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History: visiting the past and being there when it was made…

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

The US of A beckoned thanks to SAGE’s annual gathering. This time it was in scenic Ojai Valley. I could write a tome on this exotic location but will save it for another day. It is one of the most scenic locations that I have ever seen. But I cannot let go without mentioning my visit to Bart’s books.

When I first saw it on the agenda, I wondered if this was a cliché since we are publishers. I thought, how different could a bookstore be. And was I ever surprised.

It is the first bookstore that is OUTSIDE of a building. The original house is nothing but another row of bookshelves. The real deal is in the open air. The first thing to strike you is the rows of books that line the outside of the store. Yes, the outside wall. There are rows and rows of books that one can pick up and walk away. They request an honorarium of US$ 0.50 (read 50 cents) for a book but no one is policing this, no cameras, no hidden security guards, nothing! It is completely based on trust. I didn’t see anyone browsing books; I thought there would be hundreds taking up the offer. And surprisingly, the bookshelves were packed! There wasn’t a single empty space to squeeze in another book.

Once inside the main door, I was startled by the rows of bookshelves that had nothing but a tin shade that acts as a shield against the weather. The rain in this area, I learnt, is scanty and the sun angular. In short, a basic roof protects the books. And that is where I will stop! It has history but I will let you explore it either on the web or if you are lucky, in person.

The history tour was, however, in a different location. This was in Los Angeles, the last couple of days of my stay in the US.

My good friend Jawahar Khwaja volunteered to be my tour guide. I am blessed to have friends like him. He took me to see the Queen Mary, the ocean liner of yore that now stands docked at Long Beach California. The surprising part of visiting this city on water was the Russian Scorpion class submarine parked right next to it. I was thrilled to bits when I knew we could tour this. We were both in agreement, we needed to see it first. A few days ago I had seen an even earlier submarine, a smaller one, and only from the outside. This was the USS Croaker parked in Buffalo, NY. But on to the Scorpion Class Russian submarine.

The entrance was through a gift shop (what else could you expect from the greatest merchandisers on the planet, the AMERICANS!). I didn’t pay any attention to the vast array of items there; I wanted to see the sub first. The entrance to the sub is down a narrow flight of steps very near the front. I descended and was instantly in the torpedo room. This was the room in which stood 6 dummy torpedoes in very real torpedo chambers. My first sense was of awe, amazement and reverence. Where I stood today once stood a bunch of submariners whose only job was to fire torpedoes – Russians, humans, robots that followed orders. I wondered if they knew their enemy, if they fathomed the damage they could cause, would cause, or had caused. I examined with great detail the length of the torpedo, the openly displayed torpedo chamber and then I stopped. I looked around the room and couldn’t find a door to get to the rest of the submarine. And then I spotted it, a small round opening behind the stairs that I had earlier descended seemed to be the missing doorway. The opening wasn’t large, must have been around 30” in diameter but I could easily pass through it into the next chamber. This was clearly the middle section of the submarine. It was small, cramped and yet amazing in the number of functions it performed. It had all of the following: a toilet, the captains room, the first officer’s room, a radio room, a strategy room, a kitchen, a dining room, and a passage that led to the rear of the submarine.

I examined the captain’s room and wondered what sort of human being actually called this home for many months. It was no more than 5 feet in height and 5 feet in-depth and 4 feet wide. The bed was clearly less than 5 feet long and about 1.5 feet wide. There was a small locker AND a table. I couldn’t bring myself around to imaging a man sleeping and even thinking in such a small space.

The first officer’s cabin was the same. But the space provided to the seamen was even worse. They didn’t have rooms, they had bunk beds and these were 3 stories high. And this wasn’t the problem with them. The biggest problem was that the bunk beds were in the rear of the sub right next to the massive diesel engines. The submarine used these engines when it surfaced and or travelled to the surface. When they were submerged they relied on electrical motors to kill the noise. I soaked in the atmosphere and imagined what it would be like to be in one of these for months on end!

I also toured the Queen Mary, a luxury liner that is deceptively similar to the Titanic. I walked on the solid oak wood floors and soaked in the opportunity to feel like royalty of yore. I was amused to see various plaques stating the sections that were supposed to be haunted by spirits of yester year travellers. I lunched in the dining hall seated next to a window that overlooked LA’s waterfront. The tuna felt like it came out of a can.

That evening I was at an event where I saw history being made.

I have varied taste in music but there is nothing like good old rock and roll to make me feel Zen. Jawahar told me about the Hollywood Bowl . I hadn’t heard of it and much less researched it. I waited to be surprised. And was I ever…

I was given the program and my eyes lit up when I saw the line up. Patti Austin, Steve Tyler, Joe Perry were being honoured that night. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. This was the mother lode to me. There was another performer that I hadn’t heard of John Legend; too young to be of interest I guess. I could dedicate an entire blog on the happenings that night. It began with me finding my way to my seat through a series of winding roads that resembled a river of humans moving upstream. The sheer number in a cramped space and yet without the jostling or discomfort was something that struck me then and continues to amaze me even today. More than a concert arena, this was a picnic spot. I could see groups of people munching on sandwiches and guzzling beer, and yes in the open. It made me think of all the complications of something like this happening in India.

When in my seat, I noticed how truly cramped they were. There wasn’t even a seat; it was a couple of long wooden planks running the length of the section marked with numbers. And that is where I sat for the next 2.5 hours! And yes, within minutes of the concert starting, I forgot all discomfort.

The other thing that struck me was the sheer number of people attending. I am told there were probably around 30,000 people in that small arena. I couldn’t see a single seat empty in front of me but behind me there were some. For the large number of attendees, the entry to the arena and the exit from it, was equally disciplined and smooth. There is a lesson for all of us.

I have been to the US of A several times since I first set foot there in 1982.

And yet I learn something new every time I go there.

And every time I return I miss it a little more.

And yet it only makes me want to stay in India and do more, to learn more of the country I was born in and the country I will always call home…

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