The U.S. Album

Dusseldorf airport. My wife is travelling business class (hers is part business trip, part vacation) and I have an economy class ticket. At the Lufthansa business lounge the lady offers me a free upgrade. I‘m curious  — fifteen years have passed since I last flew business  —  but I also think the experience overrated. A reclining seat with a bigger screen is what it is.

On this flight the wide seats recline a full 180 degrees, no hurried movements are needed to stow our bags, the Bose headphones are divine, the three-course lunch is excellent, but it is the service, exclusive and personalised, that clinches it. At few other times do we receive this close attention to our demands as we do in an airplane. It turns us into children again. Press a button and someone is by your side, ready to meet your request. Why, they come to you even if you don’t press a button. Hot towels, refreshments, magazines, medicines, dinner, dessert: these may be offered in economy too, but the business class service is more relaxed, more personal. They slow things down, and make each moment more pleasurable.

The service in business class is better because we pay for it (a sum four to five times higher than economy), but do those flight attendants treat me with so much courtesy and kindness only because I’ve paid more? Although hard to accept, it is the truth: money can buy kindness too. And that doesn’t seem right. But all this luxury is so pleasing, so relaxing in its smoothness, that I find myself asking what could be wrong in coveting an experience that makes me feel so good. I can get used to it, I think, then recoil at the thought.

This consumerist trap is hard to escape. Once used to a certain level of comfort, to let go of it, to reduce your consumption, seems like a sacrifice, even if life was just fine at the previous level of consumption. It reminds me of the concept of ‘hedonic normalization’, put forward by Nicholas Agar in his book The Sceptical Optimist, an idea that suggests that at each point in history humans adjust to the level of comfort available in their environment. But thinking back to a previous era we conclude that life then — lacking the comforts we now have — must have been unbearable. In truth, those people were normalized to their surroundings, had adjusted well to what they had. They did not experience the level of discomfort we imagine for them now, as we project ourselves to their times.

In less than an hour I am normalized to my business class environment. It is the notion of exclusivity that appeals most to me, drawing on the same instinct that makes me avoid touristy places. Less crowded, more space, more quiet. This isn’t really important on an eight hour journey, but if I get it at no cost, why not?

2.

There were times I felt this neighbourhood, in Hillsborrough NJ, had to be someone’s vision of paradise. Big, impressive mansions set in a sea of green lawns, with landscaped gardens, neatly tiled driveways (at the end of which stood a basketball hoop), swimming pools in backyards, trees planted at equal distances, deer ambling by. I did not often see people walking, although occasionally a car drove past. The house I was staying at, another McMansion, was at a cul-de-sac, and beyond it lay a wilderness of bushes and trees. Once I saw a fox trotting among the bushes. Hedgehogs entered the backyard, birds took refuge on nearby trees, and the rattle of crickets rent the air daylong and nightlong.

The house had a large basement. It was a recreational area, with a table-tennis table on wheels, a carrom board, a television used to play Wii games and screen movies, and a treadmill. A small corner room contained an inventory of groceries; a refrigerator here — the second in the house — was used as cold storage. On the ground floor were two living rooms and two dining rooms — one for guests, used rarely, and one for the family — a kitchen, and a study. Upstairs, four bedrooms of various sizes. Four thousand square feet in all. Four televisions, three cars, a hundred meters from nearest neighbour, half a mile from tennis courts. This was the setting the boy, my nephew, twelve years old now, was growing up in.

At around his age, the house in Secunderabad I lived in was an eight-hundred square feet one storey house in a colony — Syndicate Bank colony — of similarly sized houses. It had an L-shaped living-dining area, a kitchen, two bedrooms. The house-front had just enough space for a small car, a patch we used for my dad’s Bajaj Chetak scooter — peppermint green, CAI 2252, with a frog’s croak for a horn — and in the tiny backyard an ivy gourd creeper grew on a precarious wooden frame. The terrace upstairs had a water tank in a corner; the rest of it I used for cricket — two runs if the ball strikes this wall, four on that wall — and, in the Sankranti season, to fly kites. The houses stood close to one another, separated by a few feet and a shared boundary wall. We could hear the neighbour’s television, and sometimes the quarrels they had. The street our house stood on ended a hundred meters away with an unpainted cement wall that marked the colony’s boundary, and through a crude opening in this wall we squeezed across to the other side where, in the courtyard of a small temple, some boys had set up a badminton court. On evenings we were banned by some neighbourhood aunties from playing street cricket (a few window glasses had fallen to a pull shot or a lofted on drive), I took to playing badminton on this court. To the right of the temple stood a hut where the local milkman lived with his family and a few buffaloes. It was in this colony, aged thirteen, that I got my first bicycle, a Hero model I used for my daily ride to school and back with my little sister seated in front. It was also here that dad bought the family’s first television, a fourteen inch black and white Uptron. The year was 1986. Doordarshan was the only channel on it.

This Secunderabad neighbourhood of the eighties has changed beyond recognition, but even today it must be a world away from the Hillsborrough neighbourhood the boy lives in. He is too young to appreciate what he has — the luxury, the access, and the abundant space here — and he probably does not also see what he misses: the community in a dense neighbourhood, the chance to play after school with children his own age, the joy in getting a much sought after bicycle or the first television at home.

3.

The house was an island. I could choose to stay shut off from the world, and I did try. But occasionally I would hear something on TV, catch a remark by someone, or spot a headline somewhere, and the world outside slipped into my mind.

And so I heard about Donald Trump’s extraordinary rise to the top of the Republican candidate fray. The liberals were puzzled, worried, and embarrassed. There was a note of optimism in Rachel Maddow’s voice as she read out results of a poll. The top Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, it said, would trump any Republican.

I also heard about the bravery and heroism of three Americans on a Paris-bound train. They disarmed a man carrying an AK-47. Early reports in the U.S. media seemed to focus solely on the bravery of these Americans. There was little curiosity about the man with the gun, or his motives. We all know who it was, and why they do it. Let’s move on.

Then there was the tragic incident of the reporter and the cameraman who were gunned down during the live broadcast of an interview.

Katrina’s tenth anniversary was in the news. It seemed a relief, almost, that the event in focus was unrelated to an act of human violence.

A populist politician, an attempted terrorist attack, gun violence, a natural disaster: the script is already written, one only has to fill in the particulars of the most recent event.

4.

With the boy I played table tennis and chess. In the previous years, my attempts at teaching him chess had not gone far. He wanted only to win, losing left him frustrated. But allowing him to win was not the best way to teach him the game. This time he was more relaxed about losing, which meant our conversations were different. The basics he picked up fast. He began well, trying to gain control of the center. He did not move the same piece twice during the opening. He kept his queen from sticking her neck out early. He learned to castle on the king’s side, but he worried that behind that castle of pawns the king was vulnerable to a mate from the opponent’s rook or queen. He wanted to know if we had entered the middle game, and at what precise point had this happened.

Chess is a test of your attention span. For a boy of twelve, given his inclinations to let the mind wander, he fared well. He attempted tactical moves to attack a piece or to defend one, and once he even planned a king-side attack. Occasionally, in his enthusiasm to win a piece, he would miss seeing the obvious and make a blunder. He seemed to learn from such mistakes, and he enjoyed the hours we spent staring at the board: “It was fun!” he would say afterward.

Like many children in their early teens I had played chess irregularly, but in the summer of 1989, during the long break between tenth and eleventh grade, I began to develop a serious interest in the game. A chess camp at the local Young Men’s Christian Association sparked it. The coach, Mr.Gyananandam, an elderly man who took on the arbiter role in local chess championships, had ideas that were sometimes off theory — he favoured two knights to two bishops, for instance — and he began each class with ten minutes of pranayama, teaching us the method of inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other. This creates a state of mind ideal for the game ahead, he said. His best lesson to us that summer was an introduction to chess notations, the old descriptive and the new algebraic, which opened for me a new world of chess books. The title I remember spending most time with was Rueben Fine’s Chess: The easy way. It was not easy, but it was fun. I was hooked to the game. Here was a fascinating self-contained universe one could navigate and understand entirely through books: what more could I want?

That summer I also started playing table tennis at the YMCA. As a beginner I sat lowest in the pecking order, a hierarchy that defined who got to play whom, and for how long. The seniors played in the inner room, using bats fitted with Yasaka Mark V rubber, and sometimes I saw them facing a wall, simply tracing in air the arc of a particular shot. Back and forth and back again, a hundred times the bat struck an invisible ball in air. They called it shadow practice, and they said it helped you master a shot, like the forehand top-spin or the backhand chop. I watched them and mimicked them, and over the summer my game improved. I had picked up the basics from people serious about the game, and this unlocked a potential I had not known before. By summer’s end I could easily beat my classmates who had little idea of these techniques. Knowledge, even in a physical sport, was power.

At Hillsborough, many hours were spent in the basement playing table tennis with the boy and teaching him the skills I’d learned when I was fifteen. Through shadow practice I tried to get him unlearn the swat and learn instead that arc needed for a top-spin shot. Don’t swat the ball, I’d tell him often. Toward the end of my stay he began to get it. The shots improved in consistency, and he too began to see and understand the magic of technique.

Through him I rediscovered an old self of mine. Old memories were recalled and new ones were formed. And I discovered the pleasure, this far unknown to me, of teaching someone of the next generation lessons I had learned years ago.

5.

I was sitting in a fast-food grill joint in Washington D.C. when the thought came to mind. The place was unremarkable. On the menu, displayed above the counters, were the usual fast food options: burgers, paninis, sandwiches, fries. The tables were unclean; I spread a newspaper before setting down my tray. On nearby tables were formally dressed men, office-goers on a lunch break. A young black couple sat with their chubby toddler. Behind the counter were Mexican men and women. The food was cheap, and decent. Outside, on the wide roads, Japanese and American cars drove past. Tall glass-fronted buildings rose up and partitioned the sky.

I’d seen all this before. It was the sameness that hit me.

Later that evening, in the hotel snack lounge, the woman asked if I’d like a drink. Ginger Ale, I said. She picked up a hose — not unlike a garden hose, which looped downward and disappeared under the table — and holding it over an empty glass she flipped a switch. Golden liquid streamed out. I couldn’t resist asking, So you have a Ginger Ale button there? She looked embarrassed.

At breakfast next morning, the dining area was set for mass consumption. A signboard at the entrance displayed ideal breakfast slots: after 9 am the wait-time was ten to fifteen minutes. The quantity of food and drink on display anticipated this demand. The furniture and the interiors looked familiar, and going through the motions in that large hall full of business-people and tourists, the feeling was like of being in a hostel or an office canteen.

Capitalism was supposed to promote choice, but it seemed that the choices we made were all the same.

Promoting a culture of sameness is a profitable strategy; creating difference costs a business more. And these businesses know that consumers grow attached to the sameness: we seek out Starbucks in Istanbul and Mumbai, not the local chai stall, or Waterstones in Brussels, not an independent bookseller. Which fuels more of the sameness. The U.S. is where one sees with clarity this virus that’s eating the world. (The ultimate sameness is seen on the internet, where Facebook, Twitter, Medium, products of this country, ensure that a billion people have identical looking pages describing themselves and their thoughts.)

Soon after we landed in the U.S., on the drive home from the airport, we stopped at Costco, a wholesale retail store. Inside the enormous hangar-like building were tall columns of identical wares, from canned beans to dining table sets. In one corner stacks of a Pulitzer prize winning book — Anthony Doerr’s All the light we cannot see — were piled next to table fans and microwave ovens. To someone just arrived from Europe, all this was mind-boggling. It put a face to the abstraction of consumerism, a face that was disturbing, because it made you wonder if so much consumption was necessary, because you realised there was no end to this, and ultimately, because you had to face it: you were one of those consumers.

The scale was what struck me in Costco that first day, and scale turned out to be a recurring theme during the vacation. Near the end of our visit we drove to the Great Wolf Lodge, a water-park. Several hundred cars were parked in front of the two wings of this resort, wings with serried ranks of room windows like cells in a beehive, and inside, under the enormous dome of the water-park, hundreds of men, women, and children were running about, in the water and out of it, as dozens of uniformed employees stood around, serving or waiting to serve a guest. Mass consumerism, mass entertainment, the erosion of individuality: this is what the place seemed to stand for.

What choices did one have to escape this madness? You could either feel exclusive in business class, or join the masses in economy. The other option was not to travel. This is what consumerism has left us with.

6.

New York is now a familiar city. This was the thought that struck me that afternoon as I walked in Manhattan, rode the subway, hailed a taxi, visited a museum, entered a bookstore, ate dinner. The specifics seemed not to matter. I knew I was in the city, I knew how it worked, and although I was noticing things with an outsider’s eye, they did not seem foreign. It was as though I was visiting a city I had lived in long ago. How could that be? I’ve visited New York about a dozen times, spending on each occasion half a day on an average. A lot of that time has been spent in museums, MoMA, the Met, and now the Whitney.

Foreignness in travel arises out of discomfort, and it depends on the unfamiliarity of the place. We travel to seek unfamiliar worlds, but what of places that have grown familiar over time? Then the eye must look harder, yes, but the pungency of discomfort is gone, and with it a certain charm of the place. New York, before I first visited it, was a mythical place, a ‘great city’ I’d read about and seen in movies and photographs, a place that was not my city but a city imagined by others. The first time I visited the city (and this persisted for several visits) the feeling was of awe. I was sucked in by the energy on the streets, I felt small amid those skyscrapers, and small also beside the confident city people. But I also felt at home. The city seemed like a common man’s city too, not just a city for the rich and famous and artistic. There was something Mumbai-like in the unclean corners, in the street-side vendors, in the diversity, in the culture of commerce, in the local transport, and in the water that flanks the city.

This time the New York experience was like rereading a favourite book and finding familiarity there, as though one has dwelt in that world a long time.

We were four, of German, Chinese, Nigerian, and Indian origin, and we met at a bar. We spoke of the difficulties of eating meat after watching a chicken harvesting machine at work, of masturbating in front of a dog, of the day a racoon entered the apartment, of the Kurosawa movie running on the corner screen in a negative print, of plans to tattoo an arm with words I can no longer recall. The group, the setting, the talk  — there was New York written all over.

So now I think I recognise well the patterns here, and I slot the city into one or the other category, thin cities, trading cities, hidden cities, continuous cities, invisible cities. The more one sees the world, the smaller it becomes. I need fresh eyes.

7.

On the NJ Transit train from New York Penn Station to New Brunswick, I take a window seat in an empty four seater area. A large, black man wearing sunglasses enters the compartment, carrying a stereo player and a brown leather bag, and takes the seat opposite me, placing the stereo on the seat beside mine and the bag next to his seat. On the other side of the aisle I see a white couple, in their forties, the man reading a newspaper and the woman a book. Behind them is a middle-aged black man, with greying hair and an unshaven chin, and next to him is a young man with Hispanic features. The compartment is filling up, and a few seconds before the train starts two young women, one white and one of mixed race, take the seats behind the black man facing me. The white woman seems distressed, her eyes are puffy, and the other woman holds her hand.

I plug my earphones in and begin a Yasmine Hamdan playlist. The older black man across the aisle has started a conversation with the young man. It is loud and one-sided: the young man only listens and nods occasionally. The white woman in the row behind is now sobbing. Her companion pats her arm, says something into her ears. The white man across the aisle has stopped reading the newspaper and has closed his eyes. The black man seated opposite me still has his sunglasses on. He looks like Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. He turns on the stereo and starts playing pop music on the speakers. It isn’t loud, but the music filters in through my earphones, and Yasmine Hamdan begins to sound like a mix of Amy Winehouse and Madonna. I want him to stop playing the music, or to use earphones, but I do not have the guts to make that request.

The older black man grows louder in his conversation, and this seems to disturb the white man trying to sleep. He stands up, turns around, and asks the black man to keep it low. For a moment the black man is stunned. Then, going on as before, he asks the young man beside him how he could lower it if that was his natural voice. That’s the way I speak man — how can I not talk the way I talk? The young Hispanic man nods.

I pull out my earphones and stare out of the window. It is dark outside. In the middle distance I see inconclusive shapes of buildings and bridges. The ticket collector comes by, and Marcellus shows him a ticket with holes in it. The collector is a short, white man with greying hair and liquid eyes, and his face takes on an amused expression that says this ain’t a valid ticket. He asks him about the ticket, and Marcellus answers that it got punched accidentally. The collector returns a wry smile, shrugs, and moves on.

The white woman has stopped crying, and she keeps her eyes closed. The Hispanic man is sleeping, or pretending to sleep.

3 thoughts on “The U.S. Album

  1. ok, i had to comment. your description is so apt, it makes me all the more disgusted with this consumption virus that’s threatening everything to take over every country and lives. It is all so shallow….

  2. Well written, as usual. I confess I was looking for some photos though!

    Re: consumerism: OK, I will bite. What is so wrong about consumerism? We all are consumers, and each consumes to the level he or she wants to.

    Let me answer my own question (and share my point of view) – to me, it is sacrilege to have books selling side by side with electronics, clothes, shoes, etc. However, I am used to it now! 🙂

    Re: #2. It does appear that 4000 sq ft (Off-topic question: I can see why the USA does it, but why does the rest of the world still use square feet as a measure of living area?) is a lot. However, as I recently realized, our 2400 sq ft house appears measly if we were to invite kiddos swim team from high school over for a party. But as far as we are concerned, this is it – I went with Mrs. Porcupyn’s need to move into a bigger house after a lot of soul searching (from our previous 1400 sq ft house). But I will be the first to admit that we have not had any issues fitting into the extra 1000 sq ft!!

    Comparing your (our) childhood to that of the current generation will never work out. When I talk with friends (born and brought up here), they bring up the same disconnect between how things were when THEY were growing up compared to how it is now. My kids (and theirs) are used only to “organized sport” – unfortunately, for the most part, this is true in urbanized India as well. The only saving grace there is that even though folks earn nearly half of what similar professionals earn in the USA, that is still insufficient to live in a stand alone house in, say, Bengalooru. So, they are forced to live wall-to-wall with neighbours, thereby providing kids with some opportunities of “(un)organized sport” 🙂

    Re: #5. Believe me, I do get the comment about sameness, and get irked by it (by sameness, not by the comment!). However, online is one place where sameness is probably for the best. The USP of Facebook is to unite your friends and family. If there were 100 avatars of it, surely it would be very very difficult – if not impossible – to a) collar all your kith and kin together in one place or alternatively b) to spill your content out in 100 different forums so you don’t lose track of a few of your buddies (or uncles and aunts).

    – Porcupyn

    1. Thank you P, for reading and sharing your thoughts in detail — it was fun to read!

      I guess the key to understanding your viewpoint lies in something you mention there- “I am used to it now”.

      For someone used to these things, the emphasis in the essay may come as a surprise. For instance, I assume the boy is as used to (or normalized) to his environment as we were to ours during childhood — he may not understand (even after he grows up) what the fuss is all about in this post. I guess this is what you mean when you say that such a comparison “will never work out.”

      By the way, I was told that the size I mentioned did not include the basement. So add at least another 1000 sq feet to it 🙂

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