Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001
The writer is an academic based in the U.S. and the author of Passport Photos (Penguin India, 2000). He writes a literary column for tehelka.com.
It is New Year's eve in New York City. Y2K is about to begin. And I am sweeping my eyes over the lights of Manhattan as I make my quick exit out of the city. On the car stereo, Annie Lennox is singing "No More I Love Yous". There is very little traffic on Brooklyn Bridge as the car crosses the river.
I turn and look at my wife, Mona, who always tells me that she finds the view of the Manhattan skyline splendidly enticing. Her eyes glisten. It is as if the Statue of Liberty, far away to our left, were actually using the glittering lights to signal a secret message: "This is home for all you desis. New York is where you come when you are done with New Delhi."
In that message lies the gospel according to the expatriate middle-class to which I firmly belong. None of the direness and the desperation of the well-known address to the hungry, the tired, and the poor - which the Statue of Liberty has actually been morse-coding across the waters during the century that is about to draw to a close in a few hours.
As the car approaches the end of the bridge, and Canal Street looms close, the music on the stereo surges. As if on cue, Annie Lennox begins to sing "Downtown Lights".
Earlier in the evening, I was at New York City's Times Square. It was still a few hours before the giant ball was to drop down on the last millennium, accompanied by the chanting of a record crowd gathered to mark the countdown to the final seconds of the passing era.
Electronic boards everywhere flashed the millennium countdown. Every person on the already crowded streets was made aware of the passing of time in its smallest readable portions.
When I dived back into the 42nd Street subway station under Times Square, I saw the tight bunches of blue-clad NYPD policemen. On the Times Square shuttle, there was an announcement on the train's wall. It read: "Every 12 seconds another woman is beaten by her husband or boyfriend." This declaration of time passing made time stop for me.
There were photos of battered women above the announcement; none of them looked Indian, but I know that South Asian women's groups like Sakhi in New York are active because there is a high occurrence of domestic abuse in our communities. Desi men, unmoored from their familiar place, in all senses of the word, hurt those who are closest to them and who are often utterly dependent on them for support.
There are other groups too - like Workers Awaaz and Taxi Drivers Coalition - that fight for the immigrant rights of South Asians in New York City. The city that I was leaving that last evening of the last millennium was a city where, at street level, in a world distant from the lights of the soaring skyscrapers, are the struggles of working people from places like Ludhiana and Lahore.
By ten or eleven, I was speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike, listening intently to the news on the car-radio. The news that was being repeated was about the release of the passengers on the hijacked Indian Airlines flight. It was only when I heard that happy news that it struck me that the new year had already arrived in India.
The next day, Mona and I would stop at a gas-station and buy the newspapers, the first newspapers of a new era. The news of the end of the hijacking drama would find space on the front pages of the New York Times. I bought other newspapers, trying to get as much news as I could about the exchange of prisoners for the Indian Airlines passengers at an airport in Afghanistan. While skimming over the Washington Post, I stumbled across the photograph of an Indian woman. The face that had caught my eye was of a woman who was one among a hundred readers of the Post who had written a hundred words about themselves.
This is what face number 33 had to say about herself: "My name is Sushma Sondhi, of Sterling. I am from India. We came to America with a dream to give our boys the best life. We sacrificed our settled life in our home country for our boys. One son, 19, met a much older woman who has two children from two different fathers. We asked him to complete his education before getting involved. He said, 'Go to hell. Stop calling me.' There is no bigger sorrow than to hear these words from your loved ones."
When midnight came, we had left the highway to find shelter for the night. There was the live broadcast from New York on the television where we had stopped. People packed into Times Square looked happy and excited as the countdown began. Champagne bottles were being uncorked.
Mona had lived in New York City for several years and, by an odd chance, we had happened to choose this night for her move to Florida to the house where I had been living for some time. In our household, I am not allowed to say anything bad about the city. If I do, Mona reminds me gently that it is the city in which we met. Mona came to New York City from Karachi; I came there from Patna via New Delhi.
When I think of what happened between Mona and me, I am also reminded of something else. The writer Suketu Mehta, who has his roots in Mumbai and who now lives in the same neighbourhood in Brooklyn where Mona once lived, is a friend of mine. In an article called "The Fatal Love", Suketu had written: "The first time I met the enemy people, Pakistanis, was when I went to New York. We shopped together, we ate together, we dated each other and had each others' babies."
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