‘The Statue of Liberty reminded me of the standard I’d set for myself’



IT WAS ALMOST 10 YEARS ago on a starry night in Pune that a friend and I had enjoyed coffee at our usual joint and discussed the benchmarks to measure success in life. Though we differed on a set scale, our lowest common denominator seemed to be a position in life where we could “choose” to go to America. It was just two college grads ranting and dreaming, conveniently oblivious to the harsh realities of life that lay ahead.

Illustration: Samia Singh

At the beginning of 2010, a trip to America started to seem like a real possibility. I had long forgotten about that talk in Pune. Instead, in the few months before the trip, I had begun to imagine how would it be to see America for the first time from a few thousand feet up in the air. I had replayed the whole sequence in my mind invariably with the same result because it seemed to revolve around gazing at the Statue of Liberty below. I made it close, touching down at Newark. I do not know if my plane hovered above the Statue of Liberty because, despite my best efforts, when the moment came, I found myself perched on the aisle seat.

I had gone to America on a six-month deputation. In those six months, I aimed to build a perspective of the country that Hollywood could never help me with, that would be balanced in nature just as I wanted it to be: free from prejudice. I have always believed very strongly in what Bono has to say about America — “It’s like hey, look there’s the moon up there, let’s take a walk on it, bring back a piece of it. That’s the kind of America that I’m a fan of.” My fascination about the US was centred on this quote.

My first glimpse of America turned out to be the view from the immigration queue. It was Newark Bay, as I later realised, and the tall red cranes of the port standing in sequence, almost guardian-like, to the zipping cars on the highway below made a sight to behold.

Almost a month later, I made it to New York City, which was only an hour away by train. Entering through the suburbs of the city, it looked much like Mumbai (minus the slums) and had its own distinct smell. A few moments after I came out of the New York Penn Station, I saw the Empire State Building. I knew back in my mind that there’s a memory being formed right now. I was in such an awe of the place that later that misty evening, I spent two hours sitting on a bench below the Empire State, writing postcards to my friends and family back home. I went to Times Square, watched people, listened to U2’s New York and clicked pictures while sipping Starbucks.

In the months that followed, I kept coming back to New York City, visited Central Park and took photos of the Empire State Building in various shades, one of them when the building was bathed in saffron, white and green, on 15 August. The New Yorkers thought it had something to do with Ireland.

A few months after that moment, I was on a plane headed back to India. I had cut short my trip and chosen, happily and unregretfully, returning back to my country. Could I have imagined this that night in Pune? Maybe in our rush, my friend and I had discounted the possibility of a finale like this. How would the idea of “choosing” to leave America — at our own will — fare in our benchmarks? I didn’t know the answer and maybe at that moment I didn’t care but I kept my gaze at New York’s tallest building, a faint shade of grey with a hint of silver — far away, until I could.


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