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Slices from Life

‘I am in a New York state of mind’

Narrative and photographs by Ravi Shankar

New York Skyline from a ferry

The new Oculus transportation hub was spectacular! Spacious, roomy, bright, and inviting. A vision in white. The building was designed by the Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava and consists of interlocking ribs that meet high above the ground. I was visiting the One World Trade Center and had taken the New York metro to the station.

One World Trade Centre

Built on the site of the twin towers, it is the tallest building in the western hemisphere. The height is 1776 feet, a reference to the year of American independence. The One World observatory is right at the top (100 to 102nd floors). The elevator ride to the observatory was fast. The history of New York is shown on the elevator panels during the 47-second ride to the hundred and second floor. The view of the New York skyline from the observatory was spectacular. The observatory has a lot to offer but most extra attractions are charged.

New York is infamous for even charging passengers to use the baggage trolleys at JFK airport. This is a service that is free in most of the world and something I could never get used to. The 22-story Flatiron building was the first skyscraper completed in 1903. Many iconic New York skyscrapers were seen, and their history was explained. The view down to the street level projected to the floor in the Skyportal was scary. City Pulse provided an opportunity to interact with the city ambassadors (locals with an intimate knowledge of the city). The collection of high-definition monitors provided me with an intriguing view of New York.  

I enjoyed taking the New York (NY) buses. There are different types of buses; most allow for easy wheelchair access. The next bus stop is displayed on the screen of the bus. Bus stops also have screens showing when the next bus is expected. Jamaica, where I was staying, had articulated buses. I did go on some long walks in the city. The weather was getting colder but was still tolerable. Cold is something you must factor in when visiting New York in the winter. The trees become bare ghosts stripped off their leaves. With the advent of spring, the dormant trees wake up. Coming from tropical climes a tree totally devoid of leaves, fruits, and flowers was a unique sight. 

The Baisley Pond Park was very near where I was staying. The 109-acre park includes the 30-acre Baisley Pond in the centre. Most trees were already bare. The park is a popular venue for sporting events and get-togethers in the summer. The weather greatly influences people’s lives in the northern climes. I enjoyed taking long walks in the park. Jamaica had people from all regions. There were African Americans, Hispanics, South Asians, East Asians, Africans, and others. I was staying in an AirBnB (a house owned by an African American gentleman named Kevin). The room was in the basement of Kevin’s house. We eventually became good friends. There were a few eating places located around Kevin’s house.

I decided to spend a few days in the quietest borough in New York, Staten Island. NY has five boroughs – the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. Staten Island is the southernmost and for a long time was predominantly agricultural. Staten Island is not commonly visited by tourists. I took the bright, orange-coloured Staten Island ferry. The travel time is about twenty minutes. The ferry travels close to the Statue of Liberty, a gift from

Statue of Liberty from the ferry

the French people to the people of the United States. I took a bus from the ferry terminal to the house where I would be staying. The area had a large Hispanic population and I enjoyed food from the Dominican Republic and Mexico. The room was nice and warm, and the bay windows provided a good view of the street.

The Staten Island Zoo is an eight-acre urban zoo open throughout the year. The zoo is also called Barrett Park and is located on the estate grounds of a US war hero, Colonel Harden. The zoo is run by the Staten Island zoological society founded in 1933. The zoo holds frequent educational sessions. Winter was starting and many animals had been shifted to warmer enclosures. A lot of effort had been expended on recreating the native environment of most animals. Zoologists now know a lot about different animals and their habitats. I had seen similar effort being put in at the zoos in Taiping.

One of the highlights of my visit was the afternoon spent at Richmond Old Town. The site was for more than two centuries the seat of the Staten Island government. The government was shifted to the northern part of the island after the island became one of the boroughs of New York. The former county clerk’s office serves as a historic museum. I enjoyed stepping back in time. The visitor’s centre is in the third county courthouse. There are several historic structures.

There were individuals dressed as historical characters enacting different roles and speaking the lingua of the past. One of the highlights of the afternoon was the guided tour of different properties led by the museum curator. New York was originally settled by the Dutch and called New Amsterdam. The houses were built in the old Dutch style. People lived much more simply in those days and closer to the land. I saw straw beddings that attracted vermin easily and had to be disposed of periodically. I was reminded of a night spent sleeping on a straw mattress in a Nepalese trekking lodge when I was devoured alive by bed bugs. Bed bugs are a resilient species and I read they were making a comeback even in upmarket hotels in developed nations. The massive brick ovens used to bake bread were intriguing as was the old, solid furniture.

The afternoon was getting cloudy and windy as I took the bus back to my room. The next morning, I took the ferry back to Queens. Soon it was time for me to fly back. Terminal 4 at JFK airport can be very crowded. Luckily due to my frequent flier status with Kuwait airways, I had access to the Etihad lounge. Dusk was slowly settling on the airport and the sleek modern control tower was being lit in various fluorescent colours. This was an interesting visit to the Big Apple. NY is sprawling, rough, busy, rushed, kind, and individualistic.

People come to chase their dreams from all over the world. I was reminded of the famous song by Billy Joel and Tony Bennett titled ‘Í am in a New York state of mind’ as the plane gathered height and slowly left the lights of the big apple far, far below!     

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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Categories
Slices from Life

KL Twin Towers near Kolkata?

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

On Panchami, the Fifth Day of Durga Puja, around noon, I was stopped by a small girl riding a pillion on her father’s motorbike. In a polite but hurried and restless voice, she asked me the way to reach the ‘Twin Towers’. Usually, I am not comfortable while offering directions, and often goof it up by saying left when I mean right. On this occasion, I exercised caution and pondered over the easiest and quickest route before advising her father to enter through the next lane and then turn right to find what was nothing short of a wonderland for the schoolgirl. She smiled and waved for prompt assistance while her father accelerated the two-wheeler. It was apparent they were new to this small town that had suddenly grown big in stature within weeks and emerged as a hotspot because of the replica of the Twin Towers from Malaysia as one of the Puja pandal themes here.   

The Puja organisers were surprised as the turnout surpassed their expectations and broke all previous records. Some analysts explained this unprecedented wave was the public response to the pandemic that had kept them indoors for two consecutive years. With people sharing images and reels across social media platforms, the ‘Twin Towers’ went viral, generating a big buzz among pandal hoppers to include it in the must-see list. The sea of humanity in this small town surged from neighbouring towns, far-off districts, and even other states.  

The grandeur of tall towers led to a google search for architectural wonders, modern and ancient, from around the world as likely themes for the puja pandals next year. The appeal of tall and towering structures offers a valid reason to see the lavish artificial mounts to be dismantled within a few days of idol immersion. Painstakingly built over the months, the hard work of artisans and craftsmen has paid off rich dividends – without any special efforts by the organisers. The public informed fellow citizens of all faiths, through every possible means of communication, to visit the Twin Towers and make the Puja celebrations complete.

It was much bigger than the crowds milling at any cadre-driven political rally organised in Bengal. Missing this marvel was a loss for devotees and non-believers who thronged the Puja pandals to see art and creativity in full bloom. “Have you seen the Twin Towers?” became the common refrain that gained currency among local people drawn from all sections. Tens of thousands of people stood in queues that moved at a snail’s pace, their floral and musk fragrances overpowering their perspiration. Driven by faith and the desire to see the architectural marvel and the Goddess, the crowds showed patience for hours, braving thunderstorms and intermittent showers without complaints, standing with umbrellas for their turn, without any attempt to jump the fence. 

Droves of people – armed with camera-flashing mobile phones – were busy capturing the Twin Towers from various angles, looking for a different click for their feeds, slowing down their pace to capture the images without blurring. The volunteers brandished batons to keep the crowds moving toward the exit gate. The entire process of entering the pandal and exiting was over within two minutes. The wait outside the pandal took a couple of hours at least.  

Although I had visited other pandals where the turnout was modest, I intended to see the ‘Twin Towers’ after Dashami, the last day of the festival, after the crowds thinned. I wanted to be bedazzled by the lights, so I did not venture during the daytime. I chose to go during in the late evening for a fully lit-up view of the colossal towers, to stand behind the crowds discussing bus routes and means of transport available at night, apart from momos and biriyani outlets in the vicinity. It was the last day after the week-long festival drew to a close. But the turnout remained steady and suggested it was perhaps the first day, showing once again that aesthetic appeal allures people and creates a hangover that refuses to subside even after the curtains are drawn.  

I came out of the premises and checked the random clicks on my phone. I was overwhelmed with the pride of having seen the replica. I had captured the precious moments, posing against the backdrop of the Twin Towers forever. 

Whether this Puja inspires people from Bengal to travel to Malaysia to see the towers is pure speculation. But it has made people complacent, and they happily declare they have seen the Malaysia ‘Twin Towers’ in Bengal. Crossing borders, oceans, countries, and continents to select themes, the Pujas in Bengal offer people the vicarious pleasure of seeing the global wonders come alive in the art form.  

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  


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