The virtual apple

Jul 26, 2013, 08:59 IST | Malavika Sangghvi

On this trip to New York it strikes me that there are in fact two cities that its residents inhabit simultaneously: the brick and mortar, glass and steel one that they can touch and feel and see

>> On this trip to New York it strikes me that there are in fact two cities that its residents inhabit simultaneously: the brick and mortar, glass and steel one that they can touch and feel and see. And the other virtual city that encloses them and keeps step with their every impulse in a kind of invisible grid of information and intelligence.

Here’s how it works: want to go from Brooklyn to Manhattan? Consult the subway website, pick the best train that will get you to the stop nearest to your destination, then, find the nearest subway station to take it from, then go to Google maps and work out to the exact square inch how far you are from it, the route to get there and how long it will take by foot, taxi or bus. At the station top up your Metro card with your credit card electronically and then when on train settle down to watching a film on your hand held device, which you have previously downloaded. The station you need to get off at is indicated on a screen opposite you and lights up conveniently as you travel. Glancing at the display you know exactly where you’re going, how long can doze off for, or when you will be reaching. Once alighted, you switch back to your handheld device for a map of where you are and where you need to go. Need a cafe to catch a bite in? Yelp will give you a list of all the places in the area, their address, phone number, customer reviews and price information. A store to buy a particular item? Type your requirement into Google. A film you want to watch? Consult the TimeOut site and find the nearest cinema and its reviews then back to Google maps to see how far it is in minutes, book your ticket on the net, pay for it by credit card and show up. Or just order it on Netflix if you prefer to spend a quiet evening at home that day. Of course, you can order a pizza or any other food you desire before you reach home or ingredients to be delivered if you’re in the mood for cooking and then you can access recipes that you might want to try.

And so on and so forth. Any wonder then that people in NYC walk around the city with their noses buried deep in their cells while pounding its pavements? They have to: while their feet walk on one surface their eyes and brains focus on another.

Saare jahaan se achcha
>> But boy is this place expensive. The air you breathe, coffee you drink, film you see, household aids you buy every thing is expensive, multiplied by that iconic RS 60, with tips, and then some! And so very soon after your hard earned money disappears into a blur of goods and services that you can hardly remember, you know it’s time to head back home. Home to the rains and affordable coffee and cabs and movies. Home to TV news that you understand and the mango seller down the road, the daily bai with her daily woes and the daily catastrophes of the city. Cash down, a head full of happy memories and experiences and a new understanding of New York — it’s time to come home.

The human touch
>> But if all this gives the impression that the human factor is missing in the city then think again: New York is all about its people. Florid silken tongued Italian waiters, garrulous Pakistani taxi drivers, insidiously caring Bangladeshi cashiers, brooding black men who go out of their way to be chivalrous, genteel wasps involved in the world of letters and art who bend over backwards to obliterate all traces of the ugly unlettered American, well-heeled Indians who dominate the Upper East and West side, hipsters of every colour and shape who catch every new indie film in town and who know of every of art opening in Soho... And all, each one of them, engaging and engaged, eager to share, talk, divulge convey discuss and share.

Of course, given that they have so much on their plates, so much on their minds so many balls to juggle and those two cities to inhabit (the real and the virtual) caught at the wrong moment the average New Yorker can be tetchy. She can snap. She can be churlish and surly and even rude. The best antidote to that? Some laid back Mumbai humour and a display of unexpected grace and good manners. The New Yorker is a sucker for, is starved of gold standard blue chip Indian tehzeeb. Show them a bit of ‘after you please’ and ‘thank you so much!’ as they rush around trying to make their lives work and watch them melt in gratitude or fall at your feet in wonder. Manners win the day in New York.

The little things count
>> For too long people have compared the Big Apple with the Big Mango: New York with Mumbai. I cannot see why. Yes, we have the crowds and the buzz and the commuters and the high rises and the stress. But where are our parks? Where are the outdoor spaces where families can go to on weekends? (That little strip on the western coast that passes for a beach doesn’t count!). Where are the cafes, the street fairs, the open-air art installations, the great museums, the amenities and infrastructure for the ordinary people? Above all, New York is user-friendly. It works.

Unlike Mumbai, New York is full of parks where families can spend time together

For all. Order a WiFi system in your apartment and the person arrives at the appointed hour, sets it up, leaves. And the damn things works like a dream. No having to call complain, beg, plead, tear your hair out or threaten if it stops working. It works. And if by the smallest smidgen of chance the goods or service you have paid for don’t, a recent experience I had with a satchel is as good an example as any. A leather satchel I buy at a well-known store falls apart pretty rapidly. The zip, the handle, the pockets. For days I rue the purchase. I wonder if there is a mochi who will fix it. I have saved all the little bits and pieces that have fallen off. Then, a New Yorker friend suggests I take it in, “They’ll exchange it,” he says. “They will?” I ask incredulously. “Why would they do that?” But curious about this new shopping experience I do. Not even to the same store, but a branch of it. I have brought the bill. But that’s just a formality. The girl at the counter apologises not once but six times for the lapse. No questions asked, no excuses, no blame, no paperwork or forms to fill or justifications — just many heartfelt apologies for the trouble their product has caused me. Would this ever happen in Mumbai? 

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