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"The pigs charged and we threw rocks at 'em" "Right on, man!"
Sirens hooting in the night, so demoniacally urgent, so persistent, sending chills up his spine where he lay wide-eyed in his bed, grappling with a world that had just cracked open. And he thought, What satanic crime is being committed somewhere? ...
All around him a soft penumbral darkness, a stillness scored by the straight lines of dormitory bunk beds, spooky four-legged skeletons of iron standing upright in rows. On the brick wall behind him, some feet away, a barred frosted-paned window admitted muted, fitful versions of the frantic streetlife outside. The hum and grind of vehicles behind the wall, and a few human sounds: footsteps; discarded, disposable fragments of conversation. Headlight beams through the window, and flashing blue police lights, and the deafening sirens, behind him now, his heart pounding. Here? The sounds, the flashing lights, went away, disappeared into distance, anonymity.
"... goddamn fascist pigs it's a fuckin' fascist country, that's what"
"Right on ..."
Is that all he can say? The second voice, deep and gravelly, belonged to a black guy with an Afro hairstyle. I know what they're talking about ...
The other voice, thin and whining and anxious, came from the bunk above his. The guy who occupied it was white, with a beard and long hair down to his shoulders, who'dstared at him in disbelief earlier as he came back from the bathroom changed into his brand-new striped pyjama suit.
The Afro, who was in the adjacent upper bed, was now saying, "Malcolm says we landed on no fuckin' Plymouth rock, this fuckin' rock landed on us, man ... we gonna push it right back on their ass.... Yeah, man ..."
That was quite a mouthful, coming from him; it reverberated like controlled thunder. The swearing made Ramji flinch. He wasn't used to it in English, this way, up close.
"You'll be there at the Commons tomorrow?" the white guy asked.
Elvis. Yes, that was the first revelation from an alien world, before there was even a picture of America in the head. "Jailhouse Rock," and parents complaining of uncontrollable kids jumping on beds and chairs when it was played on the weekly request program in Dar es Salaam; and they had it banned! "Can't Help Falling In Love," that beautiful ballad sung to a music box in Hawaii, and I so much wanted to be in love. But more than that, more than Elvis Kennedy. Ich bin ein Berliner, we all knew that much German; and America was saving the world from godlessness. Then Kennedy shot dead. Just that, a giant newspaper headline glimpsed in a vendor's hand, and it seemed a little more charm was gone from our world. And beautiful Jackie why did she have to go and remarry. Soviet premier Khrushchev banging his shoe at the UN, the U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia, the Cuban crisis. Perry Mason the lawyer-detective and Della Street his secretary having coffee and doughnuts in some café in Los Angeles, discussing a murder case. Pat Boone and Rock Hudson were the girls' heart-throbs. And then the ugly side, the frightening America: dangerous streets, sex, drugs. Blackboard jungle, cement jungle, neon jungle ... and the death's head of technology: ICBMs and MIRVs, marvellous and terrifying. As a teenager, he would wake up frightened by nightmares about the coming Third World War. Two years before, his class essay on the destruction of the world was read aloud in admiration by the teacher. But there was also the thrilling moon-landing. The fundis tailors outside Grandma's house were all of the opinion that the Americans had the world fooled. "Éti, how can anyone go to the moon it's so small and comes out at night and roams the seven heavens." Above all, Americans were friendly people who said things like "ain't" and whose "can't" was so hard to distinguish from their "can." And they had great universities with towering columns and domes, where all the awesome modern research was done, and to one of which he, Ramji, had been admitted the Tech. Some of the astronauts had actually studied there; and also giants like Feynman, and Gell-Mann.... Time had reported that even at the Tech and Harvard, students had come out in protest against that war in Vietnam. And now at this Youth Hostel on Harvard Square
Suddenly, the bed heaved, tilted perilously on two legs for an instant giving Ramji a tremendous fright then came down safely back on all fours; the sagging weight on the upper bunk had rolled over to the edge.
"By the way, the name's Russell." The long-haired one to the Afro, across the aisle.
"George," came the reply.
Are they really shaking hands now, after all this? Only in.... He smiled, relieved, his heart yet to recover from the ordeal.
"Hey, pleased to meet you," said Russell.
"I say power to the people and down with the military-industrial complex!"
"Night again ..."
Wait till I tell Sona about these two characters.
Sona, his classmate, had arrived with him from Dar, and was sleeping a few bunks away. What was he thinking?
It was Sona who first brought up the idea of actually going to America, when those who could get away had always gone to England. "I'm applying to go to America Boston," he said excitedly one day to Ramji on their way home from school. "Why don't you apply too, we can go together!"
"Yeah, let's go to America!" Ramji had said. But when he thought about it, as the weeks wore on, he wasn't really sure he wanted to go. How could he leave Grandma alone? It wasn't such a small step, going so far away. And then, one evening
"Mr. Kennedy ..."
"Mr. Kennedy, may I have the honour of shaking your hand?"
Pandemonium. Laughter. Disbelief.
"Of course, come forward and I'll be glad to."
And he had gone forward and shaken Bobby's hand to great cheering. Except that it wasn't he who'd shaken Bobby's hand but that nutty cricket captain of the school, who'd dropped out soon afterwards. Still, it was as if everybody present there had shaken Bobby Kennedy's hand, at the Diamond Jubilee Hall in Dar es Salaam.
It was a thrilling, an inspiring evening. And it seemed to him that it was only for him that slim handsome American, with the nonplussed look, the open mouth, the white teeth that he would go to America. Everything else, all the other attractions seemed secondary, only that face which he had seen in the flesh drew him on. The casually friendly face of America.
And then Bobby was shot dead. Did you hear it, Ramji? It was Sona, late in the evening, standing at the door. What? Ramji asked, What happened? Bobby Kennedy is dead shot! Ramji just couldn't believe it, but the local news had said it, the BBC had said it. The two of them had tried tuning in to the Voice of America for confirmation, but they couldn't hear anything through the static. Afterwards they sat outside Ramji's house and chatted late into the night, discussing this and the other assassinations. First JFK and then Martin Luther King, now Bobby Kennedy. What an amazing country America was. The next morning Ramji his departure only a few weeks away said, I'm not going to this place that kills its own just like that. His friend Sona had begged him, Ramji, you can't do this now! His teachers too had begged him: Go. And Grandmother, sorely tempted to keep him home beside her, now that he wanted that too, nevertheless sent him to see Mr. Darcy. That intellectual who had been a grateful patient of hers, who knew a thing or two about the world out there. Go, Mr. Darcy said, there's nothing more important than your education. And so Mr. Darcy broke the jinx, his last-minute jitters, and here he was.
* * *
Sona, are you awake? ... In the upper bunk Russell and George seemed finally to have fallen asleep. Tomorrow ... he thought, tomorrow begins my first real day here ...
He and Sona had been picked up at the airport by a rather nice and chatty couple from the American Host Program, called the Campbells ("a name that's been made famous by a certain soup company!"). It was warm and drizzly outside, and as they drove into Cambridge the city lights looked glorious, reflected in the rain. The Campbells drove Ramji and Sona along Memorial Drive by the Charles River, past the breathtakingly imposing lighted dome of the Tech, before depositing them at the hostel. They were simply the "picker-uppers," they said. Having given Ramji and Sona the separate particulars about their host families, where they would be staying for the couple of weeks before classes started, and brief instructions on how to survive in America, they disappeared into the wet night.
His "family" were John and Ginnie Morris of Runymede, New Jersey, and he'd called them collect, as instructed.
Mr. Morris, sounding ever so informal, almost jovial, said he had been waiting all day for Ramji's call. He had been informed of his visitor and expected him to arrive in New York. Never mind. Would Ramji fly in to New York? No, Ramji would take a Greyhound bus at about eleven next morning after meeting the foreign student adviser on campus.
"See you in New York, then. We're all anxious to meet you."
The lunar astronauts, even while making the giant leap for mankind, were at least in constant touch with planet Earth, to which they would eventually return. When would he return? Someday. Meanwhile here he was, plucked out from his old life and suspended ... in this silence, in this darkness, in this alien air, with the alien smell of the pillow and feel of the mattress, the cold tiled touch of the floor below him when he dropped his hand and let his fingers run over it. Perhaps he was dreaming ... or had died and, now a disembodied spirit, was looking down on himself as he lay on the lower bunk, eyes fixed at the sagging shape of long-haired radical Russell above him ...
Back in another world the sun is rising, the street beginning to stir, the day's impending heat a friendly suggestion in the warm air, the bright sky. The old woman in a loose frock, her face age-lined into a perpetual look of pain as if she's swallowed bitter medicine, is up and about in her home, having returned from mosque. She is humming, perhaps her monkey song about the transience of the world. The servant will arrive, the rooms will be swept; morning tea is on the stove. Soon she'll set off on some service or another sweeping the mosque, preparing a corpse for last rites and the funeral, cooking for a festival. Outside, the radio at the Arab restaurant blares out the latest news in Swahili. Ah, that sound, the booming voice over the aromas of red-brown fried maandazi and the tinkle of teacups. Soon boys and girls in uniforms will set off for school. Shops will open. The street will be all a-bustle, and the sun bright and hot.
The tall leather boots of Russell expelled a pong close by and Ramji turned away to sleep.
* * *
The next morning the sky was clear; lugging suitcases, stopping to ask for directions, they lurched to the Square (the thought of the fare in shillings rendering a taxi unthinkable) and from there they took the Dudley bus to the Tech. The amiable yet patronizing letters of the Foreign Student Adviser had guided their applications over the previous twelve months and finally admitted them to the temple of learning, so it was natural in their minds to present themselves to him first. The lanky Mr. Neville was as friendly and easy as they expected. He gave them coffee and doughnuts, introduced them to his assistants, and assured them all was okay and it was best for them now to head for their respective host families, and see you on registration day.
The bus terminal was next to the Arlington subway station. The name rang a bell in their minds: Wasn't "Arlington" the name of that famous cemetery? It would be a wonderful thing, they decided, to see JFK's and Bobby's graves and the Eternal Flame on this, their first day. But nothing like a cemetery was in sight.
"Yes, this is Arlington," said the man at the ticket counter. The traveller's cheques had put him in a sour mood. "You ain't got no American money?"
"The cemetery," Sona said to him, a little too cockily.
The man looked up, examined Sona, chewing his gum vigorously, then spat it out into a trash basket. "Come again?"
"Arlington National Cemetery. We'd like a quick look."
"Hey Jack-o, come over here," called the man, to the porter standing nearby. "Take a look at this pair."
The porter came over, a stooping, elderly black man wearing a cap.
"Know where Arlington Cemetery is around here?" asked the ticket clerk. "Guys here want to go visit."
The porter looked astonished. "What ?" he began, but saw the smirk on the clerk's rice. "Ah!" he said. "Arlington National Cemetery is in Washington, D.C. Yes sir. Washington Express Gate Seven." He pointed.
"I'm going to New York," Ramji said sheepishly.
"Departing from Gate Twelve," the porter said.
"Westport," said Sona.
"For Westport, change at Hartford. Gate Six. But you ain't goin' to find Arlington National Cemetery where you's goin'. No sir." And he headed off, shaking his head.
"New York?" Ramji leaned towards the man across the aisle from him.
"It's New York City all right," said the man indulgently and smiled at him.
Of course, of course, this was New York, finally ... his heart thudding inside him, his face glued to the window. Several times on the way he thought they had arrived, as they approached what looked like a big city, only to speed by it, and he had sat back. There was no mistaking where he was now, what he was looking at. The sheer bigness, the busyness ... this endless maze of streets, its thick and crawling traffic, blaring store signs, littered sidewalks ... awash with people, droves of them rushing from place to place, crowding at the intersections ... or standing idly or doing their jobs selling, unloading, washing windows.... And the Empire State Building, the skyscrapers, where? Only when they were suddenly cruising through sunless streets did he realize that they were right in the midst of them, in between the tallest buildings in the world.
They entered an underground garage of buses and stopped at a numbered bay.
A metal-framed glass door led into the terminal, which he entered following other passengers, his blue vinyl suitcase in one hand, airline slingbag over his shoulder. Almost immediately, having taken a hesitant step or two, and a desperate sweeping look for his host, whom he didn't know by sight, he was caught in the tide of people heading towards the stairway. At the top, after two flights of stairs, he picked a spot to stand, set the suitcase down, and slowly took in the scene. Ahead of him, in the distance, doors opened into a busy street. Behind him, far away, the same. All around him a tumult. Long rows of busy ticket counters; a restaurant and newsstand, a picket line, demonstrators. How would Mr. John Morris pick him out from among this multitude ...
A boy roughly his age catches his eye, starts walking towards him. Friendly purposeful look on the face, but rather unkempt with long hair and torn jeans and a half-open red shirt.... Two other similar-looking characters also converge upon him from opposite sides. Peace, man, says one, another one nods and gives a V-sign, they start talking of war and the military, and companies that make weapons, and he's caught in a barrage of words, a confounding jumble of expressions and ideas. You can be sure it's Buttonhouse ... the friendly company that makes the refrigerators that keep your orange juice cool also makes your friendly missiles ... you know what a cluster bomb looks like ... sharp metal pieces flying in all directions embedding into innocent baby flesh ... or how napalm scorches the skin? ... He's staring at a picture: a horribly emaciated girl running stark naked, face contorted in pain.... There's more take them. Flyers. What? he asks helplessly, recoiling a little. Peace, man, take care, they depart gravely, heading in the direction they came from. Why take care, are they warning me? ... He looks quickly through a flyer. Namasté, a girl's voice close to him he's surrounded, enveloped in swirling swathes of wildly bright colours, red and orange and blue. Namasté. This book contains the teachings of Lord Krishna ... God, the speaker is incredibly beautiful, like a dream girl, blue eyes, long brown hair, tall, and she is dressed like an Indian, in a sari! Do you know of the Bhagavad Gita, she asks. He has the book in his hands, looking at blue Krishna with a flute and the sign of Om ... and all around him a circle of close-cropped guys and angelic long-haired girls in orange robes and saris singing Hare Rama, Hare Krishna ... and the deafening jangle of tambourines ... and the pretty girl is saying ... what? Krishna teaches the yoga of devotion.... What? With a beaming look, The donation is five dollars.... Reluctantly he puts a hand in his pocket ... the cause is good, but this money is supposed to go a long away ...
"No, we don't want the book," said a voice firmly beside him. "Mr. Ramji, I presume?"
"How about incense from Benares?"
"No, we don't want that either, thank you."
A round-faced man in glasses, grey suit, medium height. Ramji nodded to him, immensely relieved. "Mr...."
"John Morris. John. Am I glad to see you."
Ramji had expected a taller American, a big man, if only from the voice on the phone last night. Lyndon Johnson-like.
They shook hands.
"Didn't know which gate your bus was arriving at, or which stairs you'd take." Mr. Morris paused, added: "I guess you found out there's at least a couple of buses leaving Boston every hour for New York."
"Yes. I didn't realize that the station would be so ... big," Ramji said sheepishly.
"Glad you made it."
"How did you find me?" Ramji asked.
"Luck. Also there's not many people with your features in this place, and looking utterly lost." John Morris looked at him and grinned. "Good thing, though, you stayed close to those stairs."
He picked up the shoulder bag and showed Ramji where to throw the flyers he still clutched in his hands, after which they set off towards the Seventh Avenue exit.
They crossed two noisy intersections bustling with crowds of people before arriving at a sleek black car in a parking lot.
"The Grand Prix is Ginnie's. I drive a smaller vehicle. But I don't bring the car to work, today being exceptional. The commuter train's more convenient from Runymede."
John and Ginnie Morris. He repeated the names in his mind, recalling the letter he'd received from them only a couple of days before he left Dar. Their sons, John, whom they called Junior, and Chris, eighteen and fifteen years old. He couldn't remember what it was that Mr. Morris did ...
Everything was America now, everything would be America. You could say that word, Amriika, a hundred times without repeating it once, each time would be different, that was the wonder of it. Where did it begin, this place, it simply happened all around him. He couldn't follow his host's remarks, the observations and explanations as they drove on the noisy New Jersey Turnpike, the world's busiest highway, busier than usual today at this hour and hot for the August weather, its toll booths where you flung money into baskets before you could pass, the enigmatic yet chummy billboards, the exits into Hoboken, Passaic, Teaneck, Montclair. Once as a boy he'd read an account in the Sunday papers about the famous Greyhound bus that covered every little corner of America; little did he know that one day he would take a ride on just such a bus and emerge in New York.