Passage Back to India

WHEN I first met her, I had just returned from three years overseas. During one, I had trained as a junior United States Information Service officer in Brussels; during the second two, I had served in two branch posts in the Congo in Central Africa.

So it was a delight to meet a young woman who had also lived overseas. She had grown up as a "foreign-service brat" in India, Greece, and South Africa. As a college student, she had studied in Europe, visited her parents in Cambodia, and traveled with them when her father served as a foreign-service inspector in Latin America.

On our first date she told me about India: tales of the Ambassador Hotel where snake charmers and men with trained monkeys and dancing bears came to fascinate foreigners; stories of Amir the cook and Piara the bearer and the maharaja's palace where she lived as a child. Since we had just met, it did not occur to me that one day I would see these places.

But now she is back in Delhi - and I am with her. We have been married 25 years. It is winter. The days are pleasant; the nights crisp. At dusk, kites and pigeons and green parrots swoop into the garden outside our hotel window. The parrot squawkings offer a counterpoint to the blits and the blats of traffic.

At dawn, acrid mist blurs the outlines of what's visible of the city from our room. Donanne opens the window, breathes deeply of the pungent haze, and announces that its smell returns her to her childhood more forcefully than does our actual presence in Delhi.

When Donanne lived here from 1952 to 1954 - she had her tenth birthday less than a month after her family arrived - India's population was 360 million. Forty years later it exceeds 900 million. An increase of half a billion people makes a difference.

But it's a difference I do not see. For my part, I am charmed by Indians. I relish consorting with people who have a 4,000 year history. And the truth is, India seems less crowded than I anticipated. Somehow I had imagined that the whole country would be as densely populated as a Calcutta slum. It's not.

I'm more optimistic about India's future than I expected to be. The bullock carts are mainly gone - though they live on in the stories of Donanne's childhood. (Such a cart brought her family's liftvan to their new home in the maharaja's former palace at 1 Bhagwan Dass Road.) The tongas, horse-drawn carriages, have been replaced by three-wheeled motor-scooter rickshaws known as tuk-tuks (because their motors go tuk-tuk-tuk).

MY reading tells me that a rising standard of living may be breaking down India's caste system - although the young man, well-spoken and impeccably mannered, who met our 2:00 a.m. flight would not deign to lift a bag. The question is: Can India overcome the challenges of caste, violent factional strife, overpopulation, and potential drought?

Driving into Delhi from the airport - it was 3:30 a.m. by then - I heard Donanne gasp. She had caught a glimpse of the Ambassador Hotel. I knew the sight of it was catapulting her back across the years to the times when snake charmers set up on the small lawn and imprinted themselves forever in the experience of wide-eyed 10-year-olds.

We visited the hotel the next day. I let Donanne walk about and photograph the place alone. It's rather shabby now, with the small lawn fenced, but it still evokes memories.

The building that housed the American Embassy where my father-in-law worked as a personnel officer is still standing. A minor government building now, its arches - a whole row of them - are covered with plywood into which doors have been cut. In the small garden out front, men sleep and play cards.

As the cab took us along Bhagwan Dass Road, Donanne grew excited. Some of the buildings along it had not changed. "Oh, I remember that one!" she would exclaim. Would the maharaja's palace still stand at No. l? That was her big question.

And I knew that in her mind she was seeing the sprawling single story building, its stucco painted white, with large gardens where seven American families lived. She was seeing the Indians who peopled her life: Amir and Piara, both Muslims, and the Hindu sweeper and the chowkidar, and the dhobi, the washerman, returning with the family laundry wrapped in a sheet and carried on his head. Appearing in her mind was the parade of itinerant merchants who arrived on bicycles, some with silks and brassware, oth ers with gems wrapped in paper, and still others with freshly-butchered meat. And I knew that still very much a part of these pictures was a pre-adolescent girl playing in the garden.

When we arrived at l Bhagwan Dass Road, all we could see was a high metal fence with Indian guards placed at the entrance of the property. The maharaja's palace has been demolished. A two-story building with 12 town houses, we are told, stands in its place. From the little we could glimpse, the architecture is indifferent and not Indian. But what counts is the fence.

It permits representatives of the Land of the Free to live in a kind of posh prison. When a middle-aged American woman with a camera and some memories asks to be allowed to look inside the gate, she is told that she cannot.

So Donanne is experiencing a strange feeling of loss. She is confronting a past for which the markers no longer exist. It is a small matter; it happens to all of us. Still, I do not like watching her confront it.

After a week in India, Donanne makes her peace with what it is and what she remembers it being. Out in the countryside and in smaller cities, horse tongas still clatter along. And bullock carts still clog the roads. The noise and bustle and smells of India turn out not to have changed all that much.

One has the sense, in fact, not so much of loss as of there being something eternal about India. Donanne has reconnected with that eternal something. Her return trip has closed a circle.

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