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Calling Elvis, is anybody home?

Americanese, beggars and bad preachers overwhelm from sea to shining sea, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2006 00:44 IST

Nothing compensates for the horror and tedium of flying non-stop across two continents and an ocean, from New Delhi to Seattle, via Newark. I shall never do so again, please God.

I have to get onto a ferry and out on the dark blue waters of Puget Sound, seagulls skimming like Jonathan over my head before my legs feel like legs again. And who will restore the suitcase left behind in Newark, the absolutely necessary one that Chaucer summed up for all time as “a bag of needments”. “Shirtless in Seattle! Is that a tale to tell at home?” I ask the seagulls, which mercifully refrain from cloacal answers.

But everything works out fine as it tends to if you don’t really care. Instead, there’s fresh Dungeness crab cakes and all the blue cheese in the world, even for greedy me. There’s Snoqualmie Falls, past the island on which Bill Gates lives — an old Native American pow-wow place to scramble about in. And Americanese!

Better believe it

One forgets how Americans grow up knowing their lines so pat that everyone sounds like out of a movie. Years ago on a coffee-grab at the Howard Johnson at Times Square, NY (it’s gone now), I heard the barman tell the cleaning lady, “Hey, Betty! Da boss is gonna kick ya all the way from hyah to Tuscaloosa!” At Snoqualmie, it’s great bear-like American men, averaging seven feet, who suddenly lumber up on woodland paths and gallantly growl, “Here’s lookin’ at yuh!”

“No giggling!” I scold myself, summon up a horrible simper and wait to choke till I’m past a clump of pines. Lovely Seattle, festooned with hanging baskets of begonias. My Indian eye, however, can’t stop noticing beggars. Whites — not blacks — scavenging in dumps outside burger shops for a handful of fries, a half-gnawed chicken leg. Is this the world’s richest country? I can’t seem to finish my food after that, not even the fabulous lasagna at Papa Milano in Chicago, though it’s Windy City’s oldest trattoria where gangsters once came to eat. Or is it the monstrous size of American portions?

At Memphis, the buckle on the Bible Belt, I spend the longest morning at church, shell-shocked by the village-idiot sermon delivered by one of America’s most famous preachers: “Ah tell yuh, Jesus ain’ gonna say yuh shore fooled me; me an’ all my twel’ apossles!” His over-rehearsed, catchphrase-driven style lacks surprise and charm. This is Most-of-America, I’m reminded, not the liberal Blue minority on the coasts. You’ve read about it, but it’s unsettling to encounter it firsthand. And these guys want to rule the world.

Graceland, temple to American God, Elvis, is the coup de disgrace: White fur, red fur, animal horns, kitsch kingdom. The wreaths and messages, poignant and weepy, make you wonder — all this money and deep feeling expended on what? It’s as heartbreaking as the manrams (fan clubs) of Tamil Nadu and poor people dying for a favourite actor.

Play me Memphis, Tennessee

Meanwhile, fumes of pork barbecue cloud touristy Beale Street, once home to great music, now peddling cookies called ‘Memphis Blues’ — does Bob Dylan know? Sweet BBQ sauce combines with dripping fat to reek like stewed armpits. Is this how human sacrifice to Moloch and Baal smelt in ancient Carthage? The pong drives me into the Rhythm and Soul Museum. Dancing around with headphones on my own trip I reconnect with good old American energy, the beat the whole world loved, the great stuff I grew up with. But that week, Beale Street’s buzzing for Justin Timberlake. Ah, well.

I steal off for a quiet break by the banks of the muddy brown Mississippi. Ol’ Man River, he jus’ keep rollin’ and I’m sixteen again swooning to Paul Robeson’s deep, gravelly voice on 78 rpm, nursing a mug of ginger tea, dizzy with the scent of white Kennedy roses in a winter garden in Lutyens’ Delhi. The ideal vs the actual. No prizes for guessing which wins.

On another planet in Washington DC, I wander into St Matthew’s Church on Sunday morning and catch a whole service in Latin. After the Te Deums, back to earth with a thump: “Got a dollar, lady?” ask the black panhandlers at the foot of the church steps. But it’s my ‘family church’ St Patrick’s in New York, that I’m longing to see again, a place my whole Hindu clan loves. I head, as to an old friend, to the alcove of St Jude, patron saint of lost causes, to light my candle. “Here’s looking at you,” I say mistily and remember this time to buy a tiny Jude medallion for my key chain.

So not happening

Queuing up at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46th Street to see the Broadway show Beauty and the Beast, I’m chatting with the well-spoken whites in line with me, when suddenly there’s a commotion.

“Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! You’re b!#%^*ds!” screams a black boy in overcoat, cap and dark glasses, lurching up and down past us. “God!” says the woman behind me, “They hate us and we hate them.” Beefy Irish and Mexican NYPD cops look on with ominous patience. Suddenly it’s like being in the dark pages of Ed McBain, waiting for Miranda & Escobedo police procedural to hit.

I like a Gershwin tune, I like Noo York in June, July, anytime. But right then I need a Starbucks or I need a smoke. “Anybody gotta light?” I ask, diving in my bag.

First Published: Nov 18, 2006 00:44 IST