Thursday, February 18, 2010
Lost in Big Cities – Part 1
This is the first part in my Big City Bashing series with all pun intended. I love getting lost all the time and nowhere do I do it so naturally as in a big mega city. Part 1 reflects my impression of four such cities.
I absolutely loathe, detest and hate big cities. There; I have said it now, and all you metro and mega polis lovers can sue me for libel and ask all the big city mayors to ban me entry to their respective concrete jungles. Go ahead; it will suit me to no end. I would avoid them myself if it were humanly possible to circumvent them and head for the places that every country has besides the big cities. Yet, as it is inevitable I had to cross, re-cross, stay and even hibernate at many such cities across the world for reasons beyond my control and wish. But then what or which city qualifies to be called a big city? What are the characteristics of a big city? Which are the top 20 (I can’t cover more than this number in a post for sure, but if you would want me to cover more than I guess a book will need to be written) big cities in the world? What exactly was I doing there and did I really find anything worth deliberating upon while there? Let’s find out the answers. A caution; if you are one of those die-hard big city fans then please don’t read further. This post is my personally irreverent look at the big cities in the global scale, very personal, very irreverent and very amusing, though none of the city tourism brochures would feature any of the following observations ever.
All big cities at any location on either side of Equator or Suez share the common characteristics of concrete and glass paneled buildings, museums, amusement parks, serpentine roads, squares, cars and other motorized means of transport, shopping malls, multiplexes, flyovers, underground rail system, confusion, chaos, a river or sea or waterfront, and maddeningly rushing people who look more zombie than the ones found in C grade vampire movies. Plenty of avenues for amusement and excitement yet lot of sadness and boredom. They are built and constructed, fragmented and cemented for the people, by the people and of the people, yet they try to kill those very people; in particular those who actually toiled under the sun and rain to build it. Let’s not go down that lane as of now, I am not into evangelical blasphemies here.
Let’s get some unbiased views about such cities. None of the neutral sources such as the Oxford or Webster gave me any satisfactory definition to big or metropolitan city. This is strange, nearly one third of the world’s population lives in one; is born and dies here, yet we don’t know what it really is. So Google comes to rescue. Quest for ‘big city’ produces a profusion of absolute nonsense that even I cannot digest. ‘Metropolitan city’ offers some logical luring. A city with adequate income (local GDP) and population; quantifying this took several more of my precious minutes, which I sacrificed nevertheless… I was onto something after all. The top three parameters that emerged out of the entire rigmarole that defines a metropolis are: area, population and sum total of the city’s income. Based on that, absolutely unopposed in every list and in a class by itself stands Tokyo. No one can even dare to equal this land of mobile masses. The next nineteen included such obvious ones as New York, Beijing, London, etc. So when I finalized my 20 cities for metro-bashing I decided to bind myself to two conditions: only a city that I have visited more than once and have spent over 72 hrs within its metropolitan boundaries and know its flavor well enough to rival that of any so called self-bragging city surfers and that only one city per country would be included. In all these cities live some of my best and dearest friends, each a gem of human specimen and none of my observations are even subconsciously aimed at any of them. So here goes (in no particular order or preference):
Paris: My first big city outside of India happened to be the city of Eiffel Tower, Seine, Arc de Triumph, nubile nymphets, croissant, wine, chocolates and cafes. I was barely 15 then and till date though I must have gallivanted across its famous rues and museums on dozen occasions I have not changed my view. It is a boring and boorish city. Spring or autumn or any season in Paris is drab. Lido and its leg throwing femmes are ridiculous if not necessarily fatal. When Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman cooed ‘We will always have Paris’, in Casablanca they must have done so at the point of a loaded gun. No wonder they both look so constipated and exhausted in this classic scene. Ok the Arc is a copy of our India Gate, Champ Elysees is any uptown flea market, Louvre is a geometric puzzle besides being the world’s largest repository of ocular nonsense, Seine is stinking, the cafes are crowded with dreamers who assemble just to mumble ‘ooh la la’. Parisian fashion is at best a parody, non-stop nevertheless. All the Gare’s (rail stations) put together cannot get you to where you wish to be. Parisians have a permanent smirk plastered across their ashen faces and they often tumble and fall since their necks are always stuck up so high into the sky. I twice missed my outgoing flights from Charles de Gaul Airport since they could not find me in the departure lounge. As a country I love France, a country that has Mt Blanc, Chamonix, Grande Jorasses and such beautiful alpine meadows can never be bad but it is the choice in its capital where the French erred severely. Parisian men make crudest of passionate overtures while the women open their hearts only to the ones with heaviest purses. You can see and admire them but dare you talk to one unless your net asset worth is in the neighborhood of million Euros. For the ‘oh so surreal’ privilege of a room with a view atop Eifel, you would need to divorce yourself from handful of Euros and the view is only an endless blanket of polluted smog in all directions. The chocolates, chardonnays, and Bordeaux are all touristy gimmicks. They are too sweet or bitter, too docile or vigorous… never quite the way they are elsewhere. Don’t I like anything at all about this ultimate romantic getaway (don’t tell the Venetians) of the world; of course I do. The poverty, homeless on the streets, racist graffiti in the tube, indifferent pedestrians, Indian joints by Pakistanis claiming to come from the holiest Hindu city of Haridwar, and the roadside tulips that are abloom almost all year round that no one seems to see.
New York: Let me give you an analogy. Get the largest mixer you can imagine, fill it up to bursting point with people even allowing few flailing limbs to flounder in and around the top lid, throw in (if you can manage) some patches of green and water and cars and trains and every possible modes of public transport, not to forget the skyscrapers and then switch the abominable machine on and then just run for your dear life. You can run and run for your life for all eternity yet the vision of this monolithic city will haunt you in your dreams. It is the largest lunacy ever concocted by modern man. NY is also the global mixer. It has everyone, everything, and I am being moderate here in my views. And you realize this even before you land at JFK or Newark. The very way all your co-passengers and the airhostesses will start bouncing and balancing you will know that you are either going to crash or going straight to heaven, which is not really the one and the same thing in Big Apple. The city is non-stop blasphemy and senseless cacophony. A New Yorker loves his or her accent, the Starbuck, tubes, malls, boulevards, Time Square, Broadway, Central Park, mobile hotdogs, gays and kaleidoscope of colors. It is easy to get lost here and find a part of yourself you did not know existed. A great place to be for dreamers and society derelicts since it is a great place for absolutely anyone. I love its open embrace to encompass all that lands up on its dirty shores. I love the muggers, the black knife-wielders, the high heeled harlots, the absolute filth and scum of earth. In the winters, steams rise out of manholes and people break their bones on frosted footpaths. New York is less American than global. There are parochial ghettos from Libya to Lima that is equally authentic in all aspects as the original. Just don’t ask any New Yorker the time. He doesn’t know and if he knows then he won’t tell. The best way to see NY is to buy a day long pass for public transport and museums and all its tall buildings and then rush like mad while keeping your mouth and mind absolutely shut to any outside influence. The boulevard beneath Brooklyn Bridge that is so often romanticized in our Bollywood movies (and for obvious reasons so less in Hollywood, except in ‘Kate & Leopold’) is so shady and shitty that even a homeless doesn’t perch himself there.
London: Think of London and Big Ben is perhaps the first image that comes to your mind, in depicting a city that is so steeped in anarchy. These days I believe London Eye, another abomination by the wafting waters of Thames, comes more often. This ancient and so regarded regal city is a hallmark in organized confusion. But for Thames and its innumerable (ludicrously laminated) bridges no Londoner would ever know in which part of the city he is in. The parks are immense and imminent from anywhere and so are the dry ponds and well fed chipmunks and wading bipeds. Buckingham Palace sits like a plum on a plump pudding with heavily helmeted royal guards, about whom it is said that they never laugh. I will tell you the secret; they have been trained only to smile from their eyes and guffaw through their behind. The headgear is pulled so down you never see their eyes (god only knows how they see anything) and if you hear something around their behind your good upbringing generally prevents you from drawing any covert or overt attention to the same. The flea-markets are full of fleas and fleecing scoundrels. Oxford and Soho cater more to window shopping and drool dropping extravaganza. London Tube is its saving grace. It is the only reliable mechanism in the entire city, but dare you ask any commuters for anything, even if you explode right amidst the thronging crowd at Kings Cross I don’t think anyone will bat an eyelid or miss their 6.12 pm local. The tube hoardings are interesting though. It is rumored that the city municipality has an annual budget of a million pound to make these hoardings lucid, legitimate and educative; but who the hell cares! The lions at Trafalgar Square don’t scare even the gentle birds who regularly drop their rocks around and the Nelson’s Tower is often symbolized for something much more profane (by the Londoners themselves). What I love the most about this mega city are the museums and art galleries open for free to anyone who can walk. Such masterpieces anywhere else in the world would have barred the gates to most. London is a city that is holding on with grunts to its heritage, culture and ethos with the modern times and doing a jolly good work of it. While in London I love to walk along the pier in Greenwich and rifle through the super-bargain eponymous bookshop and trip along the chipmunks in Hydes Park. Madame Tussaud’s is so blatantly stupid and as the highest value tickets to any of London’s sights, it is a major revenue earner for the Mayor. Tower Bridge is best viewed from afar. Westminster Abbey now gets more visitors post mention in Dan Brown’s book. London cabs and London Bobbies are real darlings and they are the only two species of bipeds who know anything that is there to know. I really have nothing against a city that has the capacity to laugh at its own follies. I love the Brits and Londoners alike though these are two entirely different classes of people.
Tokyo: The back bending city of rushing but polite people is a place where everyone smiles without laughing and gestures without meaning to. Tokyo has towering towers to dwarf the short people even more. Despite having such a proud and pompous past, Tokyo is supremely modern in its architectural grandeur. People and umbrellas can be found everywhere. Tokyoites are simple, honest, too hard working and fun to know, only if they have the time to stop and say ‘hello’. Sushi and tempura bars are everywhere so are sumo and swashbuckling samurai, the modern however it tries to subdue the traditional, is not going to succeed. The one dollar Chinese shops are now at every busy corner, where even a self-respecting Jap goes for his sustenance. The gardens of this great city are a pleasure to view and saunter into. They are perhaps the only serene spots of this frenzied city. The traditional banging watermill, an ancient device to drive away marauding pigs, keeps a steady beat in every such garden. The famous Japanese tea-ceremony or ritual is among the top two most boring events I have ever participated in, all because I simply couldn’t refuse my over-polite and humble hostess. By the time the cup came my way I had all but slept off. Though equally busy and much more populated Tokyo is much less raucous than most other big cities since there is no collective frenzy here, no road side revelers, no punk masses, no gunning gents and no mass hysteria about anything at all. People shuffle about quietly, hurriedly, unconcerned in a diminutive way that bellies the fact that this tiny nation is an economic giant. Even the gut-bursting trains make no noise. It can quietly creep up and quash you under its wheels if you are not watching. Tokyoites, totally love spaces, tiny stamp sized spaces. No wonder bunk hotels are a hit here. Jap folks are super-ambitious and duper-driven to excel but they are clever enough to accept what they have and nowhere else is it more evident than Tokyo. And entire nation of fish, sea weeds, and rice can’t be off the mark from anything. The cherry blossoms can gladden even the severest of heartbroken, and that is where Tokyo has a real winner. And of course for the cabs and for Ginza!
P.S. In the accompanying picture I am flanked by two Japanese climbing legends, Hiroshi Sakai to my right and Oshio Ogata to my left