The Virgin of New York, and other Tales of Two Cities
Well, Tara McCarthy may not quite be the only virgin in New York, but she
must be the most famous. A twenty-six-year-old music critic, Ms McCarthy
has created rather a sensation with her new book, Been There, Haven't Done
That--A Virgin's Memoir. I understand the publisher, Warner, has asked her
to remain, er..... intact, until the book is published in June.
They don't wish to be accused of false advertising.
Ms McCarthy suggests that she is neither a prude, nor a man-hater, nor a
religious fundamentalist. She claims she is a healthy heterosexual, but that
she is merely defining her own brand of feminism, and that she will remain
celibate until she marries, for her own satisfaction. Rather uninteresting,
frivolous stuff, if I may say so. I mean, so what is the big deal?
That such a book should cause a stir in New York is remarkable. The popular
media, in particular television, in the US absolutely revels in images of
promiscuous sexuality. It has become the accepted norm for teenagers to
indulge in sex. Unfortunately, this has led to the world's highest levels of
teenage pregnancies and many households headed by poverty-stricken single
If I were a doomsayer, I would claim that the same fate awaits the liberated
Indian woman in the near future. Western conceptions of desirability, namely
being slender and pneumatic, and owning an unlined face and lovely teeth,
may become the only norms for Indian women, too. Being attractive to men
might become the primary goal for a woman. I hope things will not
deteriorate to this level in India, and I console myself that it is wicked
New York that Ms McCarthy inhabits.
I know New York rather well, having lived thereabouts for a few years in my
past. It is, alas, like Bombay, an uncaring megalopolis, a difficult and
challenging place to live in. Undoubtedly, it has culture, art, museums,
theater, fine dining, nightlife, and everything else one would expect of one
of the world's greatest cities. And it is loved beyond measure by its loyalresidents, and extolled in film and books. And New York's financiers control
the world's business.
Unfortunately, the city also extracts a toll of its citizens, making them
cynical, defensive and, well, downright obnoxious. You can tell a native New
Yorker by the way s/he walks -- in perfect straight lines, unwavering,
clearly full of purpose. None of that sauntering or loitering or looking
around -- yet s/he is intensely aware of the surroundings, in particular
I used to tell my out-of-town visitors the three cardinal rules of being a
New Yorker: one, never make eye contact, but just look through people; two,
never speak if spoken to; and three, always carry $20 in your wallet in case
you are mugged, so that the mugger does not get upset at wasting his time on
a deadbeat. I was not joking. I suspect these are good rules in Bombay too.
In fairness, I must say that New York has cleaned up its act in the last
couple of years, as a tough top cop and increased funding have had an impact
on crime statistics. But the city remains gritty, tough, and dangerous.
There are certain sections that Indians in their right minds would never
venture into -- for example, parts of the Bronx that look like bombed-out,
post-World-War-II piles of rubble.
I used to take cruel pleasure in driving visitors to such down-and-out areas
as the Bowery, populated by drunken bums. We would stop at a traffic light,
and sure enough, some ragged person would dart out, spray some soapy fluid
(and in one memorable case, spit) on the windshield, wipe it off with his
sleeve, and demand money. My friends would sit there, petrified,
unbelieving, in shock!
Most of us have seen the lights of Broadway and Times Square in innumerable
films; or perhaps Rockefeller Center, lit up brightly for Christmas, with
its little skating rink. Yes, New York can be very pleasant: shopping on
Fifth Avenue, going to a play on Broadway, and an afternoon in Central Park.
But personally for me, it was too large a city. Too many people, cooped up
in a small area; too cold in the winter; grimy and dirty; full of
pandhandlers and junkies and the homeless. And I dislike the cloying odor of
the city, smoky from innumerable pretzel vendors and exhaust fumes.
San Francisco is different. Much smaller, for one thing. Although the Bay
Area is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the US (after New York, Los
Angeles and Chicago), that includes the City of San Francisco itself, the
university towns of Berkeley and Stanford/Palo Alto, Oakland and the Silicon
Valley, including San Jose. The City, undoubtedly the most beautiful city in
the Americas, is only 49 square miles in size, and only 750,000 in population.
San Francisco, and Californians, are a different kettle of fish from the
frenetic East Coast. My friends in New York were appalled to hear that I was
moving to California. "But, the earthquakes!", they'd say, "And Calfornians
are so shallow!" That didn't bother me. I figured if I were destined to go
in a quake, I would. As for shallow, Californians are so much friendlier
than New Yorkers.
My first encounter with the famously shallow Californians happened when I
arrived after having driven 4,000 miles on Interstate 80, which runs clear
across the continent, all the way from New York to San Francisco. I had
stopped, in my gypsy car, with its out-of-state license plates, and full of
all my belongings -- I was moving here to go to Stanford--lost, looking at a map.
A well-dressed young man knocked on my window. With my rude and suspicious
New York attitude -- I was sure he was going to ask for money -- I rolled my
window down, and asked, "Yeah, what do you want?" The man laughed, and said,
"Oh, you looked like you were lost. Would you like some help?" I was
mortified. I knew I was not in Kansas any more, as Dorothy might say.
I have lived here for a few years now. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to
drive to the Shiva-Vishnu temple in Livermore to celebrate Makara Sankranti.
I looked up at the sky, and it was a lovely indigo-violet, and there was a
flock of white birds flying across: I think Canada geese. I listen with
nostalgia to the plaintive, heart-breaking cries of these migratory birds
now and then as they fly south in the early winter and back again in spring.
I drove over the San Francisco Bay on one of the long bridges. In the soft,
pearly light of that overcast day, colors were washed out and everything was
pale gray and ghostly: the looming electric pylons, the calm water of the
bay itself, even the brightly colored salt pans along its edges. The hills
on the east were crowned with puffy white clouds.
I drove through picturesque, untamed Niles Canyon. There is a meandering
creek along the canyon floor, and it is now in rampage, flooded with
swift-flowing brown water. The road meanders on one side of the creek, and a
railway line on the other, curving gently along the river banks. On both
sides, the steep slopes of the canyon are covered with verdant, luxuriant
grass. I could be in the wilderness, not ten minutes from a busy freeway.
There are deceptively dead-looking deciduous trees that have shed all their
leaves for the winter, as well as clumps of evergreens growing up and down
the precipitous slopes. The hillside looks oddly tamed, because of the light
parallel markings of terracing: it looks like a textured green blanket. The
terracing must be done to prevent landslides, so steep are these canyon
walls. The lines remind me of the precisely raked sand in the rock garden at
a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto, Japan.
On the other side of the hill, I know there are vineyards, and a
breathtaking view of the Bay and faraway hills. Along the ridge, there is a
line of cows, in precise military order like sentinels, silhouetted against
the grey sky. In an optical illusion, they appear absurdly large for cows
that are two hundred feet away. I have seen this before in England, in the
Livermore is another twenty miles away, and the temple sits, incongruously,
in the midst of a suburban development of single family homes. Years ago,
when it was first built, there was just open land around it, but urban
sprawl has caught up. It is a very modern temple, with a Dravidian entry
tower and a northern tower as well. Marching across the ridge of a hill
nearby is a phalanx of windmills.
Later, I drove to the City, over the long Bay Bridge. Some of the fog had
burned off, and the skies had cleared. San Francisco shimmered across the
water, that city of many hills. The distinctive skyline, with the pyramidal
Transamerica building, and in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge still
with tendrils of fog clinging to it. I was reminded of Kalidasa, in
Meghadutam: 'glowing in splendor, like a brilliant piece of Paradise come
down to Earth.'
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