Once Upon A Time in New York

This is the second part in a series of short texts on Transitions. These texts are not explicitly connected in plot.

In New York,
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothin’ you can’t do
Now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York
— Empire State of Mind, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys

“No number of pictures can prepare you for the beast that New York City is.”

Every beast has soft spots. The Strand Bookstore on 4th Avenue, Manhattan, is one of them for NYC. On the last day of my brief visit to the City, I found myself standing in front of it, looking up at the large red board bearing the name of the famed bookstore, shivering just a little bit in the early evening wind.

My eyes glazed over the numerous shelves of old-looking books stacked along the sidewalk with labels of “Special — $2–5” or “Special — $1”. In India, these shelves may not have warranted a second glance, because just like many book lovers, I liked my books in a pristine condition. This time though, for such a bargain, I was willing to make an adjustment. There weren’t too many things I had found for cheap ever since I had stepped into the USA.

I browsed through the first shelf and found a wide, long book going by the title of Classic Rock, that seemed to have a history of the genre, as it rose to mainstream music and grew tremendously through the 60s, complete with pictures of famous artists and some song lyrics on glossy paper. I flipped through a few pages and noticed the Foo Fighters, Led Zeppelin and a few other names that I was familiar with, recognized a few faces whose voices and sounds had enthralled the world for so long. I decided that I would buy it once I had browsed the rest of the store, and since there were two copies, I could even get one for Kanishk, my host in New York City and a close friend from undergrad. I also found an encyclopedia of war, which was presumably a layman’s guide to how conflicts evolved over time, interesting to a former Age of Empires player and someone interested in world history. There were other exciting titles as well, including a book of photographs of London taken from the air, and a school book on American history and literature.

But these books would have to wait. I didn’t want to roam the store with a couple of purchased books in my hand, which might have diluted the experience. I noted my interests and went into the store, looking forward to devour a collection of books that I had not yet set sight on.

I spent about an hour doing some mindless browsing, in which I tried to analyze the store owners’ ideology of reading by looking at the titles that were sitting under the label of “Strand Recommends”; I also found a collection of books banned in various parts of the world, including one that I recognized as being a banned book in India (thanks, Salman Rushdie). Eventually, I was able to pick out a few books on American history with help from a person who worked at the Store and who was kind enough to provide some insight into the books that he recommended. I read a little bit of Howard Zinn’s book on the people’s history of the United States, and added it to the list of books that I would want to read sometime in the future (it was too thick for my current interest in the subject, but might be worth the time and money to a future version of myself who had spent a couple years in the US; as I was to find out later, my ideology of buying books was soon altered because I got influenced by the book purchasing and reading habits of a famous tech company CEO).

After a fascinating tour of the basement, I went out again to finally grab the Strand specials for special prices. To my disappointment, both copies of Classic Rock and the book on the history of warfare were no longer there. Out of options, I started browsing the shelves afresh, taking care not to look at most books with ordinary covers because of a growing chill in the wind and darkening skies that made me anxious to meet Kanishk and find someplace warm to sit.

I found a book titled The Namesake by the acclaimed author Jhumpa Lahiri, a writer of Indian immigrants in the US. The edge of its back cover connecting it to the spine was half torn, pages were slightly paled and covers were bearing marks of a certain accidental (or intentional) folding. The surface of the pages opposite the spine was evidently drenched in a liquid at some point, but no name or any other alphabetical markings could be seen. What made the book appear a bit fascinating to me was a ticket to the Lyric Theatre on 42nd street, NYC, bought from Ticketmaster for a show of Paramour in 2017. I turned the book over, flipped through its pages, but found no other such relic.

I wondered if the ticket was left there in the book as a mistake or with some intent. If it were the former, I reasoned that the only logical way in which someone would forget a ticket in a book would be if they used it as a bookmark. It couldn’t be intentional, I thought — why leave a ticket in a used book that you want to sell? Unless of course, the previous reader thought that someday a curious soul like me would find this book and wonder about its origins and its peculiar properties.

My copy of The Namesake.

The book held a charm too. It wasn’t fresh, but it wasn’t old enough for its pages to get brittle either. It didn’t have the classy old book smell. It still had a certain shine, a haughty air about it that new books possess, but with markings of being used before. I looked back at the ticket, neatly resting on page 65, white with grey stripes and black letters.

The ticket costed $0.

Being cheap about a Broadway show seemed like a new-Indian-in-the-US-still-converting-dollar-to-rupee sort of a thing to me. I would do that, I thought. Intrigued by the teasing signs left by the previous owner of the paperback, I started reading the first few pages.

They told the story of an Indian guy who had come to the United States for a PhD from MIT, his struggles while balancing academics and research with his personal life, and most significantly, adjusting to an entirely new life in the promised land. According to the back cover though, the protagonist of the story was going to be his child. The MIT guy sounded like me, except that I was at Stanford, wasn’t here on a PhD, and I didn’t have a wife. But thinking about the differences in the western and eastern cultures and re-evaluating everything I thought constituted my set of principles made me exclaim “hell, yeah!” in my head. I was definitely relating to this book.

It struck a chord somewhere deep, one that longed to talk to or hear from someone about the experience of adjusting to the western life after spending 22 years in India. It was an experience millions of Indians have probably gone through before me, and many more continue to do so, but also one I hadn’t heard enough of. In reading that book, I was trying to find someone who had experienced something similar, albeit in a different time — someone I could put an arm around and joke about the peculiarities of the western life and the oddities of Indian life that I missed.

As much as the American self-help books told me that I was a unique soul destined to do great things only I could do, that book ate at my desire to feel similar to someone else and forget for a while that I was supposed to be unique. I thought that too was self-help, flavored with Hindustani pepper.

At that point, I made an important decision that I have rarely made at bookstores in the recent times, ever since I have owned a Kindle and ordered from Amazon. I went in and purchased the book.

Just like the previous owner of this book who bought a cheap ticket to a Broadway show, or the characters of The Namesake who tried keeping two names for their child, me buying a used book about a first generation Indian family in the US for a dollar and nine cents was a very new-Indian-in-the-US thing to do.

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