The Strange Appeal of Disused Railroads

What is it that draws us to old places that have been abandoned? It could be about the vastly different era they have been a part of, the stories they quietly harbour, or just plain old nostalgia for the past. Nostalgia is after all a sort of release into a utopian world for most of us. I suppose one cannot lay a finger upon the nub of the matter but I can tell you with conviction that railroads are lonely, lonely places. On this particular afternoon after a gander through the town of Phoenicia, and before we set out on the trail of covered bridges, we stopped at a tiny town called Arkville.

The sight of a few old houses, a distillery, a fire station, and train engines rolling by the car window, woke me out of the stupor of that summer noon. I insisted we turn back and Adi remarked it was fortuitous enough. He was aiming for a power nap. Our friend meanwhile seemed intent on training his DSLR on the landscape around for some time, so I skipped away on my own.

Rusted metal, cracked wooden sleepers, grassy growths thrown up in clumps through the bed of gravel, on and around the tracks, and then a line-up of old railcars languishing on the tracks, with no destination in mind.

The last of the people at the ticket office (they do organise joyrides here) wound up early that weekend and went off to celebrate a new car. Random snatches of overheard conversations spontaneously adding spice to my wanderings. Not a soul was to be seen as I walked down the tracks. Through a clearing in the foliage alongside, I came upon the main road where I walked for some time to realise that there was nothing much to be had except the wrath of the sun and an empty road. I turned back and started upon the railroad from where it began, peeping into silent engines and cabins.

In its heyday, which was right into the World War I period, the Ulster and Delaware Railroad covered a distance of 107 miles between two places in the Upstate New York, Kingston and Oneonta. I pictured myself in one of the old dining cars, sipping on tea and finger sandwiches as we chugged through the green green valleys of the majestic Catskills, up mean inclines, skirting babbling brooks and charming villages. Possibly a bear on its hind legs waving at me from deep in the woods. If it’s only a daydream, let us tailor it as we see fit, non?

The people of Arkville, just like residents of other villages and hamlets in the Catskill mountains, would have sworn that it would never fade out, the Up and Down. It was their lifeline during the mid-1800s, connecting the village folk to the world, and important in the scheme of things in that it was part of their livelihood. The U&D carried milk from the mountain villages to the world beyond.

The tourists too would have never imagined that it could be rendered useless. For during long hot summers, upper-crust New Yorkers took the trains into the countryside where it was all about the winding roads and the luxuriant greenery, a sight for sore city eyes. Ridiculously lavish hotels catered to their needs. Let’s say it was the Hamptons of the yesteryears. You can see the appeal reflected in a few old ads I came upon. They are portals to another era. Most of them flaunt the good ol’ adventurer, Rip Van Winkle, as their mascot. For you do know that Rip wandered into the Catskills and napped there for a solid 20 years, right?




But fade the railroad did. There is no reprieve from the passage of time or the seduction of new developments. The 1920s arrived with automobiles and trucks snatching the reigns from the railroad, paving the way for disenchantment with it, till the railroad was left to its own devices in the latter part of the century.

I wandered amongst the cabooses and dining cars till I came upon a beautiful rust-red Ulster & Delaware railcar. The driver’s seat looked forlorn. The stairs corroded. I thought about taking a quick look inside the car. And then, I have no idea why, but something flipped in me. I am ashamed to say that I took off like the wind even though I did not feel light on my feet that day. My heart beat as loud as the tooting of an engine, I fancy. It could have been the utter silence around me, the stillness in the air, or the thought that someone was watching me from behind the dark windows. It was possibly a blend of all three, but here’s the anti-climax, all I could do was run back to Adi on winged heels.

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Arkville is positioned alongside the exceptionally green belt of the Catskill Park Blue Line
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Rip Van Winkle Flyer dinner train

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Cross-section of a caboose

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An old steam locomotive
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Rusted axles and dusty locomotives

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The New York Central Dining Car, lending itself to an old dream of luxury. 

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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The perfect burger
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 

Pottering About Long Island

On Veterans Day, November 11th, we drove to the Hamptons and passed beneath Old Glory, the humongous American free-flying flag — it happens to be the largest in the world — unfurled from the arch top of George Washington Bridge which happens to be the busiest bridge in the world connecting New York with New Jersey. It was an impressive sight – the flag that is unfurled on special occasions like Veterans Day when countrymen honour their military personnel in the US. In the UK on this day everyone wears red poppies to remember the sacrifices made by a few for the many. Remembrance Day. It is a special thing when a nation remembers for not every nation does.

Beds of rust & golden leaves lay thick upon woods that marked the way to The Hamptons, the exclusive playground of the upper echelons of society, where during summer the Serenas and Nates (ref: Gossip Girl) take a break from the hectic pace of the city, where rosé flows like water, and where an Emily Thorne stands upon quiet beaches contemplating the machinations of destruction (ref: Revenge). There is irony in equating Revenge with the Hamptons. For most of the estates were shot in North Carolina except for the exterior of the Graysons’ manor which is situated in the heart of East Hampton.

Now the Hamptons are a cluster of villages and towns. The names keep popping up as you keep upon one straight road, passing by orange fields of pumpkins, houses tucked into woods and a profusion of old churches. Hampton Bays, Southampton, Quogue, North Sea, Bridgehampton, Shinnecock Hills, Sagaponack, Sag Harbor are a roll-call of names that you come upon, some of them obviously Native American in origin. Here there are waterfront properties that start well above a few million dollars, boasting of gently aged modernism. Bakeries which sell loaves of bread that might cost 12 bucks but hey they are organic and conscious about what they put on the shelves. And here they do not encourage Uber. Instead there is a Hampton Hopper, mint green school buses that operate between Montauk and Sag Harbor.

It was frightfully cold when we came upon Sag Harbor, a tiny 18th-century village with a whaling tradition. It was home to John Steinbeck, at least two artists chose to end their life within its beautiful environs — one succeeded, the other did not — and then there are Moby Dick references. Queequeg had arrived in Sag Harbor to acquaint himself with the sailor’s life in the village. There are old whaling churches and broken mast tokens to remember the whalers lost to the sea. It reminded me a wee bit of Synge’s Riders to the Sea though the geographical location in that play ridden with overtones of fatalism was Inishmaan in the Aran Islands of Ireland. We shivered upon the pier of Sag Harbor with its lovely old windmill with plaques to recall the names associated with the village and then carried on to Southampton which was deserted on that phenomenally cold evening.

The oldest English settlement in Long Island, Southampton, had English folk arrive there from Massachusetts in the 1640s. They took over a few square miles in town from the Shinnecock Indian Nation, an Algonquin-speaking tribe, which received corn, coats, areas reserved for their use and the assurance that the English would defend them, ‘the sayed Indians from the unjust violence of whatever Indians shall illegally assaile us’.

We had a taste of Southampton’s old English vibes with the department store of Hildreth’s (the name says it all) which was started by one of the settler families from Massachusetts in the 1800s. Treading the old wooden floors of the store, we scanned the walls with their rows of old deeds and documents, sepia photos of men with sideburns and beards, chunks peeling off from the photos in ghostly whites, and images of horse driven wagons carrying goods from ships that docked at neighbouring Sag Harbor. A long time ago we might have come upon old whaling harpoons and buffalo hides, but today the oldest piece you would chance upon is a 5′ tall coffee grinder that is unlike any you have seen.

The other aspect of its past showed up on the two-lane Montauk Highway with a procession of cigarette shops glinting in the gathering dark, a sudden change of mood from the glamorous to a ramshackle existence. The Indian Reservation in Long Island. And then again the quiet poshness of the Hampton Bays. A runner pounding the pavements on a dark stretch braving the fierce bite of the evening. The contrast never more pronounced upon the eyes of the curious traveller – that life is but about living the gap between the promise and the reality.


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NYC Vibes On Halloween Weekend

Ah the throb of life in New York City. The lights, the people, the sidewalk bars brimming with the jolly many, the medley of bizarre costumes. Welcome to a night of gargantuan proportions. On one hand there were these strange airy-fairy creatures roaming around town — my pick of them all was a Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI zombie couple in their coiffed off-white wigs standing at a bistro on the sidewalk. And at the other end of the spectrum were boys and girls in tuxes and ball gowns, straight out of Gossip Girl, climbing up the steps of the New York Public Library with noses in the air, heads held high.

The night was alive and we were heading with the keenness of a precision-guided missile to the ramen-laden embrace of Wagamama in the Flatiron. On our mind were its chilli squids because boy have we missed ’em. In a mall in Milton Keynes, for example, on a superbly grey day in England we ended up going back twice to Wagamama for lunch and dinner — because we were not satisfied with just two servings of chilli squids at one go. We went back for more – for dinner – and the guy who had served us in the afternoon was confounded. ‘You Really like Wagamama, eh?’ he said. No shit, Sherlock.

Wagamama kept us going – because as with London, NYC can work your quads in a way not even a stairmaster can.

We had started the day at the New York Public Library because I had to return my books and renew my membership card. But as it turns out, my name came to my rescue. My usual practice is to come up with a nom de guerre for Starbucks and for those I know would struggle to figure out my name. One of my neighbours, a guy had told me sagely a while ago on an evening of purple hues and barbecue that I should not bother changing it. He had added: ‘Let them try and get it. Don’t change your name to suit anybody.’ Well at a library you cannot deal in any kind of pseudonyms, can you, with the State ID and all that thrown into the mixture? The woman at the check-out desk took a look at my name and said, ‘The same name as the writer! How do you pronounce it?’ She tried it on her tongue a few times till she got it. So yes, Arundhati Roy, the woman with magic in her pen, worked her fame and what happened was that even though the card is allotted for three months to anyone outside the county of NY and has to be renewed regularly, I got it for three years. I wanted to hug her.

With a halo of happiness hanging around me, I headed towards Central Park with Adi. There was such beauty in the air there even though the colours were not pronounced. A guy lay back on the grass and read a book, leaves wafted all around us like we were on the sets of a film, it was poetic, the charm of the evening…a golden retriever was commanded repeatedly by its master to sit and meet a little girl. His name was Jasper, the dog’s that is…Jasper refused to sit down. Yeah Jasper, you are not some performing clown. At the ice rink, Adi spotted a young boy of about 8 or so who skated like a ballet dancer, moving his arms oh so fluidly in tandem with the easy gliding of his feet clad in roller skates…we were transfixed by the prowess within that little body. Then the odd sight of a  bride who was in the midst of a photo shoot with her man in a denim jacket and Stetson hat.

Later we sauntered down Fifth Avenue, wandering in and out of stores. We entered Bergdorf Goodman where women with botox-ed, grim faces piled up boxes of expensive shoes like it was their birthright…Adi was determined to buy me a pair of Manolo Blahniks, so I had to don silk stockings and slip my feet into a pair of lace boots with stiletto heels so high that I thought I would keel over the moment I stood on them. Much to his disappointment, I returned them perfunctorily, sighed over a pair of fuchsia pink booties adorned with zardozi on the cuffs and heels. There is a photo of them below that I caught at the display window. The booties are a result of a collaboration between Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi and Christian Louboutin. Now Sabyasachi makes me proud as my home-town boy from Calcutta because his design sensibility is special. He does not pretend. He uses his roots and folklores and the result are designs that make you swoon. The prices do too. I dropped it all like a hot potato and headed outside, an annoyed Adi at my heels because my beloved wants to pamper me for my upcoming birthday. It made my heart swell with love because the thought is all that counts, is it not? This husband of mine is a gem. Yes, I should spare you the camp notes. But really, I was overwhelmed and I chose to indulge instead in a few stunning winter dresses from Zara with silhouettes and sleeves that made the heart trill.

Then we bought financiers, brownies and bread from this beautiful boulangerie and when we reached Wagamama, the delectable crunch of the squids sprinkled with shichimi, a Japanese chilli pepper mixture, and a huge bowl of ramen hit the right notes. Then home and pastries. Later wine to soak it all up.

And now I shall go pack my stuff for we head out to Worcester in a while. Toodles.

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Burnt-Out Ends of Autumnal Days

The day we saw Lake Placid it was dreary so that I wanted to have a go at the miserable veil of grey above our heads, release the vivid blue that teased us once awhile as we started on our drive from Saratoga Springs. The dying embers of brilliant reds, flaming oranges, pinks, lime yellows they might have been but how they shone even under leaden skies. Fall foliage in the boreal landscape of the Adirondacks had peaked and we watched it slowly disintegrate before the eyes.

Skeletal bodies of trees showed up in neat rows conjuring up the image of someone who had taken time to strip them bare methodically in a linear manner. The stray red leaf which clung to a bald tree as if to challenge the bluster of the wind, the leaves flying above the road gathered up in fistfuls by the wind to coil up, then unravel suddenly upon the windscreen, rows and rows of spiky spruce, pines, beeches on either side of the roads. At places where we stopped by creeks to gather leaves and photographs, also to feel the cool sting of the air, sprigs of hemlock showed up like starbursts in white.

Bobcats, beaver bats, muskrat, flying squirrels and black bears are said to roam the forests of the great park that is the Adirondacks. But all promises of wildlife were foregone because that is what happens when you owl it into the wee hours of the morning (with alcohol). It crosses out any prospects of hiking. Yet you do not want to miss out on the promise of hills, hamlets, log cabins and brooks… At a fuel station, I bought French Vanilla cappuccino, took a sip, and proceeded to empty it into the bin outside. Wastage. Utter shit. Unhappy Adi.

But look, I pointed out to him before he could gather steam, a golden head peeping out from the back of a big (I should probably stop saying big with reference to anything in America) pick-up truck. A golden retriever with pretty curly locks and hair softer than mine looked at us with her head cocked up in the completely winning way that only dogs can. She had a joyful time licking us while her old human friend, a farmer, came around the car to hold forth on with her ill-concealed pride. That she chases chipmunks around her house up in the wilds of the Adirondacks because you see she is possessive about the human and the homestead. That she also refuses to let him step out alone to the farm. She has got to be overseeing things from the back of the truck, you see.

That is how we reached Lake Placid which was placid but dismally grey — like Nessie would emerge from those depths if she could be persuaded to abandon her watery home in the Scottish Highlands for the Adirondacks. The village was chock full of people. Touristy. But our plan is to return for a hike there beneath blue skies. We ended up at the hamlet of Keene nearby where many hikes start, where beautiful lodges with wraparound porches sit next to gentle brooks and where rustic log cabins double up as tastefully done-up boutiques. Be prepared to find moose heads (very Abercrombie & Fitch) and stuffed black bears staring back at you solemnly — the eyes of the latter will follow you around.

There are photos below taken in motion, some blurred, some not perfect but in the mood of the moment in the land named for the Algonquin tribes who resided in the area. Their neighbours, the Mohawks, derogatorily called them Adirondacks which translates into ‘barkeaters’. Now I do not care much for eating barks though I do care for that sumptuous sap they yield and I do care for the cafe in Keene that serves the fluffiest chocolate muffins I have ever seen – they are as big as the fist of a wrestler – and beautiful life-giving loaves of bread and also the most delicious chocolate cookie chips that I have ever chomped on. Crisp buttery edges and a soft crumbly middle, chocolate oozing out in rich gooey pockets. And then Adi who had a cheshire cat grin as he proclaimed, ‘Glutsy’s on a roll,’ and later with a few bites and a hangdog look, declared it reason enough.

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Saratoga Springs

In Saratoga Springs, a town of immense loveliness that is the doorway to the massif of the Adirondacks, we met its many affable locals. The jockey I had met the previous night at the bourban bar turned up at another bar where we sat for dinner on Saturday evening after a day of driving around the Adirondacks. We hugged like long-lost friends and Adi was stumped. ‘Who was that?’ he asked, as we sat down to pop-rock numbers played by a live band and watched a large group of women take over the dance floor. It looked like a baby shower where the men had been relegated to another table. Looking at those men who were as hulking as lumberjacks, tattooed arms and baseball caps, you would not believe that they would do namby pamby shit like dancing. Oh boy, but they did and how they did.

Later after we had snacked in Esperanto, a hole-in-the-wall affair, on a local speciality called the doughboy, a kind of stuffed puff pastry-cum-calzone, we passed by the bourbon bar where the bouncer stepped out and asked if we were going to return the evening after for BM’s birthday drinks. He had promised BM a pitcher of free drink you see. ‘No, there is the thing about the drive back home,’ we said.

On Sunday morning we had a glimpse of Saratoga Springs during the day, with its leafy promenades, grand hotels, stylish hat shops where the array of hats and fascinators make your heart plop with pleasure and then the sight of blonde hippies who have probably made their millions, so they lounge about town wearing khakis and spiritual amulets and relax with dog-eared books at coffee shops that declare that you shall experience death by coffee, my friend. Now I shall take a breath after that woefully lengthy chatter and point out that there is that independent bookstore too — Northshire Books, which I had come across in the town of Mancester in Vermont previously and lost my heart to. Adi gave into bambi eyes and bought me a beautifully bound tome of Virginia Woolf which shall always now remind me of the beauty of the day. Pristine blue skies, yellow leaves rolling across the pavement and gathering in bunches along their furrows, the scent of coffee in the air, golden retrievers with fine hair and ample bodies extracting bagels from their masters …

Saratoga Springs has an European air about it — in the way of living that it exudes. When Dutch and British colonists took over the area from the original Mahican tribe who lived there, it was developed into a spa town of great fame because public bath houses were anyway being promoted in the country by a doctor in the 19th century. Old brick buildings and stone churches, people sitting outdoors and chilling with wine in the dappled shade of tall trees, horses in stone everywhere because it is now a town known for its race meets every summer when the glitterati descend upon the town in droves and drive the prices of hotel rooms up to $400 a night – a piece of information rendered by my jockey friend. In a vintage store selling home decor and boutique-ish clothes, I met a beautiful Native American woman with chiselled jaws. There was a fair bit of admiring each other so that the woman standing behind her arranging wraps and shawls turned around and chipped in, in that American way, ‘Oh my god you guys! You should exchange numbers already. I sense a friendship here.’ It succeeded in cutting though the conversation like a scythe as we got down to brass tacks. Pay and exit. Much to Adi’s amusement because he had wanted us to get done already and get going with the morning.

Now there is a special aspect of this town that it would be amiss of me not to mention. In Saratoga Springs is a retreat for artists and writers called Yaddo. It offers residencies to the creative community. So if you show up with a valid proof of the fact that you are indeed busy writing/creating something, you shall receive half a year of stay with every kind of expense taken care of by Yaddo. The name is a curious one, you might wonder. One of the children of Katrina Trask, who started the community, indulged in neologism, rhyming the word with Shadow and hence Yaddo. The story of Katrina Trask is heart-aching. She had married a Wall Street banker, Spencer Trask, in the late 1800s. Their four children died early and then her husband died in a freak accident on a train. A life of trials and tribulations that is reflected in one of her poems:

‘Beyond the bourn of mortal death and birth,
Two lovers—parted sorrowing on earth—
Met in the land of dim and ghostly space.
Wondering, he gazed on her illumined face:
“Alone you bear the burden now,” he said,
“Of bondage; mine is ended,—I am dead.”
With rapturous note of victory, she cried,
“The Lord of Life be praised! I, too, have died.” ‘

Yet how her legacy lives on in the 400-acre estate in the spirit of the matter that your days there will be all about the heart and soul poured into the affair of making art.

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The Saratogan Night Out

It is a dull day and I have a sore throat and I can see my sprightly neighbour do his bushy-tailed dance on the cable wires hanging outside the apartment. This squirrel scurries up and down the wires everyday. The first day I saw him I was worried. Was he stuck up there — trying to figure a way back to the sprawling greens across the road? But  sometimes you need to hear your thoughts out loud before you can fathom the ridiculous nature of them. Now having redone the apartment this morning feeling the call of hygge, having put away some extraneous details and arranged the leaves of autumn to lie artlessly around, some pine cones too, I have lit a candle which smells delicately of eucalyptus and mint. Good enough for me as I set out to write. I wanted to take you further into the heart of the beautiful Cornish villages in Britain till I felt the urge to tell you about my weekend which was eventful for someone who likes to huddle in a couch with a book or binge watch shows on the telly.

I was going to do just that — read Diana Gabaldon and swoon with comfort food ordered up in my hotel room this weekend – when Adi would hear none of it. I could not be sitting alone in a hotel room on a Friday night and he be partying. Woeful by any measure, he declared. We had driven up to the former spa town of Saratoga Springs in New York which is home to Adi’s boss. Now Boss Man has decided to fly the nest of his present firm for greener pastures. His colleagues naturally grew misty-eyed and threw a fond farewell party at a dimly-lit taproom that was the picture of distressed chic. Exposed brick walls, textured ceiling, Edison bulbs, sepia-toned photos hung upon the walls, the hubble-bubble of men and women.

As the evening matured with alcohol, cheese and laughter, it turned out that I would be the only woman in a group of five men because the female colleague decided to (intelligently enough) leave early. Over red wine, platters of salami, manchego and blue cheese, I was learning about the kind of life I have only read about and gleaned from conversations with a Swedish chef who I had interviewed a few years ago in a hip Shoreditch restaurant in London. The chef lives in the wild inaccessible forests of the province of Jämtland in Sweden, forages for vegetables, lichen and berries, and hunts every piece of meat he puts out on the menu. Naturally he has been acing lists of foodies who have taken the trouble of reaching his outpost in the great outdoors. I would like to experience it except for the thought of a cow’s substantial femur being sawed out before my eyes as live theatre and the prospect of being presented with the contents of the marrow — makes the bones judder. Not Adi’s though. He has stressed over and over again that he is up for it.

To get back to the evening at hand, one of Adi’s colleagues shares a similar outlook of life as the Swedish chef. This guy lives on a remote piece of land, about 300 acres of it under his ownership, in the woods near the Canadian border. There where towns by the name of Bombay turn up, named for ‘Indian princesses’ who migrated there from the city of Bombay in India, and where his neighbours are Native Americans in a reservation noted for gambling (here he interjected the conversation with, ‘one of my friends from the tribe was arrested lately for driving around the area with $500,000 stashed into the car’) — this chap lives off the land. He hunts for big game and fishes in the lake nearby to put food on the plate for his family of two toddlers and wife. He showed me a photo of the wife proudly holding aloft a fish that must have spanned 4ft. at the least.

Every bit of food is accounted for and nothing is wasted. In the last week or two he has been out hunting moose, but they are elusive creatures and live high on the mountains, usually it is just deer. His grandfather liked hunting for bears because he liked bear meat. All I could think of was:

A sweet, innocent, harmless, leaf-eating, doe-eyed little deer. … Imagine you’re a deer. You’re prancing along, you get thirsty, you spot a little brook, you put your little deer lips down to the cool clear water… BAM! A fucking bullet rips off part of your head! Your brains are laying on the ground in little bloody pieces! Now I ask ya. Would you give a fuck what kind of pants the son of a bitch who shot you was wearing?’ The Marisa Tomei monologue in the rip-roaring My Cousin Vinny. Yes, you got it.

BM reached out for his hunting colleague’s neck and patted it saying sardonically, ‘You are meeting the quintessential redneck.’ In this world where we obsess over politically correct terms, our friend from the woods was least bothered by any of it. He was just quietly confident about the kind of life he leads. ‘I eat what I kill, I know where my food comes from and I do not hunt for pleasure,’ he told me simply.

Later after two glasses brimming with red wine, I was ready to call it a night. But when you are with the guys, you gotta develops guts of steel, and do what the men do. Drink. We tripped down to a bourbon bar. I drank endless glasses of water – so much so that the two bartenders ended up replacing my glass as soon as they saw me without one — and the men luxuriated with their measures of golden bourbon. There I heard the life stories of the male bartender with the silver nose stud and of the tattooed initials of his little boy who had died early of an infection, the female bartender who can do just about four shots of tequila in a night, watched people enter the loo in twos, an irate bearded bouncer hot on their tail, and had my forearms examined by a jockey to determine if I had the makings of a horsewoman…evidently not.

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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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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.

Mattress Hunting in New York City

The business of setting up home is a strange blend of weariness and exhilaration. I find myself oscillating between these two extremes as the process kicks off. On Saturday we made our way to Macy’s at Herald Square. If you are not from this country, you need to know that it is the iconic American departmental store that sets the heart of the locals throbbing (you can call me out on this one if you are not a fan, but what are the chances of that, eh?).

The idea behind spending time at Macy’s was to throw ourselves on mattresses stuffed with all kinds of memory foams, promising firmness in varying degrees. Adi is firm about it being firm, you see.

And throw ourselves we did, Adi with immense pleasure, I with reserve. The idea of laying back, turning around over and over, while pretending to be laying on my own bed when in reality it is within a department store, however hallowed its halls might be, is disconcerting. Never mind the woman on the next mattress in her yellow sundress taking her shoes off to lay on her stomach and change angles as she decides what works for her. Now that is the way you buy a mattress. I know it, okay? But I cannot and shall not fall in line. I have Adi to do it on my behalf.

Soon came the tut-tutting of the saleswoman guiding us through the sacred rituals of choosing The Mattress. This grey-haired matriarchal figure was not in the least like our cordial little Mrs Marple. She cast a gimlet eye upon me, observing, “I’ve been noticing that you are standing around for the most part, while your husband tests mattresses out.”

Adi got his chit of approval and showed me all of his shining teeth. I was the sheepish one.

Then came the deal breaker. The part where all kind of hearts, young and old, stumble and fall. Prices.

Adi’s grin started fading bit by bit. Till it was time to take ourselves out of the vicinity of those rectangular beacons of firmness to think sanely. In almost every situation in life, when you feel overwhelmed, it helps to take a step or a few steps aside, and just let it be.

That is what we did, and the result was that while sauntering down the all-important doyen of avenues, Fifth Avenue, we espied a store that declared itself to be Mattress Firm. ‘Surely a sign’, we thought to ourselves, and entered the store past a bunch of police crowd control barriers, wooden, blue and pretty. A sign that Fifth Avenue had been the venue of a parade earlier on in the day.

An old-world lift whisked us into a massive hall which was a picture of neatness, stacked with rows and columns of mattresses, boxsprings, and more mattresses. A head popped out of the corner accompanied by a grin and a booming voice. “You folks are the first people to step in, so come here quick. Give me a hug! Let’s have a group hug, y’all.”

Javon was his name and he pronounced it as Gio-vaan as he engulfed the two of us in his big arms and gave us a tight hug.

A start with a hugging salesman. Prophetic of good times to come? It was certainly symbiotic for both parties – we got our mattress – and good on Javon, he made a sale without breaking a sweat. He added to the experience by giving us tips. How to catch the best views of NYC while sitting atop rooftop bars, which burgers to chomp on, the best track for running in Central Park, meeting celebrities like Julianne Moore (who had apparently inclined her head to let him know that it was indeed her). He also mentioned his momma who lives in Little Italy in the Bronx.

Now this Italian neighbourhood is not the same as Little Italy of Lower Manhattan. The Bronx one is the original they say, and no, the Italian mafia has not sunk its claws into it because its notoriety means that even the dons took a step back. Which is not to say that there are no mobs around.

On our first day in Jersey City, we had met a burly and chatty cab driver who drove us into Manhattan. He had alluded to the infamous Bronx as he noted, “Two blocks up and down my house in Newark, it is not quite safe. But then I have lived in the Bronx. I know how to take care of myself.”

We shall go one day to the Bronx. Before which I shall arm myself with copious quantities of coffee to steel the nerve.

Back in Javon’s Fifth Avenue hood, two hours passed by in a whirl of nattering. The perfect salesman had done his job sans judgement on my refusal to sink into the mattresses. And we had snagged us a deal that was a neat thousand dollars cheaper than Macy’s. The business of achieving the perfect sleep dealt with, we strolled down Fifth Avenue where we greedily grabbed bags of dark Lindt chocolate and indulged in fashion dilemmas in Adi’s dearest Abercrombie & Fitch store – ‘Why I am in the flagship store!’ he remarked with awe — because he had made it a point to drag me to all of its European locations. This was followed by a long-drawn dinner of delicious Indian fare at Moti Mahal.

The euphoric moment of the day was unplanned – it lay in the transition from daylight to dusk.

New York at night. Those of you who have walked its bedazzled streets by night know this that the city knows how to work it once dusk falls like no other. Oh, the streets were a miasma of activity. Women came out in throngs in lovely dresses, tipsy boys hollered around the streets, pretty young women waited in dimly-lit sidewalk cafes (waiting for their dates?), dogs sat patiently in bicycle trailers as their owners whizzed along the roads, and people spilled onto the streets, diving into drinks and appetizers at cocktail bars. Yellow cabs rushed by us with passengers and Hello Dolly ads as the balmy night air caressed our hair and welcomed us to the city.

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Herald Street in Manhattan
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And that’s not even the tallest building in NY 
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Insights into its colonial past
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By dint of habit and height, every photograph tends to be vertical here
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Remnants of barricades and parades
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The Chrysler Building. A marvellous dream in Art Deco was conceived as the headquarters of the car manufacturer, but it was built by Walter Chrysler, the founder, using his personal funds because he wanted his descendants to inherit it.
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Down glitzy Fifth Avenue where the brands come flying at you, fast and furious.
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Rockefeller center. Artist Jeff Koons has installed a 45-foot high inflatable art installation. Meet the Seated Ballerina. She towers above onlookers and engages with them in conversation to raise awareness for missing children.
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Ornate doors 
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Life passes by in a blur down Fifth Avenue
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Churches along the way

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Creamy malai tikkas at Moti Mahal
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Butter naan
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…and butter chicken. You have got to work off all that walking around the city with rich food. Importantly, Adi threw a fit about missing Indian food. Do not mess with a hungry husband.
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Delicious rolls to whisk you into the alleys of Calcutta. The original Kati Roll company of New York. It was one of our regular haunts in London.
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Atmospheric cocktail bars rub shoulders with temples
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Leafy city neighbourhoods
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When just like that nostalgia kicks in

The Tall, Taller and Tallest in Manhattan

“You can do what you like, sir, but I’ll tell you this. New York is the true capital of America. Every New Yorker knows it, and by God, we always shall.”

That’s not me spouting off biased and borrowed wisdom in my two days of being here. I am not a New Yorker yet. I do not know if I shall ever be one in my heart. The quote is from ‘New York’, a historical novel by British author Edward Rutherford. If you like the kind of bulky tomes that you can hurl at people (who annoy you) and thereby cause serious injury, Rutherford is your man. If you are the kind of person however with a penchant for useless dreaming, and you also possess the patience of a beaver, then you would rather flip open that tome. Channelling your inner Om.

‘New York’ introduced me to historical layers of a world that I had no idea of. The story of Native Americans who lived on Mannahatta, or ‘the land of many hills’, the name given by ancient tribes to Manhattan that is the city’s historical birthplace. The plot starts thickening once the European settlers trickle in.

Now that busy streak from Manhattan’s past, my friend, has infiltrated the present day in which I found myself walking down the busiest of the five boroughs of New York.

On a noon hedged in by skyscrapers, there we were, two people ultimately new to New York’s glitzy glory, craning our necks to take in the full view of an army of towers. Some tipped with golden spires, others with sombre spires and facades sheathed in glass in which you could catch reflections. Just a vision of tall buildings looming above us, no matter what angle we turned our heads at. Oh, it was a giddy feeling alright.

A series of impressive court houses with their massive pillars achieved the intended effect of imbibing us with the requisite amount of awe. A colonial building in a leafy park turned out to be the city hall where the mayor of New York sits and an old church in red bricks shot its hand out to declare its presence right after.

Walking beneath old gaslights into the leafy City Hall Park that was the place for public executions and recreations in old times, we soon found that we were at the portals of the hallowed St. Paul’s Chapel. Standing outside the oldest church building in Manhattan, where George Washington prayed and which survived the 9/11 attacks, we were in a sense soaking in the colonial heritage of the city.

Then there’s the iconic One World Trade Center, rebuilt upon the old World Trade Center complex, catching reflections of the changing skies above us and… wait, what was that strange building, presenting a strange vision of bifurcating ribs?

A thorn in the taxpayer’s line of vision, as a New Yorker might say. Or The Oculus. But I cannot and shall not complain about this building that was conceived of as a giant dove by a Spanish architect. It might end up looking like giant claws apart from ribs but that is a different matter. Some have even likened it to a dinosaur.

You do feel for the architect. Creativity requires imagination and not everyone can give into your vision, however grand and ambitious it might be. It might not be everyone’s favourite building but The Oculus is a paradigm of space and modern design. Through its ribs the skyline of the city was broken up in a linear manner, which was strangely engrossing as the three pink balloons winking down at us from its elevated spot upon the glass beams.

Dear old Oculus is now one of my closest buds in New York. I shall not try and explain that odd fact away given that you know me by now. You see, I enter the city through The Oculus which is the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. It replaced the old PATH station that was destroyed by the 9/11 attacks. Just to put it in perspective, the PATH decoded is Port Authority Trans-Hudson, the rapid transit system that connects places like Newark, Harrison, Hoboken, and Jersey City in New Jersey to New York City, apart from linking up lower and midtown Manhattan as well.

You can well imagine then why I shall rely upon Oculus dear for emotional support and extensive hand holding during all the times that I shall find myself goofing my way around New York, boarding the wrong trains and finding myself in places unknown.

I know this that Oculus shall always be there for me.

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Meet Oculus
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Gaping at The Oculus. Just a very normal reaction.
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Manhattan skyline through the Oculus
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A hip photographer hugs the ground as he waits for the four to kick their feet into the air
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Imagine all the times they must have fallen on their heads. I am odd anyway. A fall or two might take it to unnecessary levels.
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Approaching the pillars of justice around the bend
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Hefty pillars of governance
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The traffic is incessant
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The wheels of justice. They grind on.
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Sizing up the city
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City Hall. The office of the mayor of New York.
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City Hall. A profile.
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The goodness of two alliums bobbing their pretty heads inside the City Hall Park
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Gaslights and the city
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City Hall Park
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The old and the new stand shoulder to shoulder
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Brownstone buildings of Manhattan
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One World Trade Center
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Mr. Whippy where art thou?
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St. Paul’s Chapel, cross-sectioned
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Spires. Old and new.

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Entering the picture in silhouette
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‘Show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ What would you have made of this, Mr. Chekhov?