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Showing posts with label chicago. Show all posts
Showing posts with label chicago. Show all posts

Sunday, January 11, 2015

My Friend, Prakash Desai

Too Precious to Die

Prakash Desai basically knew everything and everyone accepted this…until I came along one cold February evening in 1977. He was  a distant cousin, who staked a claim on me as an annoying older brother; a Nehruvian socialist, who believed in the commanding heights because he hated private enterprise; a member of Baroda’s famed Renaissance Club that had little do with the arts and culture but more inclined to the worldview of Lenin and Stalin. He was as amazing a mass of contradictions as his beloved higher Hinduism he wrote copiously about.

I challenged him on all counts and he patiently heard me out, only to yell at me about my capitalist mindset and, he probably died on January 6, 2015, believing I hated the poor. “Not the poor, Prakash,” I would say to him of an evening in his study or in my garden in Chicago, “but against poverty that your stupid statist system created and thrives on.” He would fly into a rage, “Mr Rajiv Desai, you are in the presence of an advocate of compassion and equity; take your goddamn capitalism and shove it.”

“OK, Prakash,” I would say, “Lighten up. Let’s just have another drink.”

For all of that, he was a bon vivant. In his bar, there were the finest wines, the choicest whiskeys and he mixed a phenomenal vodka martini. Always well dressed, perfectly trimmed beard and thinning hair ever since I knew him, he was charisma personified. He was always Olivier while I was looking at Sean Connery. He was not always but sometimes infuriated when I teased him about taking the boy out of Baroda but never the Baroda out of the boy.

Baroda was where we both went to school ten years apart; he embraced it while I was much more about Bombay, where I grew up and Surat, where I was born. It also happened he was related to me through my father’s family of traditional middle-class Gujarati Nagar Brahmins from Baroda; my Surat connections were wealthy influentials that participated in the freedom movement and had national and international connections. Plus, as I told him, our (Surat) food was French to my paternal family’s (Baroda) food that was Slavic by comparison. “And in any case, Prakash, I’m from Bombay where we were urban sophisticates.”

For 38 years Prakash and I jousted on ideology and lifestyle. He had friends who would create and spread stories about me. He even co-opted not just my wife but also my mother and her sister. “Prakash is right,” my immediate family members would say, “Rajiv is very ‘aristocratic’ in his demeanor.” He also said I was more a Christian than a Hindu. In that sense, he was a Gandhian satyagrahi because he knew how to provoke.

It took me a few years to realize that he was a keen psychiatrist because he analyzed my every response to conclude that I was alienated from my father’s family, from my Nagar Brahmin origin and from the larger Hinduism into which I was born. He also said I embraced Western thinking at a very tender age because of the Theosophists on my mother's side of the family, Surat and Bombay. And therefore married a Goan Christian woman from Ahmedabad. Gujarat.

In my view, he was a phenomenal psychiatrist with an amazing understanding both of the body and the mind. When we were not fighting ideological battles late into the evening, he laid out in crystal-clear terms the sources of my health and conduct on any given issue, personal or professional. He always had not just time but insight…he almost always hit the nail on the head.

I still remember vividly one evening four years ago when my mobile phone rang in the pub at the Delhi Golf Club. I was with friends and excused myself to walk out to the deck. It was Prakash. He told me he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. I was benumbed. As I went back to our table, my friends saw there was something wrong. I told them.

Fast forward to January 6 this year: my mobile phone rang; it was my friend Satu, who the world knows as Sam Pitroda. I was at a friend’s place to dinner. I walked out of the room. Satu said two words: “Prakash died.” I said I’d call him back and collapsed into a paroxysm of grief and tears. It was not unexpected, of course but nevertheless it shattered my consciousness. Just as I did four years ago, I walked back in a zombie state.

How can a friendship disappear…just two phone calls?

Prakash, as I began, knew everything…the mind, the body, the spirit. Now he’s gone and all I have from him is a millionth of his knowledge, a micron of his wisdom. What I do have is some understanding of his compassion and his mighty humanity. Everyone should be so lucky…to know Prakash was to get to know yourself and the world.


Farewell, my philosopher king!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


‘Tis the Season…

Days of Future Past

Some sort of a sweet foreboding sweeps over me in this season of glad tidings and joy. I get transported back to Chicago when our daughters were still in the single digits, age wise. Especially the music and the warmth, even though the temperature outside was four Celsius below zero. I think back to the days, hoping with my girls for a white Christmas so they and their mother and I could build a snowman or at the very least, throw snowballs at each other or my girls could make angels in the snow.

Christmas Eve, we sat at the kitchen table while Mom baked cookies and the girls helped. The stereo played “Jingle Bell Jazz” and we sang along about Rudolph and Frosty and sleigh bells. We ate the cookies, warm from the oven with hot chocolate to drink. “Dad,” the girls chorused in unison, “we have to save some for Santa Claus.”

So we put a bunch of cookies and a glass of milk on the kitchen table, I snuck a scotch and we ate Cornish Hen stuffed with chestnuts with a side of  boiled sweet potato  and topped it off with Mom’s fabulous dessert. And we said to ourselves, what a wonderful world! We stared longingly at the presents under the Christmas tree in the living room, bundled ourselves and drove to church for midnight mass.

Coming back, we fell upon our presents. Thanks to their mother, the girls got environmentally friendly presents like wooden Scandinavian toys while I got them crass American gifts like a cat and a robot that responded to voice commands. We still have the wooden toys that our granddaughter, Kiara, plays with.

Decades later, we wonder what gifts we can get for our granddaughter. We wanted to get her a pedal car but it wasn’t available. A store in Khan Market ordered one for us but when we went to pick it up, it was shabby and seemed to have been a sample piece, dirty and tacky. So our big plans for Kiara fell victim to the shoddy salesmanship of India’s disgusting, two-bit retail sector.

We banished the bitter experience aside to focus on the season. Christmas is about giving and receiving but most of all, it is about family and nostalgia. It’s a time when we put aside the cares and demands of reality and plunge into the world of Rudolph and Frosty and Santa Claus to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year. My hope is in the grim reality of India our granddaughter  will actually believe in Santa Claus, like her mother and aunt did when growing up in Chicago.

As always, this Christmas Eve, we attended an early mass at the Vatican church in Lutyens Delhi. As always, we heard the proclamation of the mystery of faith as the choir sang “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The idea of a savior to guide you through the thickets of ethics and morality is seductive, even for gray-haired men who value rationalism.  The quid pro quo is faith. In my understanding, this savior asks you to believe in compassion and communion. I’m good with that. So I’m happy to go to church Christmas Eve and participate in the rituals that celebrate peace and goodwill.

Amazingly even our daughters, who are like me: rational skeptics, always come to church Christmas Eve...our younger one comes all the way from Manhattan’s East Village.  To them, it is a family tradition to uphold. They dress up and accompany us to the high mass, just to be part of the concelebration. For years, they have come to midnight mass with us; the Vatican service is much earlier at 8 pm and that works well for the party animals we all are. Enough time to eat, drink and be merry and still be ready the next day for the decades-old tradition of Christmas lunch at our house.

When you think about it, the appeal to faith and tradition is an uplifting experience. The music, the food, family and friends and the dollops of camaraderie and nostalgia that seem to overwhelm the season make you soar above mundane cares. If that ain't spiritual, I don’t know what is.  Listen to “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” and let the eyes tear up; a tighter hug; a huge kiss; a warm embrace; mulled wine; a special table; family and friends. If that ain't spiritual, I don’t know what is.

Above all, Christmas is about continuity. We still make the sweets my daughters’ grandma made and the same food, if inflected with post modern fusion. We listen to the same music, traditional, jazz and classical, except on a state-of-the-art music system. The Christmas tree is the same except the ornaments now include little cutouts made by our granddaughter Kiara plus the lights are nicer.

Christmas is also about the passage of time.  Just recently, at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, a South African commentator told the BBC that in Africa death was not just about mourning a loss but also a celebration of ancestors. “Mandela has become an ancestor,” he said, “and that is a cause for joy.” Christmas is a reminder that if you keep the faith and continue the tradition, you will too become an ancestor. For us, Christmas evokes my wife’s mother who carried the standard and became an ancestor.

On this foggy Christmas eve, when Santa’s on his way, my fervent hope is my wife and I become ancestors, remembered and honored…not because of any achievements or accouterments but because we enhanced the tradition and kept the faith.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In My Life
All These Places Have a Meaning…



The single dominant memory that I have of Alan Oscar (pictured above on the right) is of him sitting next to my bed, where I was confined with measles. He was my friend and neighbor in Court Royal, an airy old apartment house in Christ Church Lane in Bombay’s Byculla Bridge. It was the 1950s and our neighborhood was the happening place: gorgeous dames, strutting guys, great music, a mind-blowing diversity of middle-class cultures and above all, the green lung of Christ Church School, complete with trees, parks and a variety of birds from parrots on down.

Alan sat with me through my measles attack and made my convalescence bearable. For a lad of not even 10 summers, there could be no heavier sentence than to stay at home while his friends ran riot in the building and around the Lane, playing carefree, pre-teen games. Alan is six years older and was at the time a TEENAGER!  He became my lifeline as I tossed and itched in bed; the wise, mature, compassionate guy among our tight knot of friends in the Lane.

A tsunami of nostalgia whisked me back when Alan and I re-established contact and he sent me this picture. Christ Church Lane was a defining phase in my life after I left the rarefied precincts of Juhu Beach and plunged headlong into bustling, vivacious Bombay’s 8th arrondisement, Byculla Bridge. A celebration of India’s middle class diversity, Nehruvian-style, this wondrous place was the hope that all of India would burgeon to embrace different cultures and lifestyles with strong middle-class values of work and civic pride. 

Within days of leaving the Lane, I realized most of the rest of India was not like it nor headed in that direction. It also became apparent that cosmopolitan Bombay itself was slowly being transformed into the hapless Mumbai about that time. 

Ah…but that’s another story. Staying with life in the Lane is immensely more interesting because it is about relationships in youth between the unlikeliest of people. That these can be revived a full half-century later is a story that began for me in the mid-1980s when I had my high-school friends (St Xavier’s Bombay, Class of 1965) over to dinner at our house in Oak Park, an old, gracious suburb just west of Chicago.

My friends showed up on a hot July evening; many of them I knew since the fifth grade. The reunion turned out to be good fun but I have never met them again. And that’s largely because I didn’t keep up with them. Having had a taste for nostalgic reunion, when I next went to London, I tracked down my friend Aasif; hadn’t seen him since 1973. So nearly a decade later, I caught up with him. We remain the same good friends to this day: he lives in Goa and we meet every other month.

Having never been to Delhi, in 1981, on my first trip, I looked up Anurag Chowfla, a friend from my days at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. In an amazing twist of fate, Anurag is now, family: my daughter married his nephew. Over the years, I also looked up Mark Warner, with whom Anurag and I shared the Shakespeare Society experience in Baroda.

In the same vein, I attended a much larger reunion of the St Xavier’s class of 1965 in January 2008. There I met, among others, my friend Lawrie Ferrao, whom I have known since the fifth grade. He is now Fr Lawrie, SJ and head of the Xavier Institute of Communications. We got along smoothly all over again and he agreed to bless my daughter’s wedding at our village church in Goa the following November.

Over the years, I sought out old friends and re-established contact that I still maintain. Every now and then, I hang out with another Baroda friend, Yogi Motwane, with whom I reconnected in the US…and other friends from the MSU engineering school. Last November, we had a  reunion that attracted other friends from afar: Venky Krishnakumar from Singapore and Harry (Harish) Chopra from Perth. Renewing ties is fun and while it’s not like we meet every day, if I’m in Bombay, Singapore, Perth or New York I will make sure to call them and at least have dinner and a few drinks. Main thing is we are friends all over again.

In my search for old friends, my Eureka moment was when Victor Rodrigues, Bombay’s celebrity dentist, emailed me after he read a column I wrote in DNA. Victor, like Alan, was one of my idols at Court Royal in the Lane. He did this Elvis hair and sang rock ’n’ roll with abandon; his “Hard Headed Woman” still haunts my memory.

Funny though: both Alan and Victor had younger brothers, who were actually my friends. But the older guys became heroes for me because they were TEENAGERS! They had absolutely no need, according to the serious senior-junior hierarchy of those days, to engage with a pre-teen, vegetarian, Gujarati sod.

Nostalgia is a theme that Homer has written about with passionate, poetic elegance; Milan Kundera did a modern prosaic version. Mine is merely a journalistic report that rambles through the 20th and 21st century. There is an echo of Homer in my experiences, though. Despite the allures of Circe and the Sirens, I left America to come back to India; and I had hoped to find the olive tree just as I had left it: older but fecund; familiar but new; and always a defining feature.

Alas, just this morning I received a message from Shawn Fleming Rodrigues, Victor’s younger brother, who has lived in Court Royal forever…he is a friend of my brother, who turned 60 this year. “Byculla has changed so drastically and regrettably not for the better, that I feel that the old Byculla was my past life and this is a reincarnation,” he said.

Everywhere, they honor days gone by with respect and a touch of nostalgia. Court Royal and Christ Church Lane could have been treasured and conserved as a wonderful example of middle class values and lifestyles rooted in cultural diversity.

India seems to kill the past with its brutish reality!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The rise of righteous reaction

Mahatmas with a small m

Through my pre-teen and teenage years, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He was a medical doctor, a theosophist, a Congress party activist and a compassionate human being. He was my ideal.

One summer when my siblings and I were visiting his home in Surat, someone told him I had eaten meat. Grandfather wasn’t incensed or censorious; he simply said “We don’t eat meat.” I was in awe of this man who attracted eminences like Rabindranath Tagore, Annie Besant, George Arundale, among others to his home. When he said something, I listened, deferentially.

However on this occasion his comment rankled. Grandfather seemed to be suggesting that because of caste and religious strictures, our family was vegetarian. Having eaten a mutton samosa at a friend’s house, I thought to myself that his reaction was over the top. I knew he was tolerant and liberal; his extensive library included books by Bertrand Russell and other free thinkers.  Thanks to him, we were spared worst traditions of caste and religion.

This incident haunted me over the years. Since I admired him, I dismissed the episode as a one-off occurrence. Nevertheless, it came back to haunt me in the mid-1970s, when I was living in the US.  Our high-profile India Forum group in Chicago became a magnet for NGOs and activists of all types, looking at times for financial support but mostly to spread the gospel of the jholewala alternative.  I termed it “the rise of righteous reaction.”

The ascent of the righteous activist posing alternative, mostly woolly and impractical models, was like a riptide generated by the Navnirman wave.  Led by Jayaprakash Narayan, a Congress party dissenter, the movement was against the perceived corruption and, in a phrase cherished and propagated by the jholewala, ‘anti-people’ development policies of the Indira Gandhi government of the time.

Training his guns on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Narayan called for “Total Revolution,” a Maoist-style leap backward into anarchy which prompted the imposition of the Emergency in June 1975. Condemned worldwide as a dictatorial regression, the Emergency destroyed the government’s credibility. The Congress Party was defeated in the general election of 1977.

However, even before the first non-Congress government assumed office in Delhi, things had begun to go awry. During what he thought was a revolutionary war; Narayan had called on the armed forces to revolt against the government. That’s when the steady erosion of his vastly inflated stature began, helped in no small measure by the subsequent fumbling and ineptitude of the Janata government which came to power in 1977.

Narayan’s movement had its roots in the margins of the Gandhian movement. The Mahatma’s success with the independence struggle allowed him to exhume and propagate an anti-Western, anti-modernity ideology drawn from his 1909 tract Hind Swaraj. Mohandas Gandhi challenged Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernization agenda, recommending simplistic notions like village republics, self-sufficiency, nature cure and vegetarianism as national alternatives.

Like many students who studied in the US after him, Narayan became a Karl Marx admirer. However, when he returned to India he found his position pre-empted by Nehruvian economic policies that emphasized central planning and nationalization of core industries. For him and his acolytes, it was a short step to the vituperative and impractical edicts of Hind Swaraj.

The Navnirman movement was confused at birth. It combined the anti-Western, anti-modern strains of Gandhian utopianism and the anti-market, anti-constitutional Marxist dogma. This weird and unsustainable campaign fell apart as casually as it was formed.

After the failure of Narayan’s movement, the role of righteous reaction became marginal. The protest against the Narmada Dam project led by a global coalition of NGOs gave it a second wind. Through the 1980s, the Indian jholewala brigade became involved with relatively benign campaigns against child labor, deforestation, and for employment generation, education, healthcare, among others.  

In 2004, the newly-elected UPA government, recognizing their contribution to social welfare and poverty alleviation, sought to co-opt the jholewala brigade into the National Advisory Council (NAC). The NAC’s deliberations focused on welfare and (Citizen’s) rights rather than the legitimacy of the government and the political system. But a more virulent strain of Jholewala activism surfaced with the appearance on the national stage of Anna Hazare and his disciples.

The Hazare protest went further than Narayan in challenging the legitimacy of the Constitution and the credibility of the political system. Sophisticated in the use of propaganda, the rural chieftain and his jholewala acolytes cleverly projected their protest as being against corruption when actually it is a political assault on the UPA government and its leading party, the Congress. Like Narayan, Hazare over-reached and today, his protest has degenerated into a media relations effort.

Is the tradition of smug righteousness so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche that it can only be contained, never eradicated? Who will be the next mahatma (with a small m)?

This Article appeared in the Education World magazine in August 2012 issue.

www.educationworldonline.net

Friday, June 29, 2012

Confusing consumerism with modernity

In a 2007 column, your correspondent worried about the confusion between consumerism and modernity and still remains worried.


Years ago, on a flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh, I sat across the aisle from a woman and her pre-teen son.
The son asked his mother if he could move to an empty window seat. “Just so long as you obey what the captain said: keep your seat belt loosely fastened at all times,” she told him. The boy sat by the window and fastened his belt as he stared out of the window, wonderstruck by fluffs of white clouds floating by and every now and then, another jetliner flying past in the distance.
Meanwhile, the pilot announced we were headed for turbulence. He instructed passengers to return to their seats and ensure their seat belts were fastened. The little boy quickly went back to the seat next to his mother and buckled his seat belt while I panicked silently at the thought of a bumpy interlude.
Cut to November 2007: On a flight from Goa to Delhi, I am sitting behind a family of four. The parents are engrossed in conversation while their two pre-teen boys run amok.
One of them stood right in front of me, noisily wolfing down a bag of potato chips while crumbs fell all over the aisle; when he finished, he blew into it, hoping it would pop, while his brother stood up on his seat, laughing at the older one’s antics.
They screamed and shouted with little regard for other passengers.
The boys’ behavior was irritating but they could be forgiven because they were both under ten years old; deeply offensive was the indifference of the parents. They mostly ignored the boys. The circus continued through the flight; the parents said nothing in admonition.
As the plane came in to land, the two boys got into a fight about the window seat. They raised such a ruckus that the parents were finally moved to do something: they asked the two to share the seat.
As the flight landed and the parents buckled up, the two sons shared the window seat, without seat belts fastened.
Observing such crass behavior, I began to understand why brats grow up to be boorish men lacking civic sense. They drive rashly, be it bicycles, motorbikes or cars; they cross the street anywhere they want; they urinate all over the place; they harass women; and generally make an all-round nuisance of themselves.
The literature says such behavior begins with the family and ends with the school. In India, both are dysfunctional.
The family is, by and large, a totalitarian setup in which children are made to conform to their elders’whims and fancies; schools reinforce conformism. There is no room in either institution for creativity.
Most children end up as nitpicking nerds or mindless conformists; above all, they become seekers of instant gratification.
Meanwhile, the media are pushing similar notions in which conformity is valued over creativity as is obvious from jewelry commercials; narcissism triumphs over civic values: just look at the motorbike commercials.
I once sat through a meeting wherein a senior adman made a presentation about the changes in India to an audience that consisted of senior executives of a global firm. He said India was modernising tradition; we were taking age-old ways and sprucing them up with glitz and glamour.
He confused rituals with tradition and consumerism with modernity.
The brats in the plane are victims of an emergent culture that emphasises narcissism; as long they conform to the family’s whims and fancies, children are in a curiously cynical manner, indulged and ignored.
Neither the family nor schools focus on socialisation, in which children are taught to balance their narcissism with respect for the rights of others.Not all the malls nor cell phones and fancy cars add up to modernity.
Not all the jewelry at Karva Chauth nor big fat weddings and expensive Diwali gifts add up to tradition. India has a long way to go before it gets the right definitions of tradition and modernity.
This column appeared in DNA, November 21, 2007.


Confusing consumerism with modernity

Thursday, December 8, 2011

American Life: Chicago Journal

Chicago: This city has been my sustenance for nearly four decades. I have lived away from it for many years but come here several times a year. It is where I got my first job; bought my first house; both our daughters were born there. I started a community newspaper in the 1970s. It is a legacy and the paper, India Tribune, still exists. I wrote regularly for the city’s main paper, Chicago Tribune. It was my hometown and still remains that in my mind.
In Delhi, I still can get lost in its chaotic streets. Not in this city: I can drive you any place in the blink of an eye. In the midst of Delhi’s daily mayhem, I console myself: I will go back to Chicago soon and enjoy driving. Here, they don’t just follow the rules of the road; they extend it to road manners, showing courtesy and concern.
Driving in Chicago is fun and virtually stress free. As I tool around the city, I find wonderful new restaurants and bars with great music; I also do the rounds of the usual stores that I have shopped at for the past 30 years.
Many of my friends and acquaintances rib me about my Chicago fixation. For me, though, Chicago is about change. The city has evolved into one of the most livable cities in the world. Everything that happens here is about tomorrow. Every time I am here, something has changed for the better.
The swirling currents in this city assure you that tomorrow will be better than today. As such, it is the quintessential American city. It honors the past but embraces the future with zeal and innovation.
I am fortunate. My friends here are on the top of the world. My experience is the high end: the best restaurants, great parties, intellectual engagement; most of all, the freedom and enjoyment to drive all over the city or take the “El” or just walk everywhere..
I used to go back to Chicago several times a year; now it’s maybe twice a year. And I think to myself, how long will you keep on coming here? The answer, much as I dislike it, is less often. My adopted hometown is headed the way of Surat, the buzzing city in Gujarat, where I was born.
Surat was my first love and my grandfather’s improbably large house there was the port in my storm-tossed adolescence. When he died in 1966, I never went back until 2001. In a Times middle, after my visit there, I wrote:
“Thirty-five years on, I feel the swirling confluence of the past and the present: as though the youth who lived in that house had journeyed into the future and returned with a 50-year-old man in tow. Then the youth disappeared into the past, leaving the older man to luxuriate in the warm and fuzzy memories of the house and its people.”
It is the same with regard to Bombay, where I lived in Juhu in the Theosophical Colony; and later in Court Royal in Byculla Bridge. These houses were my anchors; I thought they’d go on forever.
When we bought our condo in a restored old apartment house in Oak Park, the first suburb west of Chicago, I thought we had struck roots. Here, our first daughter was born; then we bought a wonderful house in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district of Oak Park, where our second daughter was born.
We thought we had achieved permanence. Just five years later, we stood crying as the trucks rolled out to take our belongings to Delhi and bade farewell to our friends.
And I thought these were all permanent addresses…
…turns out, there are no permanent addresses.
My recent Chicago sojourn hammered in my head the need to deal with impermanence. Everything you got used to and thought would last forever changes and with it, your ability to adapt.
All that you build around you is to get a sense of security and predictability. You buy a house, spruce it up, eat good food, drink great wines, go on holidays and sup at the fount of plenty. You convince yourself that this will go on and on.
Things change. You may become wise and mature; but the clock of mortality keeps ticking.
On the other hand, all these years, my project has been to catch up and establish new relationships with old friends. In this, I have been spectacularly successful.
Old friends have become new; old relationships have been revived with a new idiom. It is a heady feeling to renew friendships that seemed permanent, got lost in the way of making a living and are now back in a last-ditch battle to give meaning to life beyond professional pursuits or financial achievement.
And it seems to stop this ticking clock and deters ominous feelings about the limitations of time.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com, December 8, 2011.)

Monday, January 10, 2011

American Life 8


Obama’s Problem…

Chicago: It’s cold here, bracingly so. The high was minus five Celsius; late at night as I sit jet lagged on the computer, the mercury has dipped to minus 12 Celsius. With the wind chill, it feels like minus 20 Celsius. There’s a light dusting of snow on the ground and the place looks as pretty as a picture postcard. Tonight it’s going to be “four below,” that’s roughly minus 22 without the wind chill factor. **ck it’s cold!

I love the winter in Chicago. It’s a breeze to drive because all the roads are cleared almost instantaneously. On the Eisenhower expressway, the lanes are clear; I tell my friend, who’s driving us to this wonderful French restaurant, Chez Joel on Taylor Street, in the vicinity of the University of Illinois campus, that I’m convinced the city has placed heaters under the carriageway.

The atmosphere is crystal clear. We saw the lights of the city’s fabled skyline with no fog, smog or smoke refraction. It struck me that despite corruption and patronage, a city could be run and be beautiful as few other cities in the world. It is truly a winter wonderland. And the words of the famous Louis Armstrong song buzzed in my head: “What a wonderful world!”

Earlier that morning, I drove to an appointment on Cumberland Avenue, a major drag that connects the near western suburbs to the airport. This was my everyday drive when we moved to Chicago in the 1970s. It’s been almost 30 years since I’ve driven that route that leads from near west suburbs northwest to O’Hare.

When we moved to the city in the 1970s, we decided to stay in the near west suburban area that comprises Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. These were the first communities out of the reach of the Chicago City Council and as such were autonomous while retaining the character of the city. They were actually an extension of the city and had no cookie cutter developments or McMansions. River Forest was the wealthy one; Oak Park, affluent and aware; Forest Park, the poor cousin.

My office was about 10 miles northwest, near the fabled O’Hare airport, crossroads of the US, the busiest in the world and also, despite the traffic, the most laid back. To get to 7220 West Higgins, I had to drive up northwest on Cumberland Avenue. It was my drive everyday for two years until I got a job in downtown Chicago on Michigan Avenue.

At noon on January 7, I found myself heading northwest from River Forest, up Thatcher Avenue to Cumberland. I fell into a reverie; it was as if nothing had changed in 30 years. For the record, since I moved to a downtown job some 30 years ago, I just never took the route, using River Road to get to the airport instead. As I drove up Thatcher to the light and turned right on Cumberland, past the Elmwood Park cemetery, the sign was still there: “Drive Carefully, We Can Wait.”

Chicago is a city that changes, always for the better each year; but not Cumberland Avenue. As I drove up the street, I may as well have been driving in the 1970s. Part of the reason is that Cumberland cuts a straight path through protected woods. Just past Fullerton Avenue, you begin to find homes on the east side of the street. They were the same, except for the “For Sale” signs stuck on their postage stamp lawns.

“Foreclosures,” I thought to myself. The neighborhoods that line the northern portions of Cumberland are all blue-collar communities with families whose breadwinners worked in machine shops that dotted the northwest parts of Chicago. The people who live in River Grove, Elmwood Park and Norridge, largely blue-collar neighborhoods that straddle Cumberland Avenue are mostly Polish, Ukrainian and other eastern European immigrants.

While almost everything about Chicago has changed including the city itself and its close suburbs, these Cumberland Avenue communities have remained stagnant and are now declining. It’s almost as though the 21st century has bypassed them. I can say this with some certainty because I drove through them nearly 30 years ago and now driving through them, I found nothing changed.

In the event, I was jolted back to the present as my host and I drove east on Eisenhower Expressway to the city to dine in this fabulous restaurant. As I tucked into the streak, I thought about the challenges facing America and how to redeploy the work force.

Then I thought to myself: that’s Obama’s problem. He’s from Chicago, albeit from Hyde Park on the south side. He has to fix it. His former chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel is running for mayor to replace Richard Daley, who has bowed out and whose family has run the Democratic Party in Chicago for nearly 50 years. The mayor’s younger brother William just got appointed White House chief of staff.

For the first time in half a century, there will be no Daley in Chicago’s Democratic Party dominated politics. It’s almost as though the Nehru-Gandhi family had given up control over the Congress Party in India. I contemplate, with some anxiety, the future of Chicago’s politics and its development in the second decade of the 21st century.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Monday, June 14, 2010

American Life 4

Chicago, My Kind of Town

On a bright beautiful spring morning, I landed in Chicago, where I have a family of friends. The airport, the city, the drive to River Forest is full of fond memories. This is the town that I’ve come back to, over and over again. It’s just gotten better and better. What more can I say: I love Chicago.

As I lug my bag across the street and wait in the vestibule for my friend Prakash to pick me up, I wonder about my past life in this city of broad shoulders. Usually, it was my wife and two excited kids, who would welcome me back from wherever. “Love ya, Dad,” my daughters would trill as I kissed my wife. What a warm comforting feeling it was!

In the event, Prakash pulls up to the sidewalk and gives me a hug. I am back home, I think to myself as I snap the seatbelt on, en route the familiar way to the Oak Park-River Forest area, where we lived. As we drive to Prakash’s house in River Forest, I look out the window and go into a reverie of my happy days in Chicago.

It’s my town, the toddlin’ town; I ask myself: why did you ever leave here? The existential question was in my mind as we drove through the familiar streets. What I looked forward to was a wonderful week with friends and the sheer joy of being there. This is the city where I got my first job, bought my first house; where my daughters were born. I lived here in the heady days, when my fellow columnist in the Chicago Tribune newspaper invented the word “yuppie.” It is the city of jazz and blues but also the Chicago Symphony, one of the finest orchestras in the world.

Chicago is where I grew up and learned the lesson of self sustenance. It wasn’t easy but the city permeated me with a sense of optimism: tomorrow will always be better than today. You can do anything, do what you want: that was the city’s ethic. And it has become better and better, leaving me breathless with wonder. This is a city that has transformed itself from the Rust Belt blues into a shining example of urban renewal. On hindsight, it seems to be obvious that Chicago would throw up a Barack Obama.

The reveries came to an end as Prakash pulled into his driveway. We got my bag out and I settled myself into the bedroom that his wife Alice reserves for me. Then I came down and waited over a beer for our fiends to show for the traditional pizza party when I arrive.

We had the pizzas and the beer and talked late into the night. My family of friends was keen to know about India and its ways. They wanted to talk to me about politics, the economy and every other aspect of India; they had many questions. For my part, I was just grateful to be there in the city that I love and the friends whom I miss fiercely.

Clearly though, there was no escaping the questions. I had to answer. But my message was clear: I’m here to escape from the loud ineptitude of India. Nevertheless, development issues like jobs, equity, education and health care are important to my friends. This goes back many decades to the 1970s when we had formed India Forum to discuss and debate the issues.

Among the members of India Forum in Chicago was Satu “Sam” Pitroda, in whose office we held our Sunday morning meetings. In the early 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi appeared on the scene; many of us, including Sam, moved to India in the hope of changing things. What we did not reckon for was the strange ways of politicians and the slimy ways of bureaucracy. They opposed us tooth and nail. Our optimism was singed by the relentless cynicism of the bureaucracy and the political establishment.

In the end though, we succeeded beyond our wildest imagination. From being a basket case, India is now regarded as an engine of global growth. We have “development” in India now but it is subverted into mediocrity by the knot of ignorant politicians and venal bureaucrats. The Indian system is simply unable to deal with growth and the concomitant demands for fairness and transparency.

That evening in Chicago over pizza and beer, old friends met and talked about the issues. As the evening wore on and I was steeped in being there; it was almost as if I had never left. Dreamy as I was, I felt it was late and I had to go home. Our house was barely a mile away from where my friends live. It may have been the beer. I lost track and thought I had to go home to my wife and daughters.

It is so easy within hours of arriving in Chicago to believe I had never left. I know how to get around, driving myself. I know where to shop, where to eat, where to drink. I know the city like the back of my hand. It is a city I proudly call my home. It’s a place where the ordinary citizen can enjoy music, plays, festivals…all free; all in celebration of the citizen.

Back in Delhi, I find the city only works for VIPs. Ordinary citizens have to fend for themselves. Nevertheless, citizens do not cover themselves in glory either. They drive like lunatics, make general nuisances of themselves including urinating on the street and defecating in public view.

One of the issues that never came up for discussion that night was India’s quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But it weighed on my mind. If the various local and state governments and the federal government cannot stop people from peeing or defecating on the streets, never mind the Naxalites or a rational policy governing foreign investors, why would anyone back India for a seat as a permanent member?

A permanent member of the Security Council is expected to have a foreign policy that includes a broad commitment to international community that your policies will enhance the world’s security. For that you need a strategic vision, which is nowhere in evidence.

Which is why India will never have a city like Chicago: aesthetically pleasing, citizen friendly and forever innovative.



Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Thursday, June 3, 2010

American Life 3

New York City: My Daughter’s Hometown


So here I am back again in the city that never sleeps. The airline has a limo waiting to take me to Gramercy, where my gorgeous daughter has an apartment. Her timing was perfect. By 6 pm, when I got to her place, she pulled up in a cab right behind me and helped me lug my bag upstairs to her apartment. What happened in between was a huge hug and kisses and the limo guy looked on indulgently

I’m back in Manhattan to spend the weekend with my very clued-in daughter. The weekend was a rediscovery of the Lower East Side with its great bars and amazing restaurants. She spent the time showing me her life in this wannabe piece of real estate in Lower Manhattan, where most people, especially twenty-somethings like her, would give their right arm to live. She lives there and knows it in a way that appeals to my sense of hedonism and aesthetics.

Can you be jealous of your own daughter? Difficult question: but I have no hesitation in saying I am envious of her lifestyle. Plus she is so Manhattan; she buys milk with no hormones, grass-fed meat, nuts, berries, dates and also cheese, wine, figs, dates, strawberries and the occasional champagne.

I’ve been visiting Manhattan since the early 1970s. I had a friend who introduced me to the genteel pleasures of the Upper East Side. I also came into the city for work and lived in fabulous hotels like The Plaza. But knowing the city through my daughter’s eyes is completely different. Clearly, she belongs there and makes me feel I too belong. And I can’t even begin to say how good it feels to have New York City as a second home.

So what is it about New York City, especially the Lower East Side that attracts bright young kids from all over the world to stay there? Chicago, where I virtually grew up, is a superb city. Its downtown Lakefront is seminally brilliant. Yet my daughter’s Lower East Side has character that is part gentrified but nevertheless is a neighborhood with ethnic diversity and post-modern slick.

I spent several weekends with her in the very recent past and she always managed to amaze me. We walked all over the place, went to great bars and ate in superb restaurants. When I was with her and drinking all these great cocktails and eating all this fabulous food, I thought to myself: my baby daughter is a New York girl: king of the hill; top of the pops.

Can a father be jealous of his daughter? No. I wish her well as one of the most fortunate members of the human race: not just to live in Manhattan but in the happening Lower East Side. I always tell my wife: if I ever had the chance to live and work there, I may have never relocated to India. In the event, nearly two decades since I moved to Delhi from the US, I have never regretted the relocation. But if I had been the suave sophisticate that my daughter is, India would never have featured in my life.

So I spent time with her in the city, walking the streets and in small parks that are things of beauty with gorgeous spring flowers; eating in wonderful restaurants and generally luxuriating in the ultimate urban experience. Between my warm and lovable daughter and the adventurous pleasure of Lower Manhattan, I was in heaven.

On the Monday, I took the flight to Chicago, comforted in the knowledge that I would be back within the week. I used always to spend more time in my hometown Chicago, than anywhere else in the US. For the past seven years, I seem to be spending more time in New York City, thanks to my daughter.

Manhattan may not be about blue skies and trees of green; it’s my daughter’s favorite song: Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Truly, it is a wonderful world she lives in.




Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Thursday, August 27, 2009

American Life 2

Chicago: The Livin’ is Easy


It’s summertime in this city of broad shoulders and the Grant Park Symphony is performing works by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Haydn in Millennium Park, a 25-acre park built on what were parking garages and railway yards when we lived there in the 1970s and 1980s. The Great Lawn that spreads in front of the stage in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion is swarming with people, nearly 10,000 of them, savoring a picnic dinner made mostly of local ingredients and sharing bottles of wine.


What a wonderful tableau of post modern life in America: a city that enhances your life beyond the income you earn, the house you live in, the schools your children go to, the stuff you buy and the social circles in which you live! Chicago has created wonderful public places for people to mingle, surely with their friends but also with people you would not normally meet. Though the word is politically charged in India, Chicago has as such developed “communal” spaces, where people of every hue can intermingle. It is as though Woodstock had a bath and a shave and switched from drugs to wine.


There was camaraderie in the air that evening. People seemed to revel in being denizens of this great city. Everyone smiled, nodded and enjoyed the communal experience. Sure there was huge mess of tourists from other more bland parts of the Midwest. They stuck out like sore thumbs, determined to enjoy the big city. On the other hand, there were locals with an air of entitlement. “This is our city and that’s the least we expect,” their demeanor seemed to say.


We think of Chicago as our hometown. It’s our daughters’ birthplace; the city where be bought our first house. Chicago is where, in the 1970s, we launched a community newspaper that still survives; the city where we created a family of friends who are still very much part of our lives; the city where my twin careers in public affairs and journalism got started. Our particular affinity for the city is ingrained within our souls in a way no resident of or visitor to the city can imagine.


Our many Indian friends in Chicago dream fondly about their Delhi, Bombay, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Hyderabad, Bangalore or the hundreds of little towns and villages they came from. They paint India in the rose-colored hues of nostalgia, never mind that their cities (and indeed all Indian cities) are hellholes. On the other hand, we live in India and look forward to the next visit to our Chicago that becomes nicer, more exciting with each year that passes.


My good friend Ashis Nandy, India's leading social psychologist,is a leading thinker, whose critiques of the modern development paradigm have won global applause. His reasoned view is development should be on a human scale. He speaks about an egalitarian ethos, an embrace of local culture and a social system in which people can live with dignity.


Unlike most scholars in India, Ashis is an open man, ready to consider new ideas and arguments. He is not, like most Indian intellectuals, de facto anti-American, though he may have problems with the capitalist ethic and its attendant consumer ethos. He is a post modern thinker who worries about unbridled economic growth and the concomitant destruction of traditional values. It is through his eyes that I recognize that America has gone post modern in its approach to development. Urban planners in Chicago especially but also in the rest of America have learned and implemented the values of self reliance and sustainable lifestyles.


While most of the public debate in India is about American imperialism (the Left) and American debauchery (the Right), Ashis is the kind of iconoclastic thinker who would look beyond stereotypes to appreciate the urban revolution that is underway in America. And Chicago is the pioneer. It builds skyscrapers and expressways but also parks and promenades. The humane scale is there for all to see; one children’s park on the city’s newly-developed East Side is paved with a soft, cork-like material to combat scraped knees and bruised elbows.


When we lived in Chicago in the 1970s and the 1980s, India was seen as a poverty-stricken, disease-ridden basket case. Today, it is regarded as a possible engine of world growth. The Indian community in America is lauded as an accomplished minority. Fact is, though, that as India modernizes with all the attendant problems, America is in a post modern state of mind. Nobody really cares how many highways India builds or the rise of its stock market or the rapidly expanding middle class. Question is, as Chicago poses, what have you done for the people lately?


What the Indian establishment should say in response is “Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” Without a proper confessional, India will continue to flounder in confused urban development and be strangled by a vicious rural power structure.


Such dark and dire thoughts occur to people like us who care about the India project: a great democracy and a vital economy that is challenged by corrupt and inept governance. Fact is India goes its own sloppy way and there is a palace guard of politicians, bureaucrats and well-off citizens who couldn’t care less. The rest of the citizenry is left to fend on its own. Just think, in affluent neighborhoods too in Delhi and all the cities, towns and villages in India, there is no water supply, sanitation or electric power; there are no decent roads, no decent schools, no jobs; only rapidly dwindling hope. At some point, the crises may become overwhelming.


India's stark and brutal conditions stand out even more sharply seen against the post modern West. Once again, it is being left behind just when it seemed poised to catch up.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009