Talking Mahatma Gandhi statue at Union Square, phone booths narrate stories at Times Square

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NEW YORK – It’s becoming a chatty city. Statues talk to you at the press of a button; phone booths narrate immigrant stories, when you pick up the receiver, get ensconced in a private world of how others made it, struggled, in America. It’s a déjà vu moment: audio recordings speak languages you understand, and some, you don’t. Yet, the powerful feeling of being privy to life that opens up unabashedly, like a mimosa plant unfurling its leaves when touched, is a powerful experience.

There are three refurbished phone booths at Times Square – those antiquated enclosures requiring quarters first installed in the 1980s, now decommissioned from streets – where you cannot make phone calls, but instead listen to a set of 70 different stories, lasting from two to 15 minutes, in English and select native languages.

Immigrants from around the world, including from Bangladesh, Tibet and China, who now call themselves New Yorkers, narrate secrets, confessions of ordeal of settling into America. A phone book in each of the booths, trace the history of communities covered.

The interactive art installation is the brainchild of Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi, and introduced by Times Square Arts, entitled ‘Once Upon a Place’. The stories can be heard through September 5.

It’s a moment to be transfixed in a city that’s already roaring, humming 24×7 in a cacophony of noise, music, languages; cascading, enveloping from all around. Static-looking helicopters hovering in the sky; raucous, nonstop traffic; strangers whizzing past, talking fervently on mobile phones, conversing with companions, street musicians competing with pop and rap tunes wafting from storefronts.

It’s better to get used to different languages, in the cultural melting pot of the world.

According to the Pew Research Center, by the year 2065, one in three Americans will be an immigrant or have immigrant parents. In New York City currently, more than a third of the city’s residents are foreign-born and close to 800 languages are spoken across the five boroughs.

From one of the booths, I listened to a few stories narrated by immigrants. I was taken back in time, remembered the times in Delhi, Washington, DC, New York City, other cities, growing up, when I frequently used these once-upon-a-time ubiquitous booths, which afforded privacy within its fiber glass walls, in full public view of those outside it.

I got some hard looks from strangers as they walked past my booth: perhaps, wondering if I’d lost my cell phone, or maybe I’m one of those kooky guys looking for a sauna bath without paying to get into a bathhouse, dressed as I was, in a jacket on a hot, summer day.

Later this week, on Wednesday, there will be yet another interactive art project launched in the city, ‘Talking Statues’, where dozens of statues will talk to visitors when they press a button – unleash a recorded message from an actor – including one giving a voiceover for Mahatma Gandhi, at Union Square. The project was a hit in other cities, including London and Helsinki, and now makes it to the Big Apple.

It’s the same statue of Gandhi which every year gets garlanded and visited by officials of the Indian Consulate in New York; bhajans are sung, on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanthi, on October 2. Gandhi will not only ‘talk’ in English, but in Hindi too.

For those who like total privacy, yet want to be part of a public art project, there’s the current ‘Om’ exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art, where one can climb up to the top level of the museum, and say the word ‘Om’ in whichever way you want inside a sound-proofed glass enclosure, from a long-drawn out soulful rendition to a whisper, perhaps.

Your rendition of that ‘Om’ will become part of all the other ‘Oms’ being recorded by the museum.

 

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