Letters Home, 1952-54
IN June, 1952, Donald Ralston, newly assigned as a personnel officer to the American Embassy in New Delhi, took his wife Tommyanne and their nine-year-old daughter Donanne to India.
The following are excerpts of letters Tommyanne wrote from India to her family in California.
The accompanying essay recounts Donanne's reactions to returning to India after 38 years. June 20, 1952
Embassy people met [our plane] and had a small welcoming party. It was 100 degrees and not too humid with a breeze. They were pleased to see Donanne. She is the tenth child, and now they can start a school.
Our hotel [has] big ceiling fans like you see in movies like "Casablanca," and we run them day and night. After two nights we graduated to a desert cooler. Friday we move to a real air-conditioned room where we will live for two to four months.
People are friendly and interesting. At supper one evening where they had a pet antelope; the host shot a bat with a two-foot wingspread as we watched. The bearer thinks bat-meat curry once a month is good. June 23, 1952
We have been interviewing Indian persons to serve as bearer or cook, sweeper or dhobi.
Since there is no getting around this business of household help, the best thing to do is keep it to a minimum and get those who have good-sounding letters from previous employers.
It is our duty to house the cook and bearer and their families on the premises. You also supply the uniform and approximately $16 per month for the bearer, and in return he runs your establishment.
One has to have a sweeper. I wish you could see the one around this hotel. He sits on his haunches and sweeps a damp rag from one side to the other. Then swaps it around the windowsills, cleans out the bathroom, and the "sweeping" is done for the day.
They have just given us all the thrill of filling out an application for an apartment. It will house seven families. We all may have the fun of guessing the rest of this week as to whether we'll make it and where we'll get the food to put in the kitchen, as it looks like the housing may open up before the commissary does. ... Won't it be sad if we leave the hotel; we'll have to eat without an orchestra. July 31, 1952
We have moved into a lovely apartment. August 5, 1952
We live on a lovely avenue of trees that meet across the top. Big grounds and gardens and a circular drive. The building is white stucco, a former maharaja's palace. Our apartment is bright and cheerful, and the living room has three exposures. Each room has a fireplace, which they say will be needed in winter with these 15-foot ceilings. Right now the bedroom air conditioners are much appreciated. August 14, 1952
When the "meat wallah" comes, he has a little bag in which he brings the water buffalo filet mignon - "undercut," they call it - and he drags it out with a few neem leaves around because they are believed healthy, also a few grains of dirt. You show signs of approval as there's no English there, and if you try a word of Hindi you get such a stream of reply you're swamped.
You take the meat to the kitchen and wash it well and slice it just as you wish, wrap it in wax paper and then freeze it, because it has probably just left the cow and you like the idea of some sort of slight curing.
We are learning to stand back when you pull the drapes in order that the lizards and crickets may fall free.
This is really a good life, and we enjoy it. The weather is getting nicer and that is "Acha," as they say - "Best."
Donanne has a little girl over for lunch and they're happily playing dress-ups.
Bread is delivered via bicycle, also milk (which has to be boiled) and meat. The cook does the buying of the vegetables, and I usually get the butter and cheese.
So far we have had coming by: the sari man again, the basket man with chairs, too, the Kashmir man with jewelry and embroideries and carved wood bits. We mostly look. September 4, 1952
Wouldn't it be nice if our furniture would just get here. When we found it had been in Bombay over a month and hadn't even been cleared for customs yet, we decided we'd just have to have a few people in anyway with our four dishes. By this week's end we will have dinnered eight guests, two at a time. September 22, 1952
Think Donanne did the letter honors last week as what with the furniture arriving, somewhat mildewed, we were speechless. At least the rains had not poured in and the sea crept up, as happened with one of our neighbors' belongings, and ruined them.
The furniture liftvans arrived by bullock cart. As the bullocks tried to get through the gate, the cart began to knock down the brick entrance posts. So the driver unleashed the bullocks, and seven men in all proceeded to jack the 5,000 lbs and, using leverage, finally rounded the corner. Approx one hour to get the last 100 feet, but it's done! May 15, 1953
Wednesday a.m. we went over to the chancery and heard Governor Adlai Stevenson in a brief speech.
We had a garden supper on a hot, blustery evening last week. US candles simply turned over in half an hour of 95 degree heat and popped hurricane lamps. Indian candles at about three cents each stood up fine. June 28, 1953
Tuesday morning we girls went shopping, and while we were in a textile shop, they quickly closed the doors as a mob was coming along insisting that all shops recognize the death of a pro-communist by closing down. We left the shop and in the car got into more of the same mob about a mile away. One man came over with frowns and fists and told us to get out of the place. Fortunately the mob turned up another street just then. July 5, 1953
On our way back from our swim at the pool yesterday afternoon, Donanne said, "Look!" And the sky from horizon to horizon and maybe 1,000 feet deep was loaded with locusts! They had not been starving because, as the children said, "It's raining fertilizer!" So we covered our heads with umbrellas and went to the roof. They changed course twice during the hour we kept checking and are still there this morning. December 10, 1953
Last night we attended an Indian wedding in full style. The groom arrived on horseback, decked with flowers all over his head and streamers of them down over his face. The horse was highly decorated with brass and velvet drapings, with a fancy umbrella atop. The "do" started at 7:00 and we left at 12:00 as Donanne was with us. It will last four days in all. January 4, 1954
A couple of days after Christmas we headed for a spot called Kathgodam and a bit of rest....
Thursday we hired three huge elephants. We got aboard by standing on the elephant's hind leg as he knelt. Then off through a jungle area that was to produce pythons and panthers! The elephants cleared the way and picked up anything that was dropped, and it was just wonderful. The elephants purred along at times like a tractor motor.
One night we went out in a jeep with a battery searchlight. And saw a tiger! He was within 10 feet of the jeep and about 25 feet away as we stopped to gaze in admiration. The biggest, most beautiful tiger I've ever seen - bar all zoos - and he just looked at us for about 15 seconds before we whispered too much and he made a gorgeous leap from his spot in the mustard field across our road into the high and protective sugar cane. An unforgettable sight! March 23, 1954
Well, we have an inkling of maybe being sent next to Greece. Athens is very nice, they say.
We are sweating this wait out again as it's starting to heat up now. But we're all fine and happy and busy.
Much love and love,