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Liberty cruise

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on July 08, 2016

Liberty

I really don’t like parties and neither does Bins. Nevertheless, I decide to accept an invitation from a New York friend. Bins says, “It’s because, secretly, you’re dying to dress up, eat too much and laugh loudly!” He is so annoying. “Not at all,” I counter. “It’s because the lady who invited me is someone I love and respect. Accepting the invitation even though I don’t enjoy group events is a way of saying ‘thank you’ for all the friendship, kindness and hospitality that she’s shown me over the years!” Bins rolls his eyes and says, “So you’re saying ‘thank you’ by accepting EVEN MORE hospitality??” I tell him he’s just an uncultured jerk who doesn’t understand Asian etiquette. Then I jump on a bus and run off to Hartford yet again.

The reason for the party is that a large group of my sister’s friends are turning 70 this year. One of them had the idea of marking the event with a four-hour cruise on New York’s East River. My sister and her friends are all doctors who emigrated to the US from India, in the 1970s. I’ve met most of them so often that they’ve become my friends too, now.

The morning after I arrive, my sister, her daughter and two extremely excited grandchildren, three and five years old apiece, pack ourselves into my niece’s car and set off. It takes three hours to arrive at the modest little hotel where the five of us will spend a night, along with other invitees. There’s a tiny Ganesh-shrine by the front desk and the man behind the counter appears to be Indian — but who knows? He might just as well be Turkish. Alas, there’s no elevator, our rooms are on the second floor and we’ve got enough luggage to require four trips! But the rooms are clean and have all the standard amenities: fridge, iron, hairdryer, coffee-maker and excellent shower. We’re happy.

We get to the dock at 6.15 pm as requested. My sister’s friends and families have already gathered, a colourful, boisterous group despite the white hair and broadened girths. Silks and diamonds are very much in evidence but they’ve been earned through 40 years spent in hospitals and surgical theatres, supporting families back in India, putting children through élite colleges in the US. We board the gleaming, double-decker boat at 6.30 pm on the dot. The friendly white-uniformed staff are extremely safety-conscious as they help us on and off the ramps. There’s a second party on board and as the evening progresses the two groups gradually merge. Soon we are singing along and dancing all together.

Standing upstairs on the open deck, the wind whipping our hair, we motor slowly past Manhattan. The famous, iconic buildings look like a giant’s toy-box of amazing shapes. Just before turning back, we circle the Statue of Liberty. She is beautiful, but her expression is severe. Her bright lamp seems so small and brave against the gathering night. Freedom is still the privilege of the lucky few, while hunger, terror and injustice rule the world. Though I’m surrounded by friendly revelry, the statue’s significance sends shivers down my back. Her work is never done, I realise.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, in this weekly column

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Published on July 08, 2016
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