by John E. Brush
landed in New Delhi early on a cold morning in January 1966, returning to India after 28 years. Travel from America half way around the earth by airliner had been an abrupt change, complicated by jet-lag. Memories of growing up as a child of missionaries in India mixed with new impressions. India was now much different than it had been when I had left at age 18.
Independence, partition of Pakistan, riots and Gandhi’s assassination had followed withdrawal of the British Raj. India had become a “new” country, promoting indigenous interests and pursuing its own policies.
I wanted to go back to the house and city [where I had been raised] from the age of four–Kharagpur in Bengal. Over the course of the next month I learned that while I could not ‘go home,’ as I remembered it, I could find myself ‘at home’ in India.
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Return to Kharagpur, West Bengal
I went to bed early last night with one of my sick headaches and feeling discouraged about my project as well as my health. I had developed some bowel looseness in the last day or two of my stay in Calcutta and I’m hoping that the medicine from [the New Jersey doctor] will bring it under control. The Roadarmels [a missionary couple I had known 30 years earlier; now my hosts]…have been very nice to me and their house is an oasis of quiet and cleanliness after Calcutta.
My trip here…began with a jeep ride from Calcutta across [the Hooghly River Bridge] to Howrah Station and a three-hour [train] ride in 1st class to Kharagpur. It was slower than I remember express trains in the 30’s…Kharagpur is more congested with people, bicycles and cycle-rickshaws and the maintenance of housing, gardens, etc. seems poorer than it was…The Union Church building [where my father ministered 1923-1946 to Anglo-Indians] is definitely in a run down condition and the Parsonage [is] too. Of course it is always sad to see things remembered brightly to be less perfect in reality. The [Anglo-Indian] pastor and his wife teach in the elementary school which is conducted on the ground floor [of the Parsonage]. They live upstairs….I went to the evening service at the church….There were a few people who remembered my folks, but most are a new generation of strangers…The experience raised a lump in my throat because I couldn’t help seeing my father in the pulpit and old friends in the choir and in the pews. I think this weekend is enough of looking back for me.
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Visit to Gaya, Bihar State
I seem to have passed the first crisis in my travels in India. My health is much improved [since the last letter]…The Sandoz-brand tablets, a wide-spectrum intestinal antiseptic, have been effective…I concentrate my diet on toast, soup, boiled eggs, chicken and rice and eliminate roughage and spices…You see I’m trying to act intelligently and not be panicked!
When I arrived in Gaya I was entirely on my own. For the first time I had no one’s name and address, Indian or American, to contact and get advice…I found I could eat in the [railway] station restaurant without having to take spices…[and]…I was able to reserve one of the ‘retiring rooms’ and sleep in a fairly clean bed, although the location was noisy, being right above the platforms where numerous trains were stopping all through the night.
…I saw the Vishnu Temple, which enshrines a ‘foot print’ of the god on the slope of a granite hill…The adjacent urban area is full of other temples and pilgrim rest houses where 200,000 – 300,000 Hindus come each fall for the big Vishnu festival…[The city] streets are crooked and narrow, just right for pedestrians, oxcarts and rickshaws, but sometimes hardly passable for an automobile…Despite the noise, smells and crowds of people in the bazars, I found myself enjoying the experience and of necessity my Hindi came more easily. I think Gaya marks the turning point in my readjustment to India again.
The best experience was the long cycle-rickshaw ride to Bodh Gaya seven miles through pleasant countyside with green fields of grain, palms and mango trees sheltering the road and numerous small villages. My rickshaw man cheerfully ran the vehicle at a speed between 5 and 7 mph, telling me about various points of interest. He even passed up most of the pony-drawn tongas [two-wheeled carriages]…I reached the sacred Buddhist shrine about one and a half hours before sunset [this is the place where Gautama, the Buddha, meditated about 2500 years ago.]…and had time for photography and sight-seeing…[with] a government-paid guide whose services are free. He could tell me a good deal not in my guide book and understand most of my questions. Such a happy change from Delhi where everything is so commercial!…[There] are Tibetan pilgrims circumambulating the temple built some 1400 years ago by Hindu kings [because the Buddha is also considered the last reincarnation of Vishnu.] The Indian government controls the building and its surroundings and undertook restoration of the [platform] railing of carved stone, some of which is at least 2,000 years old. Outside to the rear of the temple is the sacred Bo Tree…said to be the fourth successive one sprouted from the original Bo under which Gautama sat when he achieved Enlightenment. The Hindu priests, who had possession of the precincts …were dispossessed, which I think was a good move, because one can appreciate the beauty and serenity of the place.
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I realized after my visit to Bodh Gaya that I had experienced my own kind of “enlightenment” there. Kharagpur was no longer “home” but in a larger sense India now became home. Thereafter, during the next five months work on the project I had undertaken went well. My health improved as intestinal microbes were brought under control. I relished many varieties of Indian cuisine. I saw more of the Indian subcontinent than ever before and made hundreds of contacts with officials and scholars. English is widely spoken and used in government administration and business, so language was no problem as I moved across different parts of the country.
In India, people are very sensitive to expressions of one’s eyes and body language and they respond accordingly. Communication is aided by patience and natural relaxed manner. I learned the protocol of interviews with government officials, who held court like minor rajas, giving hearings in the presence of an audience of as many as five or more supplicants, waiting in turn to be heard. Sometimes the officials went to great lengths to satisfy my requests for maps and census data. As a consequence, I was able to collect information needed to study the process of growth in more than 20 cities, large and small, and to analyze the patterns of population change and urban development through several decades under varied historical circumstances. Contacts with Indian town planners, geographers and social scientists were fruitful.
During the next 15 years I made three more professional trips to India–each time with good results.
©Copyright 2003, John Brush