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Showing posts with label nostalgia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nostalgia. Show all posts

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, March 29, 2012

Bombay Journal

Deja Vu All Over Again…

Three friends, 45 years later, sit in a palatial Khar apartment in this siren city, enjoying the cocktail hour. Dinner is a couple of hours away. This is the first time that I can remember that Yogi, Mirchi and I have sat together since our Baroda days. Sure, we’ve met en famille…in Bombay, in New York, in New Jersey. In Baroda, we met every day, largely because we were roommates at different times. So this evening was special.

In the course of the evening, we exchanged a few desultory comments about Baroda and the people we knew then. Mostly the conversation was about today and things happening in our lives. Mirchi regaled us about his fumbles with remote controlled curtains in his bedroom; Yogi about how he has given up his crusade against honking and rash driving in Bombay; I showed them pictures of my freshly-minted granddaughter. It was wonderful to be interested in each other’s lives today and not go into a nostalgic shoosha about the good old days and what have you.

Even if I do say so myself; I am mostly the guy who makes the effort to keep in touch with old friends.  In the past few decades, I have connected with friends from the 1950s, 1960s and onward. It's been marvelous because they responded with enthusiasm. The key to sustaining renewed relationships is to eschew stuff like: "remember the time" and get with the modern day program. Most renewals have succeeded in the sense that we catch up with great eagerness from time to time; the ones that have fallen by the wayside were the ones that could not get beyond the magic of the old days.

What was remarkable about the reunion was that the nostalgia was about the established friendship, not about what we did when we were in our twenties. We were all engineering students enrolled in the Faculty of Technology at the MS University in Baroda; we were from Bombay and in love with the city. In Baroda, we were inseparable, together every day: dinner, movies, late night chai; living in a world of our own. It wasn’t always smooth; there were ups and downs. But we were young and sure to have our way.

Then the busy years went rushing by us; as the Baroda experience came to an end, we drifted apart. For more than a decade, we lost touch, making our way in the world: establishing careers, building families. The bond apparently survived. I reached out to them and they were happily receptive and over the years, we built a whole new relationship that peaked with the dinner in Bombay this week.

We laughed, ribbed each other and were comfortable together as though 45 years were a blink of the eyes. If you could rewind to Baroda, you’d see the three guys, now in their sixties, really hadn’t changed much, except they were older and definitely wiser. There was much familiar laughter and in our hearts, the dreams were still the same.

In the sixties, we defined friendship; 45 years later, we were redefining nostalgia. No syrupy memories of the past; no obsessive recall of the days gone but robust conversations about today, secure in the feeling that our friendship had withstood the test of time. There was no looking back, only hope we could do this again whenever we had the chance. Our lives are different but the bonds hold firm. We don’t really need to see each other every day; just to get together every opportunity we can get.

It really doesn’t get better than this. My trip in life is to link up with old friends, to establish new ties based on old camaraderie. In that, I am the luckiest person in the world: reviving old friendships is to renew life and to keep you young and fun loving. On that score alone, I may have a ticket to the place where angels play harps and it is always springtime. That evening in Bombay, it felt like I was there already.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Going Home

Thirty-five years and two months is a long time to stay away from a place that you hated to leave at all. The thought crossed my mind as I wandered the streets of the old city of Surat, looking for familiar landmarks and for my family home.

Is that my cousin's house opposite the temple? I can remember playing cards there on a sweltering afternoon in May 1964 when news came that Jawaharlal Nehru had died and admonishing my cousin for her less-than-respectful demeanor. My outburst surprised her for she did not expect a teenager with an Elvis-style pompadour to be politically sensitive.

A few steps down and there's the building that housed the all-girls school that my great-grandmother founded. As we stood and looked, an official came up and greeted us. When I told him of my interest in the school, he became nostalgic and reminisced about my family. However, he got confused between my grandfather, the doctor, and his brother, the lawyer, both of whom were active in public affairs.

Just down the street is Gandiva Sahitya Mandir, the publishing house famed for its Bakor Patel books that brought Disney-like anthropomorphic characters into the homes of the Gujarati middle class. It was into this family that my younger aunt was married. Sadly the `press', as it was called locally, was torn down some years ago.

Across the street from the press is the house where my grandfather's brother lived. He was the lawyer, whose prominence in the city was the stuff of history. However, I remember him for his great collection of mystery books: Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake and Ellery Queen and for his ability to produce a coin from behind the ear of any person less than 10 years old. His house was part of the old family home that was really two grand old buildings connected by a bridge. On the ground floor was my grandfather's dispensary, where a quaint old compounder mixed all the good doctor's prescriptions. My interest in his rudimentary pharmacology led some to insist that I would follow in my grandfather's footsteps to major in medicine. As it turned out, I did follow the old man's trail, not in medicine but in public affairs.

Between the two houses is the narrow lane that led to my grandfather's house, where I was born and raised and visited regularly till April 1966 when he died. My eyes brim over as I walk through the alley into the house that was a home and is now a rich trove of treasured memories: of those who have passed like my grandfather, with his inspiring vision and my grandmother, who gets my vote as the sweetest person of the 20th century...and of those who remain, inheritors of strong family ties that have weathered the passage of time and the alienation of distance.

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.

from the times of india august 20 2001

Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Kind of Town

Springtime in Chicago

It was unseasonably cold in Chicago for the middle of May. But then I remembered snow and an ice storm in this city of broad shoulders around this time of year in the late 1980s. One evening, I got off shivering from the El (short for Elevated), the train service that ferries people back and forth from Oak Park to downtown Chicago, just nine miles apart. In the parking lot, I found my car encrusted with sheets of ice. Using the key to crack the ice, I managed to open the door and drove home. The temperature was below freezing but I held my curses, looking forward to the scotch I would pour myself at home in a few minutes. The prospect was heart warming, especially because Prakash would soon join me to share in the experience.

Prakash and I were neighbors and saw each other at all times of the week. We were never confined to the American ritual of meeting on weekends. Mostly we sat in my yard or his, savoring the spring weather, munching on deli sandwiches or enjoying an after dinner drink while it was still light out. We did that in the winter too, sitting indoors, eating pizza or hamburgers, even devouring an occasional steak. And as days grew longer and warmer, mornings we packed our cucumber sandwiches and frozen gins, put on our whites and drove 30 minutes away to suburban Oak Brook (often called New Delhi West) to play cricket on the wonderful grounds of Hamburger University (the training school for McDonald’s, which is headquartered in the suburb).

This spring was nothing like that; just cold, though the skies were blue and the sun was shining high in the sky at six in the evening. Driving to Prakash’s house, it struck me that I didn’t miss a beat steering through familiar terrain. It was as if I never left. Despite many changes, Harlem Avenue, the main drag, remains the same. In the early days, on trips to Chicago from Delhi, I had to remember to turn left from Harlem onto Augusta Street into River Forest; all the years that we lived in Oak Park, we always turned right to get home. Nevertheless, despite remembering the left turn, my mind was distracted by the fabulous jazz on WDCB, my favorite radio station. Thus, I automatically turned right. Realizing the mistake, I turned around at the corner of Woodbine Avenue, where my house was, and drove into River Forest.

Cold though it was, I had the car window open to gaze upon street corners and home gardens that were ablaze with sweet-scented lilac and to savor the wondrous aroma of barbecues amid freshly-mowed lawns. After a Chicago winter, any temperature above freezing is considered warm. People were out jogging and pottering about their gardens. The song on the radio said it all, “Heaven, I’m in heaven…”

“Why did you ever leave this gorgeous place,” my sensible self wondered. Steering the car toward Prakash’s magnificent home, the answer eluded me. Granted, we have a wonderful life in Delhi that is often the envy of my friends in America. Our neighborhood is tree lined, where you hear birdsong in the morning, not that different from Oak Park and the neighboring River Forest where Prakash lives. Trouble is when we drive out of my compound, we are faced with the chaos of India. When I pull out of Prakash’s driveway to go anywhere, it is a pleasure to deal not only with organized traffic but courteous drivers even as my senses feast on the flower-bedecked beauty of the neighborhood.

In the early days, just after we relocated to Delhi, my trips to the Oak Park-River Forest area were always laden with nostalgia. I used to drive past our house, my wife’s Montessori school, our daughter’s first primary school and various other significant landmarks with tears in my eyes. Like Odysseus, my visits to Chicago were struggles of “memory against forgetting."

Over the years, my trips have become less nostalgic and more fun. Breakfast with my friends Suresh and Pappi Hathiwala; beer with Divyesh and Darshana Mehta, brave souls to toughed it out in India for 15 years but returned to Chicago in the end. Then there's lunch at my friend Arsen’s downtown Armenian restaurant Sayat Nova with my old buddies: Larry Townsend, Mike McGuire and Dan Tucker from Chicago Tribune, the daily in which I wrote regular columns; coffee with my lawyer friend Jim Genden and his Dutch wife, Alma, an art historian; dinner at buzzing restaurants with Prakash and Alice, my hosts and drinks with Satu and Anu Pitroda. When all's said and done, there's my comrade, Angad Mehta; to spend an evening with him is to be the company of Chauncey Gardner, the protagonist of the Jerzy Kosinski novel, “Being There.” Played by Peter Sellers in the movie of the same name, Chauncey’s TV-driven character was built around the axiom that perception creates reality.

With the nostalgia out of my system, I’ve grown to love Chicago differently…as a place to relax, engage in debate and have epicurean fun. It sometimes does play on the mind: what it would be like to move back and partake of civilized life with an edge of sophistication. I am less convinced today than 15 years ago that moving back is a not a good idea. But then, as my daughters unfailingly remind me, I am weird that way: left the land of opportunity at the peak of my life and am now ruminating on the possibility of spending my later years there. But then, this is the age when your intellectual powers are at their peak and America is more hospitable. India, meanwhile, is bereft; forget intellectual pursuits, there’s no room even for intelligence.

On the other hand, India is like Circe, the sorceress who kept Odysseus from returning to his beloved Ithaca of Greek mythology. It offers seductive pleasures such as food and spices and intense human relationships; but it makes it difficult to stay the course on your moral compass. You live with dirt, filth, corruption and venality and forget about civilization and its higher pursuits. The troglodyte writer, Nirad Chaudhuri, was insightful when he called India “The Continent of Circe.” And like Odysseus, we must live in this sinful Aeaea, where the sorceress lived, even though it is plastic and crass, and spurn the pleasures of America, the modern version of Ithaca.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ruby Tuesday

Yesterdays Don't Matter If They're Gone

Forty-eight years ago, on April Fools Day, I was a stripling, just 11 years of age. That day was momentous; it sank into me that I would have to leave my beloved Bombay, my precious Christ Church Lane in the city’s Byculla Bridge, Bombay 8 precinct. It was very important not to call it Byculla, which was Bombay 27. It was our awakening class consciousness; the postal codes told the story of middle versus working class neighborhoods.

On April 27 of 1960, as I stood on the train doorway waving goodbye, I already began to miss all my friends, who were much closer to me than I ever imagined: looking back on those years, I believe they changed my worldview. They made me appreciate the vibrancy of diversity. On that day, however, I was not just tearful but envious. They got to stay behind in this wonderful slice of India while I was hustled on to a train to Ahmedabad and to a moffusil life of sarkari hierarchies and the search for more and more exclusivity.

Christ Church Lane was home to Bombay’s aspiring middle class: cosmopolitan, diverse and secure. As a boy growing up in Court Royal, a wonderful old apartment house with large airy flats and lots of balconies, the only disagreements I had with my friends were about Elvis versus Cliff versus Pat Boone. Yes, my family was the only vegetarian in the building and I, the only Hindu and Gujarati kid. My friends constantly urged me to eat meat but in the end, accepted my cultural hangup.

This was significantly different than my later experiences, where I was often put down because of my beef against eating meat. In Christ Church Lane, there was such a cultural diversity that my food habits were accepted and I was included in the community of kids playing games and fooling around each evening until the street lights came on. My friend Ruby Rodrigues, now Patrick, told me the other day that we actually had lamplighters, which I found hard to believe.

We met Ruby on Tuesday, April Fools Day. The last time I had seen her was when we bade goodbye at the train station some 48 years ago. The story of how Ruby came to be at our house to dinner that night is about the currency of nostalgia in which modern technology enables us to span gaps of time and reach out to people we have known at different phases of our lives. Ruby is the older sister of my friend Peter with whom I hung around 365 days a years from age six to age eleven.

Ruby was this sophisticated girl from the Clare Road Convent with many good-looking friends. That apart, Christ Church Lane was widely regarded as a happening place with gorgeous girls. We called all of them Diana, after the Paul Anka song, which went: “I’m so young and you’re so old…” We were innocent of sex then, only puppy love and panted after every lovely girl that we saw in the lane. It was pure romance but at a distance; we eyed them and then fantasized, forget sex or holding hands or kissing; all we craved for was a smile, an acknowledgment that we were alive.

When Carole Fraser, a green-eyed, brown-haired goddess once said hello, our knees turned to jelly and the only way we could recover is by indulging in physical horseplay, where mostly Peter and Teddy and various others jumped on each other. Because I was the smallest, I usually bore the brunt of it with a stoic grimace…it was for Carol, after all. All those years, we learned through the biblical and cowboy movies that he who is set upon ultimately wins the girl.

Ruby’s older brother Victor was everyone’s hero…he sang, danced and had an easy way with girls; plus he has a hairstyle like Elvis that was in vogue those days. He emailed me when he read an article I’d written about Christ Church Lane and set up this meeting with his sister Ruby. He called the night Ruby visited us…it was the first time we talked in 48 years. He said Teddy was in Bombay. Teddy and his brother Alan Oscar, who was my absolute icon, lived on the ground floor of Court Royal. They moved to Australia and next thing I knew the next day I was talking to Teddy at the Taj in Bombay.

Ever the skeptical writer, the been-there -done-that variety, I am floored by this currency of nostalgia. It turned out when Ruby visited that our old friends Ivan and Ingrid Arthur were there and they also knew Ruby and her family. Ivan was for many years a colleague on the executive committee of HTA (now JWT). How does all this happen? The standard response is that India has a small elite community in which everyone knows everyone by six degrees of separation.

That may be a Western view but this is something of a phenomenon. It’s not just this encounter but over the past few months as I have written about reunions and other nostalgic moments, I have had an outpouring of responses from people I knew from the various phases of my life. I feel fulfilled even though some of my best friends today are people I knew in in high school and university in India and the United States. But these are a new crop of old friends. It is a wonderful feeling to know that over the next few years I will strike up in my life, like John Lennon, renewed acquaintances with “people and things that went before.” It is a wonderful closure. Peter, Victor, Ruby, Teddy, Alan and I have led different lives since we grew up together. Now we will catch up and exchange notes. There is a sense of security and comfort and joy that life is coming to be a full circle.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Res Gestae

Res Gestae is based on the belief that because certain statements are made naturally, spontaneously and without deliberation during the course of an event, they leave little room for misunderstanding/misinterpretation upon hearing by someone else.