For the unfamiliar, and for those who couldn’t care less about its socio-political legacy/baggage, Berkeley could be just another town. Its main street, with a string of Indian eateries, saree shops and jewellers, can as well be in Chennai’s T Nagar or Bangalore’s Commercial Street. Other ethic groups can, presumably, get a feel of their own home enviorns in parts of Berkeley.
For its residents, Berkeley is not so much a town as a lifestyle they came to embrace; a social attitude that is not always in conformity with residents in most other towns in the US. Berkeley residents are mostly diehard democracy activists – a term that could well refer to people ‘who literally protest anything and everything, no matter how good something might be for the city and the majority of people’.
Maya Srinivas, a resident not so diehard in upholding the democracy cause, wouldn’t however want to live anywhere else. That her husband Srinivas is a post-doc. researcher on the campus, makes her a Berkeley ‘insider’. Maya took us – my wife and me – for a spin around ‘Berserkeley’, a town where, they say, democracy has gone berserk. Life in berserkvile doesn’t come any cheaper, says Maya, who pays nearly thrice as much house rent as she did in Denver, for a single-bedroom dwelling.
Telegraph Avenue on Thursday afternoon was bustling with shoppers, pavement sellers, and panhandlers who flog ‘Street Sheet’, a tabloid of the homeless, holding out a plastic cup to collect small change. Pavement shops are one of the many un-American aspects of Berkeley. Hawking is okay here; and it is, for some, an excuse to making a living. According to a old-time resident, many of them are illegals. I read a website comment that held it is the city’s illegals who make Berkeley what it has become – retarded.
We move on to a more pleasant, and vibrant, sorroundings – the UC campus. The crush of humanity on Sproul Plaza reminded my wife of T Nagar’s Ranganathan Street, Chennai. At the start of the academic session Sproul gets crowded with activists who set up stalls to recruit freshers to student bodies with their own social and community agenda upholding causes fancied by self-described intellectuals, progressives, visionaries, and queers.
An activist group was seen staging a street-play, featuring detenus in orange overall, masked and chained, and volunteers carrying ‘say-no-to-torture’ placards. On way to the library is a massive panel displaying portraits of Berkeley alumni. Those featured were mostly overseas students, many from India. “Berkeley has taught me the meaning of persistance,” says Sarathi Bhattacharya in his endorsement of the institution where he was able to pursue his studies through privately funded fellowship.
“Berkeley has taught me to listen better,and scream louder,” says Maxime Stinnet. Says another student, “Learned here how to be a big fish in a big pond”. M S Gidda,a yet another student, says Berkeley was for him ‘a two-year Boot Camp’.The collage of endorsements from a thankful alumni is part of a campaign to raise $3 billion for faculty, students and programmes by June 2013.
Maya took us on a conducted tour of the four-storey library; and drove us around the university’s recreation complex with a massive gym and swim-pool, so well equipped that Olympic hopefuls get their training there. Our next halt was at the muncipal pier from where you get a hazy glimpse of the San Francisco downtown high-rises, flanked by the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Maya says the scene around has a contemplative effect on those with much on their minds – ‘I come here whenever in a crisis of faith’. She has been here counless times, says Maya,adding that her daughter Ila who went through liver transplant at five months of age had spent most of her time in hospital since birth. The pier is where Maya comes to reflect, to meditate and introspect – ‘the place reinforces your insignificance’.
We wound up our day-trip of Berkeley with ‘chena kulche’ at Vik’s. The desi joint functioning out of a warehouse is said to be so old and popular that long-time California residents consider Vik’s as ‘mother of all chaat houses in the Bay Area’. Maya sure knows her Berkeley.
I have a question – why do they put so much haldi in chena ?