An Odd Hour of Bliss

I write for a living, but not dreamy, pretty, glorious things that remind you of tiny leaves rustling on a tar road in a vague breeze left over from summer. I don’t get to write about the black-and-white dog with the clipped tail that plays with an abandoned white canvas shoe in front of our gate, insistent on lying there even as we drive it out every time we have to bring the car in. My daily writing doesn’t allow me room for love-songs to the mountains I have seen only once and pine for, or let me weave horror stories populated by the lonely watchmen who stay up all night in tiny cabins, struggling against the cold and shadows. I can only admire, but not describe, the fragrance of damp earth float into my room as the rain begins to patter softly, then wrestle in vain against the frustration that comes from seeing the sun muscle its way back into prominence. There are everyday things passing me by, and I do nothing with them.

When you watch the woman in the pale pink chiffon saree walk home after a day’s hard work, don’t you want to know her story and write it down? When I see the light that occasionally shines from a usually abandoned room at the top of a building, I want to know the colour of its walls and the shape of the furniture inside. When I see the watchman in the house opposite unroll his mat, I want to ask how his newspapers suffice to fill up the day. This isn’t voyeuristic – this is just like wanting to peek at the cover of a book someone else on the train is reading. There are stories everywhere, and they are passing me by.

If you thought your time was money, you’d call me inane. We couldn’t be friends and you wouldn’t understand why I stare at the fronds of the palm tree every night, hoping to see the moon glimmer through them. You wouldn’t know why the picture of an old robot with its unseeing, metallic face makes my hair stand on end. You wouldn’t understand why my copy of Anne of Green Gables is in tatters and why I think seventeen is the most beautiful age to be. I want to complain about having passed the age where it is still reasonable to dream about grand things and hope that one day you will have seen the world from Tegucigalpa to Port Moresby – but not tonight, I can’t. Even though I don’t write about pretty things everyday, I feel them, and am happy to continue to do so, shushing the voice within that wants me to be practical.

In fact, I might be glad that I don’t write about pretty things for a living – because then, this odd hour of bliss when I can put words to nothingness would cease to be a treat.


One of the things I missed most while in the US was having a supermarket around the corner. Walking for twenty minutes each way just to buy a loaf of bread or a bag of raisin chocolates was never fun, because it wasn’t even a pleasant walk. You just crossed junction after junction, waiting impatiently for the pedestrian sign to come on, reading the names on the grey or brown buildings. This was nothing like walking through the South Downs, where you marvelled at the rolling hills that blended almost seamlessly with the horizon, or like the short trip to the local supermarket in India, where you were preoccupied with glaring at the motorists who dared to climb on to the pavement while riding in the wrong direction. And once in the store, you tried to figure out which Alka Yagnik song was playing in the background, because the shop assistants had this annoying habit of picking out the most obscure pieces from the 90s – which, despite my thorough exposure to Bollywood in 90s Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, I had no knowledge of.

Not having tasted butterscotch ice cream for three months – it seems surprisingly elusive outside India – I was determined to get some before the rain started. Yes, Bangalore. Chennai has rain in the evening too. I don’t know if this is a regular occurrence or a welcome-home present, but I am quite prepared to gloat over it while it lasts. If there is no electricity at your place and you are fanning yourself, staring bemusedly at your phone with the charge rapidly dwindling, know that I am sitting by an open window with the fragrance of damp earth floating in, mingling with incense and a negligibly faint chemical odour.

It is good to be back in India and not have to bemoan the absence of decent sambar powder at the lone Indian store. My trip was only three months long, and while I enjoyed being in the US, I must say very honestly that I liked living in England better. This probably has to do with the diet of English writing I grew up on, the constant exposure to cricket, and the fascination with the English “accent”. Would I have perceived the US differently had it been the first country I visited abroad, had I stayed in a part of the country with more access to nature, hills and the sea? Maybe. I feel a marked difference in the way I absorb things now than I did five years ago, probably because I pay more attention to politics than I used to. However, this is a subject that I will deal with separately, especially because of some important incidents that took place during my stay in the US.

Waiting for the bus that took us to the Indian store every week, I watched a building under construction grow rapidly. I felt the last vestiges of winter dissolve indiscernibly into summer, that much-beloved season of spring shying away from an appearance. I saw the parades of Memorial Day and the spectacular fireworks of the Fourth of July, with the red eyes of the Washington Monument glowing in the dusk. I learnt to admire Thomas Jefferson and question the naming of highways after Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, both heroes of the Confederate side in the Civil War.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the vast, complex country that the US is, despite its relatively recent origins. Conversations with Americans and immigrants take you deeper into the mystery, instead of clearing your doubts. Race, religion, colour, and political affiliation are not always postcolonial preoccupations. The pursuit of self-serving interests and the presumptuousness of politicians don’t necessarily help matters. Make no mistake, I appreciated free access to the library and the Smithsonian museums, the clean roads, and the convenient public transport. However, in my view, the US is far from being that perfect home many people seem to aspire towards. In terms of long-term opportunities and the chance to make a visible difference, India is not a less exciting place to be in. What it lacks is discipline, and this is the thing that drives so many of us away.

The Suburbs

I take myself off to the library earlier than I wanted to because the Met department has issued a thunderstorm warning, and it usually doesn’t go wrong. It isn’t that the four o’clock sunshine will be mild and forgiving, but it does feel more benevolent than the heat at half-past two. As expected, when I step out from the air-conditioned confines of the apartment, I walk into a wall of heat. However, a rustling, redeeming breeze rushes in to mediate, and I make peace with the weather while I turn the neat corners and stop at traffic signals. It is a blessing not to have to compete with motorbikes and scooters for room on the pavement.

I am determined to deposit my books at the counter of my local library and return home without a look at the shelves. My bedside table already has two delectably thick, hardbound books to be read: Elizabeth Pisani’s ‘Indonesia, Etc.’ and Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Painted Drum’. The first one is supposed to give me a glimpse of the country I last visited and adored, while educating me on its history and politics. I picked up the second to indulge my fascination for Native American culture and traditions, of which I am shamefully ignorant. We never learnt Native American history at school; in fact, the gist of what we were taught is that Columbus sailed to the continent and mistook the inhabitants for Asian Indians. We were never taught much about the brutal colonisation of other territories – which, I would think, was important for a country that had itself been victim to imperialist ambitions.


This street looks like a scene right out of Revolutionary Road. Neat houses with trim gardens line the road, and it isn’t difficult to take a trip back to the USA of the 1950s and imagine suburban fancies creating themselves, while also imploding. On a still afternoon like this, I can see a housewife doing the laundry and cooking for her family, having reached a stage beyond the anguish that stems from the rejection of carefully nurtured dreams. She walks around in her printed dress, ennui enveloping her features, movements mechanical and strained. She could be Richard Yates’ heroine, or Sinclair Lewis’. However, this is a theme that fascinates more than oppresses me – probably the reason why I am setting out on an American literature spree again.

Blame it, then, on the flag-draped porch banisters and the incongruous fire station in the middle of a very suburban street, where firemen practise their routines in a languid manner. I wend through the shelves in the library to the section marked ‘S’ and pick up The Winter of Our Discontent. I keep waiting for the right moment to go back to John Steinbeck, and today this model street of low houses and parked cars has inspired me to do so. This isn’t schadenfreude, but an attempt to understand that mysterious phenomenon of middle age that is slowly going to creep up on me, on the people I grew up with, when the vivacious dreams of adolescence will be laughed at and stowed away, only to be taken out stealthily on rare occasions. I don’t even know if it is fair to associate suburban America with the purported security and stability that middle age and twenty years of work bring. However, I sense that it is only the object of ambition that must have changed – become bigger, costlier, and shinier than it used to be – and that the story of the pursuit for it remains the same. Twentieth century, twenty-first century, it really doesn’t matter.


I’m riding the train from Arlington to Washington DC, reading and waiting for the moment when we will emerge from the tunnel to chug by the sunshine-sprayed grass mounds near Arlington Cemetery. This is a day made for indolence. I’m off to lunch at a Thai restaurant with G., his Singaporean boss S., S.’s Japanese wife, and G.’s Chinese-born team lead. See, this is the stuff my dreams were made of in small-town India, and it gives me an enormous amount of hope for the future (while also boding well for my tiny collection of stamps).

Having finished a lovely lunch and sung praises of Pico Iyer, I see everyone back to office and set out to explore Dupont Circle on foot. This is my first solo walk in Washington DC and I’m rather excited, especially because I intend to forage in a couple of used bookstores Google has helped me locate. Gone are the days when I used to draw a rough map on paper to guide me along unknown streets, or leave my discoveries entirely to fate. I’m happy to know where I am going, but somewhere, deep down, I wish I didn’t. So, my purchases completed, I turn back towards the buildings on Massachusetts Avenue that are calling my name.


For some reason, I thought of Mayfair in London as I entered Dupont Circle – a fairly accurate connection, given that this part of Washington DC houses Embassy Row. The shiny-eyed International Relations student of three years ago wanted a job at a place like this, and still does. As I never really thought I would spend some time in Washington DC, I’ll take what I get, if it means only walking through the leafy neighbourhood, listening to a hundred different accents, and admiring the flags.

The buildings are clean, formal and official, but endowed with individual ornaments to characterise the countries they represent. If deep thought has gone into matching buildings to countries, I’m oblivious to it. I pause to squint at the plaques on various buildings: the one from Luxembourg expresses gratitude to the US for helping it into existence; the Hungarians acknowledge their citizens who migrated to America centuries ago and whose descendants are now among those who shape the politics and the policies of the US. It is sad that issues of race continue to dog a country whose very identity was put together by the efforts of a diverse population.

I spy a tall, white figure through some branches and my heart skips a beat. I inch closer to find a graceful white-and-gold statue of Saraswati towering over me. A gift from largely Islamic Indonesia to the USA, it reminds me of our trip to Bali, where similar statues appeared regularly in serene villages and bustling towns alike. Indonesia has not been in many countries’ good books lately, thanks to the recent execution rows, but this statue reveals a different side of the country, one reminiscent of the terraced paddy fields and tiered shrines that popular culture has made famous. I’m carrying Elizabeth Pisani’s ‘Indonesia Etc.’ in my bag and have been reading it for a week now, which makes this encounter seem particularly coincidental.

(Across the road from Saraswati stands another familiar figure – Gandhi, brown and bent in the hot summer sun, plaques commemorating his contribution to India’s freedom movement and sharing his words. No surprises in this choice of a representative figure for the Indian Embassy, I’d say.)

Further ahead are the embassies of Luxembourg, Turkey, Egypt, and Togo. I learn from the faded sign outside the Greek Embassy that Greece is called the Hellenic Republic; a nod to a history that is now celebrated through the ruins of ancient monuments and ceremonies before the Olympics (which, I learnt today, were actually started by the Germans). I have often wondered how things would have been had the Greeks continued to worship Zeus, Athene, and their various other gods. Would their mystical aura have diminished, and would we not have enjoyed Homer’s epics as much?

Colombia, Estonia, Turkmenistan. I must stop now and come back another day.


The train trundles down the bridge over the green Potomac, its motion in stark contrast to the steep descent of the white aeroplane over Gravelly Point, on to the runway at Reagan Airport. In a few weeks, we will be making our way home from a different airport, to dive back into the chaos of another kind of diversity. I look at the receding scaffolding-covered dome of the Capitol and continue to be enamoured by the amount of power that is centred in this single city, at how it determines the fates of millions of people around the world, for better or for worse.

Nostalgia by the Potomac

“It’s just water!” a teenaged boy calls to his friends, as they step reluctantly out of the shelter of a clothing store on to the pavement. Everybody seems utterly unprepared for this cloudburst; the weatherman predicted a sunny day, and has hardly been wrong in these two-and-a-half weeks.

We first saw the violet-grey clouds approach as we sat in the overgrown garden of the Old Stone House, the oldest unchanged building in Washington, DC. It was built in 1765 as a two-room cottage, and two floors were later added to it to accommodate three bedrooms and a decent-sized dining room, the way it has been preserved today. Old houses in strange places tend to be disconcerting, and this was no different. A slightly sagging bed, children’s playthings on the floor, and blackened utensils around the hearth quite created pictures in your head. You could see the African maid stirring a broth in the large cauldron, while the lady of the house, Cassandra Chew, entertained guests in the parlour. Aproned children spilled the sticks out of the little case upstairs, and a gardener toiled outside to provide vegetables for the family’s meals. Are they still around, and do they miss being here?


We loitered in the garden for a bit, admiring the flowers and the rich greenery: for a largely commercial area, this well looked after house is an absolute delight. This is about as English as you can imagine, a far cry from the official starkness of the Federal Triangle.


Georgetown is like a slice of Europe in America. The grey pavements lined by red brick structures, many of which seem to date back to the nineteenth century, are heavily reminiscent of the Lanes in Brighton: not quite so quaint or eclectic, but endowed with character in their own way.



We head, perhaps in the way of most tourists, to Georgetown Cupcakes. Now this is a Wimbledonish experience, because you have to queue for half-an-hour before you can enter the shop and be bewildered by an array of colourfully iced cupcakes. Our selection goes from four to six, and we carry our pink box like two happy children to the banks of the Potomac.


The Potomac river separates the town of Rosslyn in Virginia from Georgetown. So, when on the waterfront, you arrive fresh from the joys of a quaint little town to a contemporary glass-and-concrete skyline, relieved by a lush island on the river. We watch boats bob by. People lie on the grass and go jogging beside the adjacent Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. A board tells us that this was once a busy thoroughfare for goods carriers, and that this posh shopping district was once, in fact, an industrial area. The blue skies on this placid evening were probably once filled with smoke, and the buildings housing designer wear home to gaunt clerks poring over ledgers.

We eat a cupcake apiece as we watch massive white pillows of clouds mass overhead, almost seeming to drop on the top of the bridge across the river. This town was once the home of a few Native American tribes. In the span of a few centuries, it has changed unimaginably, witnessing various wars and upheavals before being absorbed into the capital of this powerful country. Plaques commemorate a Masonic Lodge, the Star-Spangled Banner, the flourishing of a port town, all clear evidence of a colonial past. Conquest isn’t always fair, and I do not condone the displacement of the Native people, but the growth of America has been nothing short of marvellous. As somebody ignorant of the intricacies of American history, I’m very intrigued about the stories every inch of this area seems to have to tell.

In the Capital

Washington, DC, is grey. The majestic buildings are grey, as are the statues. The sky is leaden and the ponds are dark. And right in time, I see the trees and the tulips: a burst of colour in the neatly planted formations in front of various government offices. The trees are a rich green, the severe grey starkness of Grecian pillars the perfect foil to their summery beauty. Washington, DC, will grow on me.

The US Capitol is unimpressive, covered up that the dome is with scaffolding. Tourists linger in small groups, hoping for something to see, and finally fixing on a “March for Marriage” – essentially, a call to preserve male-female unions. Though there are no obvious anti-gay placards, a little later we stumble upon an unsightly stall denouncing homosexuality. It feels like stepping from one conservative country into another. I think of Brighton, the absolute antithesis to Washington, in its embrace of homosexuality, nude beaches, and naked bike rides.

But we will have nothing to do with an anti-gay demonstration. We head back to our primary attraction, the Library of Congress. G. has been here earlier and cannot stop singing its praises. We walk to the reception desk where a kindly old man tells me that I have to be a Member of Congress to borrow books (hopes dashed to dust), but that I can get a reading card instead. We walk through desolate, labyrinthine tunnels, the constant metallic hiss of the pipes overhead echoing eerily. If the lights went out, I assure you my imagination would direct itself to MR James and not leave me in peace.

We visit the Business & Science section, a large, high-ceilinged, well-lit room with Grecian panels high up on the walls. This obsession with all designs Greek is something I am yet to understand. Perhaps it’s a throwback to the days of Aristotle and Socrates, a tribute to the early years of debate and democracy (strictly according to a Western worldview)? There is something cold and unfeeling about the atmosphere of this library that I cannot shrug off: a heavy sense of history, a bit of grand responsibility. This is probably true of the entire capital region (or country?), because everywhere you go, you see the US flag hoisted – in gardens, on top of buildings, in front of hotels.


The train emerges from the tunnel into Arlington Cemetery, passing by low grassy undulations, just like the train to Brighton snaking out of the South Downs into London Road station. I keep thinking back to England when I see the names of places in Virginia: Suffolk, Middlesex, Cumberland, York. Just like the London tube where people barely make eye contact with one another, the trains in Virginia are filled with sombre people, their eyes fixed on a vague distant point, hoping for quick release from the darkness through which they are being jolted.

The silence is brief. Once out in the open, I am back in that famed capitalist America, home to the vast departmental stores that are a far cry from the humble dry goods stores that they must have once started out as. However, even in the midst of this wealth and bustle, does the ennui that Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton described so poignantly ever creep in? Would you ever tire of endless parties or sleepy roads?

Dispatch from Virginia

G.’s office decided that they wanted him in the USA for a few months. I chose to tag along, given that my software engineering degree didn’t come with a free project in the States. So here I am, typing my first dispatch from Arlington, Virginia.

Chennai Airport

G. has a Business Class ticket and we are allowed entry into the lounge with free food and uplifting muzak (I know I’ve nicked this phrase from somewhere, but can’t for the life of me recollect where I first read it), and a mosquito or two, I suspect. The music is punctuated by the sound of people munching on crisps, a wailing baby, and heavy suitcases with worn out wheels being dragged along the polished floor. Punjab and Rajasthan battle it out – on mute – in the IPL. This may not sound genteel enough, but a stone Buddha statue bathed in flowing water sits on the reception desk, dispelling my blasphemous notions.

I naïvely assume that the packed glass room by the gate is a viewing deck; it turns out to be the smoking zone, and if smoking doesn’t kill, suffocation seems very likely to do the honours. Two hours fly by. We watch the match run into the super-over, eat, and repeat the lines in the Lufthansa advertisement to each other. I try to be as level-headed as I can, considering we have a five-hour halt en route in Frankfurt. Germany! I can’t stop thinking of Michael Schumacher and F1.


The clouds part to reveal neat, manicured fields and small settlements. Are we really in the proximity of a great city? Where are the people? A few skyscrapers appear amidst the forests, looking out on the vast snaking Rhine. Germany!

The woods will have to stand in for the Black Forest for now; the roads will have to pretend they are part of the Hockenheim circuit. All my squinting into the sun doesn’t reveal any Gothic cathedrals or castles, though I do see numerous football fields, justifying the number of Bundesliga stories in the copy of Sport Bild I picked up on the plane, in veneration for the number of times it has supplied quotes from German drivers in English F1 articles.

Velvety hills dot the horizon, sloping gently down to the airport and reminding me very much of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Even though the temperature is 10 degrees C, the sun shines brightly in a pale-blue sky. We wander around the airport, are directed by a very cheerful elderly German lady to our terminal, and promptly sit down after the long walk to the gate mentioned on our boarding passes.

The area fills up with elderly Japanese couples, perhaps part of an organised tour. They take photographs and talk quietly. There seem to be surprisingly few Indians or Americans, considering our destination. G. goes to investigate, and finds out that our gate has been changed and that we have actually been sitting with people bound for Osaka. Another name, another country I want to visit for all the magic Haruki Murakami, Pico Iyer, and my friend A.’s pictures have evoked.

I watch the flight information board. Istanbul, Copenhagen, Split, San Fransisco. How I’d love to use this boarding pass to hop on and hop off planes, dropping into a new city every few days, making a tour of all the racing circuits of Europe.


The plane circles over green fields, not quite as manicured as in Germany, but neat nevertheless. Brown cottages with sloping roofs dot the landscape, and a thick bank of clouds appears in the distance, a translucent white sheet falling from it on to the green expanse underneath. It could be rain: we have just emerged out of choppy, opaque grey clouds. Rows of green trees are incongruously broken by others clothed in vivid purple. We have narrowly missed cherry blossom season, but I simply imagine that some of the trees dressed in light, pale whitish-pink are in fact those famed flowers, so popular and elusive.

We step into the open and are greeted by a whoosh of cold wind. This is exactly how I felt at Heathrow, I tell G., standing on the grey pavement, fresh from the tropical humidity of southern India. I love the weather and I can’t wait to explore a brand new country. We are driven at a speed that would almost definitely be fatal in India on roads whose silken curves are a soothing sight for sore eyes. We pass the Pentagon, which I’d prefer to see from the air, given that it is otherwise just a series of low buildings with a vast parking lot. The Washington Monument makes a brief appearance through a line of trees. I want to drive into Washington DC and ask for a job in the corridors of power and intrigue.

Of course I’m greedy: I want to see canyons cut by muddy rivers and the mighty Rockies, drive through barren deserts, visit the Beat haunts, go to the midwestern Prairies (solely for Willa Cather), and walk on the Main Streets of nondescript villages. I want to go on long road trips, like Kerouac and Steinbeck. I want to study indigenous history and revel in the gorgeous names of Nevada, Nebraska and Mississippi.

I know I’ll be lucky to get even a tiny, tiny fraction of this done. I can’t set limits on my imagination though, especially now when I’m all harebrained with excitement, taking breaks to stand on the balcony and watching the sun struggle through the clouds, cover the brown apartments across the road in an eerie orange light. I almost weep with joy when I realise that I can cross the road without having to break into a run midway, and that cars will wait politely till I have attained the safety of the pavement. I have had my first ice cream soda and am preparing to cook my first meal, after which I will curl up with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a Christian story set in the midwest. America, I look forward to making your acquaintance.

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