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My Turn : Atlanta On My Mind By Rohit Chopra

August 2007
My Turn : Atlanta On My Mind              By Rohit Chopra

Come August and I will leave Atlanta, where I have lived for seven years. It is a city that I grew to like and love after a slow courtship that was not without its frustrations. From the time my wife, Gitanjali, and I arrived here from Bombay one blazing hot and blindingly bright summer day in the middle of August 2000 to join Emory for graduate study, the city has changed, as, indeed have we. Atlanta has been an inextricable part of our lives and selves, the place on earth we can call home. It has allowed one to experience the promise and energy of America, as well as educate one about the costs that accompany its possibilities. We will miss this city when we go.

My initial experience of Atlanta was one of disappointment. Growing up in India, and never having visited the U.S., one's idea of an American city is an amalgam of scenes of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago from Hollywood films or popular television shows like Seinfeld. I knew that Atlanta had hosted the 1996 Olympic games and that it housed CNN and Coke. I was expecting a city brimming with skyscrapers, bustling with people walking about everywhere, and offering a vibrant cultural life easily accessible to a graduate student.

What I found was a city without sidewalks and distrustful of people who walked—unless one was dressed in clearly identifiable jogging and walking gear. Without a car, it seemed impossible to do anything or get anywhere. A four-mile journey to Emory routinely took an hour to cover because of the chronic delays of the bus. Getting to a mall or grocery store was an elaborate and complicated process because of the limited routes offered by MARTA, the Atlanta public transport service.���I enjoyed visits to the Atlanta High Museum, but the range of its collections and infrequency of exciting traveling exhibits did not quite dazzle. Neither Atlanta Underground, despite its charming kitschiness, nor other tourist attractions like CNN Center and Coke Museum seemed worth repeated visits. Almost any and every cultural or leisure activity in Atlanta cost money, and the tickets were not particularly cheap.

I do not wish to exaggerate the situation: by no means was any of this a crisis, my life was not bad, and being at Emory was a consistently wonderful experience. But the reality of my Atlanta existence was far from the stereotype of the Indian made good in America, cruising down boulevards in a convertible or SUV, a home stuffed with electronic appliances, and conjuring up dollars out of thin air through sheer immigrant pluck. Yaar, tu to America mein aish karto hoga? [You must be having a rollicking time in America?], a friend of mine in India had once asked me.���When I had told him that I deeply appreciated my life here but aish didn't quite describe it, he remained singularly unconvinced.

And yet, Atlanta surprised one, with its serendipitous gifts, slowly revealing its charms. As we moved a couple of years later to a more convenient location, and took one more step along that well-trod immigrant journey—getting a car, Hallelujah!—the city suddenly become more accommodating and friendly. For every vexation or obstacle, it more than made up with a reward. For every square mile of brutal concrete and the urban sprawl of the metro area, it offered lush greenery and beautiful parks. The Atlanta Botanical Garden almost single-handedly compensates for anything else Atlanta might lack on the cultural and entertainment front. The experience of strolling around the rose garden, sitting in the Japanese garden, and viewing the exquisite orchids in bloom at the orchid center can only be called sublime, one of the genuine pleasures of living here. For the annoyance of being constantly inundated in every form of media by one kind of advertisement or another (a fact not exclusive to Atlanta but a feature of advanced capitalist society in general), well, you can pretty much get anything you need in Atlanta. And, of all the American cities that Gitanjali and I have visited—including some better known tourist destinations—I think Atlanta, hands down, is the best foodie city, with a range of excellent restaurants, from Ethiopian to Mediterranean, French to Thai, all-American brunch places to Indian Chinese cuisine.

In his book The Global Soul, Pico Iyer, writing of Atlanta around the time of the 1996 Olympic games, paints a rather bleak picture. Iyer's Atlanta is a collection of generic motels, malls and freeways, a parochial town distrustful of foreigners yet with aspirations to global status, a place trying to paper over racial and economic divides with corporate sloganeering and multination capital. Some of what Iyer says may ring true even today.���The city continues to be racially segregated, a process that is arguably exacerbated by the ongoing gentrification of parts of the city. Driving around parts of metro Atlanta can be bewildering, the relentless sameness of the landscape and sprawl translating into a permanent sense of d�j� vu. A remark by an acquaintance now and then has carried a trace of xenophobia or jingoism.

It is true that my experience of Atlanta reflects my particular situation and relative privilege. But, with due acknowledgment of that fact, the shortcomings that Iyer pointed to in his book do not exhaust the city. Atlanta also represents the attempt to work through the painful legacies and histories of racial division. The city has welcomed immigrant populations from the world over, with DeKalb county home to an astonishing range of ethnic and cultural communities.���

And, even if the city does not always wear its heart on its sleeve, that does not necessarily mean it lacks heart, for the kindness of strangers is often at hand. The day Gitanjali and I arrived in America, as we negotiated the MARTA with four packed suitcases, stranger after stranger helped us on staircases, elevators, and trains of their own accord.

Growing up in India, I lived in many places: Chennai (then Madras), Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, and Rourkela. I enjoyed each city for its own personality, but I have memories of being asked the question—‘What are you?'—countless times in every place. ‘What are you?' as in what is your religion, caste, or regional community. ‘What are you?' as in what do your parents do, how much do you earn, where do you live. In the Indian context, this question is both an inquiry into and comment about one's place in the world. It tells one what are one's entitlements and obligations in the view of society. In other words, it tells one exactly how one far one is allowed to travel by the norms and conventions of Indian social life. In Atlanta, I have not once been asked that question, about how I belong or what is my place in the world. This is, perhaps, the greatest gift and kindness that I associate Atlanta with: it is the best of an American tradition, the openness to be who one is without having to explain one's self or one's difference.

In retrospect, I realize that I wanted Atlanta— perhaps unfairly—to be an Americanized version of Bombay when I first came here. Precisely because Atlanta escapes easy generalization, it should be viewed, and enjoyed, as unique. To end with a clich� (and why not?), and to deliberately misquote Ray Charles, wherever I go there will always be a bit of Atlanta on my mind.

Rohit Chopra will be joining Babson College, Massachusetts as Assistant Professor of Media Studies from Fall 2007. His research interests include: the relationship between media, technology and cultural identity; internet communities; and identity politics in colonial and postcolonial India.

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