The Blue Star of the Lower East Side

I ended up in China Town the other day. I was ambling along Eldridge Street in Manhattan when I spotted this old building that towered above me with its many Moorish arches. The promise of magnificence drew me in. The plaque declared it to be a synagogue that has been turned into a museum. A free museum.

Now free museums thrill me. I queued up for hours outside the Museo del Prado in Madrid one freezing day, and got caught in a downpour, but did it deter me? No sir. It just meant that I spent the next few days laid down with a solid fever. Yet I had bagged a free museum visit. It is the same reason I love London so. The best of its museums are free. Now that I have mentioned the word ‘free’ enough times to reveal my inner freebie loving self, I might as well get to the subject at hand.

I was in an orthodox synagogue, built in the 1880s by Ashkenazi Jews who were fleeing from the anti-semitism in Eastern Europe. Inside, I met an old lady showing a trio around. One of them was a boy. The lady introduced him to me as a rabbi-to-be. Startled he looked at her, and said, ‘Actually I am doing my BA.’ He had mentioned studying in a yeshiva to her, and she, it turns out, had added it up in her own mind as indicative of his grand religious plans for himself. The couple, possibly in their mid-60s, were visiting their son in New York from Minneapolis. We later had a long chat about their sojourns in the various parts of India. And then there was I.

‘I am curious,’ asked this cordial old guide, ‘what brought you here today?’ This is the part where I come up with a memorable answer. Boy, I aced it. ‘Oh you see, I love visiting museums, and I was passing by, so I popped in.’ Having stunned them thus, I followed around in her footsteps, as she led us up wooden steps and antiquated wooden balustrades, past stained glass windows, the early evening light filtering in in a surfeit of colours.

Inside the main sanctuary, the senses exploded with the celestial quality of the vision that lay before us. A circular stained glass window in ethereal blues towered above us. It was the heroine of the old synagogue, this rose glass window of seemingly gossamer loveliness. I am not religious, as I have often stated, but I am swept away when the architecture of a place of prayer uplifts the soul. To make us believe that there are exalted things and beings, that there is a larger design at work.

This rose glass window, said to weigh 6000 pounds, depicts the six-pointed Star of David. Within it floats a plethora of five-pointed stars. The concept was that it should reflect the night sky by opening up to it. The main dome and the other ceiling domes, framed by rows of moorish arches, are studded similarly with glinting golden stars.

The woman who was showing us around had sat in the pews of the synagogue, as a child on a field trip from school, and she recollected its decrepit state at the time. ‘It was in the ’80s when I never could have imagined that it could look like this,’ she mused, as she pointed to a few photo canvases stacked along the pews. They were evidence that the synagogue had fallen into disrepair, its walls peeling off, the dome in a shambles. Membership dwindled with time as former members moved out of Eldridge Street into quarters like Brooklyn and Borough Park and then came the Great Depression bringing devastation in its wake. Pigeons took up residence in the synagogue till it was decided that it simply could not be allowed to fade away. Renovations began in the ’80s and the result was before us. There was something old about it, something new, and in between was that vast blue window that took your breath away.

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The Orthodox synagogue of Khal Adath Jeshrun on Eldridge Street with its stained glass windows and moorish arches. 
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The rose glass window towers above the main sanctuary where the congregation assembles on Fridays and Saturdays for services.
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There are stars everywhere you look and then there is the wonderful Moorish Revival architecture
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Elegant brass and glass chandelier
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Back to the Oculus from where I had to catch the train home. I cannot help taking multiple shots of this Calatrava ribbed structure that always makes me gawp.
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The white wings of The Oculus are for me a beloved part of the cityscape

Serendipity in the Upper West Side

One frightfully cold day, we were in the Upper West Side, lured by the promise of a bazaar of food trucks. The furious wind made indents everywhere. The exposed bits. Face, hair, ankles. And the unexposed bits. So that the sight of a fenced-in enclosure packed with rows of food trucks was comforting. As expected, a cornucopia of food and people. Kiwi-style pies, South Indian dosas, Lebanese grub. I can tell you that there were at least a dozen more trucks promising lobster to tacos and more. I can also tell you that we meekly fell at the last hurdle. Queues that grew longer by the second. There was not a truck left that was not besieged by a peckish crowd.

We ended up striding to Sarabeth’s, a classic NYC brunch hotspot, with French doors that swung open to reveal warmly lit interiors. The kind of place where wooden tables for two sit cheek by jowl and beautiful old women in black clothes dine with their girl friends. Where they serve potato waffles with apple-flavoured chicken sausages and where the calamari arrives perfectly crunchy at the table. For those moments, it felt like we were on holiday.

Senses humming with bellinis and beer, we emerged on Amsterdam Avenue, the long road previously known as Tenth Avenue. Sometime in the 1800s, a Tenth Avenue Cowboy rode a horse up and down it, warning people of approaching trains that used to run along the avenue. He is no longer to be spotted there. Instead, a worthy line-up of cafés, bakeries, candy shops, taverns and hole-in-the-wall Thai eateries impart this avenue, renamed after Manhattan’s first 17th century colonisers, with contemporary vibes.

It was so blustery that to walk was to brave the winds and cower. Just as Adi wondered aloud, what were we to do then, a church with a distinctly Byzantine personality turned up on the right (it’s the feature photo), and I said, ‘Just let’s step in for a second’.

Inside, as I craned my neck up to gaze at the dome, I heard a whisper, ‘Excuse me’.

An old woman, with a shock of white hair, sat in the pews towards the back of the church, and whispered again, so that I had to inch closer to her. ‘There is a movie being screened today.’

I gave a silly grin, and replied, ‘Is that so? How wonderful!’ What do you say when someone informs you, out of the blue, of a film showing somewhere? The woman carried on, as if I had not interrupted her. ‘There are refreshments. There is Gregory Peck.’

It being one of those days when you felt like indulging a stranger who promised Gregory Peck, because you had nothing better to do, we followed her directions, got out of the church, and spotted the parish centre adjacent to it. In a dark hall there, they were projecting a technicolour film upon the wall, in front of which sat a group of elderly people. We joined them discreetly when Christopher Plummer flashed upon the screen in the uniform of a Nazi military officer, standing upon some terrace in Rome, showing his children the city that he had fallen in love with before he arrived on duty. Soon Gregory Peck showed up in the habit of a Vatican priest.

The name of the film was The Scarlet and the Black. In about two and a half hours, I was tearing up at the solid performances delivered by Plummer and Peck…as they played out the real-life story of a Nazi officer, Herbert Kappler, and an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, from County Kerry in Ireland. It is based upon a novel, ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’ by J.P. Gallagher.

The time was 1943, when Allied prisoners and Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis in Rome, and O’Flaherty was doing his best to rescue them. By the end of it, he had saved thousands of people from Kappler, assuming various disguises to escape his clutches. It is quite the watch, if only to remember the bravery of the Vatican priest with the bulbous nose.

There we sat in that dark hall, with strangers for company, feeling snug as a priest circulated with a tray loaded with cookies, fat chunky ones that challenged you to stop at one. There was an old-world charm to the occasion, befitting the movie we were watching.

When it ended, and our minds were still floating around in that WWII bubble, the priest got up and circulated some papers. For a second or two, I was alarmed. Would he start talking about God? Time to pay up for the cookies.

But he took us by surprise. Those papers contained photos and quotes from the film. The priest talked about the storyline, with passion. That Monsignor George J. Murphy, who the centre was named for, had met O’Flaherty. That O’Flaherty had met Peck and had given him tips, but not lived long enough to watch the film. As the talk veered to Pope Pius XII, who was heading the Vatican at the time, an old woman with her ash blonde bob tucked beneath a beret, piped up. She had known the pope before he had assumed office. ‘I lived through the war in Rome and my aunts stayed behind. They were such difficult times,’ added this woman whose name was Giuliana.

The priest invited contemplation as he finished up with the thought, ‘When we are in heaven, will there be a special place for those who speak American English? It’s all rubbish, you know.’ That is how we found ourselves at an impromptu film club that evening in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In a bizarre but wonderful way, we had landed up somewhere we did not know we wanted to be.

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Orwasher’s. The kind of lab that suits me fine. 
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Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side 
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At Sarabeth’s…
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…as we waited for food 
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Calamari
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The perfect burger
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Potato waffles and apple-flavoured sausages served up with pots of sour cream, apple sauce and maple syrup
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Boarded-up church
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Ceramic mosaic in the 66th Street subway station
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Sights along the way

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Where we watched The Scarlet and the Black
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Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty
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 SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler
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The redoubtable pairing: Christopher Plummer and Gregory Peck 

Vignettes

Central Park looked like a big beautiful canvas as I strolled through it to the American Museum of Natural History in the Upper West Side. Dried leaves glowed in vivid tones of gold and russet. Old men read books on benches which tell stories through those small plaques. You might take a seat on one but oh do leave some space for the couple’s dog who loved hanging out there too. They are all long gone… what remains is the warmth of the thought that you share the bench with souls that might have dissolved in ether, but they too savoured the solitude, as much as you do now. Beneath those flaming bowers, bright-eyed squirrels scurried up and down wire fences, a man stooped to gather a bunch of leaves in his arms, to throw them in the air, let them rain upon him in a shower of gold as his partner waited to capture it on her camera with a bashful grin, an old man rowed his boat serenely by.

Then I found my way to the pink granite largesse of the Natural History Museum where the suggested amount for entry is $23 – but you can shell out what you want to enter it. I wanted to pay a buck and see what their reaction might be (just to be perverse) but then I rose above that notion. Those mighty quotes of Ted Roosevelt staring back at you — exalted thoughts and words, they make sure that any pettiness is put to shame. Right after, I lost my mind — to the beauty of animals carefully preserved by an American taxidermist towards the late part of the 19th century, reproductions of dinosaurs from fossils, the Mayan gods, paraphernalia from the Silk Route, hunting apparatus of the Amazon Indians, strange shrunken heads that looked like tiny balls with hair flowing from the heads, sewed up lips and head because the South American people such as the Shuar counteract violent death and the need of the soul for revenge by keeping the spirit trapped inside the heads.

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The ultra tall Barosaurus defends its young from the Allosaurus up front. An encounter that might have taken place in the western part of the US about 140 million years ago.
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An alarmed African elephant

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Early copy of the Koran retrieved from somewhere in Africa.
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Golden wares of Samarkand where caravan roads converged, bringing in exotic goods from China, India, Armenia, Persia and the Near East.
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A Mayan god
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Colossal Olmec stone head from Southern Verz Cruz and Tabasco in Mexico

Who Wants Curry When There’s Indian Accent…

The night air’s soft and balmy. People lurk near squat fountains, bathing in the mist as if to dissipate the heat of the summer evening, people watch other people and a sudden bit of quiet descends upon us in the midst of the surrounding skyscrapers. Are you with me? Then here is the conundrum. Can an oasis of green and tranquility sit within the chaos of Manhattan? Here lies Bryant Park, a heartbeat away from Times Square.

Then, Magnolia Bakery in Rockefeller Center, a vintage dream woven with cupcakes, puff pastries, brownies and blondies, cookies and macarons. All American-style. Slobbering and giving into temptation with four measly cupcakes when a whole world of goodies wink at you. Oh heart, clad in an iron armour, to not melt in the face of such luscious beauty.

But maybe you have had your fill for the day because why you have just tripped out of Indian Accent, that fine-dining modern Indian restaurant sitting on 56th Street.

Food memories. The dishes you have had growing up have been put on the menu by a renowned chef. His modern take on them is calculated to baffle the senses. Works.

The concept is degustation. Tasting menu. You eat a bit of everything. My usual grievance of not possessing four stomachs is taken care of. One stomach will do just fine.

Every dish, in the four-course menu I opt for, tastes different. Indian dishes do often run the danger of tasting somewhat the same. Adi goes for a three-course menu, so between the two of us, we have a plethora of tastes to sample.

The well-felt pinch on the pocket is redeemed by two dishes on the house. Miniature discs of naan that you pop into the mouth. Chew and a warm molten centre of Danish blue cheese is released into the mouth, piquant and sharp. And before you can crave more, pumpkin soup in a mini mug. Moreish.

It is difficult to choose from the line-up of dishes. Everything’s familiar yet there are unfamiliar pairings which stoke the taste buds and the imagination. The soya keema – that was often a constant on the table at home when I would throw a fit at the daily diet of fish – arrives in a small, deep pan topped with quail eggs. Oh, the taste of childhood all over again, but teamed with a mouthful of butter-slathered fresh mini paos (buns) that are redolent of lime leaves.

Nuggets of cauliflower? Did we order cauliflower?! Ahem. The dismay of the non-vegetarian. But then the realisation as you dig into them that they are crab claws slathered in the time-tested winning combination of butter, pepper and garlic.

Oh let’s not think any more.

After a long drawn affair involving smacking sounds and sighs of pleasure, the final stroke of goodness. A magical affair with a candle sticking on top to celebrate Adi’s birthday.

It looks like cake, but it is not cake, my darlings. Oh no. This is a token of a closely-guarded secret from the narrow alleys of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, where the narrow lanes are upholstered with shops selling silver, spices, antiques, sweets and fried food diverse enough to leave the food lover in a tizzy. This is where you want more than four stomachs, my friend. But to return to the frothy matter at hand, it is called Daulat ki Chaat. An ethereal concoction of milk, saffron, sugar and nuts that disappears into the mouth, offering you a glimpse of paradise. Light and airy.

This is how we sail out of Indian Accent – floating on a cloud of heavenly saffron and potent Belgian ale – you could go with wine. Know this that we had already been drinking beer the entire evening and a few glasses of wine would have sent us into the arms of deep sleep. Plus who wants to have just arrived in NYC and already kickstart the process of getting thrown out of restaurants, you know. All in good time.

 

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Blue cheese naans, the signature dish of Indian Accent.
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Pumpkin soup. You can see that I had drained off a fair bit of it before I took a shot. Patience is not often a strong suit of mine.
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A trio of traditional dishes – smoked aubergine, duck khurchan and chicken khurchan – stuffed into flaky biscuits. Khurchan is basically scrapings off the bottom of a dish. In this case, well-cooked, crisp lashes of meat.
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Crab claws in butter, garlic and pepper. Not cauliflower. 
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Chicken kofta (meatball) with pakora in the shape of an onion ring and greens.
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Pathar beef kebab and bone-marrow nihari. Pathar kebabs are a speciality of the southern state of Hyderabad in India. Marinated meat is cooked over pathar or stone while nihari is slow-cooked meat (usually beef or lamb) presented along with the bone marrow.
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Soya keema (minced) topped with quail eggs and lime-leaf flavoured pao.
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Butter chicken-stuffed naan. Guaranteed streak of delight.
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Ghee roast lamb and roomali roti pancakes. Roomal is Hindi for handkerchief, so these breads or rotis are as thin as handkerchiefs.
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Dal makhni (creamy black lentils) chaperoned by garlic & butter naan. 
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Adi and his unusual birthday non-cake. A dewy cloud of milk flavoured with saffron, rose petal jaggery brittle and almonds.
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Neon-lit streets of Manhattan.
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Scandalous graffiti
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Bryant Park
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Steel-and-glass glory of 7 Bryant Park, in rainbow hues.
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There’s always space for more dessert. Magnolia Bakery.
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American vintage bakeries and cupcakes

 

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The top right-hand side cupcake got a bit squished, but hey, what is beauty without a flaw? They were good, bordering on the sweeter side of it, but the lemon blueberry cupcake on the top left-hand side stole the show (whispers: Hummingbird Bakery might still win the cupcake war, but I am not taking on a New Yorker yet).
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Ending the night on a ‘Sex and the City’ note. Carrie and Miranda. Love lives and cupcakes. Shut your eyes and take both.

The Angel Takes Manhattan, With Love

On the Upper West Side, we sauntered around under the sun on a steamy Saturday till we found an Italian eatery called Polpette tucked into one of the streets. Now if you come upon this modest place and see empty chairs and tables upfront, do not pray stride off into the sunset. In its rear section is a surprise of a garden, a square little affair enclosed by walls painted with murals. Festooned with vines and à la mode Edison light bulbs, it felt like we had been whisked off to the atmospheric back alleys of Roma. Checkered table cloths, rustic green chairs and dappled sunlight. Random joys from the random pickings of life.

An Italian waiter brought us two heavenly baskets of bread and fish and chicken dishes which were exquisite in their own right. A red snapper, accompanied by shrimps, doused in pomodoro sauce ripe with flavour, and a humble chicken dressed up in fragrant juice, redolent of rosemary. The Italians have mastered the art of infusing intense flavour into whatever they dish up and yet they use a few ingredients to achieve the effect.

The simplicity of the meal was heartening, and halfway through the act of uttering sighs of pleasure while masticating, we had to pick up our plates and rush into the eatery because it had started to pour. The waiter remarked that the weather would be quite so the entire day. Did I detect a smirk?

We got out, taking nimble steps under our small umbrella, but the glory of it is that it seemed, as if from above, someone had turned the tap off. The rain petered out, the sun peeking out albeit hesitantly.

We walked through leafy avenues, flanked by rows of pastel hued and brownstone townhouses originally built in the 19th century, vintage street lamps lined up alongside.

Then, Central Park. Finally.

And that spot in it, the Bethesda Fountain, ‘where if you sit there long enough, the entire city walks by.’ Matthew Perry had pointed it out in Fools Rush In. 

Or wait, if you are one for Gossip Girls, remember Cyrus quoting Herman Hesse as he married Chuck and Blair beneath the arcade, ‘we are not going in circles/we are going upwards/The path is a spiral/we have already climbed many steps…?’ It was one of my favourite scenes from the show.

So there we were, right at that iconic spot which you and I have seen numerous times in TV shows such as Sex and the City, movies such as Home Alone 2 and One Fine Day. One of those pinch-myself-is-this-really-happening-to-me moments in my book of life.

A wedding shoot was taking place when we walked into the arcade. The bride in her bustier wedding dress, wrought in lace and sparkling diamanté, must have been burning up in the heat of the noon. Oh but look how gracefully she stood there, a sparkling tiara atop her head, a posy of white blossoms in her hand, and a smile radiating from her pretty face. Bridesmaids in gowns of delicate pink hues stood in front of her, one of them passing by and flashing us a ravishing smile.

The arcade was the stage for many acts. In the backdrop, a guy in a white tunic and pants made of shiny latex, golden sneakers on his feet, stood frozen in a ballet posture. Just the sight of latex on a scorching summer’s day, uncomfortable levels of humidity in the air, can do things to you. Not in a good way, I mean.

Meanwhile, outside the arcade, an artist stood under the rays of the afternoon sun, a mini canvas mounted upon a tripod. Despite the sweltering heat, he found his inspiration in the angel that stood poised above the fountain in front of us.

A perfect swathe of clouds billowed in the backdrop of the Angel of the Waters – the statue that not only symbolises healing and love but was built upon the very foundations of love. How, you might ask? Well its sculptor, Emma Stebbins, was a lesbian who was in love with a leading actress of the American and British stages of the time, Charlotte Cushman.

Picture the mid-1800s when lesbian artists of the time were deemed the ‘female jolly bachelors’. These artists were among the first few women to be in relationships with others of their own sex and they all rallied around Cushman who is said to have given Stebbins the kind of support she needed to design the statue. It induced in me, a flash of emotion, a surge of pride. Stebbins was the first woman in New York City to have designed a public piece of art. For feminism creeps into you from the day you truly open your eyes to the world, isn’t it?

Now the changes have been negligible since the day it was unveiled to the public in 1873. The vista has really remained the same. The angel and her cherubs and then the beautiful lake framed by the woodlands, the colorful gonfalons (medieval-style banners) adding the necessary touch of majesty to it all.

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Demolishing bread baskets in Polpette
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Chicken and rosemary, a delectable duo.
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Red snapper and shrimps in pomodoro sauce.
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In a scanning-the-sky mode in Central Park where boys play football in the muddy fields.
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Fire trucks and carriages that prance down the park.
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The intensely soothing serenity of the Elm woods of Central Park.
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Canopy of Elms
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The old boathouse that stands adjacent the lake where people row boats, true to a 15–year-old tradition of rowing Venetian gondolas. The fans whirr in slow motion inside the dark non-air-conditioned interiors and make you think of the days of yore.
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Little girls in dresses of tulle walk down the park.
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Carriages appear every few seconds as you make your way through the park.
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Camouflaged occupant of the woods. He was adorable if I may state the obvious.
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In summer squirrels have to really hunt for their meals because the nuts are usually not ripe enough for them.
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So Adi chastised me for distracting this little fellow when he turned towards me and the nut slipped from his grasp. He spent aeons looking for it, after.
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Upper Terrace of the Bethesda Fountain
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Bethesda fountain was inspired by a Biblical verse. ‘Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called…Bethesda…whoever then first after the troubling of the waters stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.’
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The arcade as it looked in the early 1900s. These old photos are sourced off the Net.
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The wedding shoot
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Inside the arcade are these beautiful Moorish-patterned tiles.
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He who paints the angel under the harsh sun shall be rewarded with true love, cupcakes and lemonade. 

Tango and Fireflies Among the Elms

I sat on the bench that Steve Kaplan had once sat on, my love by my side. The stifling heat of the day had been unbearable, and as much as we had let our senses be overwhelmed by the dazzling duo of chilled beer and jazz earlier on in the evening, it felt nice to just be. There was a hum in our heads and a hint of a breeze in the air as the clouds swooped in upon the strange hour of twilight which brings with it the twin emotions of contemplation and melancholia.

The lamps in the park twinkled as people hurried on, giving into the nudge from the darkening skies to find their way to the nearest shelter, because as surely as the stars that cling to the sky on crisp clear nights, a nasty spell was about to be unleashed upon us.

We, however, held on to the bench. I could feel peace stealing in upon me.

Was it the fact that we were enveloped in a cocoon of sorts in Central Park – that vast oasis of green which sits dab in the middle of Manhattan and yet seems far removed from the trammels of city life? I know not for sure but the sense of contentment that had been eluding me (both of us for that matter) for some time now, was just there, waiting to be embraced. A change is difficult. Getting used to a new environment is such an insidious process. You might think you can work it all out in your mind, and go about falling in love with a new place in an organised way, but some things in life just do not go according to plan, do they?

The man on the neighbouring bench stared intently at something so I squinted at whatever he was staring at. Oh, but it was a firefly, and he was trying his best to trap it in the cupped hollow of his hands. We whirled around, and why behind us in the woods, there was an orchestra of luminescence.

Whimpers of gold as those busy fireflies went about finding their soulmates, for do you know that they emit optical signals to attract mates? Some are deceived in this battlefield of courting because they are lured by the honey traps of femme fatales – the carnivorous females who lure lovesick males and simply gobble them up. How many had found their true mates on that summer evening and how many had been lost their lives, who knows, but it was all for love. And oh so magical.

In tandem with the fireflies, the immediate world around us was full of little pieces of joy. Like the many acts that come together to make a play count. We just had to look.

A couple walked by with their two cuddly daughters tucked into a double buggy and smitten by their rainbow cones of joy. Ice lollies to beat the heat of the day. Perfect. But one of those errant lollies took a toss – and the little girl who was the proud owner, her face crumpled up.

Before she could let loose a wail upon the world at large, her father dived to the ground. He picked up the cone, gave it a brush, and handed it right back to her. You should have seen the look on her face (of pure delight), ours (aghast) and her father’s (sheepish) as he turned around to us grinning, ‘All’s well. The five-second rule guys!’

A heartbeat away, at the south end of the part of the park called the Mall, two literary greats sat far, far away from home. Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. One stared at us moodily and the other gazed into the sky dreamily all poised to write on his scrolls of paper. Nearby stood Columbus, that lousy navigator who aimed for the East Indies and landed up in the West Indies. That man gives me hope. So what if I have a woeful sense of direction? Look where it took Columbus. Now he stands along with the Bard in that part of Central Park known as the Literary Walk staring every Saturday at clusters of couples dancing the tango in their heels and pretty dresses.

You can find them every weekend, those dancing divas and their hopelessly dressed men, regardless of thunder and lightning, rain and hail. As we found out soon enough to the tune of all with the exception of hail. We stood beneath the branches of a massive tree and huddled beneath my small plaid umbrella, which is only as effectual as pretty little things are, got wet, giggled and wondered aloud about tango in the rain.

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Street lamps light up the south end of the Mall in Central Park.
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The power of social media 
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Far from the lochs and glens of Scotland, here he sits on the Literary Walk…
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…along with fellow Scot, Burns
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Columbus
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Tango in the park beneath the eagle eyes of the Bard
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Just before it poured buckets.
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And that’s just about the power of green.

The Manhattan Story

His face etched by age, the man in front of Big Wong stood with a faraway look in his face, his hands busy stuffing golden tobacco into the thin stem that stuck out from the side of a wooden bong. That’s not the bongo which would imply an antelope, or on the other end of the spectrum, a drum. But since you can spot our man in the featured photograph with the bong in his hand (behind the potbellied man in the blue tee), you could safely cross out both antelope and drum-shaped possibilities. Instead, you can probably figure out that the bong is a pipe with a filtration device that allows you to smoke anything from tobacco to cannabis. His white apron flecked extensively by red sauce, the man then continued to puff away at the pipe and release curls of smoke as he nodded vigorously to emphasise that he was not partial to getting clicked. Why he was out for a break from his overwrought job of churning out noodles and sauce-laden dishes.

With the clucking of his tongue and the shake of his head, he might as well have mouthed out, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than shooting photographs, so really Horatio, go eat some’.

We did eat a whole lot right after. Steamy bowls of soup with pork dumplings floating in them, a massive plate of noodles topped up with greens and strips of chicken and then the ubiquitous American Chinese dish called General Tso’s Chicken (that often surfaces on pinterest) appeared within minutes of our sitting at the table. All in big portions. We had forgotten the monumental portions of food served up in America. Surrounded by Chinese families going about their bowls with chopsticks and speaking in rapid Chinese, we slurped away.

This was Manhattan. Chinatown, New York. But I could have been easily in an eatery on the streets of Chinatown in Calcutta where the Chinese folks around us would been chattering in Bengali. The common factor was the intensely flavourful food, because that is what makes Chinese such a Friday night comfort food, isn’t it?

Do you put on your PJs after a long day at the end of the week and unwind with delicious Chinese and a frightfully scary movie? I look forward to such evenings when I rustle up Indochinese fare (typically it is about Schezwan dishes concocted with garlic and dried red chillies, moreish Manchurian dishes and chilli dishes which are typically batter fried chicken/fish/ veggies tossed up in spicy sauces). It is a version of Chinese food bequeathed to every Indian by the Han/Hakka community who made their way to Calcutta as far back as the mid 1800s when a businessman called Tong Achi established a sugar mill there.

The migrant Hakka people who belong to the provincial Hakka-speaking provinces of China started working in the sugar mill. In time they turned their skills to work in the tanneries (the stench of which can and will send you into a dead faint) to churn out fashionable and high quality leather goods in British India (working on leather was looked down upon by upper-caste Hindus) and some even operated opium dens. There are faded sepia photographs of rake-thin Chinese men with pipes of opium and punkahs (hand-held bamboo fans) alongside, staring at the lenses with glazed eyes, a sense of detachment from the squalor of their den. I wonder about stories from another era that the Manhattan Chinese have to tell too.

At the same time that some were making their inroads into British India, others chose to make the considerably longer journey to America, lured by stories of the gold rush of the 1840s.

Now New York to Calcutta spells a gigantic leap, but the common thread that runs through them is woven with the warp and weft of stories. Of migration, of immense determination to make it work despite abject circumstances and then these migrants’ renditions of Chinese food that was inevitably tempered by the environment that they found themselves in.

My jaunts have taken me to the Chinatowns in London, Kuala Lumpur, Seattle, Bangkok, Singapore, Port Louis in Mauritius to name some but the way of life of the Manhattan Chinese and the Calcutta Chinese have seeped into the very fabric of their surroundings.

Bringing you back to the streets of Lower Manhattan, the older generation of Chinese turn out to be sticklers for their customs, language and stern expressions. Far removed from the glitziness of the nearby Financial District of New York City, it is a world peopled by old Chinese men and women, bent double with age over walking sticks as they hobble across pavements, stopping once in a while to look askew at passers-by, cordial young bankers sitting inside their chambers and talking about their love for everything modern and coming across as the quintessential New Yorker living in their microcosm, younger store workers with colourful dragon tattoos splayed across their arms and then the antique shop owner with five generations of antiquing in the blood. The streets of Lower Manhattan are entrancing.

This was how we were introduced to the well-known and oft talked about grand American dream – that if you put in hard work why you shall reap the rewards –  all tucked in comfortably within the streets of Chinatown.

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The Georgian-style Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration does stand out in its very obviously Chinese surroundings.
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Sunday masses at the church are held in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

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Chinatown Starbucks
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Heritage and modernity join hands in Starbucks, Chinatown.
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 Colours of Chinatown in Lower Manhattan
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The oldest store in Chinatown, Manhattan, is this antique store called Wing On Wo & Co. Generations of Chinese have been selling porcelain here since the 1920s.
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Those fire escapes fascinated me. Here you see them on Mott Street, which is the nerve centre of Chinatown.
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A Cantonese businessman was the first to arrive in Lower Manhattan and start the process of slowly and surely changing the nature of these streets.
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At Big Wong, we let go. Pork dumplings.
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Noodles laden with pak choi and chicken
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General Tso’s Chicken. A piquant affair.
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Fire escapes and dimsum palaces
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Chinatown leads you into Little Italy. A neighbourhood where once immigrants from Naples and Sicily arrived in the 1800s.
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I was taken in by those fire escapes as you can see.
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Italy nostalgia. 
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A typical NYC sight
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Red chequered table cloths, cannoli, espresso, pizzas, pastas…a feast awaits you in Little Italy. I cannot wait to get back and tuck into some Italian fare.
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We might have started with Chinatown but I leave you here with Little Italy, which goes to show that here is a city that belongs to everybody, and at first glance, seems to be made up of a million dreams and desires.