Friday 9 December 2022

The Lost Kingdom Of New York

New York City skyline with Empire State

For the audio version of this story, click here (YouTube) or here (Spotify) or here (Anchor).

* * *

He emerged from Grand Central and walked steadily.

Rockefeller Center is not Greek, but it suggests the balance of Greek architecture. It is not Babylonian, but it retains the flavour of Babylon’s magnificence. It is not Roman, yet it has Rome’s enduring qualities of mass and strength.

He did not know where, but he had to go. 

Summoned by a longing beyond his reach, he let it control him. Hurriedly, he circled past bystanders marvelling at a towering sight behind him. He shot a cursory glance at that art deco steeple impatiently. A moment later, he turned and continued walking. 

Despite its impudence, despite its audacity, the Chrysler would have to wait.

Nor is it of the Taj Mahal, which it resembles in mass composition, though in it has been caught the spirit of the Taj — aloof, generous in space, quieting in its serenity.

He shuffled north on 5th Avenue, picking up pace with each step. He pushed past pedestrians, drawn to his purpose, delirious with desire.

There is no easy way from the earth to the stars. 

The Taj Mahal lies in solitary grandeur on the shimmering bank of the Jumna River. Rockefeller Center will stand in the midstream rush of New York. The Taj is like an oasis in the jungle, its whiteness tense against the gloomy greenness of the forest. 

He started jogging. He did not stop or apologise when he crashed into a group of people. The St. Patrick's Cathedral loomed ahead, but he kept up the pace. He didn't deem the Cathedral worthy of even a cursory glance. It can wait too. 

He broke into a sprint. 

He swerved left midway through the block, almost like he had to, almost like there was no other option, no other choice, no other purpose.

Rockefeller Center will be a beautiful entity in the swirling life of a great metropolis — its cool heights standing out against an agitated man-made skyline. And yet the two, far apart in site and surroundings, are akin in spirit.

Finally, he saw it, looming like a monolith, framed by the Channel Gardens. 

"The King of New York?" he whispered, fixated on the Rockefeller, fiery in the sunset.

* * *

 "Somehow, from the beginning, mujhe badhe shehron se dar lagta tha."

(I used to be afraid of big cities)

A month before I left Dubai, I decided to interview my parents. 

Frankly, this 'interview' was just a front to probe them about their lives and decisions.  

When I left for university in 2012, I departed as their son, the youngest in the house. When I returned four years later, I gradually matured into an equal, a friend (or so I think). 

It was new territory for me. 

In my entire childhood and teens, the idea of 'home', of 'family', had lapped around a parent-child dynamic. Now it was three adults under one roof. For the first time, I addressed my parents like an adult. For a change, our conversations started to be about them. I asked them countless questions about their childhood. I made them recount memories of their parents, days in school and college, relationships and friends. Spurred with bravado, I poked them to reflect on significant decisions, parenting or otherwise. 

I probed their fears. 

They had always been 'parents': omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. They had spent two decades diligently moulding me into a barely acceptable human. Now, I was back to find the human in them. On a whim, a month before I left, I decided to interview them formally. But it wasn't just an interview for me. I considered it an encapsulation, no, an immortalisation of the last five years.

On a sultry July afternoon, I sat across from my father at our rustic coffee table, 'interviewing' him. In the middle of a story I had heard a couple of times before, he added:

"Mujhe badhe shehron se dar lagta tha."

I looked up in surprise.

My father, fearless, a pillar of strength and composure, my unfailing backbone in distress... 


The man who uprooted a comfortable life twice, once from Agra to Muscat, and then from Muscat to Dubai, each time to get into a bigger city, a bada sheher. The man who did it with solidity on both occasions. With determination and courage, lots and lots of courage. All driven by a desire to give his family a better life. That it was all built on fear, and the desire to avoid ceding the same fear in his sons, needed more courage than I had ever imagined. 

I found it hard to believe. It was so un-parent. It was so undeniably, indisputably human that I got caught off guard. As I collected my thoughts, he resumed narrating his original story. Sensing a brief window, I interrupted him.

"Can I ask, what was this fear?" I asked, watching him intently.

"Bade sheher ka?"


"I used to feel lost."

* * *

Museum Of The Future Dubai UAE

It's 3 AM, but Dubai will never betray the time. 

I'm sitting on a sidewalk at Sheikh Zayed Road. 

The road of kings must be a golden blur of trailing lights. The air in front of me must be rent with the whoosh of cars flying past at speed. Mouths yakking in Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Tagalog or Bengali must be puncturing the air behind me. The sidewalk must be swarming with pedestrians and shisha cafes. No matter how deep into the night we go, the Dubai stretch of the E11 is always alive. 

I have consciously picked a spot where I can see the Emirates Towers. But they must be partially blocked by the fluidic, glistening Museum Of The Future. If I look to the right, I should be able to spot the Burj Khalifa in the distance. 

But I don't spot it. I don't see the towers, museum or the highway. I don't hear the cafe patrons or the soaring cars. I don't see any of it. The Sheikh Zayed Road, the promenade of mighty sentinels, had always evoked feelings of wonder, awe and ambition in me. But tonight, I don't feel it.

Because I'm crying.

Tu bin bataye, mujhe le chal kahi

Jahaan tu muskaraye, meri manzil hai wahi

It's the night before I leave Dubai. I hate the night for it. 

I have to leave. I hate time for its stubbornness. 

One of my closest friends scribbled on a farewell card, "Sometimes the places we love become too small to hold our dreams." I hate that it is true, every bit of it.

I hate that I feel helpless. I feel alone, but I hate that this city, the city that truly never sleeps, is alive around me. 

I feel hollow, but I hate that Dubai will never betray my darkness.

bheeg jaye mere, khwabon ka kafila

jise tu gungunaye, meri dhun hai wahin

* * * 

I landed at JFK Airport, and I was born again. 

All my life, I've just been reacting to the mise-en-scène. I didn't miss Oman, the place or the people, after I left it. Or Dubai when I escaped for the first time. Or Manchester. Or Cambridge.

I thought this time would be different. How could it not be? I had never not wanted to leave, the place or the people, so strongly. I had never felt regret and sorrow like this before. It had to be different this time. The richness of my memories, the novelty of my love, and the depth of my grief would engrave this landmark breakthrough in my emotional maturity. For a person who never cared before, this time, it would be impossible to not care...

...and yet, I didn't.

Just fourteen hours later, as I sat on my suitcase at JFK, watching taxis roll by, I realised I had relapsed into apathy once again.

A Sikh driver got out of his yellow cab, aviators glinting in the sunlight as he strutted towards me.

I landed at JFK, and I never looked back. In the months to come, I spoke of Dubai and thought of it often but never wished that life back, as perfect as it was. It was no longer a part of me. A month later, I tried to remember, relive, and wallow in the richness of my memories. I tried to dive back into the depths of my love and grief. 

But in just a month, I couldn't feel a thing. 

It was dead. 

Gradually, a single thought, pernicious and pervasive, started crawling like dark tendrils in my mind. It snaked through like a vine, accelerating in speed and coagulating in thickness. It took hold, grasping tighter and tighter over the months, and never let go.

That it was inhuman to be so cold, so indifferent, so apathetic.

* * *

I'm lugging up my suitcase in a pre-war walk-up in Upper West. As I stop at a landing to catch my breath, a diminutive wizened man steps out of his apartment. 'I Voted For' stickers pepper his door. A keychain with at least twenty keys jangles at his buckle. 

"You moving in, guy?" he rasps. I nod, still bent over, panting heavily. He asks me my name and apartment and grunts in response. I flash him a smile in between deep breaths, trying to befriend my new neighbour. 

He doesn't smile back. 

He shuffles across and starts descending. As he leaves, I try to slink in some last-minute questions punctuated by my exaggerated panting.

"What's your name?" I huff.

"Everyone calls me Lefty," he barks as he continues descending.

"Where are you from?" 

"Puerto Rico."

I ask no more. He stops, turns around and locks eyes.

"But I've been around New York seventy-three years, guy."

* * *

Woke up today and the sun was shining

I said Mr Sun

Where have you been?

It's my first morning in the city, and I'm out to get a bagel. A line stretches across the block for Absolute Bagels, and I join the rear. I resist the urge to Google the best bagel on the menu. Now that I'm in NYC, I've committed to striking up random conversations with strangers. I tap the lady in front of me.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but have you been here before?"

She's a middle-aged woman with short hair, bright eyes, a pleasant smile and round glasses. She's delighted to hear that it's my first day in New York. She peppers me with questions about Dubai. I struggle to find an opening to question her instead, and I finally get one.

"What about you? What do you do?"

"Oh, I'm just a personal assistant to an actor," she said dismissively, waving her hand nonchalantly. She launches into a question about Dubai's heat like her answer was anything but matter-of-fact. An actor? Is this normal, New York? Do people bump into entourages all the time? It was my first day out, my first encounter, and it was already unconventional by my standards.

"Which actor?" I feign casual interest. 

"Elliot Page."

I make a mental note that this is pushing it, even for my first story in the city. We continue talking about Dubai's heat, Brad Pitt's tweet and Columbia's feat. We reach the counter, and I mimic her suggestion: an everything bagel, butter and toasted, chives and garlic cream cheese. As I pull out my wallet, she taps my arm and says she wants to buy me my first bagel in the city. I resist, but she is adamant. She refuses flat, hands over the cash to the server and hands me my bagel. 

"Why?" I protest.

"I cannot explain it fully, but I had to get it for you. It just feels right, you know?"

* * *

That evening, I was walking outside Madison Square Garden. A neon blue Mustang pulled up on the road. The signal turned green, and the driver revved to make the exhaust sputter like a firecracker.

A black man across the street robotically dropped to the ground and covered his head. 

He hadn't seen the car. He had only heard what he thought were gunshots. A few seconds passed, and he got back up and continued walking like nothing had happened. 

Like it was normal. 

Just routine, duck when you hear a shot, cover your head, say a prayer and carry on with your day.

I got to show you the dark

So you can really feel the light

You know

In just a day, I had seen two different Americas.

* * *

"I have a lot of respect for this city. This city will make you respect her."

I said nothing in return to her. 

My university had launched a free nightly cab service for students around campus since getting shot is always a tangible possibility on any given night in this city. I used the cabs flippantly, spotting an opportunity to 'earn' back some of my investment into this vacuous degree. The campus and surrounding neighbourhoods were assigned a fixed number of cab drivers, so we knew them all. They were local celebrities. 

That is how I met Geneva, an older woman with the vivacity of a teenager. For a year, on many nights, often at the deathly hour of 3 AM, amid rain, snow, or other dangers of the night, she would slide up the street, unroll her window and give me a cheery greeting. Entering Geneva's cab meant that I was safe for the night. By the time I settled in, she was already telling me about her day. She always spoke at length, never unflustered by her passenger's response (or lack of it). 

I never saw her face. I don't know what she looks like, not enough to recognise her on the streets. I can only identify the back of her head, frizzled with grey hair, curls swaying around as she chatted animatedly. A giant surgical mask always concealed her face. The first night I met her, I asked her what New York used to be like decades ago. 

"She doesn't care if you love her," Geneva proclaims, almost lost in thought. "She has the tendency to take your love and throw it right back at you."  

I still said nothing. Geneva settled into rare silence as well. Her words still hung around, refusing to vaporise, sinking deeper and deeper. As the cab trundled down Morningside Drive, I stared blankly into the abyss of the park, pricked only by the distant lights of East Harlem. It was one of those pitch-dark nights in Manhattan, no wind, no cloud, no movement. Just eerie darkness, thick and resolute.

I gazed into the abyss, and the abyss was gazing back. 

* * *

I'm on the 1 train heading Upper West. It's midnight on a Saturday, so naturally, drunk students fill the carriage with their singing, giggling and fighting. It's your classic subway midnight pandemonium. To my left, a young man in a floral shirt and pair of shorts is sitting in silence. He's resting his legs on a giant suitcase, gazing into the distance, lost in wistful thought. 

"Are you flying somewhere tonight?" I ask.

"No." He sees me looking at the suitcase and adds, "I'm a magician. I'm coming back from a show."

Unprompted, he unzipped the front pocket of his suitcase and removed a deck of cards. He gave me an ace of spades and made it disappear. He asked me to look in my pocket, and it reappeared. I didn't tell him I was still marvelling at a better trick. That New York's ability to reveal a new life, marvellous in talent and origins, exotic in dimension, hitherto unimaginable that the 'man-next-to-me-on-the-subway' could be an artist, musician, actor, poet or magician. A new story just inches apart. I didn't come from places where this was common.

That was magic for me. No trick, no simple secret, no big giveaway. That wasn't just magic; it was real magic.

The train screeches to a halt at 110th. He lets me keep the card in my pocket. 

I step out and wave. 

"Wanna see the fastest trick in the world?" he shouts as the doors close. Through the window, I see him put a deck of cards in his mouth. He points to my pocket. I put my hand in to find nothing. As the train glides past, he sticks his tongue out, splaying all the cards against it. Only one card is facing up. 

It's the ace of spades.

* * *

Grief is the price we pay for love.

I first read those words on a pediment at the 9/11 Memorial Garden in London in 2014.

I thought of them again today, seven years later. That day, I read them. Today, I feel them.

As I sat on a slab at Ground Zero on the twentieth anniversary of the horrific attacks, for an hour, I knew the true meaning of poignancy. I could see families of victims standing by the pools, some openly weeping, some resting their heads and crying softly, some caressing the engraved names with eyes closed, some with their heads bowed. 

The 9/11 museum has audio tapes of victims calling their family one last time, reassuring them even though their voice betrays the inevitable. Leaving a message behind for everyone they ever loved as death crept closer and closer. The museum has a backpack that a mom painted for her child's first day of school that she never got home to hear about.

As I sat on a slab at Ground Zero, I felt their sorrow like it was mine. Their grief was so heartrending, so powerful, that it trickled out of them all and coalesced into a layer that permeated the hearts of every person there that day. It was that mother who wept inconsolably in that corner, but it was that crowd, that nation and that world that collectively mourned that day.

I walked up to the memorial. There, framed against the backdrop of the Memorial Pools and the Freedom Tower, I spotted a solitary rose wedged into the engraved name of a victim.

Beside it was a drop that couldn't be anything but a tear.

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hands to left or right,
And emptiness above –
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.

9/11 Memorial New York

* * *

I thought you died alone

A long, long time ago

I went back to Dubai in the winter and right from the moment I landed, something was wrong. 

It was like I was playing a tape of my greatest hits. Everything was exactly how I left it, but I felt detached, mindful of my alienation. That entire month, I could not get rid of that feeling.

When you say goodbye to a place, you don't just say goodbye to that place. It's not just farewell till we meet again to the people, to the places, to the food, to the memories. It's really goodbye. It’s goodbye to the person you were at that time, at that moment, with those friends, at those places, in those memories. It's goodbye to the self you will never meet again.

Admitting it is hard, harder than leaving itself.

Oh no, not me

We never lost control

You come back, and it's not the same. The people remain, the places remain, the food remains, and the memories remain, but something’s different. It’s you. It’s you all along. You feel like you’re watching a video, a simulation, an imprint of what was. A shadow and a thought. Everything’s happening just like it should be, but you’re not there in the moment.

You’re shipwrecked, stranded at sea, lost to the present, detached from the past. 

On the night before I left, I leaned on her shoulder and stared at the skyline. 

You're face to face

With the man who sold the world

* * *

I came back to New York, and I had no memory of the place. 

I had felt misplaced in Dubai, but the city was still in my muscle memory. I had mindlessly slotted right back in. Not once did I think of my daily life in Upper West. The route to campus, the art store on the way, my room, the creaky staircase, the newel, the moulding. Those little things that surround you but never make it to primary thought when you're away.

I came back to New York, and I had no memory of the place. 

For years and years I roamed

I gazed a gazeless stare

It was like I had never lived here.

I went back to Dubai, but I wasn't home. I didn't live there anymore; the part of me that did was in the past, gone, if not dead. 

I came back to New York, but I wasn't home.

I must have died alone

A long, long time ago

Columbia University In New York City

* * *

I'm standing outside Carnegie Hall. I've just slipped out of a rendition of Franz Lizst. An elderly woman walks up to me and takes my elbow. We strike up a conversation. She starts talking about the music, her roots in Hungary, her rendezvous with spirituality, and her time in the Himalayas. Fascinated, I enquire further, my eyes getting wider and wider with interest. 

She seems to enjoy my incessant gaze. She says she feels something in it, something familiar. Like we've met before, if not now, then in a previous century. I smile, but she insists. 

She continues to talk about her date with the divine. She talks about belief and faith. After ten minutes, my friends beckon that it was time to leave. As we say goodbye, she pulls me closer and looks deep into my eyes.

"Very soon, something magical will happen. Something magical, to some people." 

She smiles at me knowingly and walks away.

* * *

How can you not love New York?

The first time I saw that skyline, I felt a surge. It was like a shock, an electric current, a jolt through my entire body.

Despite a year of wide-eyed stares at this city's spires and silhouettes, I still feel it. At sunrise, when a mist envelopes the stone and brick giants, to sunset, when the glass monoliths glisten pink with reflections of the setting sun, I still feel it. 

Despite a year of feeling it, I still struggle to voice it. 

It's a struggle so real, so frustrating, so annoying that I just want to grab the nearest person and share how I feel. How I really feel. I'm convinced even my best attempt would still not do justice, if not destroy the sanctity of this experience entirely. But I want to try, despite knowing that I will fail. I want to try, try, try and try again in hopes that one day someone will see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel.

I want to tell them that New York, not just the city but even the idea of it, is where I feel alive.

That the speed and ambition of New Yorkers is so palpable that you cannot help but imbibe it. That every street has a history so rich that I feel overwhelmed daily. That when I stand at the opposite shores of the Hudson or the East River, the Manhattan waterfront is as big a temptation to me as it was to a young, uncorrupted Robert Moses. That when I walk up the steps of the City Hall, I want to shake my fist at its white Georgian elegance and shout, "No more free lunch!" like Fiorello La Guardia. That when I hear stories of mafia wars in Little Italy, the lores of Hells Kitchen, Fort Clinton, Apollo Theatre, Madison Square Garden, or the tale of the Battle of Mothers against Tavern-On-The-Green, I'm as enchanted as I am inundated. 

That those who say Times Square is too crowded, too noisy, too dirty, too chaotic are missing the point. Amidst the kaleidoscope of digital screens, faces, languages, music and performances from across the globe, Times Square is not a standalone landmark, but at its core, just a mirror.  

That if you had to create a physical centre of the world, mildly representative of the richness of life, of its diversity, of its extremities, then one possible physical manifestation of that unattainable idea could be Times Square. Colours to chaos, cacophony to crowds, digital to dirt, everything good and bad about our world needs to be in Times Square to make it serve its purpose.

That when I crane my neck to look up at the Woolworth, Chrysler or the roof of the cavernous Grand Central, I feel as large as I feel small. That when I look at the Empire State, regal and imperious, I'm overcome by the dreams of people who truly grasped the full reality of human stature. 

That when I look at the skyline, particularly in the moments when I can't see the details but just the hazy silhouettes and the thoughts that made them, I feel shock, wonder and helplessness all in one. I feel like looking and kneeling like Howard Roark. I feel like throwing myself into space, over the city, over that skyline, over this scene.

Over the sky of New York and the will of man made visible.

I want to tell them that the thing I love most about this city is how much it humanises me. 

That this city's head start in architecture, history, food, fashion, theatre, comedy, music, dance or art is undeniable. That this city expands your perspective from Broadway to jazz to opera to comedy to television to pizzas to bagels to bialys is irrefutable. That you could spend every day of your life visiting a new gallery, museum, restaurant or theatre and still be left unsatisfied is inevitable. That from Koreatown to Little Italy to Washington Heights to Jackson Heights to Flushing, you could get a microcosm of hundreds of different countries and cultures in one dense region is insurmountable.

Geneva said this city doesn't care about anyone's love, and she's right. To claim ownership over this city, to call this city your home, is pointless. First, that statement would be ridiculously untrue. This city is unconquerable. It's wild, independent like Holly Golightly, untameable like Shadowfax. To call yourself a 'New Yorker' would mean the same as calling yourself the King of New York. Absolutely nothing.

Second, the city really doesn't care.

Maybe the allure of the unattainable makes the quest so enticing. It makes me restless. It makes me hold onto my angst, makes me want to preserve it, because I've realised I need it. That this city's intractable mysteries keep me sharp, on the edge, where I want to be. 

I want to grab this New Yorker, tell them everything, and still be mindful that I have barely scratched the surface. That I'm bursting at the seams to say what cannot be said, to grasp what cannot be grasped. 

I want to tell them that sometimes in the day I run. I run because I feel free. In a city that is the sublime personification of the furthest reach of the human spirit, I run to move the world. I run at moments when I could have walked, or not at all. I run to catch the train, to cross the sidewalk, to get that bagel, to attend that event, to board that ferry, to meet that person. To write my newest chapter. I run to give life meaning, to give it purpose.

That this is not just a city, but an institution, a dynasty. An empire state.

That sometimes in the day, I run, I run, and keep running as fast as I can, chasing what I cannot see.

I run for my destiny.

* * *

How can you not hate New York?

How can you not hate it with every fibre of your being, with hatred so deep, so putrid, so vile that your heart burns like an inferno?

I want to grab every proud 'New Yorker' and shake them. Shake them to wake them from this self-imposed trance, to make them see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel. 

Shake them till we shatter this grand illusion.

Shake them till they realise that New York is in a perpetual state of decadence, if not already dead. That the Big Apple is a fruit that decayed long ago. That this is Gotham in all the vices, and there's no Batman in sight to save us. That the city with the most 'woke' people is also the one with the most asleep. That this is no longer the city where dreams are made but rather hissed and spat on. 

I want to show them that they could all pack their bags and leave tomorrow, and nothing inherent in the city would ever bring them back. It is the world's most elaborate Ponzi scheme. That the only reason this city is considered the hub of arts, culture and humanity is because of the network effect of people believing it still is. Present-day New York sustains wholly on this self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet, those most indispensable to any city, the ones that give it spirit, give it meaning, give it soul, are the ones it hates the most. 

I want to shake them till they realise that a city's primary objective is to facilitate living. To give people homes, communities and places of leisure. Yet, from stability to serenity to safety, this city gives you nothing. A home lacks everything a home should have. Houses are as unliveable in the summer as they are in the winter. Rents are unaffordable no matter where you go. The subway stations are still unable to withstand an hour of heavy rain. Getting a car is pointless. The subway will either deafen you or not show up at all, never in between. The parks are as suffocating as the streets, and as dangerous at night as unassuming they are in the day. 

That whenever I get an opportunity to get outside the city, whether in the valleys of the Hudson, the mountains of the Appalachian or even by the shores of the North Atlantic, I realise how much this city has changed me. How its personality has latched onto mine like a parasite, twisting and contorting, until we are one and the same. 

That in the moments I squirm out of this city's clinch, I feel a marked lightness, like a burden is off my shoulders. I realise how I never feel calm at night anymore. I realise I've stopped looking up at the blue sky when I walk. I realise I've stopped looking far into the horizon when I sit. How I've got so caught up in the energy, the madness, the chaos of this city that I've lost myself. 

That this city overwhelms you to always do more. To be everywhere, to eat everything, to see everything, to meet everyone. In seducing you to be someone it says you should be, it chips away at your former self. Under the lure of showing you the world, it eats up your soul.

That this city has an ego. It has pride, like an emperor, stubborn in denial, a shadow of its former self. 

That other cities don't strew their streets with filth. Other cities are not overrun by rats. Other cities don't contend with the constant smell of urine, vomit, weed and faeces. That residents of other cities don't function daily on a pulsating substrate of deep-rooted anger. Anger that is bubbling to erupt at the slightest inconvenience.

That the thing I hate the most about this city is how much it dehumanises me.

That I feel dirty within ten minutes of stepping outside, not just physically.  Other cities don't display the frivolity of life and its own cold apathy so blatantly. Other cities don't treat the dead and drugged, society's depraved, abandoned with insouciance, as an obstacle to step over for pedestrians.

That the cost of pursuing New York's depth in history, culture, fashion, technology or arts shouldn't come at a price so steep.

I want to shake them till they realise that a task as simple as walking on the streets shouldn't carry a chance of being shot, stabbed or mugged. I've walked at night in the empty streets of big cities of countries they might consider 'backward'. Cities that don't hold a candle in their eyes to New York. Not once, whether in Mumbai or Manchester, Tehran or Tbilisi, Dar Es Salaam or Doha, not once did I ever fear for my life. No other city serves its people so recklessly, so diabolically, so ruthlessly. That it took a brief trip back to Dubai to remember that stepping out at night didn't always come with lingering anxiety.

Shake them till they realise being a 'New Yorker' is not a badge of honour. It's a target on your back. 

That taking the train from Times Square shouldn't mean you might get pushed on the tracks. That walking in Downtown shouldn't mean you might get stabbed in the back. That people in other cities don't always say 'get home safe' during goodbyes, and mean it. That rape, murder, war and terror should only be a song lyric, not literally a shot away. 

That the value of a life should not be so meaningless, so inconsequential, so pointless.

I want to shake them till they know that I feel as lost in this city as my father did in Delhi forty years ago. That I feel unwelcome. That I feel dirty because this city stains my soul. That I fear this city, but I cannot turn back, spitting on the shoulders of the giants I stand on today. That I am the consequence of the power of an idea, a dream in motion, a thought in effect, decades in the making, generations in sacrifice.

That I hate this city the most at night. I hate it with a hatred so deep, so putrid, so vile that my heart burns like an inferno. I hate it because every night in New York, I'm afraid.

That sometimes, at night, I run. I run as I hear rustling at the corner of my eye, not knowing whether it's a rodent or a man with a knife. I run when I should've walked, or not at all. I run past lunatics, demented and deranged, the ones lost forever to the shadows, expecting a bullet to pierce my back at any second.

That sometimes at night, I run, I run, run as fast I can, afraid to look back, afraid to stop.

I run for my life.

* * *

I'm sitting in Washington Square Park.

On some nights, an unearthly haze descends on Manhattan. A plane of mist unravels over the city, dissecting all the towers neatly in half, their summits lost to sight beyond the fog. It feels surreal, bizarre, a world warped uncannily. 

Manhattan needs the sky.  

The sky is the anchor, a keystone for all these obelisks. It puts the end goal in sight. But on these unearthly nights, you can't see the sky. The towers are now headless stumps. There is no zenith, just an impregnable, suffocating sheet of haze, and the unknown beyond. It's one of those nights. 

Washington Square Park is privy to the ominous. After all, the park was built on a burial ground. The spots where the city congregates daily lie above the bodies of 20,000 souls. The elms under which picnickers sit were used for public lynchings. Paranormal sightings are common, whether at the flickering streetlight to the south, the weeping tree to the east or the bohemian dancing women on the arch. 

It's one of those nights.

You can almost hear the whispers in the wind if you're quiet enough. The whispers of the souls buried underneath the park.

A few months ago, a student was stabbed on campus. Last month, I was heading downtown when a friend called me to get off the train. There had been a shooting at the next stop. A week later, shots were fired in Chelsea when I was ten minutes away from getting there. 

I'm talking to a friend about my near escapes. I'm agitated. This city is playing with the law of averages on human lives.

A homeless man walks up to us. His face is shaded by the darkness, his eyes partially hooded. He leers at me.

A few seconds pass, maybe a minute, maybe an hour, maybe an eternity. I feel a prickle. 

I can hear the whispers again.

He tilts his head and rasps:

"Relax, you are already dead."

He leers at me, and I stare back at the void. I gazed into the abyss and the abyss was gazing back. 

He turns and walks off slowly. I turn to my friend, who is equally taken aback. I turn back at the man.

I had looked away for a second. He could've barely walked a couple of steps.

But when I looked back, he was gone.

* * *

New York was his town, and it always would be.

"The King Of New York?", he whispered, focusing on the Rockefeller, fiery in the sunset.

"By God, I am."

30 Rockefeller Center

* * *

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