Travelathon 1980:

Travel to Chicago and Other US Cities

I am again bewitched by her dazzling beauty - enthralled and enchanted by her splendor - looking at her from Sharad's guest-room French windows. This evening again, as the dusk envelops her lingeringly, she starts adorning herself with glittering diamonds, with some pale opals, rubies and emeralds -scattered here and there. She arranges them slowly and deliberately, almost coquettishly like a Moghul courtesan and transforms herself into one of Ajanta Apsaras - dark, dusky and mysterious; sublime and divine - pearls-bedecked. I cannot take my eyes off her. 

Her ravishing beauty mystifies me, captivates my heart; at the same time, fills me with fear and foreboding. Behind that shimmering splendor might lurk treachery and insensitivity, callousness and infidelity; dark and vile emotions, and lust for wealth and revenge. But when I first entered the bedroom last night, I instantly fell in love. Slept only fitfully, raising myself from the pillows to gaze at her, again and again, till the dawn came lighting up. She takes off her jewels, one by one and the raw unadorned profile of Chicago hits my eyes; from the 45th floor apartment residence of the Indian Consul-General (you guessed it; it is the highest apartment building in the world). 

This was my first ever visit to USA

Sensing the throbbing new world just across the Atlantic from my shore based Dakar Residence and having had counted enough waves for two years, a desire to visit the United States of America and see it for myself caught my fancy. I also needed to shake off humidity induced hibernation. While the Consulate General at San Francisco offers many attractions, this post and those at Chicago and New York never attracted me. Minister's post in Washington had just been filled up and there was little hope in near future of ever becoming Deputy Permanent Representative at the United Nations, because of not belonging to the Chitpavans (Brahmins) of the Indian diplomacy; that special elite, the thrice born experts in multilateral diplomacy who get rotated from New York to Geneva to Brussels and the UN Division in the M.E.A. -- a veritable mafia. So I took the plunge on my own at my own expense. 

In a two month-long travelathon, I crossed the Continents of Africa and USA, Atlantic Ocean and Arabian Sea twice, European Continent and part Asia once. It became feasible financially only because the round trip Government-paid home-leave passage could include Algiers, Oran, London, Bombay, Udaipur, Delhi, Bombay, Addis Ababa, Accra and back to Dakar, by making a little extra payment. Thanks to the cut-throat competition across the Atlantic, I was able to buy a standby ticket on Pan-Am for $ 370 only ,from London to New York and back, and as a bonus, I could travel all over the US continent for 6 weeks for another $299 only. Even the miserly paid Indian Foreign Service Officers can afford this, after having put in 20 years; but the visit became otherwise almost free and a joy because of very affectionate and insistent hospitality, which included picking me up from the airport on arrival, complete board and lodging and putting me back onto the outgoing flight, by Purush (ottam) in New York, Ishrat (Aziz) in San Francisco, Partha (sarathy) in Washington and Sharad (Bhatnagar) in Chicago. Isharat also arranged my stay with Dr. Marwah, a very wealthy and influential dentist in Los Angeles. His ranch ­cum-palace on the Malibu Beach, the very exclusive area of Los Angeles was right out of Hollywood. Offering more than 5-star luxury, his hospitality and personal care were extremely touching. Mrs. Marwah from Patiala, where I had lectured nearly 20 years ago, even produced 'Lassi' for breakfast. 

I was told that Dr. Marwah, now with a flourishing dental practice and much other property, had to opt for the States nearly two decades ago, having not been selected for a Reader's job in Bombay. Heard of Hargobind Khorana and success of rejected sons of mother India. 

I am very grateful to Asha (Singh in London), Susheela, Naseema, Shanti, Bharati and Isobel, who were generous with their hospitality and warmth (No, No, it is not meant as a come on for the next visit). I would like to dedicate the travelathon to them and to the PAs and PSs (personal assistants &secretaries) of my colleagues who made all travel and other arrangements and helped me in shopping and other chores with a smile. 

Departure Dakar, Senegal: 4 October, 1980. 

I got on Air Algeria flight which took off from Dakar on 4 October 1980 morning and after a brief halt at Nouakchott, zigzagged east to Niamey, Niger's throbbing capital (thanks to uranium). The journey over Sahara was fascinatingly dull. All these little known places and others like Bamako, N’djamena and Bangui etc. would be household words like Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Dubai etc. once the reportedly buried uranium wealth underneath is mined to fuel energy needs of last decade of this century and early 2lst century. 

I reached Algiers around 6.30 PM having under-calculated the travel time and barely had time to rush to Ambassador K.M Lal's residence for a couple of drinks. Rita was very warm and hospitable and in spite of recent burst of a gas cylinder in her face was her usual glamorous self.

I then flew on to Oran to be with my sister Sudha whose husband Kamal is teaching Physics at the Telecommunication Institute. There was some delay in reaching their flat, as there was a flat tire at a lonely spot on the way, the spare had no pressure and it started raining. Was he embarrassed? And it was poor fellow’s first time out with his new car.

On the return journey from India via Africa I made a 2-day stop in Addis to be with my younger brother Vijay teaching Metallurgy there. This is my family’s contribution to Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC).

During the London halt from Oran I was very warmly and affectionately looked after by Asha and Dr. I.P. Singh and Alan Nazareth and Isobel in Accra stop just before my return to Dakar on 2nd December 1980. I spent three clear days and one day again in New York, 3 days in San Francisco and 2 days each in Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago. 

Not that my stay in India from 29th October to 28th November was any less hectic. Throughout my two month long travelathon, I did not spend more than 3 days at a stretch at any place. And then I had to change plans, completely, after Additional Secretary S.K. Singh flew to Hong to buy property for the Ministry with a pithy and enigmatic statement that on his return after 3 days we would discuss my next posting. 

So while waiting for his return, I jettisoned my longer planned visits to Goa, Madras and Pondicherry and decided to confront and see for myself the legendary and emerging institutions and industries of Gujarat, for the first time. There was also that insistent invitation from Sebastian Jacob, General Manager IFFCO, Kandla, who had been to Dakar in connection with our investment in the Phosphoric Acid Plant. I had been deeply impressed by his gloved steel no-nonsense approach in decision making and implementation. Although in Dakar I had expressed my inability to take so much time out, I decided to veil my visit to Gujarat to see the plant. I added Baroda with its Petro-Chemical Complex and Ahmedabad. 

Only a day before finalizing the schedule, I learnt that one has to go to Kandla or rather the nearest airport Bhuj via Bombay, so I reached Bhuj in a roundabout way at 4 P.M. in the afternoon on l3th November. I was rather embarrassed by the floral reception arranged at IFFCO. After driving with Mr. Jacob , with whom I travelled from Bombay, to the newly-built tree-lined and flower planted IFFCO guest house, I made up on my delayed siesta and after a shower and tea was sent off to visit a Jain temple nearby. That probably purified me. On the way back I stopped at Anjar, where I greedily bought bed covers, lungis, bandhanis, with typical local and Kachhi designs. The dinner was delicious, even though the cook had tried his hand at French cuisine after quite some time. 

Before lunch the following day, I visited the Kandla sea port, Kandla Free Trade Zone and the IFFCO Fertilizer Complex and saw Jacob supervising an officer’s meeting like a stern and benevolent headmaster. There was a good local gathering at lunch and after thanking Mr. Jacob sincerely and profusely I left for Kalol in IFFCO's car. Driving through the little Rann (of Kutch), via historical towns like Morvi and Limbdi , I made a detour to the palace of Raja of Wankaner, whose son Ranjit Singh Jhala is an IAS batch mate. The Maharaja himself had been to my flat in Paris for a meal and I was keen to surprise the old man. The palace is extremely beautiful and I was very charmed by the Maharaja's old-world hospitality. He proudly showed me the trophies (hunted) collected by him and his sons. 

I reached Kalol around ten at night and found to my horror that General Manager, Johar-purkar, a very quietly efficient and perceptive administrator, Manager (Personnel) Krishna were waiting for me. Dusty and tired, after apologizing I expressed my desire to visit the next day, National Institute of Design, Darpana Academy of Performing Arts and Calico Museum before lunch (served a la assembly line at a vegetarian restaurant), drive to Baroda to visit Petrochemicals Plant back for an official dinner (I actually accomplished all that and the following day visited Darpana (again!), drove to Lothal Shipyard ,80 KM away (Indus Valley vintage), visited the Kalol Fertilizers Complex, met my IAS batch mates and friends, called on the Chief Minister and had dinner in a diva-lit sprawling rural and relaxed dinner complex. It could be a place of mischief up North. 

And, when my lAS friends mildly remonstrated at my having not spent enough time with them, I offered to play Bridge with them till my plane took off the next morning at 0700 hrs. The challenge was taken up, but by 2.30 A.M. my friends, all Secretaries to the State Government realized the responsibilities awaiting them the next day at the office, so we called it a day. I won a few rupees. 

Mr. Johar-purkar and Krishna nodded at may heavy schedule and looking at me sympathetically, added that they would see to it the next day. I dusted myself and raising myself to my full 5' 10" from (actually it is only 5' and 93/4") I firmly announced that I had been maintaining that kind of schedule for the last 6 weeks. (I have given some details just to indicate the hectic tempo maintained over nearly two months of my so-­called vacations). Johar-purkar was kind enough to accompany me everywhere the first day. Krishna, an extremely sympathetic and engaging companion was with me for my full two days during which I suspect I over­strained him. 

I had started my travelathon with one India made suitcase with four rollers; one was lost at the Algiers airport, the second at Heathrow. I was forced to use the rear two wheels, but, one went a cantering in USA and the last one I left behind in India. I gained so much from all these places, old friends and new friends and rolled on, leaving a bit of myself everywhere. 

I mostly travelled by air planes, but also used cars, underground, trains, taxis, jeeps, buses, helicopters (to Bombay High and back). Did you notice, no boats (cannot swim) Up in the air, I become fatalistic. I would have loved to write about all cities visited in USA, but it was mostly rushing from one museum to another, one art gallery to another, travelling from one historical sight to another, and only sometimes meeting and chatting with friends. Dinners were mostly with colleagues, rich Tandoori cuisine. I tried to cut down at lunch, ¬salad and a glass of milk. Even in Los Angeles with new and cherished friends, the dinner had to be in a Mughal Restaurant in the Beverly Hills. The time spent in States was too short and I really saw very little. I also met very few Americans and that too rather ephemerally. So I only make a few observations and some bookish comments later. 

While most Ambassadors from developing but cultured world personally sign the visas asked by their colleagues, even for private visits, the American and some others, which I had not noticed in Dakar , issue only ordinary tourist visas, signed by lowly Vice-Consuls. As a result apart from missing extra fuss to which one gets used to unfortunately, I was asked but I refused to open my suitcase in New York, when the Customs Officer so desired. I strongly feel that on the basis of 'Vienna reciprocity', there is no need to be extra polite and considerate to the American and other such diplomats. 

Another unsavory incident related to a steward's insistence when the plane took off at Houston that I put in the hold a biggish hand bag, which I was carrying with me to save time from checking in and checking out. The airlines stipulate that it should be within certain dimensions and it should go under the front seat, so that the passengers can get out fast in case of an emergency. As the aircraft was practically empty, the handbag was in any case safely placed on the next seat. Many other handbags, I observed, were larger than the prescribed limits. Nevertheless when reason failed, I defied them to take me off the plane, when the steward and the captain and the chief stewardess threatened to do so. 

Mind you, there were many very sympathetic noises from other American passengers, which made it easier. And, then there was that very charming air-hostess on New York-San Francisco flight and when famished, having had only a cup of tea since early morning, I barged into the food cabin and aware that lunch would not be served for another two hours, I remarked that if she left the cabin unattended I would burgle it, she charmingly brought a sumptuous breakfast five minutes later. I almost gave her my card to invite her for a dinner in Dakar, with the ocean waves lapping the Residence. I also met many other Americans, friendly, relaxed and easy-going. But there was something missing in the whole scheme of things. It is difficult to put it, may be a lack of continuity and assurance, a lack of elegance and order, one sees in European capitals and poorer but cultured countries. 

Two visits made an everlasting impact: the Disneyland in Los Angeles and the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Walt Disney's creation is fantastic; in a few hours it peels off layers of inhibitions, selfishness, greed, petty and vile thoughts and one looks at the world again, childlike - in his own image as God created man - with wonder and awe, joy and abandon; savoring freedom, laughter and fantasy. Children, of course, love it, but what a revelation to see "grown-ups" (my foot) forgetting themselves for a few hours and to have all pure and childlike emotions and desires rekindled again. It was great experience. The Air & Space Museum was the only place I visited twice, in spite of a very tight schedule. What a collection and what an education! All that money can buy, and thanks to the pre-dominant American contribution to space exploration. It starts with the outlines of man's impulses and dreams to fly, to float, and to speed away from his environment; its history and development described beautifully in detail and with authenticity. And, then there were those two marvels of films; on USA and in 'Living Planet'. The historical section brought out early Chinese, Arabic and Greek attempts to explore space; but I found no mention of our "Pushpak Viman". 

Chicago: October 24, 

And to imagine that there were so many ifs and buts, before I reached Chicago! While the round Pan-Am ticket covered Detroit, the tag for half hour hop by monopoly Republican Airlines to Chicago was $70. 

At my last stop in Washington D.C. I was told that Sharad was planning to fly back to India in view of a tragedy in his family. But he himself rang up, insisted and persuaded me to visit Chicago as scheduled; for, he would be going to India a little later. So I coughed out $ 70, wondering whether it was worth visiting the city of Al Capone and his likes, with its unsavory reputation highlighted by Hollywood (Chicagoans retort back that in Los Angeles there are folks wandering around in the smog who have been lost for years and are still trying to find their way home to husbands and wives who have since remarried and to children who grew smart and left town). But I am glad that I came here. As my seat could not be confirmed from Detroit, I was a little uneasy and was the last but one to get in, half a minute before the plane took off. This was the closest threat to my well-arranged but flexible travelathon schedule. 

The plane landed at O'Hare International Airport, unarguably the busiest in the world. Poor pilots, after touchdown and before take-off, have to negotiate through cross traffic of other aeroplanes weaving in and out on the tarmac, without the benefit of lights or policemen. But, after all that, there was the comforting sight of Sharad waiting at the airport. We cruised along the beautiful lake front drive on the Lake Michigan on his apartment in Lake Point Tower. He guided me to the bar overlooking Lake Michigan - dark, silent and pregnant. 

Sharad wanted to celebrate with Champagne (which, unless very good, is a highly over-rated drink, except, I am told, when used for rapid seduction). But I opted, after my long journey, beginning in Washington at 5 in the morning, to good old whisky. We chatted of old times in the Ministry, our battles against labor contractors from Middle East and our successful efforts to protect interests of Indian engineers, doctors and workers. Just then, began a most dazzling and scintillating show of fireworks. To see it from 45th floor, at eye level or even from above, gives a totally different perspective, than just looking up from the ground and ending up with a pain in the neck (as in New York looking up sky scrapers). I marvel at Sharad's ingenuity for such a fabulous welcome. Very simple, says Sharad, the Chinese had opened an exhibition and he had only requested them to suit the timings to my arrival. And, who can produce better fire-works than the Chinese, inventors of gun powder and masters in creating such splendor and riot in dazzling colors.  Bharati looks full of beans, happy and contented and produced an excellent dinner, after which I entered my bedroom to feast on the lights of the city of Chicago. 

This morning we drove to the Consulate General and with an Attaché in tow, I pushed off to the Art Institute of Chicago. Near the entrance itself I saw the bookshop and was lost in the variety of art books displayed. Beautifully produced and so very reasonably priced. I bought a few kilos for Bulbul. I am already lugging a couple of kilos of water and oil paints, acrylic paints etc. right from San Francisco. That is a good father. I would rate the Institute as almost the best in America. It has developed into an exceptional museum over the years ever since wealthy Chicagoans were persuaded nearly a century ago to finance its birth and its steady development. 

What fantastic collection! Barring perhaps the Museum of Modern Art and Louvre in Paris, it houses possibly the largest collection of the world-renowned paintings of Dutch, Flemish and French masters, Barbizon School and more especially of French impressionists. It also has a section on Oriental Art displaying Japanese wood-block prints, Chinese porcelain, archaic Chinese bronzes, even Indian sculpture and Persian and Indian miniatures. 

The major sections are divided into earlier paintings, 20th century paintings, sculpture, prints and drawings, photography, European decorative arts, American arts, classical arts and textiles. It was such an aesthetic joy and revelation to see the real thing, to see the very paintings which have transformed the course of art and of which I had only seen small reproductions. I catalogue below a few of them: 

'Life of John, the Baptist, by Giovanni di Paolo, 'Madonna and Child' by Rogiers vander Weydan, 'Madonna and Child with Angels' by Botticelli, 'Creation of Eve' by Paolo Veronese, 'the Annunciation' by Master of Moulins, Man with a Pink' by Quentin Massys, 'the Assumption of Virgin by El Greco, 'Resurrection' by Garavaggio, 'Holy Family with Infant St. John and St. Elizabeth' by Rubens ,'Young Girl ‘ by Rembrandt, ' Stiff Life with Carp' and 'Christ rocked' by Eduard Manet and the fabulous Claude Monnet masterpieces; 'the Beach at St. Adresse', 'the River', 'the Old St. Lazare Station, Paris', 'Iris by the Pond, a Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte, Pissaro's 'the Crystal Palace', Renoir's 'Lady at the Piano', 'the Rower's Lunch', 'Two Little Circus Girls', 'On the Terrace' etc., 'Sunday Afternoon', 'On the island of la Grande Jatte' by George Seurat, ‘Woman in the Rose bar', 'the Millinery Shop', 'Dancers in the Wings' by Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne's 'The Basket of Apples', 'Vase of Tulips' and 'Madame Cezanne in Yellow Chair'; Vincent Van Gogh's 'Bedroom at Arles', 'Self-Portrait'; Toulose Lautrec's 'At the Moulin Rouge'; Gauguin's 'the Day of the God'; 'Houses at Chatok' by Vlamminck. 

Among the modern masterpieces, Georges Braque's 'Harbor in Normandy', Delaunay's 'Champed Marx', Kandisky's 'Improvisation with Green Centre No. 176'; Picabia's Edtaonist'; 'Portrait of Picasso' by Juan Gris; 'the Praying Jew' by Marc Chagall, and of course, Pablo Picasso's the Old Guitarist', 'Man with a Pipe', 'Daniel-Henry Kahweiler', 'Mother and Child', Henry Matisse's ‘Bathers by a River' and 'apples'. You can also gaze at Joan Miro's 'Portrait of a Woman', Mondrian's 'Diagonal Composition', 0'Keeffe's 'Black Cross', Salvador Dali's 'Inventions of the Monsters', Kooning's 'Excavations' and Pollack's 'Greyed Rainbow'. I have only mentioned some of the masterpieces. 

The city of Chicago boasts of many museums, theatres, operas and has a rich tradition in architecture, which began in mid-1880's. It has produced great architects, such as Jenney, Burnham, Root, Sullivan, Adler, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Van der Rohe. After the Great Fire in 1871, which destroyed most of the city, it needed rebuilding quickly and the need was not for ornate structures, but for height, light, economy; met by no-nonsense buildings which was the hallmark of what came to be known as the first Chicago School of Architecture. The members of this elite group were basically engineers and, architects incidentally, who learnt to replace masonry with iron, steel and glass. Chicago's moist and uncertain soil led to the architectural invention of hollow caisson 'floating foundation'. Although Wright once suggested the feasibility of a mile high building, he is remembered for his graceful and airy designs, use of native materials and the development of the 'prairie house'. 

For the1893 exposition, classical architect Burnham with the help of 'imported' Eastern architects, designed the fair in the form of a 'Great White City' of Roman classical buildings, so dazzling that neo-classical architecture became the rage not only in Chicago, but throughout America. You can thus see white terracota Spanish renaissance skyscraper named Wrigly building, flying-buttressed Gothic Revival Tribune Tower and the replica of a Greek temple crowning the Stone Container Building. 

Sharad had arranged a lunch meeting with some Indian teachers at the Institute of Technology to which we were delayed because I had lingered at the Art Institute and it was drizzling. Finally we traced Professor Saxena, Professor Garg and others, all heads of departments or full professors. Professor Garg was a couple of years junior to me at Banaras Engineering College but we had not known each other then, having not distinguished ourselves in sports, music or some such dramatic thing. We went round the Institute and its departments. It is gratifying to find such a large number of Indians in top academic posts, particularly in the engineering and medical profession all over the States. 

Indians abroad represent India faithfully - sticking to its diversity, but there are signs that attempt to unite, on the basis of ethnic affinity and economic gains, are being made. Most come from our elite institutions and are the very best. The Indian community has the second highest per capita income after the Jews in USA. As their numbers grow and they get better organized, it would be fascinating to project their role as a minority group in US foreign policy vis-a-vis Indian interests. Would the absorptive American society assimilate Indians? Or Indians would retain their identity - social and cultural? What contribution would they make, in the spiritual stream - with all those holy men and gurus ­some genuine, most frauds. 

Later, we went to the South Asia Centre of the University of Chicago and apart from visiting some of the faculty members, spent most of the time in an unbelievably rich library, which possibly has in one place more books on India than any major University Library of India.

You can have them in Oriya, Urdu, Telugu, Gujarati and what have you. Sharad also told me about the excellent medical and other faculties and the number of Nobel laureates at the University. Earlier, Isharat in San Francisco had proudly given the number of Nobel laureates at the Stanford University, where he had taken me and Berkley; I had been on my own earlier. And with what pride they announced the numbers. 

I was very keen to visit the Fermi Institute, the site of the first successful Fission chain reaction in December 1942. It later led to the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 'hallowed' spot has a 'Nuclear Energy' bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, depicting the nuclear cloud after the explosion. But the artist's soul can never lie. Believe me; it looks like a giant human skull. I hope it does not symbolize the future of our civilization, the way we are going. 

We hurried back to the flat, collected Bharati and went to Professor Saxena. His gentle American wife laid out an excellent Indian dinner, cooked by herself, confirming that the best and lasting way to a man's heart is still through his stomach. We talked of various things e.g. the coming American elections and fortified by a few drinks succeeded in provoking the American representative of Air India, who though not a Republican, but with the American hostages still in lran, violently confided that just to assert the American power, they would vote in Reagan.

After dinner I suggested to Sharad to show some sin life; we were passing by the Playboy Club in any case. Sharad, who like other Consul Generals, is a member, took me in. It was not the hub of the Hugh Heffner empire, but a make-shift arrangement. A demure looking young girl came and introduced herself as Cathy “Your Bunny". She looked rather vulnerable, apprehensive and tentative.

While we were trying to find a place we were repeatedly accosted by a 'drunk' who offered to buy us drinks. Not desirous of having his company, we politely refused every time. I think, lonely, he was keen to just talk to someone. Apart from drinking, nothing very much happened there and convinced that what Heffner says is hyperbole, I said we leave. Defending, Sharad said that it was only because of the make-shift nature of the temporary accommodation; otherwise the club was not such a dumb place and offered to drive me to one a little far away from the city, an offer I refused as that was not the purpose of my visit.

Hugh Heffner and his birth place Chicago symbolize the American conflict and an attempt to revolutionize sexual mores in a basically puritanical society. A city which publishes Encyclopedia Britannica and which boasts of magazines like Esquire, Coronet and Christian Science Monitor or Popular Mechanics and even Ebony is also the fountainhead and blossoming forth of all that is represented by Playboy. Heffner himself was very strictly and properly brought up in a Methodist puritanical household. Blessed with an I.Q. of 152 and regarded as emotionally deficient, he persisted in his viewpoint and succeeded in exploiting the unfulfilled dream of lonely and alienated Americans (and others) who would not venture out but can buy for the price of a magazine the illusion of an available alluring woman; a young woman for an old man, a desirable one for the ugly, black for the white and nymphomaniac for the shy. Starting with the Marilyn Monroe centerfold in December 1953, Mr. Heffner never looked back and his empire has established tentacles all over. He has done better than Ian Fleming, who trying to live up to his creation James Bond's life style, rapidly came to a sorry end.

Continued ...   


More by :  K. Gajendra Singh

Top | Travelogues

Views: 3332      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.