came and dropped me at the terminal. With much determination and effort, I succeeded in narrating an event or two of my last two days at NYC. He was full of life lessons, guiding, declaring, proclaiming as ever.
I reached JFK airport. By now, I was an international traveler. Back in the Indian queue, it already felt like home.
So many thoughts come to you when you visit America. My first reaction to the American scene was, ‘Where have all the people gone?’ There’s so much land. In comparison, population is less. Everything is manageable. Infrastructure is superb. The nation’s planners planned for coming five hundred years at least. American buildings tell you that they are for generations. There’s no waste, no garbage. Recycling plants, incineration plants come up before a town or an institution is built. There’s no sewage on roads. The rivers are clean. The rivers are full of water. Everything is systematic, as it ought to be. Everything is mechanized. The people are industrious, hard working. The household work is to done by everyone. There’re no servants for dusting, sweeping, cleaning etc. Everybody works hard. There’re some shameful points also - the drug addicts, the beggars… But overall, there’s no comparison with India. America is much, much more advanced. As an Indian, you do feel sad for the motherland. We build buildings which fall even while getting constructed. There’s no master plan for our cities. There’s no waste management. The rivers are getting dry and dirty. Stray cattle throng the road. People spit, urinate, defecate wherever they want. Humans are crawling like insects; they’re so many in numbers. What a mess we have made of this country where spirituality, universal love, humanity, compassion, family bonding, social responsibility have been taught since 5000 BC. Buddha, Mahaveer, Ram, Raheem, Krishna, Kabir, Nanak, Gandhi, Vivekananda - all and everybody taught and lived their teachings. Where have we failed? Why this deep sense of lack of self respect? Why can’t we respect ourselves? Why can’t we live with dignity? We as nation, can we decide anything and then carry our decision out? Is it possible to enact what we’ve decided? Can we decide anything? Very sad, very sad, indeed.
But, motherland is something you cannot unlove. Your mother is your mother. You cannot unlove your mother because she’s not beautiful or there’re cracks in her feet. I felt it when I was in America. Love for motherland, concern for her well-being wells up from within. Man, this model of clay is not a machine. Howsoever hard you train yourself to be practical, clever, money-oriented, there’re certain things which are not in your own control. For fifteen days, I met so many Indians, relatives, friends, acquaintances. Those who have migrated to America don’t stop criticizing India. They just can’t stop listing ills of India, ‘See, the road here, the process, the passport delivery, hot water-cold water tap, the road traffic, the systematic life, the money, the education, the hard work, the houses… see, see’. After, a certain point I realized that they were not talking to me. They were talking to themselves. They were all convincing themselves that they took the right decision in migrating. Everybody knows that everybody cannot migrate. There’ll always be people living in India. So, India needs to be improved, howsoever possible. They know that they have lost their identity. They may spend a life time there, but no one will come to tap on shoulder, ‘Shuklaji, kaise hain?’ Your gulli (Lane) knows you in your motherland. But once migrated, you may have millions but you’re nobody. There’s an ocean of otherness. They cannot take India out of their system. This happens in India; that happens in India. What a classic example of love-hate relationship! What a half-half existence! Live in the US, breathe India. Most of the people migrate to America for money. Very rarely does one find a researcher whose work has taken him to America. Those working for humanity in labs and universities can go anywhere. They’re a different class. But the bulk that has gone must understand the dynamics of movement. You can’t have everything. I offer my ‘sher’ to first generation Indian migrants in America:
My journey is about to end. The crushed space in the airplane is welcome as it is carrying me to India. Delhi airport is more than welcome. I’ve one flight more to Bhopal. I relax on a stretch. I call my elder son, talk to him at length, provide my insights, inputs, analyze, discuss, feel whole and happy. This boy, my elder child has a wonderful knack of providing solace, comfort. He is a good listener. He gives his meaningful inputs and understands the perspective of the other person. He had given me various big and small etiquette hints before going to the US. He had a bigger exposure to international community and so his advice was valuable.
At Bhopal airport, my partner in life, my husband is waiting. Oh my God, he’s so handsome- fair, tall, large eyed. In a taxi, we come to the hotel. We’re at the hotel room. Now I know how much I’d stretched myself. All these days, I’d slept out of exhaustion. Otherwise, every moment I’d been alert. I was on my guard all the time. Now it’s time to forget and flow. It feels like heaven. I don’t realize I’m crying, ‘I missed you’. ‘Me too’. God knows who’s speaking, who’s listening. I’m all pulp, all water. For hours it’s inertia. I don’t know where I am. ‘Surrender’ is a beautiful word, especially when it’s used and practiced with one person. The trust, the love, the intimacy- okay leave it or I’ll continue for another fifteen pages. God bless matrimony!
Sitting now in my comfortable bed, I wonder, ‘How much this trip really changed me!’ I feel associated to those I met. Scoundrels, I’ve already forgiven and forgotten. I cannot let my course in life for the ‘frustoo’ lot. But those who helped me - I carry them with me. ‘In a crisis, you get to know who’s a good human being; who’s your friend’. That one tear that I saw in the eyes of the American official, Violetta (I think her name was Violetta) for my misery when my luggage had not arrived and I was frantically searching it; that compassion is a debt I can never return. Will I ever get to directly repay those who made me feel at home in the far away land? Perhaps, not. But I can be good to all others, help as many people as I can. I’ve always done that but I can do it even more. Now, having realized the value of human kindness, I can practice it even more consciously. It was a good trip. A fine one for a first timer! A great learning experience!
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