If my father were alive and visiting New York, we would start a day with brunch at some little place in Jackson Heights that serves Udupi food. (When we were kids in Bombay, that’s what we did with him every Sunday morning.) Then we’d head out on the 7 train into Manhattan, switching to the 1/2/3 at Times Square and go up to Columbia.
Though I’ve never been a student there, the university has a mythic resonance for my family because Dr. Ambedkar got a degree there
and there is a small memorial to him at the International Studies building. I can imagine my father delighting in the sprawling quad and marveling at the thought of his (and my community’s) mentor walking the campus paths.
We’d walk down a little to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine because I think he’d love seeing the whimsical little (non-religious) architectural flourishes on the columns at the entrance.
Our next stop would be the fountain at Central Park where he’d take photograph after photograph, trying to catch the light on the water and in the sky at every angle.
He’d get my mother to be in some photos and then coax her to smile for the camera. I think he’d love the concept of the group selfie so there would be some of those, with the sprawl of the park behind us. We’d sit on a bench while eating ice cream from a cart and people-watch as visitors and residents from every corner of the world streamed by.
As the lunch hour beckoned, we might get on a bus to Lower Manhattan so he could see the city unfold before us, block after block of office buildings towering over brownstones, neighborhood parks sheltering chess tables and dog runs, schools gossiping next to coffee shops and grocery stores. We’d try felafels near NYU and then amble to the Strand.
For once, he’d be the one receiving books as gifts as thanks for all the years he took us to a bookstore after Sunday brunch and let us pick one book each.
Weighed down by food and purchases, we’d go further south in a cab. (Growing up with almost nothing, he walked and then took public transport as a young man, so he loved comfortable cab rides when he got older and sprang for them when we were whiny kids, too.) He’d start a conversation with the cabbie and they’d soon be talking politics and religion with gusto.
We’d stop at the South Street seaport and marvel at the water. If the ferries were running (or a sailor friend was working on her tall ship), we’d go out into the harbor. Islanders like us are most at peace when we can step into that liminal crossing between land and sea.
On the way back to Queens, if it was late summer, we’d try to catch a match at the U.S. Open in Flushing, recreating one of the many evenings we watched tennis on tv in India. We’d stop at a hole in the wall in Jackson Heights and get some biryani, and maybe even some kulfi, another childhood treat.
At home, we’d go over all the day’s memories captured on camera. And I’d have some more photographs to look at on days like yesterday, which would have been his 82nd birthday.