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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