INDIA

 


VADODARA (formerly Baroda) Here I was in northwestern India, visiting Ron’s college roommate, Amu Pandya, who has visited in our home several times, and his family. They kept asking me if it was too hot there. I told them about Louisiana. No contest. Wish you could have seen me looking swish in a sari, or in the punjabi suit which is more popular with the young women, not being six yards of fabric to keep track of, but rather just a tunic over pajama pants, with only a three-yard scarf tossed airily over one shoulder. They've given me two suits, and a daughter-in-law, Manjari, loaned me a couple more, so I've gone native. You should see the double takes I get, walking out on the street in one. Manjari took me shopping, riding on the back seat of her motor scooter, scarf flying.

First, I arrived in Bombay, now named Mumbai, and was put up for the weekend in the home of Amu and Jyotsna’s friends, the Sharad Patels. It's a mansion, with marbled and tiled walls and floors, and latticed windows and all sorts of ingenious cooling effects in the architecture. No central air conditioning. But there was a window unit in my guest bedroom. And an enormous square mosquito net over the king-size bed, secured to the four corners of the room.

There in the dense city they have surrounded their home with narrow, tall trees which have created a sort of sky-high green belt around the house, and in these trees there were so many different kinds of birds that I taped their calls, yearning to know their names. The doves were there, too. I swear their song was a combination of Kenya’s "Coo coo. C’ cook coo coo" and South Africa’s "Krrrrr. coo coo, namely, "Coo cook. Krrrr a krrr a krrr a coo."

Amu, who is retired, had come down to Mumbai for three days of business meetings in his capacity as director of a philanthropic program run by Sharad's company, Aspee, which manufactures and sells spraying equipment for farms. The special program benefits Indian farmers, and this particular set of meetings was called for the board to ratify the wording on application forms that were to be sent to farmers all over India to apply for the "Farmer of the Year" award for the next year. On it, the farmer has to answer all sorts of technical questions about how he runs his farm. Last year was the first time they ran this competition. The award, which comes with a hefty sum of money and recognition at a presentation banquet in the city, was named for Sharad's father, himself also a philanthropic industrialist. Adjusting to needs they stumbled upon from the first year’s experience, this year there will be three award categories: best man farmer; best woman farmer (named for Sharad's mother); and best rain-fed farmer (those not able to use irrigation).

So while Amu was busy at his meetings, he had arranged for a cousin, a lady who is a licensed touring guide, to give his brother who lives there in Mumbai and me a personal tour of some of the high points of the city in one of the chauffeured Aspee company cars (with air conditioning J) She was a garrulous friendly sort, and we three had a high old time seeing the city.

At one time a city water reservoir near a large Jain community in Mumbai was not covered. The Jains are a sect who maintain Temples of Silence where they place their dead on the steps, to be disposed of naturally by vultures. They feared bits were being dropped by the birds into the water supply, so they covered this enormous reservoir, topped it with soil a meter deep, and planted a public garden over it for everyone to enjoy, complete with grass, park benches, hedges, miles of paths to wander in the cool of the evening, and lots of charming topiaries — camels, bullocks pulling a cart, monkeys, etc. I must have looked like an exotic part of the scenery, too, because after I'd been taking pictures a while, a young girl ran up behind me calling, "Auntie! Auntie! Please take a picture with me!" And sure enough, a relative produced a camera and shot the two of us together.

We went to Gandhi’s Bombay three-storied home, now a museum, housing a wealth of material accessible to researchers. There are photos, books, journals, and papers carefully stored in cabinets, plus stacks of string-tied browning papers in piles on top of all surfaces waiting to be processed. Amu’s father worked with Gandhi for his movement. One night Gandhi telephoned Amu's father up in Vadodara, and asked him to come to Mumbai and talk with him right away. It was the night before the day Gandhi was to be arrested. He had received forewarning, and he wanted to discuss with Amu’s father some details about what he wanted done for the movement while he was in jail, Amu told me. Amu, who was about nine at the time, asked to go, too, and says he remembers the trip well. The house/museum now has dioramas depicting many of the main events in Gandhi’s life, objects he owned, and his bedroom as he left it, with the pallet on the floor, his low reading table and lamp, his watch, and his spinning wheel. Many other tourists, mostly Indians, were visiting the day we were there, and it was crowded.

That day we also went to the Prince of Wales Museum of Mumbai, which was obviously started back during the British raj, and really needed two weeks to "do" properly. After that visit we went to a crafts emporium where I enjoyed spending about six times as much as I meant to.

Next day, Amu and I took the train north to his town, Vadodara, which is pronounced so fast the British thought it was Baroda, and called it that for years. Lunch comes with your train ticket, and was delicious. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was; just that it was so good. At one point our train was stopped for an hour or so because of an accident ahead on the line. Our car happened to stop right by a tank car on another train, also stopped, on a track parallel to ours. It was a milk tank car, and that led to a brief impromptu seminar in dairy tank car construction, because Amu himself, while a professor of agriculture engineering, had been the one who spearheaded the design of India’s own dairy tank cars. They couldn’t be simply copied from other countries’ designs because of India’s different climate, geography, and engineering systems.

A good friend of his named Kurien is recognized as the father of the "Dairy Revolution" of India, having mobilized farmers to create vast milk collection cooperatives to deliver milk straight to market, bypassing the old traditional impoverishing middle men. Amu’s shiny tank cars transport the milk gathered from a grid now covering almost all of India. We went and visited this mover and shaker, Mr. Kurien, in nearby Anand. He is nearing retirement, and has turned his National Dairy Development Board over to a woman who is his match for dynamism and far-sightedness, in addition to being young and beautiful. And the board has moved far beyond simple milk collection to such nation-wide programs as stock breeding, dairy products proliferation, stock feed development, a vet pharmaceutical industry, and family welfare. It’s a far cry from the days when cattle had been bred, if at all, for draft animals, and cow dung was a more important product than milk.

Another of Amu’s mover and shaker friends runs an energy research institute there in Anand, where two among the current projects we saw were simple solar-powered cooking stoves designed for home use and mechanized drying equipment for preserving foods. The institute is associated with the local university in Anand.

On we went another day to Ahmedabad, site of Gandhi’s ashram, or religious retreat, during the days of the movement for an independent, self-dependent India. Gandhi is recognized for teaching India, and thereby freedom seekers around the world, the principles of ahimsa, non-violent resistance. Here among a well-done series of displays featuring his activities, sayings, and speeches, I was riveted by this quote accompanied by a simple drawing of Kasturba, his wife: "It was from my wife that I learned the lesson of ahimsa....I had always tried to make her bend to my wishes. On the one hand, she would firmly refuse to do so and, on the other, patiently bear with all the hardships that I would inflict on her in my obstinacy. It was her peaceful opposition that opened my eyes. I felt ashamed of myself and was rid of the foolish notion that it is my birthright to rule over her." You could say he made Rule Brittania make the same sort of a discovery.

Amu and his several siblings all have their homes together on the same street in Vadodara, and the Mumbai brother has an empty lot there waiting for the house he's going to build on it when he retires. The Pandyas have created their own lively retirement community right there on one long block, and named the street Sripalli Society. Actually, several of them are still working, mostly M.D.'s. In fact, every other person in his extended families’ offspring seems to be an M.D., too!

Among these Indian professionals, it’s not uncommon for a professionally trained woman to stay at home and not practice. Manjari, Amu’s eldest son’s wife, is a lawyer, yet she was expected to stay at home and rear their two very bright kids, now approaching their teens. The boy, is an avid pitcher for his school’s cricket team.

Evenings I joined Amu on his walk down Sripalli, where we’d bump into one or the other of his relatives coming or going, and out along the busy cross street lined with many small businesses in carts up and down it. He was disappointed to find I already had some house flip-flops when he wanted to patronize one of the street vendors and buy me some thongs to wear around the house. But I met the man who does their ironing there in his little ironing kiosk, and took a picture of him to send back. Jyotsna has a lady come in to clean kitchen pots and do their laundry. Her 9-year-old daughter sweeps the floors. They’re members of what used to be called Untouchables, but now are termed the Disadvantaged Class. They are allowed to get an education now and try to better their lot in life whereas they couldn’t before Gandhi.

I find Amu so Gandhi-like. He and Jyotsna live extremely simply in a house he designed. He employed "solar-passive" features, which, he's assured, will make it impossible to sell his house because it's so eccentric. For example, there’s a shaft up the middle of the house for hot air to rise in. There was a lemon tree planted in the garden right outside my guest room window to help cool the house. Sure enough, if I'd go to bed with the ceiling fan turned on, on an especially hot night, soon I'd turn it off and a cool drift — not a breeze or even a draft — but just a gentle drift of cool air dropped in on my bed from the lemon tree. Their gardens occupy triangular-shaped spaces because the house is angled on the property so as to catch the prevailing southwest breeze that comes up from the Bay of Bengal some fifty miles distant. They love their house.

Jyotsna wears saris, and Amu wears a simple dhoti (winding white cloth plus tunic) while at home. He picks their own jasmine blossoms and other flowers to use in yoga and meditation before a little shrine daily, and they both tend their tiny, maximized garden space. Jyotsna's daily ritual is mostly taken up with food preparation, and lovingly watering the small gardens containing an amazing variety of both trees and flowering plants. One day, Jyotsna and a favorite teenage granddaughter who came and stayed with us for a couple of days during a school vacation, took a stepstool out into the garden so she could tie plastic bags around some small, developing fruits, guavas, to keep roving monkeys from stealing them.

At both the Pandyas and the Eapens (in Bangalore, my next stop) they always pick a few jasmine blossoms, mornings and evenings, while they are sharing their heavenly scent most profusely. They’d drop some blooms on my bed, or sometimes just hand me a couple to carry around and sniff.

BANGALORE "Welcome to the land of coconuts and bishops!" boomed a friend of Eapen’s who is director of an ecumenical conference center. Thomas, the disciple of Christ who became Saint Thomas, brought the Gospel to Kerala in South India, and ever since 2 or 3 A.D. the Thomasine Christian church, whose history thus predates those in the West, has been proliferating with congregations and bishops .

The Eapen K. Eapens, devout members of their local Thomasine church, live in Bangalore near the south tip of India, which is where I flew next after being up north of Bombay with Pandyas. Eapen and I got our master’s in journalism together at Syracuse University, and kept in touch over the years. He, first alone, and later with Elizabeth, his wife, used to visit us in the States, too.

I had asked them to let me meet people rather than touristically chase around to look at temples when I got to Bangalore, and they swamped me with lots of wonderful encounters. One evening we even went to a senior citizens club they belong to mostly made up of retired government officials. Those folks acted like kids together. Ostensibly they had a serious program agenda to observe Ugadi, a Buddhist celebration, that night. Having taken care of that, they then talked several volunteers into going up to the mike individually to sing a song, and from the head-nodding and finger and toe tapping I think most of them knew every one. They also played two vocabulary games on pieces of paper which were passed out. The women, all in saris (me too), had all segregated themselves to the right side of the room, and men to the left. To change that situation and to warm people up for the first game, the emcee said this next game was "something you can do with your husband in public," and everybody paired off to guess the words for the game together, with much joking, and then applause for the winners of the most correct answers. After the games, everybody adjourned to a plateful of food with a cup of tea at the back of the room and out in the yard . There was lots of socializing, plus a few introductions for me. These all seemed to be professionals. Most people were identified to me first by how many relatives are in the U.S., and then what part of government they’d been in.

I really enjoyed how playful they all were with each other. Out in the yard, one guy on his new motorbike was garnering admiration from both sexes. It reminded me of a bunch of high schoolers. I was quite surprised when his wife, one of the most sober-looking women, in full elaborate, gold-threaded sari, hopped on the back, sidesaddle, and they roared away home. Most of these people had arrived in cars. Actually though, it seems that more people ride motorbikes and scooters than cars in India.

Eapens relished arranging for me to go to two significant expensive clubs they don't belong to, but got member friends to take us. One is the Bangalore Club, which the British established during the raj, and allowed no Indians into (until Independence in 1948). The other is the Century Club established by 100 Indians at the same time as the Bangalore Club, expressly for Indians. They're like country clubs, and the original traditions and services have supposedly been kept the same and up to snuff all these years by the descendants of the original servants. The service was much better at the Century Club. Winston Churchill still owed nine rupees to the Bangalore Club, on a bill duly framed and on display in the lobby.

Dr. Pandya, a sister of Amu’s, whose husband is also an M.D., lives down in Bangalore, and had us all over for a wonderful dinner and good, world-wide, far-ranging conversation. They furnished us with a car and a driver every day I was with Eapens. Was I ever grateful for that favor. Otherwise, both there and at Amu's, we rode auto-rickshaws, which are motorized by what sounds like a lawn mower, and indeed starts with a yank on a long lever, has a horn that sounds like an angry cicada, and has no springs. The streets are not well maintained, so very bumpy riding with no springs.

Dr. Pandya’s daughter and son-in-law and two children live in with them. The son-in-law runs a knitwear factory, one of several owned by his family, which Eapen and I went out to the country to visit on one of my days there. They're getting their own bar code number, and soon we'll be able to tell which of the tee-shirts we buy labeled "made in India" are made in their factory. We watched huge knitting machines create bolts of fabric, then were shown upstairs to the cutting and sewing rooms, and I received three polo shirts made right there. Eapen got a nightie to take home to Elizabeth. The son in law’s family are very conservative, and even though the young wife (Amu’s niece) is an M.D., the father-in-law requested she not practice since, among other reasons, she would be touching male patients’ bodies, so instead she co-manages the factory with her husband.

I just have to mention the poverty in India, which was right up in my face every time we'd step out on the street to go anywhere in the five cities I visited. One day something seemed vaguely wrong with me and I had to figure out what it was. Finally I tracked it down, after ruling out travel fatigue, homesickness, and indigestion; it was simple depression. It seemed to have built up and descended on me from day after day assaults on my senses and sensitivities. Out in the countryside, slums and beggars disappeared. But within the cities, there are thousands of hovels, each about ten-feet-square or less, made of dirty, earth-stained blue plastic or thatch, with people living in them, lined along paved roads, or on sidewalks and streets, or filling open spaces between developments. At traffic signals when cars stop, very dirty beggars often spread out among them tapping on the window for a handout, with exaggerated looks of woe on their faces, a borrowed baby in arms, or displaying an actual crippled limb. My hosts always said not to contribute because it encourages such behavior, and there is government provision for beggars so they don't have to beg, whether they actually get it or not. It's called a "Cess Tax," meaning (despite the spelling) tax payers are assessed a tax to provide basic necessities for the poor.

Since Eapen is sort of known as Mr. Journalism in India’s mass communications field, it was easy for him to arrange having a reporter from The Hindu newspaper, interview me. He really did his job well because he got me to incautiously say things I had no memory of spouting until I saw them in print in his story. "She ventured out often, amidst all the garbage, and hordes of people. ‘My eyes in Bangalore always go to the dustbins and the overflowing garbage on the sidewalks. The movement of pedestrians and animals along with vehicles on the road shocks me,’ she said." Ouch. But he did also accurately quote me about how I found their press: "Indian press is much more lively, a lot fresher than newspapers out there in the U.S."

I was so obsessed by the poverty at first that it took a lot of introductions to such people as that visionary who orchestrated a national network of milk cooperatives among country farmers, which took the distribution and profits out of the hands of middlemen and put it into the farmers’ pockets, to wrest my attention away from the ground so I could look up and see some of the overreaching, widespread successful programs going on in India. They just have such a population overburden, it's very hard to see past the poverty to the monumental successes such as the green revolution and the elimination of starvation not many years back; the reusable energy research for farmers and the farmer of the year programs; or a national reforestation project.

One last spot of fun in my India venture: the Cyber Cafes in Bangalore, the Silicone Valley of India. What a lark to enter a coffee shop, buy a cup of coffee and an hour of time on a mega-powered computer for a dollar. Very up-to-date young Indians in jeans and polo shirts, some dangling motorbike helmets, were meeting there for dates, and their loud rock music was knocking my brains out. But with access to a computer and printer, I was briefly plugged into my email and the whole wide world.