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I am in the land where Allen Ginsberg once asserted that people’s emotional life was run by Time magazine. The role of Emo King may have been ceded to the internet since then but other things remain much the same. Howl took America by poetic storm in 1956. Exactly 56 years later, in 2012, it is still a country haunted by guns and psychedelic dreams. In the week that I visit, 20-year-old Adam Lanza of New Town, Connecticut, shoots dead 20 young children, one for each year of his life, six schoolteachers and carers, his mother, himself. What does this by now all-too-familiar scenario tell us about the emotional life of North America? Despite screen memories stretching back from Aurora to Virginia Tech to Columbine High, it would be an act of hubris to offer any definitive answer to this question. Yet enigmatic clues are on offer everywhere. I notice, for instance, how several stricken parents remember their children as having “lit up a room”. To me, this is the most bravely American of metaphors: Thomas Alva Edison’s legacy now observable in the grieving language of US citizens and across the skylines of that most iconic of US cities, New York.
A woman dashes into the elevator of our hotel. She is dressed in sequinned black, stiletto heels, adorned with red lipstick. My son’s getting married today and I’ve forgotten my hair dryer, she announces. Her American frankness confounds the assorted international crowd in our small, boxed-in, upwardly mobile space. Are congratulations in order or commiseration? Felicitation! we decide. Someone claps and we all join in the momentary, convivial laughter until she dashes out again on Floor 10. Fingers-crossed she finds that dryer.
Still a long way to my room on the 33rd floor. From here on up, the hills don’t get any higher but the valleys get deeper and deeper, old Southern folksong pumping in my head, I peer down at Times Square bustling with neon-lit life. America’s imperious signature merges with Japan’s electronic inventiveness across the dank, brownstone rooftops of New York: Suzuki, Toshiba, Citigroup, Wells Fargo. And believe it or not, at this exact moment, a soothsayer pops up on my internet screen: Money is Energy! Nowhere, I imagine, can the truth of this pithy observation be more evident than right here in Manhattan. It is reflected in the frenetic hurry of crowds that coolly disregard the large red hand on traffic crossings; in the sight of baby prams being wheeled one-handed by intrepid fathers, Starbucks coffees ensconced in their other fist; in the gnarled 90-year olds braving helmeted cyclists without batting a snowy eyelash. I come to the conclusion that this isn’t a city that feels fear either. 9/11 has come and gone, so has Superstorm Sandy but the New Yorker is as bindaas as a bag of jelly-beans. Perhaps this is one way to understand what freedom is.
Edison, school dropout and founder of General Electric, established his first power-station on Pearl Street, Manhattan. Before he arrived there, his Ohio school found him ‘addled’ and he was therefore homeschooled by his mother, just as Adam Lanza of New Town was. Edison acknowledged that he owed his success to his mother who, like Lanza’s, had total faith in him, erratic and near-deaf though he was. The point? That it is nearly impossible to figure out what makes one gifted, awkward boy grow up to become an authentic hero while the other crashes into disaster. One thing is certain, though; a mother’s love for the most part remains an emotional constant. Also, whatever the NRA may say, guns as commonly available as bagels are unlikely to ensure longer lives. This cannot be what freedom means.
On the way back to India, I sit next to a Gujarati businessman who has exercised another sort of freedom—to emigrate. He is now a proud US citizen from St Louis, Missouri, who promptly informs me that a) Gujarat is great and that all the other bad stuff is ‘Congress propaganda’, b) both his daughters are married to Americans. One of these sons-in-law, sitting right next to him, he tells me, is an ophthalmologist. But when I get talking to this son-in-law, he lets me into two secrets. First, he hasn’t practised since 1995 because he runs a hedge fund. Second, the ‘dirty little secret’ of the US hedge-fund community is that most such enterprises have an average life of just two years. By these measures, his own company, now sweet 17, is spectacularly successful. Tragedy, victory over fiscal cliffs, dirty secrets, wedding bells...the emotional life of ordinary America seems to be thriving. But back in India, I fly back once more to tragedy: of a girl raped and literally disembowelled. Who’s in charge of our emotional and ethical lives in our country, I wonder.
A Mayan Coda
The dates that bookended my trip to America were 12.12.12 and 21.12.12. Need I say more? We can only hope that we’ll do better in 2013 now that we seem to have survived Doomsday.
Poet and critic Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor of linguistics at IIT, Delhi; E-mail your diarist: rukmini.nair AT gmail.com