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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