The sky lit up with a million iridescent fragments last night lighting up the dark surface of the Hudson and the hundreds of boats that had gathered there to watch the July 4th fireworks in reddish, whitish and bluish hues. There were crowds all along the edges of the water, on the piers facing Manhattan from the Jersey side, on the boardwalks and on the tops of buildings.
Showers of light in yellow went off. Red hearts that glowed like jewels adorned the distance against the George Washington Bridge. Planetary formations in Saturn-like shapes glowed for a few moments in the darkness and then disappeared as other shapes took their place. The fireworks were released from four barges in the water adjacent to mid-town while the Empire State building went wild with joy. Its usually steady lights danced round and round matching the celestial events in the sky.
We were on top of one of the buildings on the Jersey City side. Hundreds of people were gathered on every space imaginable wherever the fireworks were visible from.
Most people were in a party mood accompanied by children of all ages. People in these parts are from different corners of the globe. You hear English spoken in a million different accents all around peppered with a host of other languages.
While it was still light, the water shone blue many stories down below. A little girl kept requesting her mother to throw her in the water from the terrace high up where we were. It all looked so delectable. Most groups had chips and store-bought party platters with them. Some had other snacks with mouth-watering smells that hinted at various cuisines from around the world.
As the evening waned, the balmy river breeze blew. It was a great day.
If you closed your eyes and simply felt and listened, you would only hear the patrolling helicopters and planes in the sky and the occasional roar of the one blimp that roamed the sky with a digital screen on one side. With sight removed, you would only smell the various cuisines, hear the different languages of people, feel the river breeze and wonder where you were. Had you not seen the various buildings of the Manhattan skyline glowing like charms in a jeweled necklace on the other side of the river, you could have imagined yourself anywhere in the world parked on a beach chair on the terrace.
If you opened your eyes though, the American flag on the digital screen of the blimp directly above and the red, white and blue flag-patterned table napkins on the terrace of the penthouse down below would remind you of your local habitation and a name. This was a day with a certain significance.
Such is the nature of modern globalized spaces of a certain kind. You can be everywhere and quite nowhere at the same time.
On one of the neighbouring buildings which is forty-eight stories of blue and green glass, there are walking trails and gardens and palm trees and a swimming pool on the seventh floor. If you sit on the edge of the pool, you’re surrounded by grass and vegetation. You can hardly tell that you are at such a height and not in a natural garden.
These days, people swim in the unlikeliest of spaces. There are pools in people’s homes, pools in motion on cruise ships, pools on terraces of high buildings where only birds used to fly. The palm trees and the warm water so high up express paradoxical desires of people in temperate zones to be surrounded by the tropics without the inconvenience of insects and rotting leaves and dust.
A Magic Kingdom in the world’s Disneyland of wonder for grown-ups.
Snippets of conversations that float by reveal how people experience these spaces. For many, beautiful events are occasions of significance felt through association with some distant location fondly remembered with nostalgia.
“There were just such fireworks at my wedding in Delhi,” a voice had exclaimed last year when a burst of light had gone off in the sky on this same day on the terrace. A status update on Facebook today expressed a similar sentiment: “The smell of burning crackers reminds me of Diwali. I am nostalgic.” Perhaps a desire to forget, to remember, to hold back, to assimilate all at once finds expression during such beautiful climactic moments in such magical spaces.
The beauty of such disembodied spaces for such decontextualized people is that these places can be exactly reproduced anywhere. Almost reproduced. Almost anywhere where people can afford it. All you need is some modern technology to build the right atmosphere and people with a lifestyle that will sustain the effort.
There are such spaces in other places of the world too.
It used to be that on very hot days in Kolkata, India, when the sun burns up everything outside, if you walked by the doors of an air conditioned building, the short blasts of cool air would beckon you to enter an upmarket garment store or an ice-cream parlour. They used to be distinctive in their own way, the glass and the cold air clearly demarcating the space from what was outside it. But they used to also be able to define themselves with clarity as such-and-such merchant’s store or parlour.
Now, when you enter a mall in Kolkata, the shiny floors and the glass doors, the escalators, signs, and air conditioning feel exactly the same as the glass doors and shiny floors and the escalators anywhere else. Even the people look more and more similar to one another as do the pizza and the fried chicken.
If you only managed to forget what was outside those glass doors, you could have been anywhere– perhaps walking in Toronto in a subterranean mall amongst greenery in natural light coming from the sky. Only, it wouldn’t be the sky. It would be a skylight at ground level above you outside which it might be bitterly cold, not burning hot.
Even birds have adjusted to this change of scene. I see some of our feathered friends comfortably flying around the palm trees in the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan under the glass-covered roof.
People too fly fast from one place to another if it’s uncomfortable.
On a plane,they adjust the air vent for temperature. When they reach, they feel the cold or heat of the place only at the junction of aircraft door and tarmac very briefly. Then the shiny floors and the trees and the glass dome of the airport greet them. They are home again where they can sleep guided by their air-conditioned dreams of a global habitation carefully adjusted to modify the location for comfort.
Photo credit: The first, third and fourth pictures are by MD. The second is by BW.