If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

An image from the USA

You will find this painting (Gas, 1940, oil on canvass, 26” x 40”) by Edward Hopper in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. What you see here is a photograph of the original taken with a digital camera. Of the many paintings and other images that I have seen in the US, this one seems to catch the essence of the country with rare insight.

There is only one man in the wide open space … A vast country where very few people live. (The cities are exceptions.) Another implicit message is Americans’ love for cars and roads. This country has a fantastic network of highways and every individual, from 16 to 86, drives. A person under 21 cannot buy alcohol here, but one is eligible for a driving license at the age of 16.

The contrast between natural and artificial lights adds an element of drama to the picture. But as I looked at the painting for a long moment, what overwhelmed me was the loneliness of the filling station attendant. The partly hidden and apparently unimportant character is a typical American elderly man: lonely and unsupported, he has to fend for himself. Many in the US cannot afford to retire even when they are 70, because the cost of living, particularly the cost of medical care, is prohibitive. And adult offspring almost never live with their parents.

Consequently, many people go through a long and forlorn evening in their lives. You will often find these men on the roads of New York, talking to themselves. You will find them sitting at railway station food courts with an empty coffee cup in front, reading an old newspaper, solving a crossword puzzle, or busily noting down nothing on a jotting pad.

The man in the picture must be tired and listless after a long day. Perhaps no one is waiting for him at home. A few hours later, when night descends, if he is still alone, he might recall this Bob Dylan song:

Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there ain't no place I'm going to.

Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) was a prominent American realist painter who is famous for his personal vision of modern American life. He brought out the stark realities of human suffering during the great depression like no one else has possibly done. Like all great painters and writers, what he leaves unsaid is more important than what he says explicitly.


  1. Around 30 years back I was posted at Warren,Ohio for six months.Warren was more of a sleeping town with very little population.After the severe winter while the fall appeared I made the habit of walking around the streets on weekends.Seldom I used to find people on foot there.I found old people work there in post offices,departmental stores and petrol pumps.They were lonely and would love to talk to me.I befriended a old colored lady who worked in a nearby departmental stores.She had only a daughter of her own in some other state but did not meet her for four long years.She showed me an old age home in the town where she decided to stay afterwards.It was very silent place and boarders looked towards us with such a vacant look!I really felt sorry for the oldies there.
    But,now a days,we are perhaps catching up quickly.
    Santanu, you wrote so nice!The painting reminds me the one I saw at the crossing of a highway way back in 1979.

  2. Very enlightening observation I must say. My father often tells me the plight of older people in US which he too observed when he visited the country. He mentioned similar things about their living and also added when he visited the country as a young man, many such people longed for talking to such visitors. He is happy to find that NZ is not such a country. Even I am amazed to see, the families are much more attached in NZ. I don’t know whether it is premature to be conclusive about NZ.

    Sadly, even in India older people are facing similar plights. Despite many of us intent to take care, circumstances don’t allow us to. In a large number of cases, people actually don’t take care. Problem worsens because many of our elders are incapacitated to take up different jobs unlike in Western world where people are healthier and eager to try out different jobs. The apartment we stay has a building manager who has been a school Principal and a science teacher. I see many jobs such as those are advised here which request elderly couples to apply.

    Like many of the sad realities that we encounter this is one of those. However, I wonder at times whether the aged in American society expect their children to take care of them or they somehow accept the loneliness as a reality and adjust with it in much better way than Indians do.

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  4. Dear Mr. Chaudhuri,

    I am a young boy who knows nothing of life. So I do not know much of men, women, and their lives. But what I feel from your post that as you are ageing, a fear seems to be creeping inside your heart as to what the future holds for you. Is it loneliness or colourful days? This is the question that might be bothering you. But then why?

    While I strongly believe and pray to God is that you will be always loved and cared by your son, I also know that you will never be lonely as you have your books and pen with you as two dear companions. Maybe it is keyboard in place of pen. But I assure you that you will never be lonely. Keep blogging and we will never let you feel lonely.

  5. Excellent blog.
    Beautiful pictures.

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    Keep blogging.
    Good luck.

  6. Thank you all for your comments.

    Thank you, Satyadasda, for sharing your experience. And Tanmoy, for extending my point to the elderly people in India. Nothing shows our growing selfishness more poignantly than the way we treat our aged parents. A few years ago, an old couple jumped off a plush high-rise building in Mumbai because of mistreatment by their offspring. It was not an isolated case. Each one of us has seen such instances – maybe in less extreme forms – from close quarters. Dibyendu Palit’s “Mukhguli” (Faces) can be seen in many families in Kolkata.

    Regarding Suvro’s first observation, yes, I compared Edward Hopper only with artists, and that too, with the caveat “perhaps” because I don’t know much about the painters who dealt with the subject.

    And you are absolutely right; there are many elderly people in America who live their lives with dignity and self-reliance. In particular I bow to the sprightly seventy plus women who drive on highways and use walkers to shop around in supermarkets, or look around in museums, all by themselves. Thanks for complementing my observation.

    As regards loneliness, you and I have been talking about different kinds: you about a hermit’s loneliness and I, about that of a solitary prisoner. Both exist and both are facts of life.

    In marketing, there is an adage: The customer is always right. Authors are not so generous. Therefore, Subhanjan, I will say that you, the reader, are wrong. I do worry about many things, most of it unnecessarily, but my future is not one of those things. But thanks for your empathy, it is touching.

  7. Sorry I dont get much time time to visit your blog. The painting of the filling station reminds me of a similar one on a mountain route which was part of highway No.1 (Pacific coastal highway depicted in the game "Road Rash")along the California coast. We were driving from LA to Sanfrancisco. We were almost out of gas on a mountainous portion of the highway which was desolate and it was getting dark. Suddenly we came across this lonely filling station and the only attendant was a lady who was almost about to wind up. But she saved the day for us and we were on our way with a full tank.


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