Dr. Premachandra’s St Louis Pilgrimage: Mapping the Mid-West from a Cadillac

Nartana Premachandra

USA

I. The Magic Briefcase

I awoke in a state of shock on Thursday, March 5, 2015.

Even though I was prepared for the events of that day, the full, daunting significance of what was about to happen only revealed itself to me as I entered waking consciousness that morning.

‘From this day forward,’ I thought, sitting up on my bed, ‘I will no longer have access to a Cadillac.’

It was true. After 46 years of having my father’s Cadillac always at the ready to take me where I needed to go, I would no longer have access to that glorious icon of American engineering, creativity, and radiant, no-excuse panache. We were selling it today.

My father had died the previous December, unexpectedly; and while we would’ve love to have kept his car, it was simply not practical.

Even though I had driven his car now-and-then, I never felt comfortable driving such a big car for daily errands. As my Chilean friends put it, when they sat inside the comfortable vehicle for the very first time, ‘It’s like a living room in here.’

And we couldn’t afford all the expenses that went along with keeping the car—auto insurance and property tax, two of the banes of keeping a car of one’s own. Not to mention, of course, upkeep.

And thirdly—and perhaps most significantly—this 2007 Cadillac DTS was his.  Ever since he bought his first car of the legendary lineage in 1964—a Cadillac deVille, with a body sleek, long, and black (and bearing a modified tail fin)—he always drove Cadillacs.

My dad drove that fine car constantly, as he picked up blood specimens from doctors’ clinics to analyze in his Thyroid Specialty Lab in south St. Louis County. One of his clinics was in St. Peters, Missouri, a good half-hour outside of St. Louis, across the Missouri River.

He went there twice or thrice a week for years; I used to wonder, when his weekly pilgrimage to St. Peters would finish. While he was an expert driver, I naturally worried a bit about him as he grew older.

In the end, his weekly rounds to St. Peters ended in a way I’d never imagine.

But we’re not at the end yet.

We’re just at the beginning.

And it all began, with a briefcase.

*

My dad’s father died, when my dad was only 8 years old. My dad remarked, “He had what they used to call pleurisy. He and another man were in the hospital with the same condition.  The other man survived. My father died.”

He shrugged his shoulders. So his dad had died, leaving his mother with 10 other children.

His eldest sister, Sita, was married. And her husband filled in the place vacated by his own dad.

His name was Mr. Sreerangachar. An engineer by profession, he was a true gentleman, of the oldest of old-fashioned kind; he was both an uncle and a kind of dad to my own dad.

Well, this kindly Mr. Sreegrangachar had a briefcase. And he was going to take his briefcase with him on a business trip to America.

America. A continent which called my dad, like nearly no other.

As Mr. Sreerangachar left for his flight, my dad accompanied him to the airport.  He held onto the older gentleman’s briefcase tightly, as if it were a talisman.

A talisman which would perhaps transfer its luck to him, to one day make it to the United States of America.

We have an old, faded picture of that moment. Little did he imagine its awesome power; not simply would he indeed one day study and work in America, his new wife would disembark upon its welcoming shores on one of the most fateful days in United States history.

 

II. Day of Destiny

My mother arrived in the United States on November 22nd, 1963.

The day John F. Kennedy was shot.

She heard the news before my dad, in what was still Idlewild Airport in New York City. My dad had gone to claim their baggage. A woman from the Philippines was seated in a chair next to her, crying. She too had just arrived in the United States of America, and it seemed as if she already missed her homeland.

My mother noticed an outburst of chatter.  Then someone pasted a piece of paper on the wall.

President Kennedy has been assassinated.

She told my father who didn’t believe her; he thought it was a joke in poor taste.

Later, my dad, a medical researcher specializing in the endocrine system who went to his lab seven days a week, who worked until a few days before he died, who believed whole-heartedly in the failsafe formula of faith, prayer, and hard work, stayed home from his lab to watch President Kennedy’s funeral.

On his desk still sits a plaque: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

*

Not only did my dad contribute greatly to pure science—researching the thyroid gland, and the endocrine system and their relations to diabetes and aspects of gerontology, among other avenues of interest—he and my mother began a classical Indian dance company, Dances of India, in 1977.

It is celebrating its 40th season in 2017. This is a milestone for a minority arts company in the Midwest.

As anyone in the arts knows, you can’t “plan” for your dance company—or your film, or your novel—to break through, gain respect from the community, and be around for decades. That kind of longevity depends upon so many factors I liken it to Level I chaos theory—not only did no one predict Dances of India would be still be dancing four decades on, but even if they had my mother and father would’ve found it incomprehensible.  My mother said, the other day, reflecting upon four decades of being the premier classical Indian dance company in St. Louis, “It just happened.”

That’s the thing about destiny—it just happens.  My dad had no interest in dance whatsoever when he held onto his uncle’s briefcase; that briefcase had sharper force & insight into his future than he ever could’ve imagined.

For in between my dad’s trips to his lab he’d drive us around for dance performances—not simply around St. Louis and Missouri, however, but as far afield as Dallas, Texas, Lansing, Michigan,  and New York City. It is hard to believe now, but in the 1980’s there weren’t enough Indian performing arts companies in NYC to participate in a Festival of India, so the organizers invited us to come. And we did.

But my dad didn’t consider driving his wife, daughter, and students around the country a hassle.

Why not? Oh, certainly, he had developed a deep respect for dance since marrying my mother.

But there was another reason. It’s the reason he—this soft-spoken South Indian scientist—treasured his Cadillac.

He loved to drive.

 

III. Pilgrim on the Interstate

And he loved the interstates. He drove across wide swaths of America without a cellphone nor GPS for decades. Once, he told me, his tire blew out somewhere in Missouri—I think—and he landed in a ditch. From then on, he learned how to maneuver the car carefully for any eventuality.

He arrived in North America in 1958—soon after the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was signed, inaugurating the birth of the interstate. His life here developed alongside the establishment—not just the dream, but the manifestation— of the eternal road. As President Eisenhower put it, in a speech in Cadillac Square, Michigan, on October 29, 1954:

“We are pushing ahead with a great road program, a road program that will take this Nation out of its antiquated shackles of secondary roads all over this country and give us the types of highways that we need for this great mass of motor vehicles. It will be a nation of great prosperity, but will be more than that: it will be a nation that is going ahead every day. With Americans being born to us—with our population increasing at five every minute, the expanding horizon is one that staggers the imagination.”[i]

I can only wonder at the excitement my dad felt, arriving in the United States at such an exhilarating point in time, a time when the country was doing all it could to expand one’s frontiers. Is his response any surprise, when I recently asked him—he who followed politics closely but thought independently—who was the best US president in his lifetime? Eisenhower, he responded, after only a second’s thought.

I spent hundreds of childhood days looking outside the window on our many road trips across America—and Canada. I had absolute faith in my dad’s driving, and aside from a cop or two who pulled him over for speeding (especially in Illinois, just across the Mississippi that forms the natural border between Missouri and Illinois), those drives glimmer in my mind as halcyon explorations of the crazily delicious sprinkle-on-top delights of Americana, as well as explorations of, well…nothing.

Because, for example, between the sudden statue of a moose you spot in Missouri and the tacky souvenir town that surrounds Niagara Falls, you drive through a whole lot of nothing. Most road trips through the US are like that, and I don’t think anything pleased him or me more; they afforded long stretches of quiet contemplation, blessedly empty of cellphones and texts.

We’d only hear the electronic sounder introducing CBS news every hour, and in between those hourly analog town criers, patches of static as we drove through seas of competing, colliding, and fading radio signals.

We saw so much of America dependent only upon road atlases and specifically the TripTiks—little booklets filled with region-specific maps—my dad used to get from Triple A, the American Automobile Association. I loved looking at these maps of the great Interstates and state highways of the United States—while gazing at the blue veins of the Eisenhower Interstate System, the red arteries of other national highways, the capillaries of the connecting roads, I felt I was looking at not a map of the physical United States, but at its cardiovascular system, whose beating heart was the hunger for the road.

And its blood?

No question there.

The automobile.

*

And so we drove, in a Cadillac, through the forests of Pennsylvania, the Smoky Mountains, of Tennessee, the expanse of spectacular emptiness that cradles the Badlands in North Dakota.

I remember so much silence on those trips. My dad hardly spoke by nature—and even when he did, he spoke softly.  My mom, the dreamy artist, enjoyed looking out the window as much as I did.

Silence is a quality so disregarded in our present age of dizzying distraction. We toss silence away like a tissue.  In traditional Asian thought, however, it achieves significance; it is the final syllable into which the sacred four-syllable AUM—the sound of creation of the universe—dissolves into and it is the first syllable from which it emerges.

The syllables of consciousness are nothing but the dream, of silence.

In Japanese thought, silence–between a flute and a zither at a Noh theater performance, for example– is represented by ma—a word which signifies the space between. This liminal space—so effulgent on a road trip— reminds me of a Sanskrit word, a concept from the Satapatha Brahmana (a Hindu text from 800 BCE meaning ‘The Hundred Paths’), with which I have fallen in love: anirukta, the limitless unspoken. An idea that encompasses all that can never be said, can never be known—or perhaps known only if one learns to listen to silence.

I often feel that silence with which I grew up is one of the factors that made me a writer. When my grandmother first came to St. Louis to take care of me as a child, she said, “The silence here is deafening.” (If there’s one quality lacking among the fantastical multitudes of India, it is silence).

It is this feeling of anirukta which pushes us, to find our own way in this world.

And here we were, finding our way in the world in our Cadillac. A Cadillac.

How much did my dad love this car? He loved it so much he shipped it to India in the 1960’s to show to his relatives. My grandmother wrote in her journal, ‘Oh boy! It was a sensation when the car passed thru on the roads…the policeman at the circle instead of giving signals would get stunned and stand in a rigid pose.’

The Cadillac­–car of Eisenhower and Truman, Marilyn Monroe and Jackie O., of Kerouac’s On the Road, sung of by Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen, was now a traveling home for a family of South Indian Iyengar Brahmins.

From Bangalore. A town of which no one in the United States had ever heard.

How could they have heard of Bangalore, when they had barely heard of India?

As I was growing up, in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, I and my family often received the question, “Where are you from?” And every time we said we were Indian, or even that we were from India, well, that was a mistake. For people—men and women, young and old– always, but always responded, excitedly, by saying, “Really? I’m a quarter-Cherokee!”

Sometimes we just laughed it off, and didn’t say anything, and sometimes, we tried to emphasize that no, we were from a country called India–which didn’t necessarily clarify the confusion caused by Chris Columbus’ colossal error of geography.  Once in a while, however, when the fog did lift, we’d receive responses such along the lines of, “Wow. India. It must be hot there.”  Or, “India. Wow. Do you do belly dancing?”

But I didn’t blame Americans then—although I did get a little tired of the Cherokee comment—and I don’t blame them now, when they ask me such things as, “Why aren’t you in IT?” or tell me such things as, “You must be a doctor,” or assume that I am a new immigrant, and that I must be married. America is an unbelievably vast country, which has become extraordinarily more multi-ethnic in the past 15 years. According to The Atlantic Monthly, the Indian population in St. Louis County increased 81% between 2000 and 2012. [ii]

So it’s no wonder, that faced with the sudden surge of population from a far-away country called India—many of whom do indeed work in IT or medicine, and are married – Americans (and most Indians) simply don’t know what to make of me: a writer & classical Indian dancer, who works at a bookstore, who has lived in Paris, in London, and Yokohama, and who may have been “American” far longer than they have.

For I was born in the heart of the Midwest—in the city whose spirit was emblazoned on Charles Lindbergh’s little plane in 1927 as he crossed the Atlantic alone in a flight of terrific daring and wonder– in one of the most historic and tumultuous years in American history.

The year that was pummeled by the assassinations of Martin Luther King on April 4th, and Robert F. Kennedy on June 5th.

 

 IV. Peacocks in the Bible Belt

God. I wonder what they are going to think of us, I thought, as we headed towards Springfield, Missouri. We were in my dad’s Cadillac, heading into the heart of the Bible Belt, for a dance performance for the Red Hat Society.

The Red Hat Society is a society for ladies of a certain age who wear red hats and get together for tea and other social occasions. They’d invited us to perform for their luncheon. Before we began, the Springfield State Representative auctioned off items for their charity event. He was brilliant-–spoke quicker than a rattlesnake’s rattle. I pictured him in 19th century St Louis auctioning off cattle. I spoke to him a bit; we were about the same age. Fellow Missourians.

My mom and I performed a folk dance about a peacock, and a fusion piece (featuring a blend of Eastern and Western melodies) about the goddess of the earth. I tried to describe what I was doing as light-heartedly as possible, very aware that we were in a very conservative Christian area.

They seemed to enjoy it.  On the way back I looked out the window and dreamed. Missouri is so huge. The word itself means ‘People (or river) of the big canoes.’ It’s such a complex state; it was admitted to the US as a slave state in the famed Missouri compromise in 1820 (Maine was admitted in as a free state). There’s the southern culture down in the bootheel, the infamous feuding families of the Ozarks in the Ozark mountains, and then there’s urban Kansas City and St. Louis, and a lot more in between.  According to the old 1855 Colton map of Missouri, you can see Indian Territory marked off on the western side of the state border, near ‘Kanzas’. Above, an area in territorial Nebraska is inscribed with the designation “half-breeds” – descendants of intermarriages of early white settlers with the Sac and Fox Nation.  The map makes no mention of the huge ‘Indian territory’ just across the river from St Louis—the Cahokia mounds civilization, which boasted up to 40,000 individuals in the 12th century. And now we are the newest Indians in the state.

The stories of all these competing and colliding cultures drifted through my mind as we drove, and then I thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote her Little House on the Prairie series in Mansfield, Missouri, just outside of Springfield.

I loved the Little House series. Next to my own immediate family, I knew Laura’s family the best. I knew her mom didn’t care for ‘Indians’, her sister did everything properly but ended up blind from scarlet fever, and her father, well, her father was a dear man of courage who played the fiddle to entertain his Half-Pint.

They always had music in the house, even in a dug-out.  Perhaps that’s one reason why I loved the books so much. I too grew up in a home rich with not just dance, but music. My dad loved Western classical music and thus the Blue Danube was as familiar to me as a Carnatic music piece describing the dark blue skin of Krishna. The compositions of Mozart, Vivaldi, Offenbach, and Gershwin were as soul-stirring in our home as the rhythms of Shiva and the poetry of Saraswati, the goddess of creativity & intelligence.

I adored the description of the natural world which embraced Laura. While I could never have survived those winters, I’d give everything I owned to see the landscape as she saw it, so much of it still utterly untouched in pre-Civil War America:

“The last color was fading from the enormous sky, and all the level land was shadowy. The warmth of the fire was pleasant because the night-wind was cool. Phoebe birds called sadly from the woods down by the creek. For a little while a mockingbird sang, then the stars came out and the birds were still.

Softly Pa’s fiddle sang in the starlight…the night was full of music, and Laura was sure that part of it came from the great, bright stars swinging so low above the prairie.” [iii]

So I was in a Cadillac instead of a covered wagon. And the music I heard came from a radio station and not a fiddle. But the stars still shone brightly above I-44. And the sentiment was the same.

We were pioneers as well, treading through new land while grasping lanterns of our ancestral thought, to illuminate as yet unexplored paths while living and working alongside the legendary Mississippi & Missouri Rivers, which have always inspired exploration.  My dad was perhaps the second Indian in St. Louis—and the first Indian to really settle here—and he came for nothing so prosaic as money but for greater opportunities to research the clandestine, spectacularly necessary operations of a gland no one thinks about unless they have certain problems of metabolism, or Grave’s disease: the thyroid gland.

While he researched this shyest yet most vital of glands, he created, with my mother, a grand symphony of music and dance to accompany him.

Above our Cadillac speeding along at 65 miles an hour, the stars were singing brightly, I was sure.

 

V. The Endless Road

In the end, I was the one who went to the clinic in St. Peters for the last time—an ending to his pilgrimage I never imagined.

I don’t believe it is necessary to go to a sacred spot to achieve the benefits of pilgrimage; our daily commute, our daily drives to the clinic, afford us ample opportunity to access the heights of awareness we need to fully experience the sacrament of our lives, as long as we’re completely aware.

The morning of the day I went to St. Peters, my dad was at home with the flu (and, we found out later, pneumonia and bronchitis.) He had never been sick in his life. I went to work. My mom had just had knee surgery, and was in the hospital.

As I returned home, and pulled into the driveway, my stomach sank. The house was completely dark. I ran inside—my dad was ok, just fast asleep. He had slept all day.

That night I went to St. Peters for him—for we were sure he’d be back to work in a few days.

It was raining heavily as I set out on the highway. After I picked up the samples, I got back in the car to turn around and go home, and at that moment he called me, in the middle of his exhaustion, just to make sure I wasn’t lost.

It was a dark, rainy night, for a girl to be out on the highway alone, after all.

*

Have I ever felt lost in America? A Brahmin girl growing up in Ladue, who speaks Iyengar Tamil at home.

If I have at times, those moments have swiftly passed. For more than anything I am so grateful to have grown up in two cultures, each as natural and self-evident to me as night and day.

It seems to me what we need is balance—not a retreat into one’s own culture, nor a blasé disregard of it. That can be difficult at times.  I think this balance is perfectly illustrated in a friendship my dad had with Amos, a maintenance supervisor at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

Amos, blond-haired, blue-eyed, with a sweet smile, worked on every aspect of our home for more than 35 years–from the sump-pump down below to the roof up above.

The morning after my dad died, he came to our house—we’d set up an appointment with him, a week earlier, to do some work around here.

I told him my dad died. He couldn’t speak. He just hugged me. He later was interested in buying my dad’s Cadillac, “because it’s Doc’s.” But it just didn’t happen. He did do, however, a lot more work for us—and became very protective of my mother and me.

Fourteen months exactly from the day I gave Amos the news of my dad’s passing, there was a knock at our door.

I opened it. Amos’ son.

“Dad’s gone.”

I was so shocked I had to sit down. Amos was only 61.

Looking back on these events, however, I can’t help but feel, that somehow, the Harley-Davidson riding, tattooed Amos and my Cadillac driving, shirt & tie adorned dad, were connected, deeply. As Amos’ son told me, “They were like brothers.”

We are overflowing with maps in this world, between those on our phones and our GPS. But when events like my dad’s and Amos’ death happen, we head into that liminal space, the space of silence and the in-between, where no maps satisfy and we have to create our own.  And if I am not lost it is because I have created-and am creating-my own path.

Just as Charles Lindbergh did, as he flew across the Atlantic, at night. He had a radio, and one flashlight. That was all he had, over fathoms of dark water, deeper than any understanding, the waves ruthless in their velvet embrace.

In St. Louis County, I-170 ends. A mile before it does, there is a sign that strikes me with…amazement and a frisson of fear:  ALL VEHICLES MUST EXIT.

I can’t believe that a grand majestic interstate can end.

But it does.

But hey—if I look hard enough, with the sparkling alacrity of my mind, I can see Amos and my dad speeding off the interstate, away into the infinite on a Harley and a Cadillac. Nothing would please either one of them more.

And that’s something to dance about.


[i] U.S. Dept. of Transportation; Federal Highway Administration.  fhwa.dot.gov

[ii] The Atlantic Monthly, September 3, 2014

[iii] Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (Harper Collins, 1991) pp. 50-51

 

Nartana Premachandra is a Guest Writer for Panorama.