Niagra: the turbulent and the tranquil

Niagra: the turbulent and the tranquil
Manoj Das

It was magnificent. But the multitudes that thronged the Niagara Falls had little time to appreciate its beauty. But can the activities around it push its grandeur to the background asks MANOJ DAS.

“Why do you wish to visit Canada?” the Canadian visa officer in an American city asked from the other side of the counter. It was a routine question. “To see the Niagara Falls,” was my answer. She showed no reaction as she stamped my papers. She must have been as familiar with the answer as with her rubber-stamp.

But the question I encountered next, from a headmaster-like Englishman on the sofa beside me at the lounge, was of a kind I could very well have put to myself: “Why do you wish to see the Niagara?”

To be honest was the best course. I told him how, upon my return from the U.S., on an earlier occasion, a smart little boy in India asked me if I saw the Niagara Falls and on my replying in the negative, murmured, more as a soliloquy though, “Why then did you go?”

I do not know whether or not the gentleman appreciated my apology. His gaze fixed on the wall before him which displayed a large picture of Niagara at night, said, “I visit Canada almost once every two years, but never go to Niagara. Why?”

I hoped he did not expect me to ask why. Indeed, he did not. “Because everybody goes there!” he said and stood up and surveyed me.

“Everybody wishes that everybody else should not…” But he did not wait for me to complete my statement.

By the time my host, computer expert Arun Mishra, and I checked into a posh hotel it was early in the night. This is still the American side of the Falls. We drove, after a brief dinner, to our destination. After parking the car, we walked a kilometre or more, through light a shade, and along the bank of the Niagara already clearing its throat for the final roar at the Falls.

It was approaching midnight and not a soul barring us, was to be seen. No sound, barring the water’s gurgling, was to be heard. Tall trees and their foliage – originally planted to shut out the jarring buildings from the visitor’s view of the Falls – seemed charmed by that wonderful harmony of sound and silence.

And then we had the Falls all to ourselves, only a few yards from the protective bars on which we leaned, raising a mist against an assortment of mild colours imparted by an imaginatively manipulated illumination.

In the 18th Century, when America itself was waking up to its natural treasures, the well-known Swede naturalist and explorer, Peter Kalm, one day stood, probably exactly where we stood tonight, and wrote in his Journal -one of the first Europeans to write on the Falls: “The effect is awful, tremendous, enough to make the hair stand on end.” (A Species Of Eternity, by Joseph Kastner)

I do-not know about Arun – for this was by no means his first visit – but the effect on me was similar to that on Kalm.

And I had every reason to thank Arun for having guided me to that memorable nocturnal moment, for, it was never to be the same from the Canadian side the next morning. It was panoramic, with both the American and the Candian Falls manifest in their full glory.

Cannot the authorities change the latter’s name from ‘Horseshoe’ to something better? To call this wonder by such a name is no better than calling an item of food Hot Dog). It was magnificent and as grand as the Grand Canyon, but it also rendered a bit sensible the headmasterish gentleman’s grudge and it could have reminded me, had I read it by then, a few lines from Morris Bishop’s poem “Public Aid for Niagara Falls”:

“There I stood and humbly scanned
The miracle that sense appals,
And I watched the tourists stand
Spitting in Niagara Falls.”

A great deal of effort, spread over two centuries, has gone into the protection of the Niagara Falls. The early pioneers of the movement for saving the Falls from industrial exploitation, pollution and encroachment of its environment wanted it to be a place of peace and serenity and not of entertainment. “They were opposed to any attempt at fancy landscaping… because they felt it would tend to distract visitors from the natural scenery. They were equally opposed to such developmental proposals as a handsome restaurant to be located on Goat Island just above the falls…” (Frederick Law Olmsted by John Emerson Todd).

Posterity has not been able to respect their love for the environment. There are fancy shops and vendors galore and bars and restaurants.

We too sat in one of the restaurants overlooking the Falls. Throngs of tourists and pairs of youngsters around us were talking excitedly. “Would you like to buy a poster showing Marilyn Munroe? She acted in the film “Niagara,” shot on location here and she lived just therel” a guide was enlightening a group. A serious looking man was citing someone’s worldly prudence: “Billions of gallons of water fall everyday!” a guide told his valued client.

“At night too?” asked the client.

“At night too!”

“Are there buyers for the sight at night?”

“Not many.”

“What a colossal waste!” commented the client.

I liked the anecdote. I also liked the song someone began singing, though with a wrong accompaniment – a few giggles. They were eating, gossipping, drinking, taking pictures, kissing and doing so many other things, but I wondered how many were marvelling at the spectacular Falls.

And that made me suddenly conscious: What was I doing myself?

A brochure informed me that while the American Niagara Falls plunges vertically to a depth of 70 to 110 feet, the Canadian Falls leaps down by 170 feet. The latter’s impact goes farther 180 feet down before it is checked by the rocky bottom of the pool.

That gave a clue. Just as the Falls makes a marvellous spectacle outside, it can also create an invisible action within. Yes, it can, despite the multitudes around. For, if the Niagara shows no sign of being bothered by the crowd, why should any individual, if he or she could be absorbed in its impersonal grandeur?

(Source: “The Hindu”, Sunday, June 27,1999)

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About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.