Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Notes from San Francisco


I was in New York this summer. I landed at the JFK airport late in the evening, and was immediately disoriented. It was a hot and humid evening. A fog had descended over the city; planes vanished within seconds into a gray shroud. In Manhattan, visibility was limited to a block or two and the tops of skyscrapers weren’t visible. To add to the gloom, I suffered a bad bout of hemorrhoids right after I got off the plane. It took me more than a hour to make my way from the airport to my hostel in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, and the city seemed depressing: subway commuters with tired, hollow expressions, the ominous emptiness of some stations and the dereliction of some neighborhoods. There was some cheer, though, in the excited conversations in different languages I heard along the way. They spoke of an alive, multicultural New York, of the hope that the famous city provided to many.

I felt better the next morning, and was able to take in details with greater neutrality, to enjoy them as a visitor would enjoy a new setting: dogs straining on leashes; shopkeepers out with the hose, cleaning the immediate area outside their stores; the bright mustard yellow of cabs; black plastic bags of trash piled up on the pavement; trucks parked awkwardly, congested traffic and frayed tempers; stalls selling hot dogs, bagels, gyros and kebabs; the subterranean rumble and rat-a-tat of trains beneath the roads; smoke or steam escaping the manholes and grates as if the city sat upon a cauldron.


San Francisco last week reminded me of my first evening in New York. It was dark when I arrived. The downtown streets and the tall buildings brought back the same memories, the feeling of being in a narrow space, of being hemmed in. I was very conscious of my presence, worried that the map in my hand and suitcase that I rolled along would attract attention, or that one of the many homeless – some crouched in dark corners, silent; others vocal in their plea for change, with cups in their hands– would do more than just be passive in their requests. I was trying to not to look at them, to avoid the vacuity or helplessness or rage or desperation I knew I would see in their eyes. I needn’t have worried; I had a different kind of encounter.

A very well dressed man – light gray suit and tie – came up to me. He was black, probably in his forties and said he was from someplace close to Los Angeles. “Do you speak English?” he asked, and when I nodded he told me his story. Outside San Francisco, he had been mugged at gunpoint and everything had been taken from him. He had his car parked somewhere, had left his family in the car and needed $8.73 for gas; he needed the money soon, or his car would be towed.

“No one I’ve talked to has helped me,” he said. “If you help me, and give me your business card, I’ll send you double the amount. Or I’ll treat you and your wife for lunch.”

He spoke well. If I had just seen him from a distance and not talked to him, I might have thought him to be a local politician, out on a vote-garnering trip on the streets. The story he told me was an echo of what I had heard in the past, in other places; the novelty was in the assumption that I had a wife and in the offer for lunch. The no-gas-need-some-money story, even the stranded-family detail, is somehow the most commonly used story; perhaps it is known to be successful. But the story in this case came from a man whose suit and cell phone and smooth way of talking seemed to lend an authenticity to his claim. “I am no drunkard,” he said and seemed to thrust the cell phone in my face. I was looking at his fingers, to see if they were clean or grimy; I was looking for a hint of impoverishment, of abjectness beneath the convincing externals he was presenting to me.

I muttered something about not being able to give him any money and started to walk away. He had an expression of disbelief and hurt that remained with me for that night. I assuaged the unpleasantness in me with the thought that a story of the sort he had given me could not have been true; and that if he was the person he said he was – well off enough to be clothed that way – he might have been able to help himself easily.


That night, I met Jim, one of my roommates at the hostel I was staying in. He was a thin man, with long hair, stubbled jaw and a gentle demeanor. He was returning from Mexico, from a business trip, and was on his way back to Minneapolis. He said he was traveling a lot these days, that he had spent quite some time in the past with his family and raising children, and now he wanted to be free and youthful again. “Like you,” he said smiling.

Jim’s background was in psychiatry. He said he had a lot of experience with convicts, addicts, and homeless people. When I said I had always been in schools and universities, he joked: “I am the opposite. I’ve never been in an academic setting; I’ve always dealt with the real world.” There was no rancor or regret in this comment; I felt there might have been a sense of achievement. I told him of the man who had requested money from me that evening, and my general discomfort on the issue. “They know how you’ll feel,” he said, “and that’s the target. That’s how they play themselves into your mind. It’s pathetic.”

Jim then told me about Steve, the other person who was sharing the room with us. He said that Steve talked a lot in his sleep and that might disturb me at night. He had talked to Steve and from what he had gathered, Steve was on medication of some sort, and had had brain damage as a child. I wondered if Jim had deduced all this information indirectly, given his background in psychiatry, and whether he was analyzing me as well. But Jim left the next day and I didn’t get to talk to him again.

It was a typical hostel experience: people constantly on the move; their personalities and features only momentary impressions; different roommates from one day to the next – two Australians in my case: one a burly, cheerful man who always asked me what the time was, and his friend, a grave, unsmiling man. And yet, despite the faint imprints that people left and the feeling of flux and inconstancy, the hostel, more than a hotel, has a communal feel. In a hotel, one can feel quite solitary.


I went the next day to see Muir Woods, where one of the last stands of redwood trees is preserved. Redwood trees had always fascinated me, and my interest dated back to the days when I had seen in my high school geography textbook a picture of a tunnel through a tree and a car riding through this tunnel. A roadway through the trunk of a tree! The redwood trees at Muir Woods are quite big but perhaps the bigger trees – thirty feet in diameter and 250-300 feet tall – are at Sequoia National Park. I hope to see them some day.

Three years ago, I wrote an unfinished – and forgettable – story and a small part of it had to with my fascination for redwood trees. The story was set in a fictional forest or wilderness where all the different landscapes of the world – plains, dense jungles, deserts, valleys and mountains with snow and conifers – co-exist. The characters in the story are students and researchers who roam the wilderness, discovering new plants, understanding the behaviour of animals, conducting geological and fossil studies and many other things. There are clearings in the wilderness, where the students and researchers retire to discuss their findings of the day. It was a romantic university setting, inspired from my awe of the universities in US and the myriad topics that academicians explored.

The protagonist is a student Avfed – the names of characters are arbitrary permutations of letters, but pronounceable – and he is looking for a particular plant that his boss has asked him and other students to find. In his quest through the wilderness he comes across a tree, very much like a redwood tree:

“One of his biggest delights had been when, late on the third afternoon, from a distance, he had spotted an exceptionally tall and large tree; the delight came from the almost certain belief that this was the Thick Trunk that everyone talked so much about. He hiked off his prescribed track to take a closer look. Many of Avfed’s friends had seen Thick Trunks and had related to him of how they had gaped in awe at their monstrosity, and had been humbled by their immense size. Avfed had always wanted to see one himself.

The tree was close now, and Avfed could now clearly see its form. Its size was enough to astound anyone. The breadth of the trunk was certainly more than thirty feet, and its height over a couple of hundred feet. It stood peerless for miles around it but it had similar awe-inspiring colleagues in other parts of the forest. Many experts had conclusively proved through fossil studies that the Thick Trunk had grown profusely in the forest thousands of years ago, but for some reason – the most common theory being that of climactic change – they had disappeared, and those that remained were relics of that bygone age when they had been dominant. Avfed roamed around the foot of the tree, and stared long and hard, up and down, all around the tree, attempting to absorb its immensity.”


I went to Muir Woods on a tour bus. I sat next to Anthony, a Nigerian immigrant from New Jersey, who had been in the US for the last eight years, and ten years before that in Canada. He was tall and had a brooding look. Just after we were on our way he said: “We are the only two single people on this trip.” It was a complaint. “I asked my son to come along with me but he doesn’t want to travel; he doesn’t like these things.”

I enjoyed his company. Anthony works in software engineering now, but he has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Lagos. In the last eighteen years, he had been back only twice to Nigeria. He has sisters who live there. He didn’t like the political situation in Nigeria, and said everything was corrupt.

He then told me of his interest in Bollywood movies. He liked the movies from the sixties, seventies and the eighties – he recalled Karz, Mother India and Sholay. He didn’t like the recent movies: “They are too American. You’d rather watch Hollywood.”

The bus dropped us off at the entrance of the park and we had an hour to get back. It was a moist day. There was a drizzle, light enough to be almost unnoticeable, but constant, and the ferns and other plants around the redwood trees were refreshingly green and glistened with drops. Such a fecund, sylvan setting, coming after months of living in the parched flatness of the Phoenix valley, was a surprise to me.


The African-American Historical and Cultural Center is at the Fort Mason Center, northwest of downtown San Francisco and close to the Golden Gate Bridge. They have a smaller building, a sister concern, at the intersection of Fulton and Webster. I had my directions wrong and thought the smaller place was the main center (I never made it to the main center). The place had a small gallery of paintings by an artist: the theme was Black Indian –Indian as in Native American: two titles I remember said Black Seminole and Black Ute – and the paintings were surrealistic amalgams of black faces and Indian head attire and piercing, all of this done with liberal splashes of color and haphazardly written statements. They were intense and striking.

The walls were of the center had dark colors. Upstairs there were offices; and a seminar was in progress. I left the place, a little disappointed as I had expected more – more on African American history, exhibits on the cruelty of slavery and segregation, views and biographies of great civil rights leaders. But when I left the place, I saw at the entrance an unexpected resource: San Francisco Bay View and San Francisco Metro Reporter, both newspapers with a strong African American focus. The former explicitly stated it was a National Black Newspaper and the latter said it was a news journal dedicated to the people but discussed, at least in the copy I had, news that had to do with blacks. I realized then that while a museum on African American history that I had expected to see might be restricted to the past, the articles in these newspapers might throw more light on how that past and the unique experience of the African Americans weaved themselves into the present.

The San Francisco Bay View had a direct, blunt and accusing style; there was a rage in its sentences. The Metro Reporter had a measured tone; its bent was political. Through their articles that I read I could imaginatively enter, to some extent, contemporary African Americans issues and the discussion on them. I knew little of these issues and the papers were informative: the themes were the poor treatment of Katrina refugees in San Francisco and California, clemency pleas for Stanley “Tookie” Williams, and elegiac yet positive and forward-looking opinions on the legacy that Rosa Parks had left behind.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Picaresque Narrative

I was for a long time under the spell of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I couldn’t get the narrator Saleem Sinai’s voice out of my head, and every time I sat down to write a story, I found myself using the Picaresque narrative. The Picaresque narrative involves a narrator who usually a loser of some sort but describes in a funny, quirky way the circumstances around him. The narrator is also usually very egocentric.

I thought I could use Picaresque narrative in a rural Indian setting. My protagonist was the son of a Brahmin farmer in Tamilnadu who has failed to finish his high school education, is just lounging idly around the farm and the village, and is interested in the flower vendor’s daughter. The summer that year turns out to be exceptionally hot and monsoons are delayed.

I haven’t finished the story, and am thinking of abandoning it – the Picaresque style at the least – but the ideas are still there in my mind. Below are some excerpts. They are in no particular order; I’ve just put some of the sections that I like.


There was once a time when I liked sugarcanes because in the lands that my father farmed, there grew long shoots of them. I liked walking between the rows and rows of them in the fields, treading the dark, moist earth, or squatting, or sometimes sitting long hours teasing the earthworms that either disappeared deep into the soil or emerged from the depths. I used to pick the squiggly creatures up, place them on my forearms, and feel them crawl aimlessly on my skin so that I could feel the tickles and the goose bumps.


She, with textbooks and notebooks held against her bosom, and I would then walk to Selvam’s food stall on the highway, where we would exhort him to start cooking for us, despite his protests that it would be a while before the buses came. What could more mesmerizing, what could be a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than to watch Selvam vigorously knead the dough, pinch off portions from it and shape them into small flat, half-an-inch thick circular pieces, and lay them symmetrically on the large, black griddle? Ah, to watch him make his barottas and korma! To watch him stoke the burning sticks and branches below the griddle through the opening in the brick enclosure, to watch him swell his cheeks and blow at the fledgling fire!


For the next month or so, with the little money that I had to travel in local buses, I roamed farms around the village with my Kodak camera and rolls, most of the time sitting under trees on hot afternoons, watching the leaves wither and fall in the sapping heat, my ears alert for any slithers or rustles so that I could capture snakes on film. You may question as to what such endeavors could have accomplished for me; today, sitting at Selvam’s stall, I too shake my head and wonder what had possessed me then. Was it the sheer boredom and emptiness of those scorching days? Or was it, as I increasingly think it to be, just a stupor that I fell in during the relentlessly long summer months till the late-arriving rains came and poured sense into me? For chasing snakes was only one of the many strange things that I was involved in, each of which I have difficulty in explaining today.

If indeed dizzyingly high temperatures were what afflicted me then what of others in the village? Was I the only one who succumbed to the delirium of the heat wave? Were not others in the village equally freakish, were they not concocting rituals and superstitions and wandering through the village, exhorting others to join?

I admit that I was present at that most unusual of marriages but so were others; I made a plea that the marriage and the parade of the newly weds around town should bring rain and cheer to the village, smiles back on the faces of the farmers, but so did others. Yes, I helped with the wedding; yes, I washed the donkeys in the water tank, yes I dressed them in garlands, yes I smeared them with sandalwood powder yellow and red, yes I dodged their vicious kicks, yes I helped tie the knot that secured the beasts in the wedlock and joined the procession as it made its way around the village. I remember the media people taking a picture of us that appeared, as someone later told me, in the Sunday edition of The Hindu and, and as my cousin from the US told me, on the BBC website.

So what if we arranged a wedding of donkeys? Was it not for a noble cause, to bring succor to parched land? Is it really that bad to hope for rain, to believe that the monsoon will come soon? How is it a shame, or how is it different from other acts of devotion? Why do people go to temples and pray everyday? Why do they flatten their palms over the supposedly divine flames in the hope that they’ll receive blessings? Why do people worship idols of gold and silver and stone? Why are idols anointed in milk of cows when frail, legless and handless beggars can only look on helplessly at lactating gutters? Why do priests have to empty fruits and butter into ritual fires?

That was how I defended myself; I shudder to think of how utterly uncompromising I was. But it didn’t stop then for the Sunday after the marriage, I was involved in yet another plea to the heavens. This time, I collected stems of bitter-smelling neem leaves that were strung onto a thick fallen branch, but it took a while to find a frog – they might have never found one had I not learnt of their dwellings through long hours of sitting under trees, next to dry creeks and pools. I held the poor wriggling thing by its leg, jumped and pranced my way to the temple where a crowd had gathered, helped the priest tie the slippery leg with a string to the neem-laden bough, and joined the retinue that toured the village. We clanged the metal grilles of gates, collecting alms, and encouraging families to pray that the temperatures would subside and the monsoon would arrive soon.