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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