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London calling

My wife Shoma and I just got back from a dream vacation in London, after being holed up for more than two years, like the rest of the world. And we’re already having trouble adjusting to life back home on Long Island.

For five nights and six days, we forgot about subway crime, deadly roads, mass killers and outrageously priced food. We walked into free museums, savored our favorite dishes and liquor without the compulsion to tip, and took in one historic site after another— and never felt the strain, thanks to the mild weather and perpetually cloudy skies.

From the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey to Shakespeare’s Globe to Hampton Court Palace to the Jack the Ripper tour, the city packed hundreds of years of fascinating history into less than a week. For us students of English literature, history and politics, this was an experience of a lifetime.

A visit to the Canterbury Cathedral took us back to a bloody chapter in English history, when Thomas Becket was brutally murdered by Henry II’s knights. We saw the white cliffs of Dover, which inspired Matthew Arnold’s lyrical poetry. Leeds Castle was awash in the decor of the 1920s. And Hampton Court transported us to Henry VIII’s intrigues, his defiance of the Pope and the saga of his many wives who lived for fear of their lives.

History apart, London struck us as an exceptionally well organized city — warm, friendly and welcoming, with so much to offer that we left hungry for more.

The day we arrived, we had some time to kill before checking in at our hotel and walked into a Chinese restaurant in Kensington — it turned out to be the best spicy bean curd (cooked just the way I make it at home, my wife agrees) with rice, and pan-fried noodles I have tasted since San Francisco in 1991. At night, after our Ripper tour, we ended up dining at a Bangladeshi restaurant that served us delicious vegetarian and non-veg thalis, or platters, with chicken, lamb, yellow dal, okra and crisp rotis — gourmet Indian food of the kind we have never once found in the tristate area where we live.

To burn off the calories, you could walk or bike for miles in any direction with well-regulated pedestrian crossings, ample sidewalks and bike lanes. We got more exercise in London than we had for months in our sedentary lives back home on Long Island.

To be fair, we’ve always been partial to the Brits. We’re from a generation and a segment of Indian society that benefited from an English education, went to schools established by missionaries, brought up by parents who served the Raj, and born in places that bear the stamp of the British empire — my wife in Kolkata and I Darjeeling.

Coming from New York, we felt like refugees from a lawless dystopia. Getting off the plane at Heathrow, we hopped on the Underground and rode almost straight to our hotel — just a few blocks from the station — and never once needed an Uber.

It is a city we had learned so much about and had always wanted to visit. God knows we’ve made some dubious decisions in the past, but going to London — in spite of the COVID testing required to return to the U.S. — was one of the best we made in our lives.

And we’re going back for more.

An American tragedy

The days are gettin’ longer

Summer’s round the corner

Birdsong, plants and carnage,

School shooters on the rampage.

Troubled teens crave that feeling

Of power over innocents kneeling

Begging to be spared

The depredations of the impaired.

Another chorus of condemnation

Of Republican machinations

As Democrats gain traction

On gun violence and inaction.

Grief and anger fuel protests

Shaming gunmakers and their apologists,

And police who freeze when kids plead

As killers go about their heinous deeds.

A new low for a nation that puts guns

On a higher pedestal than its young ones

When men in blue fear for their lives

As fourth-graders are killed and brutalized.

But how do we tell our kids the story

Of what happened in Uvalde?

That they too could fall prey

To cowardice or ineptitude some day?

Rengey rules

Back in the summer, when my married daughter suggested we get a puppy to help us stop fretting about her — as many Asian parents have trouble doing — I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. Pet adoptions had become popular in the pandemic, but far be it from my wife Shoma and me to follow the herd.

Questions of practicality arose. Doubts were dismissed. We are both dog lovers and had owned dogs before. So it sounded like a natural move. One thing led to another and we ended up acquiring an adorable brown Shih Tzu we named Rengey, a word from a Buddhist prayer of peace, love and benevolence.

Six months later, we found ourselves swimming the cornucopia of love and chaos, punctuated by endless chores, that enveloped our lives when our daughter arrived in this world. What’s more, our little Buddhist monk is teaching us a thing or two about how to live our lives.

Not a day goes by when Rengey doesn’t demonstrate the importance of slowing down, nay, stopping in your tracks and taking a deep breath.

Like he does when I walk him, three times a day.

He starts by stopping for a minute in front of the door, listening for the sounds of distant planes, or cars or birds, even the silence of the night.

Soak in the moment, he seems to suggest. What’s the hurry?

Then he darts ahead, sniffing the ground and the grass, looking for a new adventure. An earthworm. An insect. A bird dropping. A dog stain.

And there’s another! 12 o’clock! A fellow canine approaches with companion. Will they play? Uh, oh! They’ve slipped out of sight. Could they be behind the dumpster? The master tugs on the leash, beckons him to head the other way. He obliges, but stops to look back. Could they still be there?

Oh the joys of trotting along! A wonder every day.

Like the morning of Christmas Eve, when he stood transfixed as flecks of wet snow fell on the blacktop. He tried following the soft confetti as it drifted down, leaping to catch a flake in midair, then licking the white blanket on the lawn.

From this young soul we have much to learn.

Unaware of the pandemic raging across the world, he feeds on every morsel of joy he can get from his owners — every walk, every treat, every toy, every tummy rub. So devoted is he to his adoptive parents, so dependent on them for everything, if they’ll only care.

He doesn’t ask for much, just a little love and kindness. In exchange, he vows lifelong affection and loyalty.

What a difference a puppy makes.

Need some air

I dreamt I was in outer space

Cast away from the human race

From the mothership they pushed me out

And no one heard me shout.

We’ve been adrift on Earth for years,

Fishing for likes and followers

Glued to the devices we own

In a social media lockdown.

Then our wishes seemed granted

When the virus left us further disjointed

Isolated by a scourge

Eager to dodge the crowds.

But a deadly silence throttles

Millions of victims in hospitals

Severed from their families

Breathing only memories.

Nations rejoiced when the wall crumbled

Free markets unleashed, the weak tumbled

Globalization ravaged communities

Bred hate, violence and disunity.

Then it spawned infections

Products of unhealthy conditions

From places where people flew

To every corner of the world you knew.

Now they have the world in a chokehold

Suffocating young and old

Challenging nations to solve

A problem that needs universal resolve.

But as winter closes its grip

Efforts to control the virus seem to slip

Helpless against an enemy so invasive

A miasma that makes it hard to live.

Could we all be drifting in outer space,

The entire human race,

Cast away from Earth

For despoiling the planet of our birth?

Tremors of triumph

Last week, I felt the ground shaking under our feet. 

For two hours at daybreak on Wednesday, I stood along with hundreds of others in a line that snaked around the parking lot of the Elmont Library in a relentless drizzle, to cast my early vote in this year’s presidential election. 

The crowd was patient but anxious. Among them were the young and old, men and women, elderly in wheelchairs, but all mostly good-humored despite the weather. The woman in front of me noticed I was getting wet and offered me her umbrella and then huddled under her husband’s wider parasol. 

I thanked her profusely.

“I’d ask you to pay it forward but I do want my umbrella back!” her husband joked.

I laughed.

“Don’t worry, it won’t be long — we’ll make it to the door by sunrise,” I said, provoking more laughter. “Yeah, a new day will dawn!” he said.

“One thing he’s done is forced us all to get out and vote!” someone remarked about President Trump.

“This already looks like an election with a record turnout,” said another. “You can’t see the end of the line.”

Someone broke into song in the predawn darkness.

Chairs came out.

A man offered to do a coffee run. Laughter erupted.

There was a real sense that we were all there to do something we have longed to do for these past four years — make a difference. It was a feeling of empowerment.

America is not about hate and division and violence. Underneath it all, it’s about fellowship, peace, patience and prosperity. 

That’s how we have persevered, and that’s how we will.

This election is a chance to show the world how to beat adversity.

The people in that Elmont parking lot were there to prove once again that there’s no challenge too formidable for this country when it stands together, from sea to shining sea — be it racism or the coronavirus or economic hurdles, or what have you.

The enthusiasm was reminiscent of the days before Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008.

The two hours went by like a breeze as I hummed along with the Grateful Dead, “Get in the groove and let the good times roll, we’re going to stay here till we soothe our souls, if it takes all night long.”

Hate in the time of coronavirus

Lives around the world have ground to a halt. 

People across society — politicians, priests, executives, businessmen, office workers — are self-isolating for fear of spreading, or contracting, the coronavirus.

Businesses have been closed indefinitely. Workers face layoffs. Students are out of school, set on a path to nowhere. The aging are confined to their spaces, unable to meet loved ones, afraid of risking their vulnerable immune systems. 

Economies are shrinking. Uncertainty looms. All we can do is tune in to the news and watch ourselves drowning in a rising tide of infections. With no vaccine in sight, prospects of surviving this catastrophe appear slim.

How did we come to this point?

Here’s a guess — hubris and hatred.

For thousands of years, mankind had shared the Earth with other species of flora and fauna. With the advent of civilization, we embarked upon a path to self-destruction by developing weapons that can wipe us out several times over, and by waging war on Nature and upon ourselves. We called it science, statecraft and capitalism. Only the fittest would survive. 

And how did that work out?

We ignore a fundamental truth: Life on this planet is interdependent. Humans are part of a delicate ecological balance that depends on the elements, flora and fauna to survive, just as rich humans need the services of poor humans to exist. 

When Neil Armstrong saw the Earth from outer space, he beheld a breathtaking sphere — one world in all its beauty and splendor. Unfortunately, that iconic vision in 1969 had no impact on our lives. We have persisted in our genocidal ways, continued to bomb each other, and violate Nature, driven by avarice and hate.

Now, as a result of our cruelty, we face a common foe that defies science and threatens to wipe out entire populations — a mysterious zoonotic virus that jumped to humans from wild animals being slaughtered in an illegal meat market, and is spreading unchecked.

In one fell swoop, Nature seems to be extracting its price for aeons of pillage and arrogance — our inability to share space with other animal species, our delight in caging and exploiting them for entertainment, our plunder of elements that have sustained life for millions of years.

Suddenly, we are told, the smartest way to beat the virus is through the old-fashioned values of good citizenship, a la South Korea and Singapore — display a social conscience, self-isolate, show consideration and self-control, delay gratification.

As New York faces a mountain of cases, our patience will surely be tested like never before. All of us aggressive drivers and hostile commuters will have to learn to hit the brakes and slow down, cherish our time with loved ones, engage our minds in positive ways, watch and read the news, introspect and be humble. 

And dial down the racism and animosity.

We might have set foot on the moon and we might be hurtling toward Mars and the sun, but we could still be wiped out by a sneeze.

Things might have been simpler had we not been clueless about living together in peace.

If anything, the coronavirus is a reminder that divisiveness and hate will destroy civilization as we know it. Calling it a Chinese or an Arab virus misses the point. We are one human race, afflicted by the same scourges. A virus that infects one nation can infect us all — and a vaccine that saves one life can save us all. 

We must treat the coronavirus, and other such viruses that emerge in the future, as an existential threat to the dysfunctional family that we are.

Either we face this onslaught together, or forfeit our planet and become extinct.

Another year, another laugh

As yet another year draws to a close, amid political turmoil, rampant injustice and violence across the world, is there any reason to say Happy New Year?

I believe so.

From watching the news on television, it would seem otherwise. Crime is rampant. Death stalks the roads. No one can be trusted. Civil society is breaking down.

But there’s still an enormous sense of satisfaction in life’s small pleasures.

Friends getting together to catch up on old times. People traveling to new places. Families lavishing love and affection. Readers and TV watchers devouring their best books and shows. Connoisseurs of art and music gorging on what they adore. And foodies wolfing down their favorite dishes.

I’m looking forward to spending the first week of March with a bunch of friends in India, where we have a yearly rendezvous, somewhere in the hills. We talk and drink and joke and listen to some great music and eat some great food.

Here in New York, a group of friends from Newsday with an insatiable appetite for dim sum are going to be greeting the Year of the Rat later in January, sitting around a table somewhere in the din and bustle of Flushing, Queens.

Our families are a source of strength and joy — and occasions like weddings, like my daughter’s recently, bring the generations together under one roof to reminisce about the times we spent growing up.

We travel to enjoy the sights and sounds and tastes and smells of places we seek to revisit or discover. For me and my wife, this year it was mostly India, and the Hudson Valley, where we chanced upon a fabulous antique shop stuffed with typewriters, old furniture, clothes decorations and posters that was a veritable trip back in time.

This year I developed a love of South African jazz, a la the late Hugh Masekela, thanks to my friend PK, and Pandora.

Art has a special place in my heart. I sketched portraits of Leonard Cohen, Woody Allen, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. And I’m working on a landscape of Darjeeling — the Himalayan resort town where i was born. Finishing each drawing brings me a peculiar sense of joy and fulfillment.

There’s joy also in making others happy. I got a kick out of introducing my son-in-law to the pleasures eating dim sum in a Chinese restaurant — he was absolutely thrilled.

So what’s not to be happy about?

Sure we oppose injustice and aggression, and all the terrible things happening around the world.

But why let it ruin the one thing we should all be grateful for — life?

Fuzzy fonts

I rub my eyes, stare at the screen
The jumble of words regurgitate
A tainted water story we’ve run before
With a clever lede, but still a month late.

What’s new, I ask — and get no response
Reporter can’t be reached, editor gone for the day
The story’s got to run, it’s laid out on the page,
Questions be damned, hit the key and take your pay.

An energy report reads like a technical treatise
I scratch my head, try to comprehend a supposed authority
On power plants and electric bills,
And wonder if our reporting has outlived its utility.

Budget reports don’t add up, percentages falter
Names are misspelled, facts don’t check out
Strings of words, when lifted, perpetuate errors
Whatever happened to just making the effort?

Here we are preaching from our devices
Recording history, slaving day and night
Plying our wares in cyberspace, scoring likes
And we don’t know the first thing about getting it right.

It’s 4 pm, the print shift begins
A skeleton crew settles in
The phones have been ringing off the hook,
A flood of angry calls prompt another correction.

The day I survived

 

Yesterday I had the narrowest of escapes – without quite realizing it until much later.

For starters, everything that could possibly go wrong did.

I set out for work as usual, after my hour at the gym, and a quick breakfast, off to my copy-editing shift on the Newsday day desk. As I cruised along on the Southern State Parkway, I heard a hard object — rock or metal — hit the undercarriage of my 2014 Prius, triggering a warning on my dashboard that I should stop in a safe place immediately and get my hybrid system inspected. Not good.

But I kept driving and made it to my office parking lot on Pinelawn Road 5 miles away. I got in touch with the nearest Toyota service station in Huntington to get the problem examined, and eventually left it there and got dropped back to the office.

After my shift ended in the evening, I planned to take the Long Island Rail Road train home. I took an Uber to the Farmingdale station. The last time I took the train home was five years ago. I thought I knew my way around – but nonetheless ended up on the wrong side of the station. When I realized this, I ran through the tunnel under the tracks to the westbound side to catch the 7 p.m. to Jamaica, from where I would take a train to Valley Stream and take a cab home.

That’s not how things turned out.

I got in the westbound train, and sat by a window on the north side, looking at the darkening evening sky. We passed Bethpage, then Hicksville. Then came the announcement that we were approaching Mineola. Moments later I saw a burst of flames right outside a window on the south side and felt the whole car heat up momentarily. I heard the muffled sound of the flames hitting the window. We seemed to have just gone through a fireball. A loud thud followed, and then another powerful one, before the train scraped against a hard surface and wobbled to a stop.

That was the scariest moment. I looked outside. The traffic on the street was a good 20 feet below. We were on an elevated section of track, and I was afraid we would topple over with the impact. Luckily we didn’t.

The worst, for me, was over.

Passengers on the train got restless. Some panicked, tried opening windows and doors, even though we were clearly locked in. A conductor raced to the front to figure out what was going on. A teenager called her mom. “I might not make it home, mom,” she said, first sobbing with emotion, then exploding: “Is that all you have to say?!”

I learned that human behavior in such situations is infectious. I stayed calm, seated by the window, and sure enough, a fellow passenger came and sat by me, and others settled down on seats nearby. A young man raced to the exit and tried banging on the door. Others followed suit. Some argued about not wasting time sitting inside waiting for help that was not going to arrive. Others pleaded helplessness.

Eventually, there came the announcement that we had hit a car on the tracks, so please be patient. Emergency personnel were on their way to rescue us — get a ladder to help us off the train. Nassau County emergency personnel got on he train and told us someone was in the car that was struck, and an emergency operation was underway.

I had switched to reporter mode and began tweeting out pictures from inside the train and sending tweets and feeds to my paper, Newsday. I spoke to my editor, who asked me to stay on the scene as long as I could and gather details. My long trip home had turned into a spot news assignment.

Soon Nassau County emergency personnel set up a sturdy ladder against one of the front cars, and helped us climb all of about 15 feet down to the ground, one at a time.

We were just outside the Westbury station. It was freezing cold. Some passengers, like a young Indian pharmaceutical worker from Central Islip headed to Secaucus, where he lives with his wife, didn’t seem to be wearing enough layers to be out on the frigid February night. We were asked to gather at an indoor taxi stand at the intersection of Union and Linden avenues. The room was packed. The police were taking down names. Anyone who needed medical attention was asked to seek help at the post office. A bus would eventually take us to a point from where we could get home.

On the prowl for color from the scene, I spoke to two young women from the Netherlands, Giullia and Dianne, both scientists headed to a conference in Baltimore. They said they had landed at JFK about 5 p.m. and decided to spend some time in New York City, so they took an air train to Jamaica, where they hopped on an LIRR train — only to learn they were headed in the wrong direction. So they made the switch at Bethpage — and got on the ill-fated train that hit the car. 

Were they upset, or exhausted? Far from it.

The intrepid travelers took it all in stride, and had a word of praise for Long Islanders. “People on the train were helping each other out,” Giullia said. “The railroad personnel were concerned about everyone’s safety. We thought they responded well.”

Despite their difficulties, these young professionals — who couldn’t have been older than in their late 20s — were extremely mature and level-headed. They saw it all as nothing more than an unfortunate accident — a situation where everyone was supposed to come together and help one another, as they saw happening.

Where were they going to stay the night? Accommodation had been reserved for them, they were told, though they weren’t 100 percent sure.

How were they planning to go to Baltimore?

“Not by train!” they laughed. “We’ll take the bus.”

Their lightheartedness and indomitable spirit seemed to bear lessons for many others.

Only much later did we learn that two trains were involved in the accident — and that the fireball I saw was a car with three occupants that had been smashed to bits by two locomotives running in opposite directions as it tried to beat them at a particularly accident-prone railroad crossing.

All three, of course, had died.

I was among about a thousand LIRR riders lucky to have got away without a scrape — alive to tell the story.

So Long Island

A getaway for the rich and chic

Sticking out in the Atlantic,

Like a crocodile with broken teeth

Hungry for what lies beneath.

 

Once home to tribes that hugged the Sound,

And lived off the land until they were found

By colonists with their guns and wiles,

Tossed into the abyss of history’s files.

 

A natural treasure stalked by human leeches

Lusting for its forests and golden beaches,

Where chemicals have leached into the water

From a Cold War machine lost in the gutter.

 

Where death and mayhem lurk every day,

As angry drivers race down the parkway,

Caught in traffic, with no room to fail,

Decency be damned, may the worst prevail.

 

An enclave of wealth and power

Opening up to many with no time to shower

As apartments send more children to be schooled

And taxpayers protest, we won’t be fooled.