Friday, December 21, 2007

If you’ve ever been in Chicago, and seen Gehry’s “The Bean,” at Millennium Park, you’d barely raise a brow at the new bejeweled building that adorns Michigan Ave. Well, not so much ‘bejeweled’ as a chic, stark piece of contrast to the droning scream of archaic buildings that line the famous Mag Mile. The ten-story high, dazzling “folding wall of glass” fascia of the Spertus Institute (of Jewish studies) is a treat to the eyes, and will open to the public by the end of the month. As a resident, I’ve often wondered what these unique pieces of architecture, contemporary, or otherwise (after all, Chicago is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Houses that resonate an old world charm that is hard to fathom in the high-rise jungle these days) and other sightseers’ gems offer to tourists that I don’t appreciate as much.

This thought has been dwelling on my mind a lot more than I’d have allowed for - given my impending homeward-bound plans and the general sense of wistfulness floating in the air these days - I am taken often back in time and space to my city of lush gardens and sprawling green islands. Perhaps the neophytes will shirk at that - and they’re hardly to blame. I grew up in a Bangalore that was full of trees - gulmohars and champak trees reached for the sky with their untouched branches; and orioles, cuckoos, mynahs flitted about in their canopies. The air was fresh, with an enduring nip all year round, and neighborhoods had wholesome, meaningful names, their origins embedded in the ribbed folds of the city’s glorious history, like “Chamarajapet.” On a recent visit, I not only saw the city through the eyes of a foreigner, but also noticed that the littlest of changes annoyed me beyond reason. It is not easy, even if one is mildly Bohemian, to bow to a progression that comprises, among other things unnatural, a concrete wilderness and smog-infused defilement. I could never, for instance, set foot in a Boulevard in Bangalore, as opposed to a “5th Main,” without cringing and wishing cosmopolitanism didn’t stretch its pincers out to a Western simulation approach that was not only newfangled, it was cursory.

But I digress. Even as an inhabitant there, one seldom got to do the touristy jaunt that opens up new vistas through which everything, including the lawn-clock at Lalbagh, seems fresher and distinctive. However, as a kurta-clad scribe a few years ago, replete with my faded pair of jeans, Kolhapuris and Khadi satchel (sorry, no smoke-belching car to proclaim one’s meager identity in those days), I decided one day to take a Department-of-Tourism round of the city and mingle with the bashful, Kannada-speaking guide, and throngs of visitors, and bring a new angle to the humdrum sightseers’ daybook on which volumes had been written. I surprised myself with the knowledge I acquired of the city’s past, including the significance of a modest palace that belonged to Tipu Sultan that I never knew existed. I was amazed at how the experience had virtually held a crystal pince-nez to my eyes, and made me tolerate potholes if they led to a hidden treasure of the city that I’d suddenly discovered.

Even as I veer at the tiller of my nomadic thoughts, and take in the nip in the Windy City air, I wonder why I cannot bear the same clout over this city and its merits. I am usually tipping friends who visit off on some off-the-beaten-path must-dos that I have come to encounter over the years of my stay here. Of course, I have been to China Town, and know - where to get economical parking in the hub of the city, when to anticipate discounted tickets to a Blues concert, to rely on the Metra during the Taste of Chicago event and 4th of July, where to get the best pizza or pancakes or Chicken Biryani, where to take a detour; and have long realized the varying ways of the wretched weather and to carry a jacket even in the peak of summer. But, I wonder, does all this really constitute the makings of a true-blue Chicagoan? Will I ever come to truly call this home, even if it is home away from home?

I have lived, dreamed and breathed quaint old Bangalore all my life. I’d like to experience a surge of emotion when it comes to Chicago, and a rush of belonging, which will drift past the mania that grips me during MLB season. I’d like to never set foot in a shopping arcade escalator, and haggle instead with the wholesale vendors in Bangalore’s Chickpet for a yard of silken floss. I’d like to eat steaming idlis off a plantain-leaf-plate with my hands and sip filter coffee from a steel tumbler and awkwardly plim the juice off sugarcane sticks and watch caterpillars roll over dew-laced leaves and just live the simple life all over again. My thoughts, of course, are wild enough to be stirred, and tossed into nothingness by the bleeping of a microwave that has warmed up my new-age dinner of leftovers.

I haven’t, however, forgotten where I began this letter - and even though, in my true Bohemian spirit - I am likely to go and marvel at the glass labyrinth of the Spertus Institute, take cover under its glazed awning, and allow my thoughts the luxury of drifting again, possibly to the realms of the simple, unembellished life lived elsewhere, where walls were openable. And even as oldfangled guitars thrum the Blues in the background, I will reach out to pick out that perfect-contoured maple or poplar leaf before the earth gets fully snow-laden, to file in my little one’s seasons-scrapbook. I also know (a rather strident sensation in the stillness of chronic nostalgia) that I may possibly never feel right anywhere, or realize entirely the import of my roots amid the disturbing clangor of its recent facade, but a girl can dream.

I walk on well-tread paths, yet my feet fail to hold
their grip on the shifting earth; Chicago, or Bangalore -
the substance of feeling right, if you behold,
isn’t so much in the place, but in the allure
of reminiscing the petticoat grace I naively once possessed.


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