On 9th June started my trip to Boston and Iowa with Devanshi. The journey to USA could perhaps be called long, but it was quite enjoyable and comfortable. We reached Boston first and checked into Courtyard of Marriott at Memorial Drive which happened to be very well located for our purpose of visit. Our purpose was to see Harvard University campus and Marriott was preferred while booking accommodation as it was walking distance from Harvard and also MIT in opposite direction, so we could walk down easily to either. A pleasant surprise awaited us when we checked in. The view of Charles river from our room on 6th floor and a walking strip along the river with trees and lawns was quite a view! Harvard Square being about 2 kms walk on this road along the river on one side and MIT a 2 km walk on the other side along the river, made walking to Harvard and MIT an absolute pleasure. Having reached in the evening of 10th June, we walked to Harvard the next day, on 11th June and met this tall guy, Mr Dan, at Harvard Square who was perhaps in his 70s and introduced himself as Harvard graduate and said that he could take us on a tour to Harvard for free. He could actually explain the spirit of Harvard and that was the challenge with which we struck this deal. Harvard he said is full of tradition and that it honours human spirit more than academic laurels. The peculiarities of Harvard are indeed its sensibilities and its respect for diversity obvious. What it looks for in a student aspiring to join it appears as varied as the people who have been affiliated with it. Having seen Columbia, Barnard, New York colleges and MIT later in the day, it was easy to see how it is different.The story of the famous Widener Library was interesting as to how the look could not be altered and so with time the Library went five storeys (levels) underground! The horizontal extent of the underground part is much beyond the on ground extent so that one is walking over the books in a considerable area of the Institute. True to his promise, Mr Dan could make us feel ‘Harvard’ by the end of the hour long tour.
The tour of the Houghton Library which houses a separate John Keats, Samuel Johnson and Emily Dickinson room, was a journey into the literary world, which made a non literary person like me also appreciate the literary world with reverence. The tour was given by the Administrative officer of the Library, who had a poised style and exhaustive interesting details on the library, books, life and time of literary icons to whom separate rooms were dedicated. Having worked for 40 years at the Library, he knew the effort and strategy involved in collecting the valuable books, manuscripts, furniture and rare articles of personal effects. It was interesting when he showed us the life mask of John Keats. The process in those days involved a claustrophobic mechanism of covering the face with a soft material layer making holes for the nostrils and then putting a layer of plaster of Paris over it. Getting the mould ready ensured reconstruction of face mask. The mask of John Keats at Houghton Library is the one made from the original mould and shows John Keats as quite a handsome young man. The work of John Keats and his life details were then shared. Surprising how he died young at the age of 25 years with tuberculosis and yet produced so much acclaimed literary work! The library is open to scholars from all over the world who might need to look at ancient books from as long ago as 15th century and original manuscripts available at the library. The Houghton Library also has 4 floors below ground level and has been spreading underground. There are some 75 libraries on Harvard campus. Houghton Library also claims that the list of references that one wants to read are made accessible within 12 hours by the library staff unlike most other libraries across the world. One understands the importance of the statement when one realises that the books or documents or each important communication simply cannot be entered in record and the entry is in terms of miles of book shelf length! I was taken aback! Then came the revelation of the fact that students, sometimes get lost in the library, for which intercom phones have been provided on all floors at various places. The original painting of Emily Dickinson as a child along with her siblings and two,of her photographs are in the Emily Dickinson room and the chair and desk she used to write on have also been acquired and are placed here. Comparing the Samuel Johnson chair with Emily Dickinson chair explains the extremes of their size, literally. Samuel Johnson was tall and well built and his chair tall, wide and sturdier than a normal chair, while Emily Dickinson chair smaller than a normal chair.
We then went to MIT campus on the local train. At MIT one can casually walk into chambers of Professors and talk about their departments, as we happened to do with Professor of Material Science. This particular lady belonged to Europe and having worked in several countries, was now a Professor and was with her Ph.D student then, a woman from China, but the modesty and humility with which she talked was my learning. The information session in MIT seemed to convey more objective selection procedure for undergraduates as compared to Harvard.
In Boston I realised there are no well defined boundaries or walls even around the airport, hotel or a University campus including Harvard and MIT.
People in Boston seem to eat, drink and run almost all the time or rather any time. And the running with sometimes no shirt, in mid afternoon and music at times and tattoos invariably present with hair coloured in practically any colour and styled in a way uniquely different from the ones seen earlier. The language of the people varies from factual honest information given curtly to casual quick conversation in slangs. The courteous British English is unknown and the American accent with lot of hand rather limb movements is usual. The temperature is measured in Fahrenheit at all places including the air conditioners installed in relatively new hotels. The distance is measured in miles and not kilometres.
We practically stayed for two days in Boston and visited Harvard primarily both the days. We got to see Harvard as a tourist and then attending the information session and campus tour of Harvard along with a Library tour which is held only on Friday afternoons. We also took the campus tour with an undergraduate student of 2nd year. All these versions together explained Harvard, the most prestigious and the oldest institute of USA about 400 years old! It’s ups and downs, how it was affected by world war, a major fire, the myths about it and yet it’s pride in turning out people who make a difference in the society was remarkable.
Our destination now was Iowa (Cedar Rapids airport) via Chicago.
Iowa appeared just green with big patches of green having linear straight outlines from the flight. It has gentle ups and downs of land, but no harshness of hills or challenges for a climb. A lady cab driver got us from Cedar Rid airport to the place we were to stay, Alexis. She might be in her 40s, had three dogs as pets and some other animal she mentioned, with family also working on rented farm land and had a son 11 years old. She had always been in Iowa and missed nothing. On the half hour drive, she talked about Iowa how everyone comes to Iowa, fields of Iowa with corn and soyabean planted for now, the autopsy findings of one of her dogs (as special favour to my profession) and weather at Iowa which can easily be predicted as unpredictable weather. Unlike Americans at Boston or New York (the two cities I have seen), the people are without their layers of colour, tattoos and glamour. They are people as people ought to be. The people accept tips more as favour than as fact. Alexis, where I would be staying for 14 days, is an Inn. They have two buildings, 4 storey each and sort of adjacent to each other, without an elevator! When they asked me if I needed help with luggage, I was a bit taken aback and although my mind shouted of course, I said quite gently, yes please if you could. We had with us two big suitcases, 18 kg each and 9kg stroller each and our purse, etc. Devanshi was to spend a night at Alexis and I was to drop her to University residential place next day. Alexis people upgraded me to a spacious suite for the time Devanshi was with me, at no extra charges! It was huge and absolutely warm and comfortable. The keys are not electronic as they are all over the world now. There is no mobile network at many places in the town. There are hardly any buses and rather hardly any people. All the shops have different time, some will open at 6am and close by 10am and then again open in the evening. Some will open at 10am and close at 12:30 and then again open in the evening. Few will,remain open at a stretch of 8 to 10 hours. Dinner time here is 5pm! Many eating places close at 6 pm or 7pm. One place near my accommodation is open for 20 hrs, 5am to 1am, called ‘Village Inn’ and that is a relief. The taxi driver who dropped Devanshi the next day for writing workshop mentioned that a Nobel Prize winner in English Literature was in his cab in 2004 and had won the prize in 2012, some Chinese guy whose name Devanshi identified instantly. He also spoke of literary people who live in Iowa. What really got us laughing was when he said that he values the ride taken by Football players in his cab rather than literary people, some of whom had been on his cab! Libraries abound, some 25 public libraries and lot of book shops. One book shop, a large one, keeps only comics!! It is called ‘Day dreams’. The biggest one which is well known and people like Barrack Obama get books from is called ‘Prairie Lights’. It holds lot of book discussions and literary meetings every week and has a cafeteria within it. People here can be seen carrying or reading books or writing something on paper or laptops, young and old.
Traffic in USA gets confusing, vehicles have left hand drive and roads have the rule for driving right. I enjoyed the rain, walking in the rain after a really long time. Making a sketch in the rain, over a bridge, was one of the things I only dramatised in my mind. The cold water, the wind, the warmth of beauty around and creative mind working, is all very sensual. That little sketch on a 5cm x 5cm little mounted canvas that I had just got the previous day holds the memory and proof of the event. I watched a documentary on Joseph Pulitzer and William Rendall Hearst rivalry on the TV in my room. The struggle and courage of Pulitzer in spite of hard work and talent left me awed by his personality. James Morris, Jack Welch, Professors of Journalism and Media studies are in this documentary bringing forth the competition in newspaper business and the factors and ethics involved in this competition. There are also advertisements of drugs for erectile dysfunction, angina, sex after menopause and bipolar disorders! I also got started on my textbook project, although only just and did some reading and also walked about 4kms. I slept past 2 days at 9:30 and got up at 4am. Sunrise is around 5am. Yesterday it was cloudy so did not notice, sunlight floods my room at 5:45. There is this big window in my room and when I open it, I can walk into the balcony. I wonder whether it is called something like ‘walk in window’ or perhaps it is a door and to me it is a ‘window to the world’. With this big walk in window and balcony on east side, I can put the chair near the window in my room and sit here or take the chair out into the balcony. The bed is queen sized spring bed with extra soft pillows, something I am totally unused to. Back home, I normally use the bed to kneel besides it, place my elbows and forearms on the bed, keeping book or books on the bed and then reading or writing. With high and soft beds, that does not work out. So, I sat on the bed with support for my back with pillows and then read the book!
There is a special bus service called ‘Cambus’ which takes no fare and drops people to the University and also within the University from one building to another, as it is spread over a large area. Of the three days so far, one has been rainy, one sunny and one cloudy!
There are television programs on pregnant girls and women giving up their babies yet to be born for adoption. Apparently there are about 6 million pregnancies in USA annually and about 3 million (50%) unplanned. Then programs on Hoarders and advertisements of medicines, everything so different from our television programs. The shops are different too. Lots of pet shops, plant shops, garden shops, etc and I might take a tour of gardens on Saturday for 3 hours! It is a small town and with the amount I have seen around, I have seen only one Star Bucks here for probably 5 shops on articles for pets and 5 on farm utilities. There is a whole lot of auto repair and Auto supplies shop too interestingly.
There is a bridge I cross each day over Iowa river which takes me to Downtown and University area. Walking over the bridge is a strange force each day which seems to pull me rather invite me into the water. The river is wide and has thick, tall, green trees on both sides swinging to the gentle winds. The water kind of moving a bit and ripples like movements of joy, a dance of some sort and the birds flying almost diving reaching just over the water and then with an almost naughty challenge to the river, fly up abruptly. While one walks over the bridge with railings of shoulder height, one has to disenchant oneself and remind ones elf to continue onwards. The bridge is the place where I stood awhile and did a couple of sketches. It is sanity which holds you back when the temptation to be part of it overwhelms you.
I sat and wrote on the bench of a park under the shade of a tree on a not too warm day. It is a pleasure I had not experienced earlier. Reading and writing in beautiful or comfortable environs can take one in a different world. I decided to explore Iowa Public Library, a huge library, two storeyed, in Downtown. It had Forensic books too, which is usually a rarity. Gave myself a treat of reading there for about 3 hours! Explored and found Haunted Book shop which was nice from Literary point of view. At Iowa Book store and most book places and the Library, poetry finds a prominent and dominant place and representation. Looking at things in Bhopal or even in Delhi, one gets a feel as if the poetry is a dying art or perhaps not so well read and appreciated. That thought gets revisited and quite optimistically. By this time a week had gone by! The week remaining, I decided to read in the Library or do my writing in the Library. Here I read one of the most detailed book on rape. It included rape statistics in UK, USA and Australia and how so many go unreported and even amongst those reported only about 5% people get convicted. The evolution of rape laws over centuries and decades and discussion of some cases and attitudes was an eye opener. Then on TV I saw program on Hitler, his drug habits and lifestyle and all other things unearthed recently. The things people have done! And got away with it! The next day I wrote in a cafe. The cafe is an apt place for writing with aroma of coffee around. Everyone who comes in, alone or in couples or group, seems to sit to read or write! It is not considered odd that you carry a book, read or write all the time! How comfortable could it get!
I was thankful that I was carrying an unread textbook of Forensic with me, ‘Forensic Pathology of Trauma’. Starbucks coffee, Heirloom soup (favourite hangout of students where they read and write rather than eat) and visit to Library would make most of my day. It was raining most of the way while coming and going and the walk in the rain was itself an added pleasure. One day I stumbled on a book written by a forensic person on real homicide cases solved by some scientific evidence. Read a few cases and it was a good read. This place lets you read and gives you all you want to read. I love it!
My sandwich in the morning has everything they put in a veggie sandwich, tomato, cabbage, sprouts, cheese, cucumber, mayonnaise and the bread itself is whole grain Or wheat, the whole long one I have happily and reading away while eating. The place I have my sandwich is the one where they freshly bake bread right in front of you and the smell of baking is an appetiser.
Evening of 24th June at 7 pm had an Open Mic for poems at High Grounds Cafe in Iowa. Devanshi was participating and I could attend. Every participant got 3 minutes although they said that no participant would be stopped. The three minute rule was meant to be a consideration participants were to follow so that the open mic could have enough participants and it would not run into midnight! Devanshi had already signed up, so she was placed just after a few. Participants would speak their name and the country from where they came and read. Some had it on their mobiles, some on their I pads and some had hard copies. It was amazing how young poets and experienced poets both read with confidence and belief. The contents were as varied as the people. Devanshi’s poem was on Mumbai and she introduced herself then put in a bit of humour which is her style and then read her poem.
Poem rendition had nothing to do with their appearance and each had their own statement on how they looked or preferred to look. There were perhaps 50 to 60 people and everyone all ears. I could enjoy the fragrance and juice of the thoughts and words and felt intellectual satisfaction of sitting amidst people who think, feel and express sometimes aptly, stylishly or in subtle ways and then again some who directly strike the anvil. Here teenagers are not what you would normally think. They are intense, focused and sorted, somehow evolved beyond my expectation. If I thought technology was forging ahead, literary world by its exploration and evolutionary impact, has taken wings.
After the Open Mic, I decided to take a ride in the bus as it was about 9:30 pm. Roads in Iowa become relatively deserted 8pm onwards except in Downtown. With rainy weather and forecast of tornado around 11:30 pm it was more so. The person driving the Cambus communicated that he was doing Masters in Sociology and Statistics and driving the bus as part time job. Most undergraduate students would volunteer 15 to 20 hours a week, he said. Of the 190 employees, in the summer 188 were students! And so many young girls driving the buses which they drive till 1 in the night! That says a lot about how safe it is though. Having spent a lot of time with myself, I did get to know myself a little better, physically, intellectually as well as emotionally. A few discoveries startled me, for example, that I like to spend time with myself, that I am quite fond of me, that I get scared of some trivial stupid things, that I could spend my life reading and writing and that I have lots to learn and lots to do. Saw a lot of oldies moving around the town, some with walking sticks, some in wheel chairs going to restaurants, cafes, grocery stores and Library! There is quite a bit of old population and I believe they have no choice but to manage themselves so they drive, pick their stuff, manage their living by themselves. Some of the oldies going to the Library amaze me. So many of them sit and read for hours, carry books home and then visit the cafe too!
The time to say adieu to a beautiful and quiet place I had an opportunity to be part of……where nature lets you see you and passes no judgement.
Devanshi completed Iowa Young Writer Studio program. She had a great learning experience and interacted with lot of accomplished literary people. She could interact with a group of people her age who were also passionately involved in reading and writing and struck a friendly chord with them. That whole atmosphere where these children ( if I may continue to address them so) could not care less about appearances, habits, nationality, colour, financial backgrounds and appreciate each other for their intellectual and literary abilities was remarkable. The diversity in their backgrounds only added to their richness of experience. It is hard to imagine but is true that 66 teenagers 15 to 18 years old, 24 boys and 42 girls with none bothered about hair styles, fashion, clothes, waxing of legs and arms, fat or thin, white or dark, impact or influence on opposite gender, food and accommodation facility available, and just focusing on improving their own skills and acquiring as many suggestions from faculty and teachers to this end! Reading, writing and discussing works in cafes, library, common rooms, computer rooms and during meals was a pleasure to them and they were surprised by their own evolution in the process!
This vacation at Iowa was an adventure no description can describe and no camera can come close to catch an image of. A small quiet town in USA regarded as literary capital of the world, with no malls, no huge theatres, no discotheques, no loud music, no streets too busy, fields all around, some 25 public libraries, cafes and libraries with people reading away. I was in complete anonymity (as if I am a celebrity!) and did not contact any friends around, did not look for any conference or workshop in and around Iowa, visited no hospital or Forensic facility, had no mobile with me, booked myself in a comfortable hotel opting for no cooking facility, did not move in and around Iowa as a tourist, did not visit museums or wild life sanctuaries around. I only explored myself, doing what I wanted to do, just reading and writing. There was free wi Fi at the hotel, cafes, libraries, university area and most restaurants where one could read and remain in touch with people in a quiet non interfering way. I did occasionally indulge in writing concepts of a couple of papers and a textbook, reading an intense textbook of Forensic, everything I wanted to indulge in! To live with absolutely no commitments, routine, friends or family in a new place with absolutely no stress of any sort for two weeks, is certainly an unparalleled experience. I lived with myself like this for the first time, beyond any confines of relationship and got to know myself a little better. Felt blessed and encountered a new dimension of peace and being.