My first visit to the city was through a work of fiction. There was a bomb in the city then, ticking towards the end of time, the end of New York. Then, as now, the city was the capital of humanity, home to millions of people of all colours, children of all gods, representatives of all civilizations. The bomb was a message: Free Palestine, remove the Israelis from the territory. The sender was Colonel Gaddafi, ruler of Libya. He had held New York City hostage by secretly planting a nuclear bomb in its heart. And the city itself was pinned inside the four hundred odd pages of this political thriller I had borrowed from the school library, The Fifth Horseman by Larry Collins and Dominique Lappierre. The title was a reference to the four horsemen of Apocalypse—conquest, war, famine, and death as described in the New Testament. The fifth one, not mentioned in the Bible, was a modern imagination, ‘Terror’ that will bring the apocalypse now. As a student in my fourth year of school at a picturesque hill station, in my mid teens, footloose in my imagination, and dissolute in my desires. The bomb had fascinated me as a great achievement of physics, supremely potent and destructive, a symbol of power. Living in the confines of a school in a forest I had little idea of Civilization but I had instincts for how to marvel at its capacity to destroy itself. So I rapturously read the book, taking it everywhere, the classroom and the dining hall, skipping the games which I was never good at, bookmarking it with dry leaves on my way to the picnic spots. (I have vivid memory of the book slipping from my hand at Lower Ghaghari waterfalls when I tripped over a root of tree.) I enjoyed the portrayal of the city-under-collapse. I enjoyed with thrill the fear at which the millions of New Yorkers were suspended, and read with curiosity about the city that will soon be no more. The authors were shrewd journalists—they described the city in great details, spoke of its wonders: its bridges, magnificent buildings, fountains, parks, and authentically portrayed the hundreds of cultures that had made their homes in New York. Yet my young insular mind was more fascinated by the bomb and its science, its makers and the devillish tricks of those who had planted it. In school, I was too young (and ignorant) to recognize the anxiety that the novel depicted. Israel and Palestine were distant cousins whose life did not affect us, I didn’t have relatives in New York whose life was at stake, and the ‘contrived corridors’ of history had not yet crossed the playgrounds of our school. I was wise enough not to see Gaddafi as a villain but was not so sensible as to refuse to see him as the hero. And it was only much later, when I became a bona fide student of literature, that I realized that one of the protagonists of the novel was the city itself. Most cities have history but not all of them have character, and only a few can become actors in a world of fiction. The fifth horseman came to New York five years after, on a fresh September morning, not on a galloping horse but on two flying machines, swift and mighty, and performed the prelude of the apocalyptic vision with an unimaginable.‘Terror has struck in the heart of America’, cried the world and then quickly turned the assault into a fluid image that for years kept cascading like a waterfall before its eyes. I had arrived in New York shortly before the tenth anniversary of what is called 9/11. The collapse of the twin towers had given the city the character of a wounded animal with an amputated limb, or rather two amputated limbs. In the intervening years the city had grown on me and had become the city of some of my favourite people—writers, artists, intellectuals, home to some of the best museums in the world, a site for music that I had begun appreciating, the temple of African-American cultural renaissance, the theatre district of Broadway, and of course, the university where I was to work: ‘Columbia University in the City of New York’, full name. It is the most cosmopolitan university in the world. Columbia has the maximum number of Nobel Laureates associated with it, more than a hundred of them. For me it was the workplace of the intellectuals I grew up worshipping: Edward Said, Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, to name only three.
A nuclear bomb in this city would now mean a personal crisis, the harbinger of the impending apocalypse. The trope was set very early in childhood—that of a city under a tantalizing threat; even the most rigorous security upgrades and satellite surveillance were not enough to console the infantile fear with which I had come to the city.
This fear was what made me a New Yorker, temporarily and forever. I was never good at sports but was one of the top cheerleaders of my times in school. I would shout at the top of my voice during football matches, and employ all my wits to create ingenious jingles and slogans to boost the morale of my team, usually a losing one.
The jingoism of the spectators on a football ground, I always believe, is a shallow compensation they offer themselves for failing to play. They shout to submerge the murmurs of their shame, to falsely claim a share in the victory of their teams. On that October evening in 2011 when Gaddafi was killed in Libya, reportedly by NATO forces, I was in a New Jersey football stadium cheering the New York team. I didn’t quite have the local linguistic flavour to raise slogans but my voice was loud enough to reach the remote corners of the crowded gallery. An hour before, the news of Gaddafi’s killing had come in. Americans were not celebrating his death in the way they had responded to that of Osama Bin Laden but I was secretly dissolving my own irrational fears in the resounding cheers in the stadium, compensating both for my insensitivity towards the vulnerable city during my school days and for my inability to play the game even now. New York won the game (by two goals) and I quietly attributed its victory to my cheering up. That day onwards I was one with the city where liberty is not just a statue. I travelled miles inside its uterine subway and always emerged into a hospitable land of free air. The city was not in mourning anymore. It opened its doors to me and showed me its collection of Picassos, Van Goghs and Matisses. I watched Shakespeare under its sky and saw amazing actors perform Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. I walked the streets of New York using Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as my map and walked upon the Brooklyn Bridge reciting Bachchan’s poem. I attended the New York Philharmonic’s mesmerizing performances of Brahms and Mozart and Mahler. I studied in its fantastic libraries and taught students in its universities. Sometime in March I began detecting in my accent a heavy American consonant and smiled at the fluidity of identities. I attended its literary festivals and spoke to writers from the world. My relationship with language was changing. Was I becoming more human? I had asked Herta Muller, the Nobel winning German novelist during a public lecture. It was at the PEN World’s Writers Festival that Muller was speaking. I had read only one work of hers so far, of course, in English translation. Here, she was in conversation with the American writer Claire Messud with the help of an interpreter. It was a play of shuttles before our eyes: Muller spoke in German, Messud in English, while a bilingual woman worked as bridge between them. Muller seemed to have little trust in the interpreter, for she interrupted her several times and zealously ensured that she had been understood correctly. Language, she told us, was an exile that helped her endure herself. I also managed to strike a short but private conversation with Salman Rushdie after his concluding lecture of the festival, the first ‘Arthur Miller Lecture on the Freedom to Write’. I repeated the question to him. He smiled in agreement. He had spoken of the vulnerability of writers; ‘their works may outlive empires and attain immortality but the writers themselves are poor beings, vulnerable to the assaults of humiliation, diseases and poverty.’ Language helps a writer endure his/her vulnerability. It is the only shield he has. Long ago, Rushdie had written a novel as a birthday gift for Zafar, his son. We had read it during our school days, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It was a novel about a ‘sad, ruinous city’. Zafar’s mother had left the family and the father had to bring up his son on stories. Zafar is my age and now lives somewhere in New York. We have to bring up the young world and be responsible for our stories, the ones we write and the one we read and re-read. We need our own slogans in the stadium, no matter who plays.