But, what really constitutes a country? Its government, its people, its history, its public face or its little crannies? Is there an
I had written the following piece after just such a journey, and these are the images I saw and the emotions I felt…
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I felt like an exhibitionist – uninhibited, a bird with multi-hued wings, a caricature of liberty. And, no, I wasn’t travelling through some remote Indian village, but in the land of plenty, where freedom of speech may include indigent acts of the tongue, and history is yesterday, and that too is a song.
For a first-time prejudiced voyager to the
I was looking for that hurried pace, the jaw-breaking Julia Roberts’ smiles or Richard Gere clones pumping you with their officer-gentleman-gigolo- rolled-into-one act. I was waiting with trepidation to be mugged, molested, misunderstood; only the last happened, and that too because it was assumed that since I came from
Was this just chewing gum for the soul, the salve of a fad that would feed their starving egos? Or was I really an outsider in more ways than one, for I had all along completely ignored this goliath called
Religion for the American is an area of darkness. The Christian, Mormon, Nation of Islam and Scientology Movements and the numerous cults are said to be manifestations of the desperate need to seek emotional sustenance. 1300 radio and TV channels solicit prayers and donations. At one of the airports, a hulk of a man approached me to help him save the earth from purgatory. When I politely declined, he asked me, “Never mind baby, how ’bout somethin’ else, eh?” The American is a pragmatist. I saw an ad with a picture of Christ with the words, “He died to take away your sins. Not your mind.” Evangelism is a paying profession precisely because it tells people how to get out of the mess. Faith comes with strings attached.
As does morality. Today, no one can say with any certitude whether
Just a cabin away a man was recovering from a divorce. So completely shaken was he that the only sustenance he got was by going out for lunch with a colleague, who in turn had dating problems because women looked on him, an Indian, as a curiosity.
And then I met Ruth, who was weeping out of concern for Stella. You might assume that we are talking about teenage pregnancy or something equally drastic. In fact, here was an 86-year-old telling me about the marital problems of her 54-year-old daughter.
Relationships are extremely important and the reason is simple: It is a free society and suffers from resultant guilt. They have based their value system on prudence, rather than emotion. So a man may spend most of his time in cyber sex and dance clubs, taking women half his age to bed, but will display a conservative streak that will ensure lifelong friendship with his ‘sleeping partners’.
Kirk is one such guy. He drives three hours away to
Was I missing something? Where was all the fun? I cornered Jerry in
At last I was face-to-face with unbridled consumerism, I thought. The idea of finding “plastic people leading shallow lives” was most gratifying, but it was not to be. LA ‘is’, “40 suburbs in search of a city”. One imagines all the glitz that goes with
Next morning I decided to take the bus to Santa Monica, all geared up for ‘Baywatch’ babes and muscular lifeguards. The bus was rundown, and people’s faces had displacement written all over them. They looked at me with a great deal of curiosity; I imagined it to be the usual interest of the native towards the tourist. But for some reason I felt uncomfortable. THEY did not belong here. It was a long drive, made worse by the fact that all my images were being shattered.
When I got out at the stop, it was quite different -- large glass hotels, cafes with pretty awnings and a beach that looked clean. I walked along the green shore and soon enough I saw large bundles on the grass. They were homeless people, sleeping mid-morning. Most of them delinquents, suffering from some form of mental illness.
The attitude towards money is not so lacklustre. It is not uncommon to see Americans put back half-eaten apples in their bags, and leftover food from restaurants is packed and taken home to be reheated and consumed the next day; it is not for the dog.
I had the rather embarrassing experience of tucking into a large sandwich at Universal Studios with Cory watching. We were together on a tour. He had not had anything to eat since the night before, and, as I discovered, would not have anything until this evening. He was polite enough to refuse to share my snack because he was “picky about food”. Later, he told me he was appalled that what would get him a full meal at MacDonald’s could buy him just a salad here.
Even at the counter when I handed a $100 bill, since I had no change, the girl looked at it, then at me and announced with a flourish, “You got lotsa money, hanh? Wanna blow it up?”
I wanted to tell her I was from a poor country, where they dole out limited forex, but then I was in a place where they justify heavy tipping because they believe that employees are given a raw deal.
Everyone I came across was saving. There was money talk but I was hard put to find the stark starchy-suited, sleazy-grin launderer. Those investing want to save not for a rainy day but for sunshine, when they can buy a larger house. Not as a status symbol, but as a woman told a despairing single man, “To make more room…only then will somebody come into your life.” It sounded like psychobabble, but then nothing is left to chance, not even chance.
Where, then, is the great melting pot?
Cory was a Black New Yorker who felt like a foreigner anywhere else. His dream was to go for his honeymoon to
Two things – one, as a glorified big-city man, LA, despite its Hollywood pretensions, was small fry for him, never mind that he stayed in a tacky motel and saved another night’s rent by sleeping over at the airport, and two, he was Black, and he knew he was not Manhattan. For all his bravado and one-liners, he was naïve and felt very vulnerable. Which is why he decided to spend six hours with me, a stranger, because he felt out of place. Which is also why he reacted so badly when I told him I hated Arnold Schwarznegger. “How can you judge him? He has made it, despite his background, his accent!” I knew that Cory did not accompany the two Canadian girls who were flirting outrageously with him precisely because he was afraid of being judged. I was the ‘other’, and he assumed I would understand.
So, this is the salad bowl, where each ingredient stands out.
Gurinder Singh will go back to Jalandhar, though driving me in his cab to Castro, the gay district in
While the rest of
In 1860, only 20 per cent of Americans lived in the cities. Urbanisation and immigrants brought a sense of displacement and the need for a bonding with the familiar. And this is true of even the increasing community of islanders. Triana Elan dreamed of moving to Lopez, and soon realised that if you do not have three generations settled there you would always be a newcomer. “There is an added element of isolation from the mainland and the realisation of how interdependent we are. Even in our disputes with each other, we realise that there is an edge beyond which it’s not wise to push, because you never know when you might be in need.”
So, what is America – a need-based society or a highly individualistic country? Ira Schoppmann, the sheriff of Iron County, did not get much of an opportunity to be mean or sit astride a horse. But this man applied for the job because he thought, “Gee, that might be interesting.” On his desk was a plaque with Thoreau’s words: “The most I can do for my friend is simply to be his friend.” Here you have both need and individualism co-existing. In big corporations, you may call your boss Bill, but there is no way for you to forget who is the boss. William Gates may stand with his employees in the same line for his coffee, but even Paul Allen, his former partner, learned his lesson about where he was in the real line.
Are these paradoxes, when my liberal friend Annie makes digs at certain communities and yet takes part in rallies against WTO? As somebody said, “You can be impressed by efficiency and dismayed by commercialism; enraptured by natural beauty and appalled by urban ugliness; overwhelmed by kindness and offended by indifference; staggered by wealth and shocked by poverty.”
In Seattle, I was at dinner at ‘The Palisades’, a rather exclusive restaurant. A couple came and sat at the adjoining table – the woman bejewelled, perfectly coiffed and made up; the man in a sharp suit and natty manner. Just the kind of people you would find there and feel good about. Till he crossed his legs, the way men do, and everytime my eyes veered beyond the salmon lying before me to the bread on my quarter plate, I would get a view of the soles of his shoes. I thought it indelicate and utterly ill-mannered on his part, but he was perfectly nonchalant.
Americans like nothing more than supreme self-confidence, but I certainly had problems with the studied casualness. In most places you dress down, which meant that one had to wear the most casual of slacks or shorts at even the nifty Las Vegas hotels – the only ones dressed were the cocktail waitresses, and they wore precious little anyway.
I have tried to analyse this attitude and I believe it is their way of rebelling against any stratified system. Bumping into a radical is not unusual. Jeffrey, in a Fab-India kurta, faded and frayed, walked into a small café with the authority of one who wanted to change the world. He was helping to promote a book on drug abuse in Third World countries. When he spoke, every word was lyrical, every thought cynical. He represented the free spirit in its truest sense, though it could have been fake as well, because he was a distant observer whose great kick was to participate in a Labor Day function where he would sing the songs of revolution, safe in the belief that he could return to his island.
At the Bumbershoot Festival in
Is this cultural starvation? In
There is also the barrage that comes to you through the news channels, but people have a good laugh. No one is awfully impressed by CNN. Then, is it just the media that hypes up everything or are these double standards? I could not get it. For a society that watched the Gulf war as though it were a TV serial, why was I often told not to take pictures of people in the street because, “they are not animals in a zoo”? Of course, they were not. But why this politesse? Or was it always there, and Rambo and Barbie mere totems to frighten the hell out of external demons?
Is it possible that for the friendliest people on this planet, they are deep down xenophobic, afraid that others are out to get them? Is that why some of the people I met found me to be a roller-coaster ride, because I was not the expected docile Indian woman? And yet, why were they surprised when they saw me alone? I could not believe the response. Was this not the place where you could walk around without being asked questions? Why were people trying to be protective (“Don’t get out after 7 pm by yourself,” Paula, a Guatemalan I met at a Mexican restaurant in LA, told me)? Why were they being so goddamn nice?
Was this one more superficial ride I was being taken on? Would I be able to see the true meaning and the fake meaning and, having seen, would I be able to tell the difference?