Summers away from US shaped my life

Actor Chetan, who studied in Chicago, describes how he spent his holidays in Karnataka villages.

Chetan Ahimsa

School’s out for summer/school’s out forever!’  Such was the youth anthem—popularised by the 1993 coming-of-age film ‘Dazed and Confused’ --- when the final 3 pm classroom bell rang in the first week of June at the end of each study year. 

School was out and summer was in!  For three months from June to August, my backpack would be stuffed in the back of our closet to hibernate and gather dust, while multi-coloured shorts, tank-tops, and Hawaii sandals lay strewn across my bedroom floor.  It was Chicago, USA, ‘The Windy City,’ where the yearly weather forecast ranged from frozen tundra cold to blustery hurricane wet and everything in-between.  Chicago was where I spent the first 18 years of my life; and I fondly reminisce its 4 distinctly pronounced seasons, each with its own dos and don’ts, wears and wear-nots, and of course, contextual memories. Autumn had colourful leaves and school-time novelty; winter had snow-ball fights and holiday lights; spring had April showers and tennis season; and summer—well, summer was simply an extravaganza!

For that quarter year, Chicago came alive! Unlike here in India where summer is often associated with sweaty days, power cuts, and dehydrated citizens, summer time in Chicago reminded me of a three-month joyous gala where everyone was invited, age no-bar.  Music concerts at Grant Park, food festivals in Navy Pier, outdoor film screenings near Michigan Avenue, Cubs vs. White Sox baseball games, and of course, the city’s most enviable possession—its bustling beach off of Lake Shore Drive. The time to be outdoors had come, and Chicagoans maximised that opportunity with gusto.

Personally, however, summer meant a transitional period of introspection, a realisation of the turbulent school-year that had been and a preparation for the enigmatic one I was about to embark on.  Those 23 summers I spent in the USA can be divided into three temporal categories: firstly, growing years (up till 15 years of age); secondly, high school (from 9th grade to 12th grade); and thirdly, college time (in pursuit of a university degree).

As a youngster, I spent a vast majority of my summers away from Chicago and in Karnataka, understanding my roots.  My parents prioritised the hybrid and multi-faceted nature of my identity, placing special emphasis on our mother tongue Kannada. While in Karnataka, I travelled to historic locales, engaged with local denizens, spent time in villages, attended plays and performances, ate mangoes and kulfis, interacted with impoverished children, and even prepared for the upcoming academic year by reading older students’ text books. The night in early September, I had to leave Karnataka and return to the States; I would weep profusely. My connections to Karnataka and Kannada had become conscious, subconscious, even visceral; and I would have to wait another nine months before experiencing it all again. 

  During the summers from 9th to 12th grade, I prioritised studies, sports, and music. I absorbed a range of reading material from the daily newspaper to great classics, expanding both my repertoire and ability to critically analyse. Activities such as swimming and tennis, two sports I competed in at high levels, were summer-time staples. Finally, I, as lead saxophonist in my popular high school marching band, practised the instrument daily.  And driving my mother’s car around town (16 year-olds can officially drive in the States) was a special high!

  My college summers saw an independent version of me. I enjoyed living (and cooking!) on my own as I worked in several cities across the US. My jobs ranged from handling a Supreme Court case with the State’s Attorney’s Office in Chicago to challenging growing police brutality with the ACLU in Washington DC to researching grassroots performance culture in New York City.  The summer months I spent studying the socialist structure in Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark) as a late teenager helped me realize the importance of an equitable socio-economic paradigm in engendering human rights and happiness for all citizens.  On the ‘fun front,’ my Yale classmates had recognised me as host of the most entertaining semester-end parties the university saw that year—a talent that I have truly lost touch with over the past decade and a half.  

‘Summertime’ remains an unforgettable 1930’s song of legendary composer George Gershwin. The first line begins as so: ‘Summertime, and the living’s easy.’  As a hyphenated identity, I have related to his interpretation growing up and feel it my responsibility to help make the ‘living easy’ a reality in India today. 

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