Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Poorer by a day, richer by memories

I remember Chandu uncle having an animated discussion with Pi during our wedding reception. Anu aunty, looking gorgeous in her saree and the diamond mangalsutra, returned my curious look with a smile, ‘Oh, your uncle just found out that Pi is doing Phd. in Northwestern. They are bonding.’

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!


shub said...

fabulous,fabulous past alpha...

shub said...

erm...i mean post, not past!

B o o said...

WOW! Awesome post, alpha.

Anonymous said...

Nice post alpha...I did my Masters in a US univ myself and last year when my cousin was off to the same univ, i gave him a long list of what to eat where...i wish i can go back some day too...
- fishy ;)

Parna said...

beautiful post Alpha. and awesome pictures.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alpha,
I have been reading your post ever since you started writing one. And sometimes when I am bored, I re-read your old blogs. Never once have I commented.
But this one - wow!!! Great writing, Alpha. I cannot but compliment you on this one.
Myself in US, graduated from a US Unvty and can relate to each word of your post.
Good luck,gal.
- Paru

VS said...

awesome post alpha !!
reminded me of my dad visiting his graduate skool after almost 20 years…..a déjà vu!! thanks :)

Vasu said...

Hi Alpha,
Beautiful! esp. the last but one para... touche!

fillerman said...

As ususal, I am here to criticize. Foster parents? Do you mean Host family and host parents? More appropriate choice of word, no? Nice post though.

alpha said...

What? Spammers have infested my comment box!

Shub: thanks thanks.. fabulous past is more appropriate in this context.

Boo: thanks..

Fishy: At first I thought you were giving me a fishy compliment.. but then, thanks macchi!

Parna: gee thanks..*gloat*

Paru: wow! This post made you delurk. I am flattered with all you have to say. Thanks.

Vs: thanks..Which university is your dad from?

Vasu: thanks deary!

Fillerman: Look at the positive part, you gave me a compliment too- my day or wot! BTW, I am hundred and five percent sure ‘foster parent’ was the term Chandu uncle used and in those days that was a very normal way to refer to them. Who am I to question that!

I just read this definition somewhere-
Foster parent- a person who acts as parent and guardian for a child in place of the child's natural parents but without legally adopting the child.

Hardu said...

Nice post alpha. Also, beautiful pictures!

pingoo said...

Coming to US before 50 years is something else only ! impossible to express how he must have felt. Very cool. And I got some news for you.

fillerman said...

I guess. Nowadays I read of Foster parents in stories on the state childrens services and abused kids in the news. So in my mind, foster parents has a complicated meaning. Anyway, if that is what chandu uncle used, then that is what it is.

Anonymous said...

Nitpicking, who is this Abhay ? Chandu Uncle's son ?

I wish I can go back to Mangalore, 20 years from now and experience all that Chandu Uncle experienced.

Quizman said...

Other things that haven't changed - Chicago sports teams still get whipped. :-)

Btw, nice post. I was expecting a 'Namesake' [Jhumpa Lahiri] like ending there.

D.N.A. said...

Evanston is really one of the beautiful places, especially some of the houses I've seen.

"Nostalgia for what we have lost is more bearable than nostalgia for what we have never had." - email fwd!

alpha said...

hardu: thanks!

pingoo: you are getting married to some poor unsuspecting soul or you are coming to chicago? either ways not good.

nitpicking anon: Abhay is uncle's grandnephew..his sister's grandson. When you go to Mangalore, I'm coming too.

quizman: was that you previously? Oh well, no book of Gogol is featured here. Right on, though Bears are picking up..that line was from my I-will-talk-sports-only-for-career-advances quota. Now I need a raise.

alpha said...

d.n.a: great line that..also Evanston is so lovely that I will have such a problem leaving it.

D.N.A. said...

On "Chicago sports teams still getting whipped" - this may be football season, but how can you all, fellow Chicagoites forget White Sox so soon?

alpha said...

d.n.a: Yes of course, Go White Sox! pffftt..to you, Quizman! I hereby declare an end to sports talk on my blog.

pingoo said...

alrite, I don't have any news for u :(.

alpha said...

pingy: aaay, no silly feelings..sollu da!

anantha said...

[Alpha]: I hope you haven't talked sports to any co-worker/manager since this past weekend, for I have a teeny-tiny eeny-meeny small correction for your I-will-talk-sports-only-for-career-advances quota list.
Bears WERE picking up before Urlacher and Co. turned the clock back and left a huge gaping hole in the defensive line for the Jake "The Snake" Delhomme and the Carolina Panthers to run through and beat them by a touchdown. And so, Urlacher is still not the "Refridgerator" of this century! Add these snippets to your list and give me a cut on that first paycheck after your raise. ;)
Oh btw, in the middle of this sports lession, I missed one thing. Good post, gal.. :)

Zoheb said...

I can already see alpha pakaoing here grandkids at Manipal. This was where I ate bubbly chewing gum while line-maraoing the waiter ... actually I think she is already doing that.

alpha said...

anti: I told you I can't read Tamil that well. But I did understand the last line. Thanks!

Zo: I never eat gum (however bubbly) when I am line maraoing..I chew gum. How did u know I was chewing gum now?

:-) said...

sounds like that book 'namesake'.

suds said...

aha! got you! :) I didnt even read the post yet..so no comment on that. But how you doing woman? keep in touch, will ya?

tX said...

felt like I was reading an excerpt from namesake....seriously, not sure if that's a good thing.

Ash said...

Beautiful, beautiful post :)

Quizman said...

Zo: Waiter? You mean the "swamis" there? Actually, Alpha must've been ogling the guys from the cosy environs of the ladies jail..er.. hostel. When the guys were on their way to Red Sun to extol the virtues of the patta-Rasna combination.

anantha said...

Quizman: Jail? And I thought only Thanjavur had one of those.. for us guys. :(

Alpha: Hmm... Selective Amnesia... rather Selective Blindness :p

Vanathi said...

Good pics...

journeylist said...

beautiful alpha...brought to mind T S Eliot:
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

karrvakarela said...

Very nice, Alpha. Thank you.

Twilight Fairy said...

Nice. Am still contemplating whether to arrange for the 10 year reunion of my college or not. It could disillusion me apart from bringing in the nostalgia. Things change.

AmitL said...

Heh heh heh...Twin,that tells u,I am sure,never make fun of the previous generation...they sure can teach u a lot huh??Nice 70 year ole unc and his memory.:)

phatichar said...


Pallavi said...

that was quite touching.. :)

alpha said...

pallo, phatichar, vanati, kk, journeylist, ash: thanks

smiley,tx: trust me, i did not cheat. Jhumpa will be having nightmares.

amitl: never again. his memory is way too specific.

tf: you'll never know if you don't. Would love to hear abt it. Do it.

quixie: Red Sun..patta Rasna. May I have a word with your missus.

suds: Hi da! howdy? Whats with not emailing me? btw, I lost all your freind's/roomate's/labmate's numbers.

Srinivas said...

Hey Alpha,

You got a great style. The only good thing that happens with getting older is we get to treasure lot of memories. And walking down the memory lane like ths is truly priceless. Good luck, I guess I will see you more often now..

If I may, whats your real name?


alpha said...

Man sri, you have great manners. Thanks for the compliment. Yes memories are great things and more power to people who cherish them.

My name? People just assumed it is alpha and now I have forgotten my real name.