Bridge across eras

(The Hindu Magazine, Sunday July 5,2009)

An awesome sight still: The Brooklyn Bridge.Long before the Chrysler or the Empire State buildings were a glint in the sun, and even before the Statue of Liberty was unveiled, a marvel of modern of engineering became Big Apple’s most enduring and appealing landmark. No, ‘not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge’. The Brooklyn Bridge.

Fittingly on its 126th birthday, New York City celebrated it in style. The festivities were marked by awesome illumination of the entire Bridge, Grucci fireworks, music concerts, a continuing film series, enlightening lectures and readings, dance performances, guided tours, children and other family friendly cultural events.

A long time ago, on my first visit, I stood below the bridge’s elaborate steel, stone, timber and light underbelly and heard the rumble and roll of traffic above. Across, in the distance, the view was charmingly distracting. Lower Manhattan lit up. With space at a premium, hi-rise cranes were making sure Big Apple was developing upwards. A phalanx of sky-scrapers including Minoru Yamaskai’s gleaming white Twin Towers of the World Trade Center basked in the attention.
Earlier visiting the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, I was stopped by Joseph Stella’s intriguing abstract art Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old theme (1939). That haunting image stayed with me for long. Coincidentally on another evening, we were atop the 110-story wonder, at the Windows of the World restaurant, and saw the steel suspension masterpiece from another angle. The illuminated Brooklyn Bridge lay diagonally – a sleek dazzling looping jewel on a stretch of shimmering water. And up in the sky a giant moon smiled over that remarkable Victorian engineering feat.

Many moons later, back in the island-city, we stood on the Bridge’s pedestrian wooded walkway. Below, in a timeless dance, vessels big and small – ships, water taxis, cruise boats and yachts – moved on the iridescent East River.  Around us, scores of snap-happy tourists, sinewy cyclists and groups of lively, boisterous students went by. Across, unperturbed by recent happenings, Ayn Rand’s dream city was getting a make-over. A vibrant new streetscape with distinctive structures and cultural institutions and a newly restored street grid was up and going. In the bewildering winds of change, the historic Brooklyn Bridge stood firm and strong – its old elegance and relevance in tact.

The Brooklyn Bridge, the oldest and longest suspension bridges in the world and along with its two stately 275-foot stone towers, is often dubbed as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. It is a 1,825 meters steel-wire engineering marvel that links Manhattan with Brooklyn. On it, on an average 145, 000 people drive, walk or bike every day. For long it has been one of the city’s most popular, recognizable and photogenic sights.

And yet it is more than just a national landmark.

The bridge right from its early construction days has had its share of star-crossed encounters. In a book, The Bridge, author Dorothy Landers Beall details many such incidents and in one stunning moment of remorse, gives the structure the grim sobriquet, ‘the horrible steel thing’.

The ‘steel thing’ is often seen as a tribute to ‘one woman’s determination and spirit’.  At a time  when American women were still struggling to find a place in the sun – voting rights, equality, etc., and when every where they were asked to ‘do more, and talk less’, a spirited Ms Emily Warren Roebling did exactly what pleased her in the full glare of public gaze.  She was ‘wife, mother, lecturer, student, world traveler, and clubwoman’ who by chance became ‘the first woman field engineer’, and a pioneering example of independence.

Emily’s brilliant engineer father-in-law, John Augustus Roebling designed the Bridge. But during the construction, a series of mishaps occurred including his death due to tetanus. Emily’s husband, Col. Washington who was familiar with his father’s bridge construction projects, took over.  However, while working on the giant granite anchorages that were being built in caissons or watertight chambers, he was hit by a debilitating disease that paralyzed him.

With that the onus fell on Emily to complete the Bridge. The intelligent lady was familiar with the nuances of ‘strength of materials, stress analysis, cable construction, and in calculating catenary curves’ – things she learned from her father-in-law brother and husband. Then with Washington directing her, often with ‘spyglass’ trained out of the window, Emily communicated with the project team, and with the regulatory authorities, to bring the project to completion. When the bridge finally opened in the spring of 1883, it saw the most ‘exuberant public celebration of the era’.  As thousands of citizens noisily cheered and the paparazzi was out in full force with their new fangled photography half-tone engraving process, US President Chester Arthur along with demure Emily grandly lead the first ceremonial ride across the bridge.

Today, as a symbol of the Roebling’s legacy and honour to this amazing woman, the bridge proudly credits her on a plaque:  “Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”

Getting to the Bridge
There are inexpensive and reliable transport options. Make sure to avoid the rush hour. There are several educational and entertaining organized tours. Former Mayor Giulani has made the place relatively safe to explore by foot. Out-of-towners though need to be alert, carry street maps, and preferably move in groups. To reach the Bridge take the subway – J, M, Z to Chambers Street or 4, 5, 6 to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall. From the metro station, a few minutes walk takes you to the Pace University/Manhattan end of the Bridge’s pedestrian footpath. If you have problems finding the entrance look for signages and helpful cops.
For additional info
NYC related tourism – http://www.iloveny.com/home.aspx
Walking tour schedules, tariffs – http://newyorktalksandwalks.com/
Subway information –  http://www.mta.info
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Record Bound

 

(The Times of India , Friday July 3, 2009)

 

In my early career days, a compact Walkman was a constant companion. It secretly came with me in my jeans or formal dark blue blazer. Besides putting out the latest hits, it did other things. I could record crucial business discussion points. And on my first visit to the Big Apple, a RJ talked of Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler freak motorbike crash, and blues rock guitarist Eric Clapton’s near-fatal car accident. Jogging down Fifth Avenue one early dark morning, I was told of a Simon & Garfunkel’s free concert in Central Park .  As I was staying in the St. Regis-Sheraton it was no hassle being part of the large crowd. With office colleagues, we lolled on the grass and had a ball listening to the duo cut loose with hit after hit including April Come She Will, I am a Rock and Somewhere They Can’t Find Me.

On another occasion, a colleague from the Weill Cornell Research, a handsome doctor, a playboy if ever there was one, and his glamorous girl friend – a food critic with NYT, whisked me off in a lusty Jaguar XJ-S convertible to dinner in Lower Manhattan . It was my first exposure to the street grid of NYC, and first, close encounter with architect Minoru Yamaskai’s stunning tube-frame 110-story twin wonder. Seated in the Windows of the World restaurant after the heady drive, and with a fine chardonnay, I was soon distracted on many fronts. The doctor kept up his jokes and humorous takes. The smiling food critic, the glamorous Gail Greene ravishing in a low-cut red evening dress, laughed uninhibitedly. I tried to make sense of the juliennes of wasabi and other relishes that came as accompaniment with the order of nearby oysters and clams. Across the large glass windows, down below, spread like a giant glowing magic carpet was up town Manhattan . ‘Come. See what’s on the other side,’ said Gail seductively, taking me by the arm to another window. She had on a delightful perfume, but the outside sight wasn’t too bad. Twinkling like a rare piece of jewelry in the dark shimmering water was the illuminated Brooklyn Bridge .

‘So much beauty and the fxxxing prop guys throw in a full moon? Gimme a break!’ she sighed. That was her exact words. How do I know? The faithful audio-tape cassette which I accidentally found while cleaning up my old music collection, has it. Even if that recording happened twenty-eight years ago.

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Flying High, Flying Low

(The Times of India, Wednesday  July 15, 2009)

 

Until recently it was the land of sand, honey and money to which the corporate whiz-kids made a beeline, to shake the moolah tree. Today, with recession and downsizing, even the sheikhs are issuing pink slips. The affected ones don’t know what’s hitting them or when. Not too long ago, they were the toast of the organization fat salaries, multi-garage deluxe homes on the waterfront, fancy wheels, south of France holidays. Now with the party over, they realize that their specialization has few takers, prices have crashed, and they’re debt-ridden to the gills.

The other day at the golf course, we had the misfortune of meeting one such high-flyer, a middle-aged Indian-American who came crashing to earth in quick time. At the start, with due apology and courtesy to all, he excused himself to whisper into his hand-held gizmo. As practice swings swished, we could hear him. He was issuing work instructions to a PA abroad, and then to overseas associates. As the game progressed, so did the Blackberry buzz. Realizing the importance of his business, we had excused him for the cell phone usage. After all it was a friendly outing and he was a visiting golfer.

At the 13th par-3, the 17-handicapper drove the ball into the water. Clearly, he was distracted. The vibrating device had delivered the coup de grace. ”Sorry about that”, he apologized, ”I’ve been axed.”

Later, at the 19th hole, the heart-wrenching story quickly unfolded. It was enough to make brave men cry. The week before he was the toast of Wall Street. Two days before he flew an inaugural A380 super jumbo where a sweet young thing in crimson head-wear and white veil fussed over him with endless Dom Perignons and canapés, after he had a luxurious shower at 45,000 feet above the ground.

”Today, that’s history. I am redundant. It hurts too that the message came by SMS!” ”What do I do next?” he repeated the question over chilled lager. ”I am a financial man, securities and all that. I know little else. I know of pink-slipped guys who are exploring entirely new avenues of income selling fish tanks. Another, a colleague in hedge funds, is delivering pizza for $7.29 an hour. I don’t know where I’ll land up.”

Some time later, brightening up, he said, ”Listen up people. I’ve played at Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines. I am passionate about golf. Anyone want a caddy?”

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 Wild West Days

(The Times of India , Third Edit/Make Believe,  Tue 03Nov2009)

As kids in the 50-60s, we grew up on a diet of Westerns. Without television, the outdoors, in the  sprawling Victorian bungalows with its large trees, bushes and stables that were once used to pull in horse-drawn carriages, was where most time was spent making believe we were cowboys and cattle rustlers, good guys and bad guys.

All summer, all day long the house resonated with the sounds we made – whooping cries, feverish chases, gunshots and desperate shouts as life imitated art no end. We’d jump off low-slung tree branches or hide in bushes to ambush stagecoaches or stalk the deadly cougar on the prowl, the neighbor’s tabby. Our fingers and fists served as six-shooters and shots came out of our mouths. Sometimes we’d use rifles – hockey sticks or even grandfather’s walking stick. For the better part it was our vocal chords that ricochet loud and long on the hot afternoons until some kill-joy elder put a lid on the shenanigans. That was when we’d play out romances under the shade of guava trees. We’d hug and smooch large pillows secreted out from the bedrooms, pretending they were Piper Laurie or Jane Russell.

The inspiration for the shoot-outs, the gun-slinging, the showdowns and the romance came from different sources – comic books of Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, and Lone Ranger, movies of John Wayne, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and later the novels of  Zane Grey, AB Guthrie Junior, and Louis Lamour.

With that software wired in, we took turns to be the gunfighter, a lonely rugged man with the harshness etched on face, revolver or a rifle by side, riding into a dusty little town, on a long broom. The ‘town’, incidentally was where my doctor-father had his practice closed for the afternoon. Somewhere an old uncle snoozing on an easy chair with newspaper covering his face became a ‘hombre’ taking ‘siesta’. Elsewhere the amused saree-clad maids drying laundry became the squaws. Then as the stranger with Stetson, bandanna pulled in to tie the horse, from across the wall, an old neighbor working in the rose garden, would lean over and ask if he could leave a message for dad. It was not easy to ignore the intrusion. Mr. Lopes was dad’s friend. He would instruct the gunslinger, ‘Please tell your father, I’ll be coming in at 6. OK?’ Brushing aside this rude interruption, you got back to the serious business on hand. It wasn’t easy nabbing bank robbers  with neighbors using the sheriff’s office to get doctor appointments.

In the evenings, when the day was done, the cowboys gathered around a bon-fire in the far corner of the bungalow, singing with a ‘guitar’ except it was dad’s Slazenger tennis racquet. And somewhere, faithfully Radio Ceylon would be playing – My Rifle, My Pony and Me, Ghost Riders in the Sky … as we tucked into jam sandwiches and lemonade some kind mother made for our outing. Ah, those Wild West days of childhood, those were the days!

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 An Iberian hue of laidback blue

(The Sunday Express, Magazine, Sunday September 27, 2009)

Oftentimes when young and busy, one doesn’t take time to smell the flowers. Or let a scene of incredible beauty overwhelm you, so hectic is daily grind. Well, on this mid-morning as the Volvo sped along the Iberian high road we didn’t make that mistake of youth. At the first chance when Nature beckoned, we heard her call loud and clear, and slammed the brakes. Never mind if at that precise moment our enthusiastic guide and driver Senhor Juan’ s spiel was hitting the high notes — about the economic hardships of local Lisboans with average salaries of Euro 375 and VAT 21 per cent while in the neighborhood, Spaniards were getting better deals.

The intelligent man sensing we were on to something seriously fun gladly obliged with an ‘Obrigado’. Soon the car skid to a halt near a lady in goggles, burnt orange top, lacy work, and billowy embroidered skirt. She smiled and gestured towards the transparent sacks filled to the brim with pistachio, hazel, almond and other nuts, semi-dried apricots, figs and such goodies.

The traditionally attired lady however wasn’t in our travel agenda or the reason why we stopped.  Taking advantage of the interlude, we bought salted pistas and apricots to munch on.  The ever helpful Senhor Juan brought us upto date on the significance of the vendor’s gear. Such flamboyantly dressed women – colourful headscarf, chunky jewelry (‘Real gold,’ whispered Juan), bouffant skirt and seven layers of petticoat were once common sight on the waterfront. Often such women waited for their men folk – husbands, sons, fathers — to return from the sea. The elaborate clothing and layers around the head kept the face warm as they waited for long hours in the chilly oceanic breeze.

Digesting that information, we quickly crossed the cobblestone square to a white wall, to the top of the upper village, at Monte Sitio, a rocky promontory over 100m above the main part of the town, to take in the stunning wide screen spectacle below and beyond the horizon. The coastal village, Nazare lay serenely in the afternoon, taking away our breath. A long stretch of beach rose by the side of a cluster of white and red-tiled condominiums with palms and other greenery behind a perfectly blue sky. On the right, frothy white water pounded the coastline. The sheet of water was in turn Teal, Cerulean, Cobalt and other shades of blue.
The bustling Portuguese fishing village down below got its name from an idol of the Madonna brought to these shores by a monk in the 4th century from Nazareth, Israel, and endures delightfully to the day from Phoenician times. Even though beach-combers, holiday makers often take over the area, there is much to be found of the ancient maritime trading culture.
All manner of kiosks and eateries jostle for space and attention of visitors on Avenida Marginal. The place is a sea food gourmet’s delight. Fresh mackerel, sardines, bass, and shellfish are most often steam-cooked. Then there is the popular Caldeirada à Nazarena – a sumptuous stew made from fresh catch and local ingredients.
Tradition also lingers in the older parts of Nazare, in the lower village known as Praia. As they did for centuries, housewives hang their wash on lines out of the windows. The aromas of grilled sea food wafts in the air. Bare-bodied old men sit in the shade nursing glasses of wine while fanning themselves. Fishermen dry their catch in the sun or old weather-beaten men repair boats and fishing nets in old fashioned ways. But for their complexion they could well be from Cochin or Mapusa!
Elsewhere wooden fishing boats heave and sigh in a remote corner of the unspoilt, sandy beach. The narrow boats are colourfully decorated. Most vessels have the quaint ‘watchful eye’ painted on the side. It is believed this ‘eye’ can see shoals of fish, and also forewarn fishermen of impending dangers on the high seas. “Fishermen even dangle oil-lit lamps near the eye for this reason,” explained Juan.
These days the little fishing village reverberates with different sounds. Sun-tanned holidaymakers with blonde and red hair have Lady Gaga livening up things from a boom box, as they party on the sand.  Little children frolic in the open areas while dogs chase Frisbees. In the evenings, honeymooning couples dance on wooden floors on the beach, cheek to cheek to Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On and such mellow piped music.

Monte Sitio offers awe-inspiring views of the mighty ocean and the waters lapping the bay and beach.  Nazaré becomes spectacularly beautiful when seen from the funicular that moves up and down the steep slope, linking Praia and Sitio. Unlike people living on the waterfront who depend on fishing, here on the high land, agriculture is the main occupation.

Looking beyond the colourful nut and dried fruit and roasted chestnuts vendors, we saw a magnificent two-towered church, and also a small chapel clinging to the edge of the sheer drop. The latter, Capela da Memoria is the site where Our Lady of Nazaré, made her miraculous appearance a long time ago. Local folklore has it that the Virgin Mary saved a noble horseman from going over the hill.

Too soon, it was time to leave Nazare. With a heavy heart we waved to the elaborately dressed vendor and she responded by doing a little jig for our camera, and left. Nazare doesn’t have the pizzazz and get-up and go of the typical small Iberian town – cobblestone squares and pathways leading up to grand architectural treasures or iconic monuments. Instead Nazare endears itself to visitors with its relaxed, sunny laid-back atmosphere…and its rich past, making the holiday destination ‘special, different, unique’.

Quick facts:
Nazaré is around 138 kms. north of Lisbon. The Portugese capital is linked to world cities by air, sea and over land from Spain.
Accommodation: There are many deluxe and inexpensive resorts, guesthouses, bed & breakfast, and hotels on the beachfront and on the hill.
Activities: Angling, Surfing, Golf, Horse-riding, walks.
For more information visit http://www.golisbon.com

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Echoes of an empire

Or
By the riverside in Lisbon one bright morning

The Hindu, Magazine – Time Out, Sunday Septemeber 27, 2009

It is a warm breezy morning on the Lisbon waterfront. From the Tower of Belem there is a fascinating view of a lighthouse, a harbor, manicured parks, a lovely red bridge across the blue-green water, and a white vertical ship-like monument shimmers under the Lisbon sky.

To our right, the gleaming river Tagus meanders into the great Atlantic Ocean. At this hour, there is little action around. Below in the green pathway leading up to the Tower, the atmosphere is very relaxed. Families and visitors hang around on the lawns while children have a dog chasing a Frisbee in the air.

This serene setting strikes discerning onlookers, history-buffs as the antithesis to the frenzied and violent actions that they read about. In times past, the harbor was turbulent and heavy with motions of arriving caravels bearing jewelry, spices – pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and silks, and news of lands conquered. The cargo fattened the royal coffers, purses of merchants and mariners. Even as one vessel heaved and pitched in the darkness of night, another was readying to set forth. Such was the lure of riches, and the ecstasy of expansion and colonial dreams.

That was more or less the scene right from Neolithic and Phoenician times, before 1200 BC, and into the Roman, and Moorish periods. As can be imagined, besides people traffic and bustling foreign trade that created an air of vigor and vitality, the hurrying river had dark and sultry military interludes – skirmishes, cannon fire, clashing of steel, galleons on fire.

Undoubtedly, the most significant event to unfold on the Tagus in the Voyages of Discovery and history of the world was on July 8, 1497. It was the day when King Manuel triumphantly upstaged Christopher Columbus and Spain, by pushing out 28-year old Dom Vasco da Gama to do the unthinkable – chart an all-water route to India.

Standing on the terrace the mind’s eye saw the excitement of that day.  The harbor filled with loud, cheering crowds; crew intently looking out upon the glittering, smooth waterway; priestly chants and incense renting the air; church bells ringing; and the king and courtiers presiding solemnly over the ceremony and splendor. Somewhere concealed in the frenzy, no doubt were mothers with heads bowed as they saw off their young sons embarking on a dangerous life. For every one successful sailing, were they not scores of horrific stories of fearful encounters with tempests, ‘fierce dark savages and strange and terrible oceanic beasts’?

The mariners and their families left it largely to faith to guide, and comfort them. They came to the terrace to pray at the altar of the Virgin and the Child for ‘journey mercies’, and also for the safe deliverance of the pungent black substance known as Indian pepper.

Away from the stony Madonna, elsewhere in the medieval Torre de Belem there is much evidence of advanced defense technology. Medieval facilities for artillery and heavy military equipment stand to the day. A granite rope encircles the fort while Moorish turrets and Indian architectural influences such as a relief of an Indian rhinoceros adorn the building.

The Santa Maria de Belém or just Belém (Portuguese for Bethlehem) district packs many tributes to its much-loved son, Vasco da Gama. While Indian schoolchildren grow up reading about the explorer who ‘discovered’ India, here a grateful nation remembers the ‘eloquent captain’ in many ways including a heroic poem.

A short distance away from the Tower, along the waterway and near the marina is the shimmering white Discoveries Monument.

The 50 meters high masterpiece built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of ‘the brain and enabler of the discoveries’, Henry the Navigator, depicts the angle of the prow of a three-sailed ship ready to depart laden on both sides with individual statues of famous sons of Portugal – the Prince, King Manuel I carrying an armillary sphere, writer Camões holding verses from The Lusiads, Gama, and other explorers, crusaders, cartographers, and cosmographers. Together, and in their own way, they established the ‘most extensive empire in the world’.

The contours of which can be seen on the pavement leading to the building. The gigantic tile-mosaic portrays a compass with the map of the world and lists the routes taken by the explorers and the lands that they conquered.  The mosaic depicts the high noon of Lisbon as the capital of a vast global domain.

Inside the Discoveries Monument a huge hall holds an impressive array of exhibits of royalty, explorers, scientists, ship-builders and cartographers who contributed to the country’s rich maritime history. In the adjoining auditorium films on modern and historic Lisbon are regularly screened. An elevator lifts visitors to the terrace, for breath-taking views of Lisbon’s legendary seven hills – the 25 de Abril bridge, the giant Cristo Rei, and other landmarks. Adding to the romance, below, a charming old tram, Eletrico clanks along through a narrow cobblestone path.

Earlier that morning we began our little tour from the life-size statue of M. K. Gandhi at the top of Avenida de India. But the dhoti-clad man with a pocket-watch and a cane is not the only Indian around. From the nearby Avenida Mahatma Gandhi or MG Road, to the Hindu temple of Radha Krishna, mosques and churches, Casa de Goa to the local music and dance group, Ekvat, the nation boasts of more than 70,000 people of Indian origin. They are highly qualified, hold prominent, influential positions in society, and like the shimmering landmarks by the riverside, they exude a rich, forceful and dazzling presence under the Lisbon sky.

Quick facts

Getting There: Most major European airlines fly to Lisbon’s Aeroporto de Lisboa, the airport of Lisbon, including Portuguese airline TAP Portugal, refer http://www.flytap.com.

Season: Lisbon is a year round destination, as the climate is always mild and there are no extreme weather conditions.

Accommodation: As in any major city, there is a variety of accommodation to choose from – paying guest accommodation (pensions), hostels or guesthouses, holiday resorts and hotels to suit your budget. Prices are generally lower than most other European capitals.

Eating and Drinking:  Lisbon has a number of cafés and a variety of restaurants specializing in everything from traditional Portuguese cuisine, to international or contemporary, to a choice of Indian food.

For more information log on to Lisbon travel guide at http://www.lisbon-guide.info/

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