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Into the silence of crowdless Jersey City

Despite Wal-Marts, gleaming turnpikes and desi stores, lifeless suburbs make a loner out of an Indian holidaymaker, writes Sorab Ghaswalla.

india Updated: May 23, 2008 23:57 IST
Sorab Ghaswalla

I walked off to look for America, as that song from Simon and Garfunkel goes. Well, may be not the whole of America, but at least the state of New Jersey; home to such great inventions as the light bulb, FM radio, and also to my sister and her husband.

Within minutes of having stepped out of the Newark Liberty International Airport (and into the biting cold), we were in my brother-in-law’s new Honda SUV on Interstate 95 or the fabled New Jersey turnpike — the toll road made immortal by numerous bestsellers and Hollywood movies.

Size matters

Pretty soon, it was clear to me that everything in the US comes in XL size. Americans wear clothes large sized, and shopping malls are sprawled across acres. Single-portion servings at restaurants are big enough to feed two, and beefsteaks look like they weigh over a pound. Even the burgers in the States would spill out of an average

Indian’s palm.

After a few days, I hit upon an idea. Whenever I wanted to restore my sense of balance, I would go visit an ‘Indian’ store run by expats, (read Gujaratis) that are a dime a dozen in New Jersey. The subzi mandis there top the list, and really give you a healthy dose of nostalgia with its MTR sambhar masala and Bedekar pickle. At one such store, I even spotted a 300 ml glass bottle of Thums Up, a species nearly extinct in India.

Sounds of silence

Weather and largesse apart, what hit me in the initial days was the silence. And I mean the utter lack of sound, not even the chirping of birds. The occasional exceptions were the geese that fly in from Canada this time every year (end March). But with this lack of humans around, you start feeling you’re in Ladakh. Except for in the mornings, when I could hear the cars come to life, soon to be followed by the ‘bling-bling’ of the garbage trucks’ reverse horn. There were no other signs to show that fellow men lived there. The yearning for “contact” with fellow human beings could only be satisfied at shopping malls, the Laundromat or at the deli (where they sell cold cuts). Except for Jersey City and Newark, most ‘large’ towns here are even smaller than a large-sized jhuggi (slum) colony in Delhi. This lack of people and the resultant silence can be really unnerving for those used to the hustle-bustle of India. Edison town, once voted the “best place to live in the US” by Money, is spread over 32 acres. It is home to Thomas Alva Edison’s famed Menlo Park laboratory, where the light bulb was perfected and sound was first recorded.

Affluence and the diaspora

Near-empty roads, and white slate cottages — it was a pleasure driving through Edison town in Middlesex County. With a couple of cars parked in lush green driveways, and fibreglass boats in the backyards, people in New Jersey seem to be living the all-American dream. One Sunday, I was taken to the Washington Rock State Park near Plainfield in Somerset county, some miles away from Edison.

Driving through, I was told that Plainfield had hit national headlines some years ago following the busting of a sex slave racket involving illegal immigrants from Mexico. A couple of streets had tattoo and body piercing shops.

I spied a large number of Hispanics “hanging out” or engaging in loud bargains, giving the street an “Indian” touch. Nearby, atop a hill in the Watchung Mountains lies the Washington Rock State Park, scene of an epic battle during the American War of Independence. Overlooking the Green Brook Township, with the New York skyline on the horizon, it was from here that George Washington monitored the war between the British and the American Continental troops in the spring of 1777. Two things I must mention: the bronze plague here too, like many tourist spots in India, was vandalised by miscreants who had scribbled their names on it. Also, on a little outcrop below, I found couples in a clinch, just like at Bandra bandstand. I made polite noises and turned back; so much for taking in the view.

Now while New Jersey has a good network of inner roads and highways, the other mode of transport is rail. New Jersey Transit, a public transport corporation, runs the major train service here, besides a fleet of buses and light rail transport connecting various destinations in New Jersey, New York and even Philadelphia.

Old-world campus

One sunny morning, we drove into the world-renowned Princeton university campus. After exiting the New Jersey turnpike from the New Brunswick end, we approached the campus, sprawled across 500 acres. The car drove across the Carnegie Lake where a student squad was rowing a punt furiously. Most of the campus can be traversed on foot or on bicycle, and I saw many students doing just that. I drove past the imposing structure of Nassau Hall — the imposing main building that housed the university for its first 50 years, before stopping at the famed University chapel. With its stained glass windows and high spires, the chapel is certainly worth a dekko. Some modern-day glass and steel buildings have now come up on the campus, but they seem quite out of place amidst the old Gothic style, 18th-century buildings. Rutgers, the other famous state university, on the other hand, has three campuses, and I had only time to go through one of them at Piscataway, having saved Rutgers for my next visit.