Pravin Gandhi’s Travels – Mississippi moon shinin’ on me
“Keep on rollin’, Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shinin’ on me” – Doobie Brothers, “Black Water”
I bid goodbye to my alma mater, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, and drove out early morning at the end of the Summer and onset of the Fall Quarter, after completing my Post-grad study in Industrial Engineering. Thirty-three years later, Georgia Tech is a fond memory of good learning, experiences , classmates, professors and tough times, within and outside the campus. My only possessions were the large, white Impala, purchased for the astronomical sum of $400, a tattered suitcase in the boot, hardly any money in the pocket, no credit cards.
I was taking my close friend, arrived from India just a few days ago, on his way to start his post graduate studies in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and get him started. Its a Tradition: a newcomer came to an incumbent who would take care of the newcomer in the first few days after arrival, orient/induct and set him up. Somebody did it for me when I had arrived in the US, now it was my turn to do the same.
We headed due West, into Sweet Home Alabama.
Driving past Anniston, I thought of my visit there for a job interview with a manufacturing unit. Our American family friends from Chicago were concerned enough to caution me of the dangers for a coloured man living in the boondocks of Alabama.
Once at the University at Tuscaloosa, I explained to my friend the registration process; left him with his advisor, and went to the Univ’s foreign students’ office and secured a couch for my friend to sleep on his first day there, if required. Then I looked up the directory of married Indian students, noted the address of one of them and drove my friend to his house and foisted him on the surprised PhD student and his wife. They hosted my friend for 2-3 days and helped him find a roommate and a place. Follow the Tradition!
It must have been past noon when I left Tuscaloosa, after I had accepted a cup of tea from the Indian student and his wife, total strangers until a few moments ago, and bid goodbye to my friend and wished him success at the University. 33 years later, he is well settled in Atlanta, his fine children are also on their own trajectories, and he could easily retire on his terms. I set off for Destination Chicago.
I took the rural route driving through Mississippi. I was struck by the generally poor standard of life, the predominantly black communities. Thoughts of Civil War, slavery, Roots, racism, the turbulent time of Kennedy, the Ku Klux Klan fleeted in my mind; as did some moving films that I had seen*. I knew some Indian friends at my Univ who sold bibles in Mississippi in the summer, knocking door to door at these homes, probably on that same route. The front lawn of the houses would be littered with playthings of children, a laundry line running across; inside I could imagine an ample mama would be cooking a very generous meal and a teenage girl swinging to a song on the radio “Wowu Wowu! you get the best of my love, wowu wowu!”. I know from my stay in Atlanta how simple, uncomplicated, warm and rhythmic people they were.
I’d like to hear some funky Dixieland pretty mama come and take me by the hand
Come and dance a honky tonk
It was night when I hit the interstate. I pulled up to the side and went to sleep in the back seat. During the night, a policeman tapped on the window and when I woke up, asked me what I was doing. I told him I was sleepy and didn’t want to drive, what did he expect? – and he went away.
I reached Memphis and drove along the river. I wondered if Dolly Parton was anywhere near; crossed over to Arkansas on a bridge over the Mississippi.
I remembered Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, a gift from my brother who was studying in the US. In vain I searched for the ambience of that novel, but one can’t get that from an Interstate Highway, one can only get it from a rural route. A few months later, I would be back for an interview at Keokuk, Missouri, another small town in the boondocks, and would stand on the banks of the Mississippi, imagining Tom, Huckleberry on a raft and the paddleboat steamship midstream.
Well, I built me a raft and she’s ready for floatin’
Ol’ Mississippi, she’s callin’ my name
Catfish are jumpin’
That paddle wheel thumpin’
Black water keeps rollin’ on past just the same
Old black water, keep on rollin’
Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shinin’ on me
It was past office hours when I reached St. Louis and the downtown was deserted and scary. I reached the famous arch and hung around there. The lift to the observation window had closed for the day. I saw the Salvation Army place for a night stay and shuddered. A cop advised me to get away from St Louis as quick as I can. So I was off again, thinking of another night in the car somewhere.
I arrived in Urbana-Champagne at night. It is a famous University town and I stopped at a pub for a drink and a bite. I recalled that a friend from Georgia Tech was now a PhD student at Urbana-Champagne. I called up my roommate at Georgia Tech amidst the din of disco music and students dancing, got his telephone number, called him up and he came to receive me and take me to his apartment. Keeping the school boy Tradition!
Next day, after a breakfast and a tour of the campus, I set forth for Chicago. In the evening I was drawn into the Dan Ryan Expressway, a stretch of which was then considered to be America’s busiest mile, like being sucked into a whirlpool. From the hillbillies and boondocks, I was suddenly in a megapolis. By dusk I was in the home and warmth of my cousins in a Chicago suburb to start the next chapter of my life.
(Another artefact on its way to the shredder: The letter that I wrote in my native Gujarati language to my folks back home on my journey from Atlanta to Chicago)
* “Mississippi Burning”, starring Gene Hackman as an FBI man posted there, much to his reluctance, but deeply sensitised by the racial prejudices and violence. “To Kill A Mocking Bird”, an all time clasic in which Gregory Peck is a lawyer who takes up the brief of a black child who was sentenced to death.