For many people, New York City is seen as being antithetical to the world of nature and there may be a shimmer of truth to this. At the same time, nowhere else I’ve lived is such a victim to the changes in seasons; spring and the fall both feel like they are being squeezed and diminished, demoted to being a few improbable weeks each year (or even just a couple of glorious weekends) between the extreme demons of winter and summer. The days when we walk in Central Park are cherished, ones to witness the spectacular changes in the foliage during the fall, watch and listen to the red cardinals, blue jays, sparrows and starlings. I walk silently through the ramble, looking for the darting movements of the birds and taking photographs which are competent but at the same time wholly uninteresting. Yet these perfect days don’t last long, we are at the weathers mercy and it arrives indiscriminately with a severity to reprimand the notoriously controlling New Yorkers who protest equitably at both the bitter cold and the sweltering heat.
At this moment we are in the depth of winter and there seems no escape from the bleakness, we assure each other that we must have patience and wait for the first warm breezes, the horizontal weak sunlight which makes the overly ornamental roofs and higher floors of tall residential buildings softly glow with honeyed light late in the evening; there is the certainty that this will come, when a jacket is not required, the schoolboy aesthetic of shorts and tee shirts are pulled from storage cases and worn casually, shamelessly. As a late concession to adulthood a case of Rose wine will be ordered from Sherry Lehman. But for now I have to dress for work each morning in the dull Scandinavian half-light in our apartment and sit heavily on a bench to lace a pair of shoes, already weary of the day ahead.
The easy alternative is to escape for a while and that’s why a few weeks ago I decided that a work trip to India, long put off was suddenly necessary, so was the need to drop in to see my Mother and risk an unpredictable English April. To that end an additional single day’s meeting in Frankfurt was fabricated to break the long tiresome journey. I found myself one Wednesday evening, the last week of March, pulling a corporate wheelie bag across the rough sidewalk and steep curbs of Manhattan, suddenly feeling like a tourist in my own city, on route to the airport.
The flights themselves are the worst part of the trip. They are a challenge for many reasons, not least the process of checking in and boarding; byzantine rules and conduct, hierarchies created by the airlines then ruthlessly broken by the passengers during the absurd race to get onto the aircraft first. I arrived in Frankfurt very early and it was still dark the next morning when I found the hotel which was attached to the airport. The meetings later in that day, and those during the next one, were predictably inconclusive and the whole experience of being in Germany but not in Germany, never leaving the vast airport complex, was disorientating.
Then on Saturday I left for India, a timely departure and the long drift south and east. As I was flying on Lufthansa it was a civilized trip, the knives and forks were metal and there was a temptation to read more into these little details; signs of political sanity, of normalcy, when you are away from the USA. I saw that the journey would take us first south of Prague then north of Budapest and things get messy past Tbilisi and I couldn’t help noticing that we flew directly over Tehran.
These planes are clinically efficient and travel faster than our imaginations. How ought we to feel in this undemocratic, privileged position, in this aluminum tube floating a mile above the ground? Our route takes us over kingdoms and caliphates long fought over and finally demarcated with a rough pencil line on a western, imperialistic map. Looking at the crude flight map on the screen in front of me I see the names of cities that are normally spoken of by concerned journalists in flak jackets while in the background macabre scenes of suffering, burnt out houses and Toyota pickup trucks with undisciplined young men holding ancient rifles. Passing these war zones I feel strangely heroic, yet at the same time mildly aware of the immorality of my immediate comfort and concerns which involved Ice Cream and a Hollywood movie. The plane seemed to shiver in admonishment.
India takes you out of your comfort zone, it’s not just the fierce explosion of color, sound and humanity, it is the chaotic poetry of the street and landscapes, the unique perspectives and the ingenious solutions for everything from food to shelter to dentistry and the tragic extremes in wealth and poverty. Somehow it all holds together in the heat and dust. We touched down at two in the morning and drove through the still busy roads in the warm air, a stray dog walked by and a pair of unattended cows rummaged through a garbage bag in a small neon lite shopping arcade. Chennai is not a tourist city, it is a working one and that shows in the casual ugliness of its buildings and its constant activity. It faces devastation regularly with tsunami’s and almost annual flooding, and this shows in the somewhat temporal nature of the new apartments and offices particularly those close to the beach or water.
The hotel was luxurious, vast and full of marble, hand carvings and inexplicable technology all of which placed me into a foul mood. But it got worse when I realized that it would be my prison for the next five days. I was hit with a creeping sense of colonialism, the wide empty air conditioned corridors and the stiffly uniformed staff, the multiple swimming pools and more than anything, the silence. This was a fortress from India and the few excursions I made out into the city emphasized the void between this space, these strange overly comfortable days, and the raucous, dirty blaze of colorful vitality of the streets I had come to see.
So what do you see when you venture beyond the gates of the hotel? Once you are resolved to the wall of heat, you are mesmerized by the hum and buzzing of the traffic, the honking of horn’s, the constant whistling from security guards, motorcycles like flies sometimes with four or more passengers, some very young, helmetless….the road resembles a race track and I am as likely to cross it as I would wade through a rushing river. Buses crammed with commuters, women in richly colored sari’s; purple, scarlet, orange, immaculately clean, their black hair shining. And those on the streets, the rich dark skin of the Tamils; some of the men look at me with incomprehension, the elderly even with some hostility, the girls sometimes serenely beautiful look on with studied indifference. The young men are mainly handsome, they allow me to take photographs and smile easily, often reach for their cell phones to let you know they are connected, and the mood on the street is generally benign and holding a large camera explains my presence to some degree.
The main problem was that we worked American hours, five in the evening until two in the morning and so the goal was to sleep most of the day with the heavy shades blocking the bright light trying to come through. The uncomfortable feeling of being a colonist increases sharply when you are in the office and you are the star of the show, the local managers were overly deferential but some instinct told me never to push them the wrong way, or even make a misplaced joke, as they would turn quickly. Memories of the Raj still haunt this land and relationships between the English and the Indians are likely to be brittle, but in a way I prefer it this way, with good manners taking precedent over friendships. There is a game to be played and tests to pass, at lunch we are taken to a canteen where very authentic local Chennai food is presented but no knives or forks are available so we eat with our fingers like everyone else.
Back at the hotel I reflect on my visits to India over the last thirty years. The first time as a young student, I arrived in a funk and studiously underprepared. I even did not have time or the care to get correct foot ware and so wore a pair of black city brogues with my jeans which caused laughter from the other back backers, but also caught the attention of the locals who notice these details, and on one case a young child reached down to touch them only to be roughly pulled away by the parent and smacked. They became a talisman for my open rebellion against the country, and naturally the country repaid the compliment and I was ripped off from Rajasthan to the Punjab. I didn’t enjoy it at all until many months after I came home and the dysentery went away, and then I fell belatedly in love with India from the safety of the wet green Welsh hills, in my dreams I found myself walking down the narrow, tumultuous streets under the large shadows of working Elephants, fearfully avoiding the monkeys and watching the thin oxen in the fields from a windowless bus. What impressed me then, and now, is the proud nobility of the people despite the surroundings, the continuity of ancient tradition’s and the preservation of a culture that predates almost all others.
I no longer have the emotions that come from visiting South Asia, years ago I felt like a survivor when I went to the airport to go home, now it’s simply a nine hour flight to London and I’m more concerned about getting a good seat than what my feelings are trying to tell me and these are never more disparate as when the destination is Heathrow.