I take myself off to the library earlier than I wanted to because the Met department has issued a thunderstorm warning, and it usually doesn’t go wrong. It isn’t that the four o’clock sunshine will be mild and forgiving, but it does feel more benevolent than the heat at half-past two. As expected, when I step out from the air-conditioned confines of the apartment, I walk into a wall of heat. However, a rustling, redeeming breeze rushes in to mediate, and I make peace with the weather while I turn the neat corners and stop at traffic signals. It is a blessing not to have to compete with motorbikes and scooters for room on the pavement.
I am determined to deposit my books at the counter of my local library and return home without a look at the shelves. My bedside table already has two delectably thick, hardbound books to be read: Elizabeth Pisani’s ‘Indonesia, Etc.’ and Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Painted Drum’. The first one is supposed to give me a glimpse of the country I last visited and adored, while educating me on its history and politics. I picked up the second to indulge my fascination for Native American culture and traditions, of which I am shamefully ignorant. We never learnt Native American history at school; in fact, the gist of what we were taught is that Columbus sailed to the continent and mistook the inhabitants for Asian Indians. We were never taught much about the brutal colonisation of other territories – which, I would think, was important for a country that had itself been victim to imperialist ambitions.
This street looks like a scene right out of Revolutionary Road. Neat houses with trim gardens line the road, and it isn’t difficult to take a trip back to the USA of the 1950s and imagine suburban fancies creating themselves, while also imploding. On a still afternoon like this, I can see a housewife doing the laundry and cooking for her family, having reached a stage beyond the anguish that stems from the rejection of carefully nurtured dreams. She walks around in her printed dress, ennui enveloping her features, movements mechanical and strained. She could be Richard Yates’ heroine, or Sinclair Lewis’. However, this is a theme that fascinates more than oppresses me – probably the reason why I am setting out on an American literature spree again.
Blame it, then, on the flag-draped porch banisters and the incongruous fire station in the middle of a very suburban street, where firemen practise their routines in a languid manner. I wend through the shelves in the library to the section marked ‘S’ and pick up The Winter of Our Discontent. I keep waiting for the right moment to go back to John Steinbeck, and today this model street of low houses and parked cars has inspired me to do so. This isn’t schadenfreude, but an attempt to understand that mysterious phenomenon of middle age that is slowly going to creep up on me, on the people I grew up with, when the vivacious dreams of adolescence will be laughed at and stowed away, only to be taken out stealthily on rare occasions. I don’t even know if it is fair to associate suburban America with the purported security and stability that middle age and twenty years of work bring. However, I sense that it is only the object of ambition that must have changed – become bigger, costlier, and shinier than it used to be – and that the story of the pursuit for it remains the same. Twentieth century, twenty-first century, it really doesn’t matter.