Friday, July 05, 2013

`The Night Seemed to Him Portentous'

On Thursday, my first gaye holud – literally, “yellow (or turmeric) on the body,” a Bengali ceremony held two days before a wedding.  My son and his bride-to-be, dressed in Bengali fashion, were daubed on the face with gritty turmeric paste by dozens of guests, and fed fruit and confections with a fork. They were seated in the living room of the bride’s parents’ house in Queens. I sat beside my son and was the amused recipient of gratuitous turmeric daubing and blueberry-eating. The ceremony is not solemn, not even formally religious, and I saw people laughing whom I had previously assumed were incapable of even tight-lipped titters. The odd intimacy of touching and feeding, the suspension of conventional social rules, released the straight-laced from decorum. 

My son drove me back to my hotel, past Citi Field and what remains of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The parks along Grand Central Parkway were already packed with people awaiting the Fourth of July fireworks display. Back in my room, still smelling of turmeric, I sat on the bed and watched the pyrotechnics. It went on for hours, sporadically, until almost midnight, joined by sirens, car alarms and a drone I couldn’t identify. John Cheever writes of a character living in New York City in his story “The Pot of Gold” (1950): 

“The peculiar excitement with which the air of the city seems charged after midnight, when its life falls into the hands of watchmen and drunks, had always pleased him. He knew intimately the sounds of the night street: the bus brakes, the remote sirens, and the sound of water turning high in the air—the sound of water turning a mill wheel—the sum, he supposed, of many echoes, although, often as he had heard the sound, he had never decided on its source. Now he heard this all more keenly because the night seemed to him portentous.”

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