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Tilak Rishi, born in India, has been working as a career corporate executive, after doing his MBA. Passionately pursuing his hobby for writing, he also remained a regular contributor to newspapers in India and the U.S. Many true happenings and characters he came across in life, including interaction with former president Bill Clinton, inspired Paradise Lost and Found, his first novel. A family saga, it starts from Kashmir, when this paradise on earth is lost for the tourists who thronged in thousands every year to enjoy its scenic splendor. Terrorists have turned it into one of the most dangerous places in the world. The family is not only a witness to the loss of this paradise, but also to another tragedy of much bigger magnitude. In the aftermath of the partition of India, along with millions uprooted from their homes in Pakistan, the family leaves behind all that it has in Lahore. Starting from a scratch on the difficult path to progress, it still has many joyful moments when along the way it makes a difference in many a life. The survival-to-success story climaxes in California where the family finds the paradise that was lost in Kashmir.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Benchmark Of Urban Oasis!

One of the hallmarks of a happy day is when we view from our second floor window people sipping coffee on the sidewalk bench in front of our house or they just having joy sitting there watching the world around. The perfect resting space for pedestrians on a sidewalk, this bench, actually a combination of three benches, comes complete with a bike stand and is most appropriately placed where people can view the action going on right in front of them. For us from the window, it is often a more interesting and enlightening experience than watching the same old stereotypes on cable TV. At times we get so much attached to some of the persons on the bench, especially the regular ones, that we start missing them if they do not make it to the bench for a while. We can never forget the face of an elderly person who would spend several hours sitting on the bench, but never ever lying on it even when he was there till late in the evening. During all this duration he would never sip a drop of water or have a bite on any snack. Feeling sympathetic for the strenuous routine of this regular on the bench, my wife sent me down one day to ask him if we could share some food or coffee with him. He did not only decline the offer rather bluntly but also disappeared from the bench thereafter never to be seen again. We felt guilty of hurting his ego and learned our lesson not to under estimate the status of a person sitting on a sidewalk bench, no matter for how long a period he may be there.

The importance of sidewalk benches in a city cannot be emphasized more than how the San Franciscans demonstrated their determination to use them. As soon as it became clear that Prop. L, the ordinance that bans sitting and lying down on city sidewalk benches, had passed, the opponents organized some sort of mass sit-down or sleep-in as a response - "Calling all San Franciscans to a solidarity sit-in against the passage of proposition L--the so-called Sit/Lie law. We are going to assert our right to sit anywhere we please by having lunch on the sidewalk benches. The purpose is to hang out, have lunch, be visible, embody TRUE San Francisco values, network with folks about the next steps in the anti-prop L fight and to have fun. Of course getting cited for sitting on the sidewalk is a totally glamorous possibility that we will opportunistically use to the most dramatic effect possible. This is lunch, but it's also a protest. If you can't make it to city hall, sit on the closest sidewalk." It urged participants to bring food to share and also encouraged people to bring their kids along.

In sharp contrast to San Francisco that bans sitting or lying on sidewalk bench, there are many cities that are blessed with neighborhoods that offer cafes, restaurants and small parks with tables and chairs or benches out on the sidewalk. In Washington, D.C. the neighborhood around the historic Eastern Market is a vortex for public life, especially on a weekend when merchants and shoppers sip coffee amidst strollers, kids in sports uniforms, musicians and groups of slightly overwhelmed tourists. One does not have to visit Paris or Vienna to enjoy the sights and sounds of life on a sidewalk. The café and the park bench are universal concepts familiar to foreign travelers. In India, China and most of Asia outdoor life takes on a whole new dimension as entire blocks are occupied by food vendors whose tables spill out into the street. It’s a festival of food and acquaintances at every meal. The idea is meant to enliven the street, to lure pedestrian traffic, to support local businesses, and generally to increase the fun quotient of an otherwise unappealing stretch of sidewalk and roadway.

Mexico City seems to have surpassed every city in the world in emphasizing the beauty of sidewalk benches. It has put up an incredible and practical expo right on the sidewalks of the main street of the city--Re-forma Avenue. It is an expo of BENCHES!!! They had artisans from the country each create a unique bench that was put on the sidewalk. There are perhaps 60+ of them in a 5 block area, and they are great! People come to take photos and actually, they are in use at all hours of day and night. This is an amazing way to bring people together, and get them out even doing some exercise as they walk from bench to bench. Kids play on them. Teens hang out on them. People wait for buses on them. One set of benches is even a game board, so they play chess on them! There are various levels of seating in some of them. They are artistic, useful, and versatile. This is a wonderful idea if cities would like to encourage its people to explore their city, and walk, and relax and visit with each other. Hats off to the Benches on Re-forma in Mexico City!

There is no place better than a sidewalk bench in the city for a foreign tourist to sit and take the true picture of the people there. For many travelers coming to India, poverty immediately strikes them and overwhelms their impression of the country. This is especially true of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta,) whose suffering was painfully highlighted by the work of Mother Teresa. The poverty definitely persists in the West Bengal capital, but left untold in so many tragic travel tales is the joy and exuberance that pushes through, and beautifully captured in impressions of Kolkata by a foreign tourist: “I cannot overstate the beauty of the joy that resonates through the city, day and night where I spent long moments on sidewalk benches with inexplicable tears of joy in my eyes. I drink chai on a bench on the sidewalk, oblivious to the screams of car horns and the bells of rickshaw pullers. A mentally handicapped young man walks by, laughing to himself. A cab driver shares his papad ( a snack) with him, and laughs along; and my heart soars with joy. A rickshaw puller rings his bell for him. ‘Please give this man a chai,’ says he to the stall owner. The owner throws in a cookie as well. The puller grins, eyes bright; he’s lucked out, for a brief moment in his hard life.”

The sidewalk bench with its interwoven mix of cafes, shops and offices, is a place of energy, activity and interaction. The City governments that invest considerable resources on green or open space around the sidewalk benches deserve a big applause because trees and benches beside a pedestrian path are not only good for the environment but also good for the soul. These benches engage passers-by physically and mentally, as well as visually, by providing places to sit and think. Urbanist Jane Jacob captured the value of these interactions best, “Sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.” An occasional place to sit can be more than welcome, even a necessity for someone whose arms are full, who is weary or has a long wait for a rendezvous. For them the sidewalk bench is a benchmark of urban oasis.


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