Foreigners

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.

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