Yes, of course! I should have realized. An alumnus from Northwestern University, Chandu uncle sure did have a few things to talk about. I overheard something about the Department, back entrance, corridors, west wing…and more specifics. Pi had to think twice to recollect and ascertain the exact location of the department water-cooler. I remember thinking that uncle does have a good memory considering he graduated from the institute during the late fifties. He went on to stay in Chicago for seven years after which he went back to India to complete his Phd. in 1974.
‘You both must visit Chicago when you come to the US,’ my request was rewarded five years later.
When I met the couple during Abhay’s graduation party recently, I thought the only way I could get uncle and aunty to undertake the long drive to our house was to lure uncle into a tour around Evanston and the Department building of Northwestern for an up-close look. His eyes lit up.
While we regaled uncle and aunty with tea and some snacks that I put together in such a hurry (hoping that the taste will be erased from their memory soon), I could see uncle was in the edge of the sofa and was definitely raring to go down the path of nostalgia. He kept glancing out of the window and admiring ‘his Evanston’. We decided not to test his patience anymore and jumped into one car to take the tour with someone who proved to be better than any GPS.
‘We have to go to 706 Washington St.’
Washington Street? Hmm..I think it comes to the left.’ I tried acting like an expert of this area.
‘No, I know exactly where it is. Keep going on Chicago Avenue,’ uncle instructed and Pi diligently followed. ‘Next turn right in 0.3 miles, yeah, the street after Main. Stop here!’ We were ready to bet that uncle did some homework with an Atlas before coming here. Our first stop was the apartment he lived as a student with a Chinese guy. ‘He used to cook some crazy stuff.’ The red brick building still stood in that corner waiting to be photographed 50 years later.‘ Everything looks the same. But I don’t remember this book store.’ We saw and vintage Plymouth parked on the street and Pi asked uncle if he remembers the car.
Pi, like a true resident, in his zeal to show Evanston told uncle that he was going east on Main Street to hit the scenic vistas of lake Michigan. But no, uncle was not done yet! ‘Pi, go left on Forest Avenue please. It will come now. Let me be your guide today.’ Sufficiently amused and getting the hint that we were not to mess with uncle, we played along in this Treasure Hunting game. Wasn’t much of a hunt as he knew exactly what he wanted to see and where we would find it. This time we stopped at his foster parent’s home. It was a bittersweet moment. He stood at the gate and looked at the house fondly while a surge of memories overpowered him. ‘I would walk from that apartment you saw and come here every Saturday. It was harder in the winters. I loved coming here and to share my stories with these lovely people who were like family. They had a separate dish for me as I was vegetarian.’
‘Like they have for their pet?’ Aunty was quick to add good-humouredly.
‘Yes, like that.’
It wasn’t hard to envision young uncle in his twenties shielding himself against the brutal winds, walking a mile to this house and eating salad from a doggie bowl. All this imagery was in black and white of course.
‘We should knock’, I suggested hoping for a grand reunion.
‘I don’t know. My foster parents are no more. Their kids are scattered all over. Nobody in that family stays here anymore. But I did keep in touch with one of their daughters and we visited them when we were in the US last time.’ I felt a lump in my throat.
As we were taking photos in front of this house, some of Pi’s lab mates walked by. Quite shocked that we were posing in front of random houses of no architecture significance, they gave us a polite smile that was packed with confusion. I was proud to introduce my uncle as their super-senior who shared the same institution. We left them gaping and drove to the next attraction of this unique tour- his second apartment, very close to the University near Clark St.
He swore that’s exactly where it was supposed to be. ‘Are you sure uncle?’ Yes, the disappointment was very evident. Not everything is permanent, I thought with remorse. That building was brought down to facilitate a newer construction. I wanted to see uncle jumping out of the car again. Running to the building with glee, stopping to reminisce and relate stories of this place as well. Then I wanted him to whip out his camera and ask me to take pictures while he posed in front of the building with aunty. I couldn’t get enough of it.
‘That’s Phoenix restaurant. I used to eat a lot here.’
‘Oh, we love it too.’
Glad some things haven’t changed.
He wanted to check out his professor’s house where he spent a lot of time. This was difficult to find, as they changed the roads a little and threw uncle off a little. Uncle was retracing his steps from his apartment to figure out the exact location and when he finally found it, it was pure happiness. We had difficulty keeping up with his fast strides. It was like 20 years had been wiped off his age. ‘This is the lawn I mowed many times. They’ve changed the entrance a little. But it still looks the same.’ His professor passed away of cancer he told us.
What’s a tour of Hardwar without taking a dip in the Ganges? We walked into the annals of History with every step we took in the corridors of his alma mater. Been to Pi’s lab umpteen times, but never felt goose bumps before. Many great scholars like uncle who walked this hallway are after all ‘kids in the candy store’ who would get excited at the glance of a window that used to be their lab once upon a time.
There it was, in front of Northwestern University - the exact place where uncle took the very first picture in the US, way back in 1957. I have seen that picture. We decided to do an encore in color. We constructed the bridge between the past and the present right there. No Civil Engineering feat, this. The bridge just had a couple of grey hairs, a wife, a niece and nephew, a car and an accurate memory.
Having studied in a graduate school in the US myself, I can’t imagine what it must have been like 50 years ago. Can’t imagine what it must have been without the scores of Indians we hang out with now. What it must have been to travel in a ship and not complain about airhostesses. What it must have been to communicate with family without emails. What it must have been like to share stories of your country with an older American couple sitting next to a fireplace or mowing their lawns. What it must have been to call this your home and them your family. What it must be to come there fifty years later to see them all gone. What it must be like to find the few things that have withstood the trials of time and stand testimony to a memory that you once lived.
For letting us experience all this, we thank you Uncle and wish that you will accompany me and Pi 50 years hence as our guide to Evanston when we come back to collect pieces of memories to fill in the blanks of our mental scrapbook. Happy Seventieth Birthday!