Friday, November 9, 2012

Pittsburgh Musings- Lessons from the United States of America

I have never been blindly enamoured of the US, although I have visited it a number of times.  As a writer in the last five years and before that when I was working with a multinational.  I am not a great fan of the US foreign policy. In one of the first plays I wrote, the protagonist starts one of his monologues with, ‘America has gone to war today. The world’s most powerful nation is preparing to drop bombs on scurrying children.’ 

However, every time I have come to the country, I have been genuinely overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the Americans I have met. They have by far been the nicest people I have known in my life. Leaving me alone and giving me my space when I need it and at the same time being there when I crave for company. That can be the best gift a writer or an artist can ever receive.  

Today it was the turn of a gentleman I had never met before to appear in my life and change it for the better.  There are some people who make me touch genuine humility and he turned out to be one of them.

Peter Oresick is a poet and a professor of creative writing in one of the well known colleges in Pittsburgh.  He has also worked as the head of a publishing house and as the chief editor of a literary magazine in the past. I was introduced to him over email by one of his ex-students. He wrote back saying not only would he spend time with me answering my questions but he will be happy to take me around the city and the places I need to visit for my research. To say I was pleasantly surprised by his offer would be an understatement.

My friends know I don’t even drive back home in Bangalore. Relying on cabs and autos to take me all over the city, so forget driving in another country where even the rules are different. I am sure even if I tried, I won’t be able to reach anywhere. And that’s likely to be my greatest challenge for the next seven months.

I am not good at waiting for buses either. Five minutes of waiting and I end up telling myself, I will take a cab, never mind the expense. I will economize on something else. I am sharing all this to communicate how grateful I am if someone offers to drive me around.

Peter was exceptionally generous not only with his car but also with his time. He drove me to almost all the spots where monumental events had unfolded over the two hundred years of American history. The day was cold to begin with but warmed by his generosity, the sun came up and it turned out to be one of nicest mornings to be outdoors, since I have arrived here.

By the time we headed for lunch, I had dropped my inhibitions enough to ask Peter why he had set aside nearly one day to take me around the city. I had learnt by then that apart from his job and his writing, he is also a painter. I couldn’t stop thinking about what his wife and three grown up sons would make of him dedicating almost a day to a stranger he had never met before.  

His response completely disarmed me. He said he has travelled to quite a few countries and his hosts have taken the trouble to show him their cities and in his own way he was trying to repay them for what they had done for him. I resolved at that moment to do my bit when I get back home for anyone I know who has come down from another country and occasionally feels a little lost.

The tour of the city proved to be educational in more ways than one. Two of the localities we drove through were Homestead and Braddock. Once the hub of industrial activity, these were thriving communities until the mid 80s when the steel companies closed down, rendering thousands of workers unemployed. Parts of these localities continue to resemble a ghost town and those that still have people in them have turned into rough neighbourhoods. But I was pleasantly surprised to see how clean the roads were even in these parts.

The New York Times article that has got the world thinking of Bangalore as a city drowning in its trash, mentions Kalpana Kar getting frustrated at a neighbour whose servant goes and dumps the trash on the road despite her asking him not to. And I am sure Kar lives in one of the most affluent localities of Bangalore. So I guess the one thing we need to learn from the Americans and practice is cleanliness. It is humiliating to land  in a foreign country and discover that for the residents here, the city you live in is identified with filth and dirt. Especially when you know that it’s not some evil propaganda but the truth.

One of the spots that we stopped at was where one of the earliest industrial strikes in history took place.  This was at Homestead in 1892. Henry Clay Frick tried to break the strike by hiring an army of goons to attack the strikers who had laid siege of the factory. The strike ended badly for both the parties. The striking workers had to cave in eventually and Frick was forever painted as the ugliest robber baron of all time.

I kept on wondering why standing at that spot I got the feeling of déjà vu. It occurred to me much later that the story sounded similar to something I had read about a few months ago.

I don’t know whether the Henry Clay Frick story has a moral for all Indians. But it certainly does for a particular automobile giant with one of its plants in Haryana.


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