From above, it was nothing as imagined. No overflowing rivers, panic-stricken movements or signs of a disaster. But then, distance doesn’t always promise perspective.
The ride back home from the airport under a clear blue sky, along the web of large freeways that festoon Houston, began to reveal the extent of the wreckage Hurricane Harvey had caused while I was away. My taxi driver pointed to an underpass and said, “This was completely under water.” She then reached for her phone and passed it to me, the photo gallery open. “Scroll down,” she said, adding that the images were from her neighbourhood where she had been stranded. High waters. Floating cars. Uprooted trees. People on rooftops.
Only a few days earlier, I had witnessed, from across the seas, Harvey’s assault on my adopted home. From afar, I had seen the waters rise and rise, slaying Houston one gush at a time. Then the rains came to Mumbai where I was. Both my home cities, hitherto separated by time and distance, merged into a single ravaging cascade of deluge and high winds, in conjunction with all their concomitant trauma, despair and destruction.
Many of my significant experiences in Houston will go down as rain-swept memories. Waiting for buses that never came; being stuck without a car at the Battleship Texas site close to the port of Houston; driving in the darkness of a stormy morning. On all these occasions rain pounded mercilessly. Before the downpour, the familiar routine—the moisture-laden air and the melting heat—and finally, that sweet aftertaste of the first raindrops feeding the parched earth. All of this reminded me of Mumbai, of home.
A first-time visitor could be fooled into believing Houston is everything that Texas represents—large swathes of unoccupied land, strip malls, pick-up trucks, houses flaunting not just the American flag, but also the Lone Star Texan one. If Texans are not bashful about flaunting their pride at being, well, Texans, Houstonians, in addition to this, wear Houston on their sleeve.
The Houston story, however, is not about what it is, but what it is not. A radical departure from the conservative ideals of the rest of the state, H-town defies Texas stereotypes.
Founded on the banks of the sluggish Buffalo Bayou in the 1830s by two New York real estate developers, Houston gradually exploded to become the country’s fourth largest city. Buoyed by robust petroleum and shipping industries, a thriving medical centre, and its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the metropolis emerged as a magnet for those who had faith in the American dream of untrammeled growth and endless possibilities. Houston, while offering both, has also long provided refuge to those fleeing life-threatening conditions in their home countries.
Call it the future of the U.S.A., as some posit Houston to be; a future which sees minorities as majorities; a future in which people from Vietnam and Guatemala, Eritrea and El Salvador, South Korea and Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Iran, and beyond, outnumber white people; the kind of future that puts the likes of Donald Trump ill at ease.
In Houston, you find everything and its opposite. Walk along the narrow Europe-like bustling streets in Midtown (a new model for development with pedestrian and bike-friendly designs), and contrast it with the adjoining Freedmen’s Town—a place steeped in history. If Midtown projects the gentrified future of Houston, Freedmen’s Town tries to hold on to its last remaining homes and brick streets built by one of the earliest communities in the city: the freed African American slaves.
I live at the confluence of such contrasts. If I said I lived in River Oaks, I’d be confused for a rich white person doing things like having a pass to the rich white exclusive kingdom of the River Oaks Country Club, inhabiting a mansion or a stone house from the Victorian era, probably with a fence so high you’d wonder what it shielded within, and eating at upscale restaurants in the neighborhood.
But I live in neighbouring Montrose. Montrose of the relaxed bars and cafés brimming with life; streets laced with trees and small cottages with large porches coming alive thanks to the various synergies of people from everywhere; rainbow flags fluttering—a nod to its contribution to bringing the LGBTQ community together—signalling that everyone is welcome here.
If you want to travel the world, come to Houston. With anywhere between 85 and 150 spoken languages, and no ethnic or racial majority, the city—more diverse than New York and Los Angeles—is an oasis in the large state of Texas.
“We don’t have to wait to go to Brazil to give you a taste of it,” a friend from Porto Alegre said one day. Off we went to an authentic Brazilian restaurant—Emporio Brazilian Grill—where I tried my first chicken stroganoff and feijoada. Every expatriate I have met here, has tried to recreate an authentic version of their homeland through food. Our Iranian car insurance provider pointed us to Garson, his favourite Persian restaurant in town. “Don’t leave without trying their koubideh and shishleek,” he said, an order we happily obeyed. Over the years, many a happy meal has been had: Turkish, Mexican, Ethiopian, Greek, Vietnamese, Argentinian. On my part, I have journeyed with people on their discoveries of Indian cuisine at Hillcroft (christened Mahatma Gandhi District a few years ago), my home away from home.
Food aside, Houston, which until not too long ago was a marshy swamp, throws up unexpected bucolic moments. The city is far from a walker’s paradise, and yet, some roads lay out magical walking pathways—sheltered by canopies of live oak trees whose leaves cast a shadow on the ground, a cooling carpet on a summer day. Then there is Hermann Park, the nearly 400-acre lung smack in the middle of the city. This tract is flanked by other salubrious parcels of land: the Rice University campus and the Miller Outdoor Theatre where one can sit on a grassy hill and absorb theatre, dance and music performances.
Houston may not be a match to New York, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. when it comes to museums, but the museum district with its internationally acclaimed Museum of Fine Arts and Museum of Natural Science, and the lesser-known Children’s and Health museums cannot be easily brushed off.
But outside this district, in a territory of its own, is the intimate Menil Collection mirroring the complexity of the city. “It exemplifies the quiet intimacy of Houston with its weird juxtapositions of the ordinary and the monumental,” my friend Raj said of it once. A few metres down, is a sacred shrine. Rothko Chapel is not for everyone, and yet, it invites all those who dare to confront an eerie stillness and calm. Within the modern octagon structure are dark monochromatic paintings by Mark Rothko. A single source of light beams from the roof. If the unusual experience leads to a few disconcerting moments, it also forces you to look inward, as silence and meditation do.
Houston is a place that makes you look beyond yourself, encouraging you to embrace the unknown. It is, after all, the city that sent man to the moon. It was here, at Rice University’s packed stadium, that president John F. Kennedy delivered his famous “we choose to go to the moon” speech. While the workings of the universe are uncertain, what’s certain is that a visit to NASA’s Space Centre can leave you wanting to orbit it. You don’t need to know about the Apollo missions to marvel at the command module of Apollo 17, the last to land on the moon; or be obsessed with our faithful satellite to be hypnotised by its dust.
The various life-giving bayous that insidiously crisscross the city—including the Buffalo Bayou, along whose path Houston’s skyline presents itself as you hit downtown—also take on life-snatching avatars when they swell during the rain. In a series of punishing storms over the years, Harvey delivered the final salvo that wrecked Houston. The unrestricted growth that makes the city what it is, can also break it.
Recently, walking around downtown—where poems on Houston by locals are plastered on billboards in front of tall glass buildings, a fitting one caught my eye. “The city ebbs and flows a route, an action, a set of gestures repeated.” Houston, like many cities, has risen and fallen and risen again; what else can cities do? But its recent trauma, brought to the surface a layer that a sceptical new entrant like me needed to see.
Before Harvey’s devastating landfall, I had had a hard time seeing the good in Houston—now my home for three years. I complained about the faltering public transportation, inability to walk, dependence on cars and a missing sense of community. While most of those complaints are likely to remain, something has changed.
Distance did offer perspective. My heart grew fond of Houston as I saw it lose precious bits of itself. Landing home after four months of being away was like returning to an old love whose value you understood only as an urgent presentiment, when you stood to lose what you didn’t know you cherished.
The difference in Houston before and after Harvey is subtle but palpable; to the connoisseur it’s the difference between the prosaic and poetic. So come to Houston for its green spaces, its art, its independent bookstores, its pork ribs and briskets; but come especially for the people, the backbone of this city that almost broke as it took on the burden of keeping the rest upright and erect.
In the aftermath of its worst devastation, Houston is now a picture of ourselves: exhausted, and yet, unwilling to bend; shattered, and yet pregnant with hope. In NASA speak, “Houston, tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.” The eagle will soar; Houston is meant to reach for the moon.