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Travel
July 20, 2005

A Tale Of Two Cities

Text by Hina Oomer-Ahmed. Illustration by Divya Mahindra

Mumbai-born Hina Oomer-Ahmed, is a long way from home but ruminates about the fact that living in New York City involves the same heretic way of life – a heady mix of glamour and money, that lures dreamers from all over

One of my all time favourite authors, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, once claimed, ‘An immigrant is at home everywhere, yet belongs nowhere’. For a long time, I believed that statement to be entirely true. But, all that changed when my love affair with New York City began. It made me feel like I belonged and was as close to home as can be.

As I walk aimlessly down the bustling streets of New York I revel in its pulsating rhythm and incorrigible spirit. I feel the throb of life, I witness its ability to absorb the abundance of humanity that pours in, every day. I am awed by its fortitude in adversity, its unsinkable strength and once again I’m reminded of the only other city in the world I know that could give it a run for its money – Mumbai.

I am thousands of miles away and continents away from home but I somehow don’t feel the magnitude of that distance. All the homesickness I felt in my first few months in New York City has slowly evaporated. Just like with thousands of others, this city embraced me into its generous folds, giving me the space and opportunity to find my own world, within its own. It gave me openings to discover my own culture in its large melting pot, to seek like-minded people and, most importantly, it gave me a home away from home.

Thankfully for me, even in New York City the ghost of Mumbai haunts me and I can never get too far from it. I feel the same breakneck pace of life that leaves me breathless, a glutton for punishment, still wanting more. The same heretic way of life – a heady mix of glamour and money, that lures dreamers from all over. Both bustling cities, full of people that possess so much ambition and desire to succeed, they could put Darwin to shame.

It’s the paradoxical nature of life in these cities that never ceases to amaze me. Where else will you see the harsh reality of poverty and the homeless set against the backdrop of the tallest skyscrapers and capitalistic symbols of wealth? Or the surrealistic allure of affluence and fame juxtaposed with high crime rates and cut-throat competition? Nowhere else does one see such a diverse breadth of ethnicity, traditions and society.

Living in New York City, I am constantly plagued by feelings of déjà vu. People may think it’s because of the colourful mirror work kurtis and the bandhani skirts in the Bloomingdale’s store window or the fact that people keep talking about ‘Indian things’ like Bride and Prejudice and Bombay Dreams. I disagree. For me it’s more about smaller happenings like the tongue-in-cheek street vendors, the fact that everyone’s always in a rush and the crowded, frenzied commutes. It’s about the swearing cabbies, the characteristically overwhelming energy and soaring rents for matchbox-sized apartments, which I find familiar.

I love the fact that New York has a ravenous appetite for the arts, theatre, literature and just plain old glamour. We might sorely miss the Page Three of the Bombay Times here but we do manage to get some regular doses of Mumbai glitterati and Bollywood chutzpah. From Manish Malhotra’s trendsetting fashion fiestas to Shah Rukh Khan’s sold out stage shows. From Falguni Pathak’s ‘dandiya nites’ to book readings by Salman Rushdie. From Indian film festivals celebrating Satyajit Ray to the more Bohemian Bollywood awards. We see it all and hear it all, cherishing every minute of it.

However, the exercise in irony lies in the fact that in just the way that these cities attract glamour, they also bear an immense affinity for disaster. They bare the character of old souls chiselled out of immeasurable tragedy, having witnessed shameful moments in history. Just the way we witnessed New York and New Yorkers devastated by the tragedy of September 11, we experienced Mumbai ravaged by communal riots and multiple bomb blasts. But astoundingly, both cities bounced back, with courage and an incredibly strong will, to re-build and heal. They sprang back to life, grieving but tough and undeterred in spirit, to live life as they know it best – to the fullest.

On a lighter note, unfortunately sometimes, living in NYC is a bit too much like Mumbai. The rush hour crowd at Grand Central station can be as vicious as at Grant Road station, haggling with vendors in Chinatown can be as exhausting and unforgiving as bargaining at Colaba Causeway and well, partying at Polly Esther’s at Gordon House is pretty similar to partying at Culture Club, in the West Village.

I however admit that some things are just not the same. Even though the Loews Cineplex in Times Square plays all the latest Bollywood flicks, it doesn’t provide the excitement of buying last minute tickets in black and the sadistic joy of haggling with stubborn black marketeers. John F. Kennedy Airport can never greet me with the not-so-pleasant but now comfortingly familiar smell of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. The exotic, million-dollar, Fourth of July fireworks don’t hold a candle to the festive warmth of the tiny Diwali diyas lining every home. And even the joy of lounging in Central Park in summer doesn’t always match up to the thrill of walking on Marine Drive in the Mumbai monsoon, breathing in the salty air. The differences will always be there, but for now, all I know is that the Mumbaikar in me feels very at home with the New Yorker!

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