Rediff Navigator News


Capital Buzz

The Rediff Interview


The Rediff Poll


Crystal Ball

Click Here

The Rediff Special



Commentary/Rajeev Srinivasan

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 mothers.

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 potential muggers.

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 pastoral countryside.

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.'

Tell us what you think of this column

Rajeev Srinivasan

Home | News | Business | Sport | Movies | Chat
Travel | Planet X | Freedom | Computers

Copyright 1996 Rediff On The Net
All rights reserved