AT THE beginning of this summer, I finished Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I was supposed to read this American classic in 1978, for my early 19th-century American literature course. I was then in Rhode Island, USA. As it is, I was having a hard time understanding the Puritans coming from East Anglia to settle to the Massachusetts Bay for another American history class. There at the university, sandwiched between the Gothic and Georgian style buildings, was the Independence Hall, a relatively modern campus building where the English department was housed. I was the lone South Asian there.
I was feeling what the group of immigrants perhaps had felt when they first arrived in Massachusetts Bay colony in 1629. My mid-term exams were coming up and I just decided not to be bothered with Moby-Dick and read other materials for the test. I simply couldn’t get in to the quest of Captain Ahab defeating the legendary white whale. I was not getting the central message hidden within all the complicated symbolism and imagery. So I abandoned the book. I barely survived that class.
Forty years after my first taste of American literature, finishing this great book made me feel that I deserved a dream vacation. I thought to myself, I will go to Nantucket Island with my family. Herman Melville was once a resident there. In Moby-Dick, he writes, ‘Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there away off shore….’
We arrived on a hot, grey July day after taking a cooling ferry ride there. The island’s nickname, ‘The Gray Lady,’ matched the mood of the day. There is regular fog over that island. Nantucket’s whaling industry is a thing of the past. Now this island is mostly comprised of the summer vacation homes of upper class elites or, simply put, the filthy rich. According to Forbes magazine, an average house in Nantucket Island is priced at three million dollars. The island is only accessible by boat. Cars are not encouraged to be brought in. We left ours in Cape Cod about thirty miles away.
When we reached the visitor’s centre, all the people we saw were white. Most of the ladies were in their conventional summer linen dresses and wearing weighty gold jewellery. Some traded summer fabric in favour of heat-trapping soft silk. Some wore hand sewn summer sandals embellished by bead work and elaborate hats found only in designer boutiques.
The men following them were in their Brooks Brothers tailored-to-fit polo shirts, chino shorts and moccasins. They looked like regular island crowd, who probably comes here every summer.
The clearly privileged debutantes in sassy halter tops, peasant skirts and ankle boots, were absorbed in checking their iPhones.
Some would refer to this group, superficially, as ‘sand-dune loving, non-recycling, 12-cylinders-driving, hairspray-wasting Republicans.’ What the truth was, I couldn’t know. I couldn’t help wondering whether they were actually millionaires or just resembled the puritanical rich. Some definitely had sad, unhappy looking faces. Most of them seemed made of money.
I picked up some tourist brochures that boasted pristine beaches; three must see lighthouses, a working windmill and a church steeple. That is most of the town part of the island. As I came out I was thinking about an episode of the TV show — The Diatribe of a Mad Housewife/ The Simpsons — in which Marge, the blue haired matriarch, is inspired to write a novel about whaling times. Her inspiration came from a boat painting scene of Moby-Dick that hung on her living room wall. In this satirical parody, the Simpsons portray the American working-class in an epic — a class that would be considered misfits in Nantucket.
As I was walking, I could also spot some of the places that matched the scenes from the movie ‘Crazy Summer.’ The conversation shifted and we were talking about the beach and going to see the ocean. Then, there was an announcement that the ocean was under shark watch. That dampened my husband’s mood and not mine. We came all the way to this island that was once famous for whaling. And now sharks were spotted. Is that any reason to spoil a vacation? I finished Moby-Dick and I was on Melville’s island — and I was going to make it a happy vacation for us.
Who said that on an island with so many rich people, one cannot have a good time? I was not about to be put off by the island’s flaunting of the rich. I am a woman and the stores were surely going to be a treat. Who doesn’t like to go to nice restaurants? Besides, Nantucket is also an artist’s colony. There were new exhibits going on.
Whaling may be done now, and handmade candles made with whale oils may not glow anymore in those 18th century cottages. Not to worry. The newly renovated whaling museum is a must visit site. There is a 46 foot skeleton of a sperm whale that washed ashore, dangling from the ceiling. It was hung in a 3-D fashion, and the floor painted to resemble a choppy sea. Americans work to replicate everything.
Every step of the way, Nantucket felt like a closed world. Where was America’s ‘melting pot’? I tried to think of lighter things in order not to think about the ardour and greediness with which the island seemed to block off outsiders. After all, it is a beautiful place to be. We were there to have some fun — not to be tortured by the existence of sheltered, closed people. We could make it our own, without getting attached to anything there. That is what most visitors do, anyway.
Then supper time came. We found a very crowded restaurant, and got seated on the terrace overlooking the ocean some distance away. Even after living here for four decades, it was hard for me not to notice that we were the only non-white table. Across from us, seated at a big table, was three generations of islanders in their best dinner ensembles. The women’s necks and hands gave off the lustre of rocks, intense enough to blind a person. I heard the patriarch, if you will, commanding the Mexican waiter (the only one there) to bag one dish for his dog because only the dog would eat it.
I made a decision right then that, for the rest of the week, I was not going to think that I am somehow between a rock and a hard place. I wasn’t going to waste a moment thinking about Karl Marx’s theory of how social status and prestige help maintain class distinctions. I convinced myself some of the islanders would not look so distinguished without their inherited wealth. I may not be one of them, but I most certainly did not belong to an ‘underclass’ watching them from the sidelines, wondering naively about the pomp and mystery surrounding the rich. I wasn’t there to participate in watching some great American pageant from the curbside.
Contrary to some beliefs, I do not think the rich in America have created their own super race. In a financial magazine, I once read, ‘Rich is defined as a person with buckets of money — with that kind of financial freedom they can buy what they want and when they want.’
Next day, I walked past those people, and left the curiosity to others. We walked through town, amidst cobblestone streets where grey shingled homes sit behind white picket fences. Tacky-looking mansions were plentiful. We then headed out of town, for a three mile walk to the sandy beaches. On the way we saw some of the whalers’ homes that are still preserved from Melville’s time.
At dusk we spread a blanket out and watched a literally picture-perfect sunset. Three weeks ago, on that July evening, the sun showed its true colours, of orange and red. A few sea gulls flew over me in a noisy melee. The gentle lapping of the waves and the spectacular colours created a perfect harmony. As I watched the sunset I recognised the importance of my attitude, not only towards where, but how I want to live my life.
Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA
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