Travelling through the US made me fall in love with my country all over again.
My American dream was visualised for me by my friends, relatives and well wishers. The dream to set foot on American soil started taking shape from the day my daughter Sana got married and settled in New Jersey.
Ideas set in motion various conjectures and perceptions. Distance makes imagination go wild and vibrant. One's own imagination and other perceptions get mixed up in such a manner that one tends to fabricate an entirely new reality about the place and its people. The same happened with my American Dream. My friends and relatives who had already savoured the pleasures of the American soil were very prompt in enlightening about every minute detail on travel hazards and immigration.
Strange, yet familiar
Input was so varied, contradicting and intimidating that I felt that like Alice in Wonderland. At last with a load of information and lots of anticipation I reached New Jersey. Sun soaked streets and gentle breeze and nerve soothing eloquent calm welcome me in New Jersey. It was odd but I did not feel strange in the alien soil. Jersey City is clean, compact and well manicured. Wide open streets, broad pathways strewn with many hued flowers, organised traffic and random passersby reflected the outer layer of the city. My ears used to the noise of the hustle bustle were at pains to adjust to the calm and quiet of the environ. Oh yes, an occasional whisper of the passing car did create a feeling of motion that too for a very brief moment.
Newport Area was a pure delight. Nestled in the lap of Hudson river ferrying people from New Jersey city to Manhattan and the awesome sight of Manhattan encircling the river edges, projected the most beautiful picture.
So far so good, and yet I was missing something. What was that? I could not make out and got busy initiating myself into the American way of life which was clearly meant doing all your chores by yourself and this was an ordeal for a person used to the comforts of having hot cup of tea in bed, an organised house and half a dozen helpers to make life worth living. I had been told that chores in America were no big deal as everything is automatic, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, micro and so on, take care of everything and one just sits and sucks the lollypop.
How misleading. Notwithstanding the help of these gadgets one has to slog exactly the way one does in India except that in America one psyches oneself into believing that everything is automatic and a joy ride. On my part how I missed my grocery and subziwala.
But all said and done it was an eye opening exercise to realise the kind of hard work Americans do. How patiently and ungrudgingly they perform every kind of work. Their lust for life and passion for excellence is mind boggling. It is amazing to see how the state machinery works and provides for the comfort of its people. From the scrubbed clean environment to police protection, free education, excellent medical care and social security back up; everything is scrupulous and hassle-free. Seemingly, everything is automatic yet a lot of concern and organisational experience works at every level.
My friends and relatives in India were more excited than me. With excitement in their voices and probably stars in their eyes, their enquiries were unending. I had been in Jersey City only for few days but I had to visit New York to quickly tell them about the Big Apple. Honestly speaking, I too was keen to visit New York. I was already warned to pull up my socks before I intended to take up the venture. I boarded the train from New Port, which was to take me to 34th Street in Manhattan. From there one had to just walk and walk. I touched the 34th Street and got the shock of my life. An endless sea of people flowing from every nook and corner. Walking, crossing, talking and yet mindless of each other's existence. I almost got vertigo. Streets were over crowded and so was the sky. A little strip of the blue sky seemed terribly squeezed between tall sky scrapers and the feel was claustrophobic. The glitz and glamour was evident everywhere. I took a breather and rested for a while at Times Square. These are my very subjective impressions and may be totally different from others but I could not discern a relaxed demeanour or a contented look. Even the few hours of joi de vivre seemed burdened with some concerns which reflected in their expressionless eyes and the straight faces. This is perhaps what the stress of modern life does to a human soul. I wanted to explore New York and decided to take a bus ride to absorb and assimilate the spirit of the city of endless opportunity.
It was a different and pleasurable experience to sit at the top of the bus and go around the city. As the bus was negotiating the various streets, the gregarious guide was enlightening us about the history of monuments and buildings. As one is familiar with and has heard of these places it was exciting to come face to face with history. Wall Street, United Nations, Rockefeller, Stock Exchange, Central Park and World Trade Center, now just a barren spot, and a sad reminder of the 9/11 catastrophe.
For me the piece de resistance was the Statue of Liberty magnificently perched in the Ellis Island symbolising the American Spirit and their resilience was awesome. The 20-minute ferry ride, which took us to the statue, was pure delight and summed up the joy ride.
The visit to Addison, Princeton, Hopkins and Verona was a different experience. The drive from Jersey City to these places was simply exotic. Endless stretches of green, fresh dew-kissed flowers and beautifully designed houses seemed to belong to some fairyland; no dust, no pollution and no human beings. At least I did not see anyone on the roads or outside these fairytale houses; it was weird and yet enchanting.
I was wondering how people survive here without the human touch, which is so palpable everywhere in my country. A friend of mine who has been residing in the U.S. for 20 years lucidly summed it up: “bonding”, which rendered me speechless.
The young in the U.S. have no time to waste on relationships and bonding and the old are well looked after by the state. Help is just a phone call away. The car comes, takes the elderly to the desired place and their needs and requirements are fulfilled. How I wished such facilities were available in my country. These social securities have substituted the need for interactive, person-to-person concern and care.
But I also wondered about the gentle touch, the soft caress, the loving glance which we Indians are so used to and take for granted. I blessed my country and its traditions so completely layered without bonding, affection and love for each other.
Mini India resides in Addison. From food to groceries, clothes, Pan Parag, betel nuts — everything is available. Indians have established themselves in business and are doing pretty well for themselves. But to me they seemed unwilling to change their ways of life.
In Journal Square, the mess and filth was appalling and embarrassing. The musty odour emanating from open dustbins justified the dislike, which is being secretly harboured against Indians. May be this why Indians are not able to integrate into the mainstream of the American society and live in their self styled cocoons. But, irrespective of their insensitivity to a clean, organised way of life, they have learnt the dignity of labour and hard work.
As the American way of life offers no other option, Indians perform all chores from cleaning the pee and poo of the doggies to cleaning the toilets or any other work required to fulfil the necessities of life.
Shift in attitude
The same Indians who shun work in their own country take credit and pride in performing the jobs there. I wistfully thought if we could adopt the same attitude towards work and dignity of labour and hard work then our country's destiny would be different. As of now the U.S. needs India's brain power and Indians are happy to earn dollars and bask in the reflected glory of American opulence.
My sensory perceptions were taking a thousand shapes and my American visit was coming to an end. It is impossible to know the U.S. in a month's time and that too by just visiting a few cities. But during my sojourn I could feel the great American spirit, their sense of pride for their country and their unquenchable thirst to be the best.
My American Dream has definite contours now and I hope to fill its myriad contours with every ensuing visit to this amazing land of the free and the brave. I shall also cherish my visit to the U.S. for the simple reason that it has made me fall in love with my country all over again.
We have drawbacks, we are defaulters and we are responsible for the mess. If we could just wake up and learn to respect, cherish and preserve what India has given us then no one can stop us from saying Sare Jahan se Achcha Hindustan Hamara.
The writer is an author, filmmaker and producer and was the face of Hindi Doordarshan News in the 1970s and 1980s.