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

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Please come to Boston

Please come to Boston for the springtime
I'm staying here with some friends
And they've got lots of room
You can sell your paintings on the sidewalk
By a cafe where I hope to be workin soon
Please come to Boston
She said No, Boy you come home to me
And she said, Rambling boy why don't you settle down
Boston ain't your kind of town
There ain't no gold, and there ain't nobody like me
I'm the number one fan of the man from Tennessee

Country music should say something about the country. This song by Kenny Chesney tells us a few things about Boston: a none-too-cramped city where there were art aficionados and unemployment, although it is difficult to imagine a bustling US city where there “ain’t no gold.” Chesney was alluding to the absence of goldmines here, like the ones in Tennessee, literally. That is just one of the problems with poets: they don’t use metaphors when one expects them to.

But he was quite categorical about one point, one should wait till the springtime to visit the place, a sane advice that my son ignored when he drove us northward to Boston on the frosty 30th December of 2008.

Boston is not one city, but two – Boston and Cambridge, divided by the Charles River. Cambridge here is similar to its namesake across the puddle: a university town, with two hallowed portals to learning standing close by, almost rubbing shoulders, Harvard University (set up in 1636) and MIT (much younger, born in 1861). The twin cities have four more universities, Boston, Brandies, Northeastern and Suffolk, not to mention the famed Harvard Business School. And the place is littered with colleges that teach almost everything, from architecture to theology. With so much enlightenment around, it’s no wonder that Massachusetts is a liberal place. It was the first US state (and the sixth jurisdiction in the world) to legalise same-sex marriage in 2004.

We crossed the river towards our hotel in Cambridge as the sun was going down and the gorgeous city was switching on the lights in its hundreds of skyscrapers.

The first stop was Harvard Square, an area near the university teeming with bookshops and eateries, a favourite hangout for students and others. Any world class centre of learning is bound to be a cosmopolitan place. Boston is a city where white Americans are a minority: we came across humans of all descriptions. According to a tourism brochure, here, one can play chess with an expert for as little as two dollars. But we didn’t find one of them.

I had heard about the bookshops in Boston. The only one that we could go in was Harvard Book Store (“Since 1932”), which, like all the book stores that I have seen in the US, is large and open stack. The unique thing about it is its three sections, new books, used books and remainder stocks. (Remainder stocks are copies of books that publishers are no longer interested in, and would give to booksellers at throwaway prices. Remainder stocks of British and American books are a source of easy profit for many book traders in India. They buy them dirt cheap and sell them as new to gullible buyers.)

In this store, remainder stocks are sold as remainder stocks, at around a third of the jacket price. There were quite a few buyers at the store, all of them browsing.

The next morning, we went to see the famous New England Aquarium in a blinding snowstorm. In the evening, we braved icy winds to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, which has the largest collection of Claude Monet, the first impressionist painter, outside Paris. But the museum had been closed early on the New Year Eve.

We were not totally disappointed though. Travelling by Boston metro was an experience. This city of just 600,000 people is served by a metro system where five major lines crisscross each other. You buy a ticket and can change trains any number of times to reach your destination at another corner of the city. The trains ply both underground and on the surface. Some of them have just two coaches and look like the trams back home in Kolkata. The trains and the stations are scrupulously clean. Boston subway system is one of the finest in the country, and also the oldest, set up in 1897.

I am sure I would have something to learn every day even if I lived a thousand years. The lesson that I learnt in the first morning of 2009 is that you cannot operate the microscopic buttons of digital pocket cameras if you are wearing leather gloves. I had to put on a pair as the temperature was 14 degrees Fahrenheit, which translates to a cool minus ten in centigrade.

We had a few hours in the morning before leaving, and I had taken an underground train to the Harvard station, much to the dismay of my overprotective wife. As I walked out of the deserted station to an equally deserted road, there was only another man walking, an intrepid Japanese with a long camera.

I walked around, watched the baroque architecture of the university buildings, and took a few pictures after removing the gloves. The landscape was full of white, and many shades of it. The 1st of January being a holiday, and maybe because it was so cold, the place looked more like a fairytale town where everyone had been put to sleep by a wicked magician. Soon, my right hand too went to sleep. I decided to switch off the camera and return. But try as I might, I couldn’t switch it off; my fingers were numb. I pressed the button against a corner of a railing to shut it down.

It was comfortably warm inside the metro station. The platform was absolutely empty save for myself and an old man (should I say another old man?). He was, rather incongruously, playing chess with himself on a magnetic chessboard.

As I wondered if he would agree to play chess with me for a fee, I rubbed my right hand to get some blood flow into the veins. But my right hand, cold and unresponsive, sulked. Said he, ‘Who cares for your stupid photographs? Look what you’ve done to me. Me, thanks to whom you earn a living.’

Me: ‘Ah! You and your despicable vanity! I earn a living thanks to my brain.’

My hand: ‘Pen pushers and keyboard punchers think they have brains. But the rest of the world thinks otherwise.’

‘Let them. You have no business to be so frail. After all, you are a poor man’s hand. But you’re behaving like the spoilt brat of a filthy rich father.’

‘That is the problem with you Marxists. Can’t think of anything without bringing in the class. Minus ten is minus ten; doesn’t matter if one is a rich man’s hand or a poor man’s.’

I snapped, ‘I am not a Marxist. I am only a disillusioned Marxist.’

‘That doesn’t refute my point.’

‘Okay, forget it. Think of Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. He went through much worse. Did he complain like you?’

‘Woh gora log to have been living like that for centuries. But I am new to this climate.’

The stupid hybrid language that my hand used invariably gets my goats, not to mention racist statements. But I decided to be patient. Said I, ‘Relax, as soon as we reach the hotel, you can have a warm-water bath and wrap yourself around a hot mug of coffee.’

But my hand continued to sulk. Said he, ‘I am not your wife, you can’t kiss and make up so easily.’

06 January 2009


  1. What a wonderful read Mr. Chaudhuri! I could visualise you alone on a street of Boston and trying real hard to switch off your camera by pressing it on a railing. And I also added another man in that scene at a good distance from you looking with wonder and amazement at what you are doing. No doubt he got a nice little story to tell his child back home. I also added a lamp post over your head. And I was able to visualise all these so well from your words that I did not feel the need to take a photograph. And what brilliant sarcasm. Unfortunately, not many readers will have the wit to spot it and the purpose will not have a wider impact.

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  3. I can imagine the cold. World is so unique isn't it? There you are in the cold all covered and we are experiencing in summer all over. I have to write about book shops too. I always thought since in India they have gone into oblivion, same may be the case elsewhere. Nicely enough that is not the case. Here too, visiting the book shops are experience in themselves.

  4. Santanu I dont know whether you visited two interesting places in Boston. The site of the "Boston tea party" (I missed this because it was closed on the day I was there) and the "Mapparium", which is a three story structure in the shape of a globe and you can see the world map all around you as though you are seeing it from the core of the earth.The Map is updated from time to time the last updation was in 1966. (I did not miss this one)


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