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Thursday, July 19, 2018

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. My car, in the parking lot, was encrusted with sheets of ice. I used my key to crack the ice and opened my car to drive home. The temperature was below freezing but I held my curses, looking forward to the scotch I would pour myself when I got home in a few minutes. The prospect was heart warming, especially because I knew my friend and distant cousin 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 at 8 pm, while it was still light out. We did that in the winter too, sitting indoors, chuffing 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. As I drove to Prakash’s house, where I was staying as I always do since I left Chicago some 20 years ago, 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, was the same. In the early days, when I returned to Chicago from Delhi, I had to remember to turn left from Harlem onto Augusta Street because to get to my house I had to turn right. After two decades, I have gotten used to it and so swaying to the music on my favorite radio station, I automatically turned right. Realizing my mistake, I turned around at the corner of Woodbine Avenue, where my house was.

Cold though it was, and colder, I might add, than in Delhi at the height of winter, 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 barbeques 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. As I steered the car toward Prakash’s magnificent home, I found no answer to the question. Granted, I have a wonderful life in Delhi that is often the envy of my friends in America, I live in a nice tree-lined neighborhood, where you hear birdsongs in the morning, not that different from Oak Park and the neighboring River Forest where Prakash lives. 

Trouble is when I drive out of my compound, I am faced with the chaos of urban India. When I pull out of Prakash’s driveway to go anywhere, I deal not only with organized traffic but courteous drivers and peace with flower-bedecked beauty thrown in for good measure.

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 school and various other significant landmarks with tears in my eyes, wondering if I had done the right thing. 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, lunch at my friend Arsen’s downtown establishment Sayat Nova with my old buddies like Larry Townsend, Mike McGuire and Dan Tucker from Chicago Tribune, the daily in which I wrote regular columns, coffee with Jim and Alma, dinner at buzzing restaurants with Prakash and Alice, my hosts and drinks with Sam and Anu Pitroda. Then there’s Angad Mehta; to spend an evening with him is to be the company of Chauncey Gardner, the protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski novel, “Being There.” Played by Peter Sellers in the movie of the same name, Chauncey’s 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. I still wonder what it would be like to move back and partake of civilized life with an edge of sophistication. In my mind, the jury is still out. I am less convinced today than I was ten 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 their peak and America is more hospitable. India, meanwhile, has become bereft; forget intellectual pursuits, there’s no room even for intelligence.

On the other hand, India is like Circe, the nymph who kept Odysseus from returning to his beloved Ithaca of Greek mythology. It offers you pleasures of the senses that make you jettison your moral compass and corporeal senses. You live with dirt, filth, corruption and venality and forget about civilization and its comforts. The troglodyte writer, Nirad Chaudhuri, was insightful when he called India “The Continent of Circe.” And like Odysseus, I must live in this sinful Aeaea, where Circe lived, even though it is plastic and crass and spurn the pleasure of making America, the modern version of Ithaca, my home again.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

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