New York Diary
I do not know what it is like to live there, but as a visitor, no matter how many times I've been to the city before, New York does not fail to impress. Like Venice, Paris, or Mumbai, its character assails you the moment you step into the city.
Arriving by train into the New York Penn station, the same passengers who were relaxed and laid back when they boarded the train in the suburbs spring into motion, like toys with wound up keys, and march with an infectious purpose through the station into the maze-like streets of Manhattan. The press of humanity that begins here continues unabated, in the subway, the cafes, the museums, and you always know you are in New York because its signature, the dense racial mix, is hard to miss. Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, Africans, Europeans, Americans: all in one subway car, like a grand social experiment designed to observe inter-racial behaviour in a confined setting. The experiment is not a success: nothing much happens, each individual is self-absorbed: immersed in a book, listening to music, or simply lost in thought; communication, when it occurs, is not between members in the car but with someone far away, reached through a mobile phone.
The mobile devices I spotted on the subway were all iPhones. A young woman stood beside me checking her iCalender, switching between a few dates; 14th: Finish Chapter 9, Long NC; 15th: Take your pills!; 18th: Dinner with Mq & Tj. Later, in a cafe, the dozen or so tables were occupied by men and women peering into a screen in front; all those laptops bore the Apple logo, and a bluish tinge in the eyes of many suggested a Facebook page. A master-slave relationship was evident; humans seemed to have surrendered, unconsciously, to machines.
At the Museum of Modern Art, I visited the photography exhibitions of Cindy Sherman, Sanja Ivekovic, and Eugene Atget. I was there for the Atget photographs, but the other two artists provided an unexpected context to understand Atget's work. Cindy Sherman, in her photos of high-society women, lays bare an age of excess; Sanja Ivekovic, in her “Double Life” collection with parallels between media portraits and individual life, reveals to us the deep influence of media representations. Both these are acts of rebellion: an aspect of reality is taken and distorted or challenged in different ways. Like Mario Vargas Llosa's concept of literature's purpose (“This questioning of real life, which is the secret raison d'etre of literature – of literary vocation – ensures that literature offers a unique vision of a given period,” he writes, in his Letters to a young novelist), these artists have used photography to criticise or reject real life, and, in some cases, to imagine a different version of it.
Atget had no such lofty aims. He simply wanted to document the landscape in and around Paris. Storefronts, courtyards, doors, facades, fountains, boulevards, trees, parks: these common objects are the motif of his photographs. His ambition was “to create images for other artists to use as source material,” and he was content capturing the texture of the city, its essence and moods, with no intention of challenging status quo or exposing its contradictions.
Can this be done with writing? I wondered, walking around the rooms featuring Atget's works. Is it possible to live a writing life spent only — or mainly — documenting reality? Writing with no agenda to create an alternate reality — which arises out of a dissatisfaction — and with no intention of dissent, but purely to capture the texture of reality around? Can this be done convincingly, while keeping the reader engaged? Can it offer a “unique vision of a period”? Have others done it? Some names came up — E.B.White, Amit Chaudhuri — but even with such writers the act of choosing what to write is itself a statement, perhaps a rejection of other realities. Chaudhuri's worlds are often self-contained, perfect universes, and E.B.White makes working on a farm seem like the best job in the world.
Atget, then, documented a Paris he wanted to see. He avoided high-society people and photographed commoners on the margins of society: ragpickers, mailmen, wire-basket sellers, bread sellers, couriers, prostitutes. This too was, in a way, an act of rebellion.
From MoMA, which is at 53rd street, to get to the Strand Bookstore, located between 12th and 13th street just south of Union Square, you take the E or M line downtown to 14th Street, and then switch to the L line which brings you to Union Square. Going underground at one place and emerging at another point in the maze seems to defy the laws of physics, like a wormhole in a science fiction novel that transports you instantly across galaxies. You lose the sense of time (perhaps one reason why people keep fiddling with their phones), and when you emerge back at street level a few moments pass before you gather your bearings, and regain a sense of where you are.
By the time I entered the Strand Bookstore, my head was spinning: impressions from the afternoon had left me saturated. In this land of excess New York was like a city of excess, overwhelming to the visitor. I wished to escape into a world of books. But Strand was another form of excess.
Wandering about tall shelves filled with titles familiar and obscure, I could not help wondering if this wasn't an exemplar of literature as commodity. The choice was staggering. Who needs all these books? Does our culture demand it? Or does the publishing industry simply produce supply, in abundance, and try to find ways to sell its surplus?
On another day, in another mood, I may have responded differently, but on this day I was swamped. Leaving the store, I sent an SMS to the friend who had enthusiastically suggested the Strand Bookstore to me:
“It was obscene. The world has too many books, too many published writers. We should stop publishing books for five years. Give the readers some time to catch up!”
I then took the stairs underground to the Union Square station.
Sometimes, the stations, lines, signs, and lights make the subway network seem like a subterranean city.
A city in perpetual darkness, constantly lit.
A city everyone visits, but no one stays.
A crowded city, a deserted one.
A city of strangers.
A city that does not sleep.
A city ceaselessly renewing itself.
A city fused with its twin, dependent on it.
words + image: Parmanu, Germany (Parmanu)
this reflection was first published directly in Parmanu's blog
as a 7-page travelogue with images on each page:
New York diary