Tuesday, 21 August 2007


It was like the end of a thriller - a race against time.
We had been driving for four hours with Vandana at the wheel, and had reached
the outskirts of Washington city around 2.30 pm. It was a Saturday and we had to make it to the Library of Congress and see it before it closed for the day at 5 pm. It wasn't open on Sunday and we had to return to New York by Sunday evening.

So it had to be that evening. We broke off for a brief lunch, which the server took his own sweet time to serve, totally oblivious to the pressure we were under.
After the surprisingly good meal, we set off with the GPS guiding us and taking us in the direction of the Library.
Every now and the GPS would say 'recalculating' and give us fresh directions - obviously we had missed a turning.
Anyway we finally made it at around 4. 20 pm to the Library of Congress building - on the Capitol.

While Vandana parked the car, we rushed to the building, where we saw to our relief that the place as open till 6 pm.
We smiled happily and got ready to pass through the security door, when a guard asked us the purpose of our visit.
Thinking that the rules were getting to be more and more ridiculous, we answered - tourism. Why else was the building open to visitors, I wondered.
The guard informed us pityingly that we were in the wrong building - this was the administrative block where the offices were housed.
"You can make it if you run," he said. "It closes at 5 pm, You still have 30 minutes,"

And run we did to the beautiful building across the road, and finally made it..
The final scenes of a Thamizh movie had nothing on us!

Thomas Jefferson Building

More skilful hands than mine have written about this 110 year old building, so I will let the pictures do the talking.
Because there was so little time we did not get to see some of the special exhibits or the library itself where the books are housed. The biggest collection of books in the world is housed here. The original collection of the congress was burnt during the war in 1812, and Thomas Jefferson sold his private collection to start the Library again. The building is named after him.It also has the largest collection of comic books

I must mention here that I do not see why the museums should close at 5 pm - especially in the summer months when daylight extends far into the late hours, and when holiday makers and tourists abound. Museums are for the visitors, and it would be nice if they could stay on and linger, and not be hustled out on the dot of 5. I noticed this in some of the other museums we went to.

The National Mall

Our next visit was to the Mall - the name given to the long stretch from the Capitol hill to the Lincoln Memorial - all outdoors, and no closing hours!

The two sloping black walls on the side of a walk, meeting at right angles with the names of the soldiers killed in the Vietnam war form a grim memorial to the waste of war - so many young lives wasted - do we see a monument to the Iraq war in the future?

The Lincoln Memorial houses the gigantic statue of Abraham Lincoln in a huge hall, open at one end and supported by 36 columns - each to represent a state extant at Lincoln's time.
The inside of the halls has his Gettysburg Adress inscribed on them. A fitting monument to a great President. The President looks on with a benevolent expression across the monument tot th Capitol - all in a straight line, and spanning about 3 to 4 miles.
Outside, up close and standing on the steps the columns managed to block the statue; but further down, from afar and closer to the Washington monument, the statue could be seen , highlighted by the spotlights.
We walked down in the not unpleasant evening - it had cooled down considerably from the fiendish 105 of the afternoon, to the obelisk called Washington Monument, and the surrounding decorations of fountains and arches - all commemorating American soldiers and sailors who had perished in World War II.

The Illuminations and Nirvana, the restaurant

The illumination was beautiful on all the buildings on the Mall.
Everything here is on a magnum scale - - the country has the resources of space and money to create these magnificent spectacles.
We did however miss seeing the White House illuminated.
After an excellent dinner at a very pleasant Indian restaurant where my timorous 'No meat in anything please,' was answered by a firm, :No Ma'am, this place is run by a Jain' - we retired to bed in a hotel not far from the attractions.
A word about the restaurant Nirvana. We were the last diners at this restaurant. The service was excellent - we ordered items as varied as rava masala dosa and roti with Gujarati side dishes. I just had to ask the waiter if they had different cooks for the different cuisines. His reply ,"We have only one person for all , and he is a Mexican. He has been with us for 20 years,." floored us. Because Sriram found that the masala in his dosa was as good as the home made brand.
While waiting for the food, we were discussing the CD that was being played - we did not feel very complimentary towards the music, and wondering who it was, asked the ever obliging person who waited on us who it was.
He said he could not remember. And we did not care - none of us liked the music very much. But while we were leaving we found him rushing in from outside with a CD - he had run to his car to get it for us since we had asked him for it. We were too embarrassed to refuse it or tell him that we did not like the music.

The White House

I was rather insistent that we should not miss seeing the White House, no matter that we had seen it in so many photographs.

Once when Bob Hope was asked why he did not run for President , he is said to have answered, "I am not interested, and my wife won't like to live in a smaller house."
And it is an unassuming building - for the Chief Executive of the most powerful nation in the world. It was not half as imposing as Rashtrapathi Bhavan in New Delhi
I found the address intriguing - 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, just like yours and mine - a street name and a door number.
And when we walked round to the place, it was there, just as the address said. I was impressed by the unassuming mien of the whole place - a simple white building with the same kind of architecture we saw in the rest of the city, surrounded by plain grass lawns, and colourful flower beds. We could see the building from outside the railings - tours inside have to be approved beforehand with your friendly neighbourhod Congressman.
We walked around to see the front of the building as well, and I noticed that the trees that dotted the lawns had their names written down in Latin as well as their English names.

The National Gallery of Art

Numerous museums dot the Mall , including the famous Smithsonians. We chose to go to the National Gallery of Art. We would need a week to see them all, said Vandana.

The building is itself a beautiful piece of work, and it houses some of the most beautiful works of art.
Notable is the portrait of Ginerva de Benu, by Leonardo da Vinci, said to be the only painting by Da Vinci in the USA.Other paintings that caught the eye were 'Odalisque' by Auguste Renoir,(see picture) and the The Dead Toreador by Manet. There were also paintings by Degas and Monet, and some of Toulouse Lautrec's Moulin Rouge pieces. A painting of Charing Cross Bridge by Camille Pissaro also caught my eye. I could have spent all day there, but time was our biggest treasure - there just wasn't enough of it.

Just About DC

Washington DC is a quiet city compared to the hustle and bustle of New York, from what I could see of it over a weekend. The pace seemed to be set by tourists who walked leisurely looking at the various spots to be seen.
We had a lovely breakfast in one of the places in Georgetown, a French place which served delicious croissants as well. The streets were so quiet on the Sunday morning, with only the occasional churchbells ringing.
The streets of the city are named after the states of the country, and some, weirdly after alphabets too - I saw a K Street and an F Street.

Maybe some day we will go back an look at those treasures in the Library of Congress and the museums.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

(Sixty) First Birthday

Last week it was my birthday; and I was with Sriram and Vandana in Hoboken.

Last year was my 60th, and Sriram had organised a memorable get-together in Madras, the highlight of which was the surprise visit of Sankar, Jaisri and Arundati

This year he and Vandana bought a cake, with a single candle, and with their friends Jayasri and Apsara watching, I was a one year old blowing out the candle.

One year old, truly, because according to the Thamizh calendar there are 60 years which complete a full cycle - perhaps that is why the 60th birthday is considered significant- shashtiabtha poorthy - completion of 60 years.
Each of the years has a name, and the 60 years are said to be the children of Narada. This year is called Sarvajithu.

In the picture: Vandana helps cut the cake

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

A Museum, English Tea and Riverside Music

Summer evenings on the riverside - this seems to be a motif running through the towns nearby, too. We went to upstate New York to a town called Beacon on a calm Saturday afternoon. The drive, with Vandana at the wheel, through the beautiful green hills took us to this little town, also by a river - the very same Hudson!
Driving on the road parallel to the river, we could see it every now and then between the trees and little hillocks, glinting in the sunlight, small boats moving gently, a picture of serenity on a beautiful summer day.
Promising ourselves to return to the riverside when it was cooler, we went to the museum called Dia. The museum is vast and the galleries large enough to hold a Chennai wedding hall. Dia houses an interesting collection of modern art, and we were straightaway drawn to the Andy Warhol gallery, but I was disappointed not to see any of his more popular works. The work of artist Sol LeWitt was displayed on walls large enough to be the side of a house. Each exhibit covered a whole wall, and was made up of interesting geometric patterns in colours, devised mathematically - this really held our interest. Straight lines, curved lines, wavy lines, angles, arcs all blended to create aesthetically pleasing, magnum size delights.
Then there was this gallery which housed mounted on the walls - framed dates, like 6 Mars, 1962.
Just that and nothing else..
An explanation about the Japanese artist who made a record of the paintings and set himself deadlines for the paintings to be completed, and how he destroyed them if not completed by the deadline confused me completely. Deadline dates do not seem to be art to me. However, Sriram entertained us hugely by giving us accounts of corresponding events on the dates in our lives - and that relieved the tedium of that gallery.
This gallery did put me in mind of the story of an ardent lover of art who stood in front of a smaller board and pondered. Finally he asked the attendant what the picture signified. The attendant fixed a stern eye on him and said, "That sir, is the switchboard."

After tea at a quaint English style tea shop, which was very 'propahly' British, we headed to the park along the river. Large grass covered areas to loll around in.A local band, whose name sadly I missed, was to play on the open air stage, appropriately called Grassy Knolls. And we sat down to enjoy ourselves....... and were not disappointed at all.
A fitting end to a summer's day.

Skykine Across the River

Every time I look out of our window from Sriam's Hoboken apartment, I am spellbound. The New York skyline, so close, like you can put out your hand and reach out to it, presents a theme in chiaroscuro.
Sriram tells me that the part of the skyline we see from our window was where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre stood, rising high above the other buildings. Never having seen them, I don't feel the absence, or miss them. And it doesn't stop my enjoyment of the view of the other skyscrapers which were there long before the Twin Towers -which came up only 30 or so years ago.
The picture here is taken from the net; the other picture, taken by Vandana, highlights the beauty of the view, and also marks the space where the towers were.
In the summer morning sunlight, the buildings are awash in the pink flush of dawn, glowing lightly.
In the daytime they stand clearly across the blue background, each window on each floor distinct. In the evening the setting sun's rays fall on the buildings, and the reflection from the glass windows make the sklyine glimmer.
On some rainy days you can barely see the skyline,(small picture) and after the rains the buildings look so bright.
But it is the view of the skyline at night that is the piece de resistance.
When walking on the waterfront on the summer evenings, one can see the skyscrapers glittering like jewels of a fabulous potentate.
This glittering skyline was the backdrop of a local theatre's (Mile Square Theatre, Is it because Hoboken is only about one square mile?). presentation of Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.
And on that summer evening, beside the river on the open air stage, it was entirely credible that the fairy king and queen could come with their minions, including Puck, and mingle with mere mortals. Hoboken was the birthplace of that musical legend Frank Sinatra, and the play cunningly included his songs into the play, set in the early 50s. The play within the play ploy, with Bottom and company presented as workmen on the waterfront*, proved just as funny as it must have 400 years ago, judging by the guffaws of laughter from the receptive audience. Shakespeare works just as well today.

*The Marlon Brando movie 'On the Waterfront' was based on the problems of the men who worked here.