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Thursday, December 8, 2011

American Life: Chicago Journal

Chicago: This city has been my sustenance for nearly four decades. I have lived away from it for many years but come here several times a year. It is where I got my first job; bought my first house; both our daughters were born there. I started a community newspaper in the 1970s. It is a legacy and the paper, India Tribune, still exists. I wrote regularly for the city’s main paper, Chicago Tribune. It was my hometown and still remains that in my mind.
In Delhi, I still can get lost in its chaotic streets. Not in this city: I can drive you any place in the blink of an eye. In the midst of Delhi’s daily mayhem, I console myself: I will go back to Chicago soon and enjoy driving. Here, they don’t just follow the rules of the road; they extend it to road manners, showing courtesy and concern.
Driving in Chicago is fun and virtually stress free. As I tool around the city, I find wonderful new restaurants and bars with great music; I also do the rounds of the usual stores that I have shopped at for the past 30 years.
Many of my friends and acquaintances rib me about my Chicago fixation. For me, though, Chicago is about change. The city has evolved into one of the most livable cities in the world. Everything that happens here is about tomorrow. Every time I am here, something has changed for the better.
The swirling currents in this city assure you that tomorrow will be better than today. As such, it is the quintessential American city. It honors the past but embraces the future with zeal and innovation.
I am fortunate. My friends here are on the top of the world. My experience is the high end: the best restaurants, great parties, intellectual engagement; most of all, the freedom and enjoyment to drive all over the city or take the “El” or just walk everywhere..
I used to go back to Chicago several times a year; now it’s maybe twice a year. And I think to myself, how long will you keep on coming here? The answer, much as I dislike it, is less often. My adopted hometown is headed the way of Surat, the buzzing city in Gujarat, where I was born.
Surat was my first love and my grandfather’s improbably large house there was the port in my storm-tossed adolescence. When he died in 1966, I never went back until 2001. In a Times middle, after my visit there, I wrote:
“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.”
It is the same with regard to Bombay, where I lived in Juhu in the Theosophical Colony; and later in Court Royal in Byculla Bridge. These houses were my anchors; I thought they’d go on forever.
When we bought our condo in a restored old apartment house in Oak Park, the first suburb west of Chicago, I thought we had struck roots. Here, our first daughter was born; then we bought a wonderful house in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district of Oak Park, where our second daughter was born.
We thought we had achieved permanence. Just five years later, we stood crying as the trucks rolled out to take our belongings to Delhi and bade farewell to our friends.
And I thought these were all permanent addresses…
…turns out, there are no permanent addresses.
My recent Chicago sojourn hammered in my head the need to deal with impermanence. Everything you got used to and thought would last forever changes and with it, your ability to adapt.
All that you build around you is to get a sense of security and predictability. You buy a house, spruce it up, eat good food, drink great wines, go on holidays and sup at the fount of plenty. You convince yourself that this will go on and on.
Things change. You may become wise and mature; but the clock of mortality keeps ticking.
On the other hand, all these years, my project has been to catch up and establish new relationships with old friends. In this, I have been spectacularly successful.
Old friends have become new; old relationships have been revived with a new idiom. It is a heady feeling to renew friendships that seemed permanent, got lost in the way of making a living and are now back in a last-ditch battle to give meaning to life beyond professional pursuits or financial achievement.
And it seems to stop this ticking clock and deters ominous feelings about the limitations of time.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com, December 8, 2011.)