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Monday, June 21, 2010

American Life 5

Washington DC: A New Home

The five-day-long party that was DC began in New York City’s West Village on a Saturday afternoon. My daughter and I stood outside a café, waiting for our friends Gautam and Rita and their daughter Brinda and her husband Peter. Suddenly, amid the general noise of revelry that envelops this oh-so-cool segment of Manhattan, I heard someone call my name in the distance. I looked around because my name is not a common one in these parts. And there across the street, I saw Gautam waving at me.

We crossed the street to join them and to begin what turned out to be five rollicking and fulfilling days. Gautam has served as the senior most editor in The Times of India and is the founding editor of Bombay’s newest daily, DNA. Above all, he is a rock star whose rendition of Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog can get even a lead-footed person to do gyrations on the dance floor. In his days in India, he was a regular at our house; all our friends took to him and he became part of our family.

So there we were on the brink of a raucous evening in Manhattan. We went to a blues bar and ate dinner in a French bistro before traipsing home with a song let out of our heart. It was a memorable evening, even if we had too much wine. When good friends get together in a happening place like the West Village, you can be sure it will be a highlight (dare I be unsubtle and say: yes there were lights and yes we were high).

So after an evening in the Village, Sunday morning we hit I-95 en route to Washington DC. For all the 229 miles of the way, I luxuriated in the company of Gautam and Rita. I was excited to be going to DC after too many years. The plan was to arrive at their place in Chevy Chase in the early afternoon and then head out to the home of their friends for dinner and singsong with guitars. These are friends whom we’d met last summer at the wedding in Vermont where Brinda and Peter took their vows in a gorgeous farm in Vermont.

Can people talk to each other for five straight days and never once be bored? With Gautam and Rita, it’s not only easy but enjoyable. We talked about the whole world, about rock’n roll, The Beatles, Indo-US relations, and what have you. The most amazing thing about being with them is you can talk about foreign policy, international relations, and world economics but also about music, going back to the good old days of Hindi film music and classic rock.

A friend christened Rita “chopdi (book) aunty,” given her voluminous knowledge of just about everything under the sun, starting from education to Bollywood. You want to know about the latest issues on education? About the lives of Bollywood stars? About the story behind the Oscar awards? About the buzz in DC, New York, Boston, Bombay or Delhi? Rita’s got it all down pat. She is the source: wire service, book of quotations, thesaurus and encyclopedia, all rolled into one. What she doesn’t know is not worth knowing.

Coming into Washington after a long gap was an immensely interesting prospect for a public affairs junkie like me. This is the capital of the world, where leaders from all nations come to get things done. It’s also the first time I came to DC where Martin Luther King’s dream had come true in the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Obama is from my hometown, Chicago.

As we drove around the city, I was struck by the small-town beauty of the place. There were flowers everywhere and people were dressed in their spring best: linens and cottons. To read the newspapers and to watch television, you’d expect a sense of doom and gloom. I saw none of it. The cafés were full; restaurants were abuzz and people were walking about with a spring in their step.

“There’s John Podesta,” said Gautam as we drove around the downtown area, close to the White House. He was crossing the street. Podesta, another Chicago boy, served as White House Chief of Staff for three years under Bill Clinton. As you drive around the stressful streets of Delhi, you are not likely to see any person of any consequence, surrounded as they are by security and minions. And walking? What a contrast!

There is an understated elegance about Washington. The city seems to know it is the center of the world. It doesn’t have to pretend. Economic upturns and dips have little impact on it. Everyone seems to be confident about their jobs and income. True, there are neighborhoods in the city where America’s recession-hit economy is playing havoc. But to walk the streets, you feel the sense of power and stability.

While it seems not to have the buzz of New York or the vitality of Chicago or the laid back sophistication of San Francisco or the in-your-face character of Los Angeles, Washington stands for stability. It reminded me Kipling’s poem If:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,

In the middle of the storm of terrorism, financial malfeasance and natural and other disasters, Washington is the focal point of stability-seeking billions in the world. Yes, there’s Iraq and Afghanistan, the oil spill and Katrina, bailouts and joblessness. But if we didn’t have Washington, we would have to invent it.

We need Washington. In this capital, a click of computer keys can change the fate of global business; can challenge ruthless dictators; can hold multinationals accountable; can take on terrorism; can boost the world economy. All the misbegotten activists, who blame Washington for all the ills in the world, should know there are institutions in this city that successfully fight against child labor, dowry deaths, communicable diseases, sweatshops, hunger and poverty.

I spent most of the week in Washington, meeting friends in government, lobbying firms and multilateral organizations. What struck me was that in the interim, I came away more informed about global issues and to understand that the power people in Washington are as skeptical of multinational firms as the activists, who make a fetish of being anti-American.

Another revelation was that India is not a hot button in the media or public debate. The only people who seem to care about our benighted country are the people in the White House, the State Department and the Defense Department; also people in the arts and culture, which is not a bad list. But in the general milieu, India may as well be the Central African Republic. India has to struggle to get noticed. Since George W Bush, it has been helped along by these various arms of the US government.

In the end, the nicest thing about my visit to the capital was to know that it is one more city I can call my home. There’s Chicago, of course; New York City, where my daughter holds sway; Boston, the home of my favorite nephew. But now there’s Washington, where Gautam, my soul mate, enjoys his life.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010