Editor’s introduction: In Spring of 1968, Jack Adamson accepted a one-year Fulbright Scholarship to teach American and English literature at the University of Delhi, in Delhi, India. Four of us–Jack (then age 50), Peggy (age 47), brother John (age 17), and I (age 11)– journeyed from Salt Lake City to take up residence there, where we lived from July, 1968 through April, 1969.
In memorable and often poetic prose, this essay tells the story of that experience.
Fulbright to India
by Jack H. Adamson (1970)
It was late in the morning of July 5  when I awoke, still cross from our late arrival owing to interminable delays in customs, at the immigrations office and with the police, owing also to further delays when somebody’s baggage was lost and because the bus driver was missing. After he was found, awakened and set in cautious motion, the officer in charge of the bus had drifted off somewhere.
We had arrived at our hotel at dawn, weary, wondering why we had succumbed to the scented lure of adventure in the first place. It became more unaccountable as the moment neared when I must stop anticipating and start working, for I was not the type that ordinarily applied for a Fulbright; it would never have occurred to me. I had my graduate students, who looked on any absence with disapproval, my modest teaching load, my research and my committees, an orderly, predictable life until this letter had arrived.
Couched in the unfailingly polite language of the English-speaking Indian and occasionally developing the faintest touch of the exotic in the syntax it reminded me that 1967 marked the three hundredth anniversary of the publication of Paradise Lost. How could the writer possibly have known the delight I would feel at being reminded of this from the land of spice and mine? In view of this fact, he had continued, could I possibly come to the University of Delhi to give a dozen lectures or so on Milton’s poetry; if not, might I be interested in some future possibility?
Instantly my dubious mind provided me with a dozen suitable reasons for declining. How, before answering, I thought I should let my wife read the letter. She was, I believed, a registered Republican, and she was, if anything, more conservative than I, and so it seemed that without risk I could afford one of the little courtesies that matrimony seems to require.
It had been a grave mistake, for she had unpredictable taken the stubborn line that we should try to go the following year. Her reasons were sound but annoying: we were not getting any younger; India was a subtle magnet for every sensitive soul; it would be good for our children, who sometimes showed signs of becoming insensate and spoiled. In short, she was attracted by the idea.
Now we were there. When I pulled back the drapes and opened the Venetian blinds, the muscles in my eyes contracted painfully; I had to turn away until the blackness was gone. The hotel was air-conditioned, but when I felt the shock of the light, saw the stunted vegetation, sensed the shifting desert under the sparse cover of shrub and dry bunch grass, I understood that not all of our new experiences would necessarily be pleasant.
When I looked out again, I saw a building, stained and discolored with age, a single dome rising above flaking walls. Around it the lone and level sand stretched in all directions. Later, I asked the room boy what the building was. He seemed surprised that anyone would ask such an obvious question.
“It is a tomb, sahib,” he said.
“Whose tomb?” I asked.
He shrugged wearily but knew his duty. “The tomb, sahib, of a man who did not wish to be forgotten.”
We did not know then how many thousand such tombs there were, nor did we know that three domes rising above the walls always signified a mosque but that one dome, no matter how melancholy a reminder of mortality, was always a tomb. We still had before us one of the delights of India, the sight of those tombs whose occupants are still known: the tomb of Akhbar, the Taj Mahal, the equally beautiful Itmad-ad-Dolen, tombs so beautifully conceived, so delicately yet powerfully built, that one could believe, at least in their immediate presence, that time had been given a permanent check,
Our first overwhelming impression of India was the heat with temperature near 120 degrees and no breath of wind. When I told the muscular Sikh doorman, magnificent in white uniform and yellow muslin turban that we wished to go to Flag Staff Road, he said “Old City, sir,” and gave the cab driver instructions in Hindi. The leather seats of the cab burned whenever our skin touched them; wherever we sat or leaned, wet spots appeared instantly on our clothing. Opening the windows for a breeze, we were seared with tongues of flame; closing the windows, we steamed and roasted. A half-hour’s drive under the pitiless sky taught us more about India than can be learned from books: why Indians eat their main meal long after dark; why shade trees, especially the richly leaved pipul and mango are sacred; why streams and ponds usually become sanctuaries or holy places, and why the Himalayas, the kingdom of the snows, mean so much in the symbolic life of the Indian.
The heat was a physical assault. I tried to tell myself that it was nothing more than Phoenix, Arizona, without air-conditioning but it didn’t work. We endured for nine days, incessantly working to keep the ceiling fans turning. It would probably have been wiser, in that heat, to do as most of our neighbors did, simply endure without fans, than to fret about having them fixed. From this and other similar experiences, we came to realize that a pastoral society is perennially attractive; a technological one is still endurable, but one in between is impossible. Where there is an inefficient technology, one has all its burden but seldom any of its benefits.
After nine days that seemed like nine weeks, the monsoon came. Who could have realized that so much green lay hidden in those black rifts that came scudding from the west. The rain swept and passed over, then returned and poured; finally exhausted, it would drizzle for hours then sweep and pour again. Out of that urine-soaked clay, vines writhed, grasses shot up above the bellies of the oxen; that coppery sky once a pale infinity, turned deep violet and in it clouds would build towers twenty thousand feet high, then dissolve and create them again. The great relief was that the temperature fell twenty, sometimes thirty degrees. Strangers to India, we learned on our pulse what the monsoon meant and we loved it: the pattern of sounds, urgent, gentle then roaring as if the world would soon be awash; a lull, with the fresh winds washing our bodies and giving us the sleep we had missed for nine nights when the bed was a fevered nightmare.
When the monsoon came, I thought it would be all right, that I could quit worrying about electric fans and begin to work and study and write. All things which, in that manic sun, I had despaired of.
After our arrival, and before my work at the University began, we had to consider, for the first time in our lives, the problem of servants. In talking it over, we thought it might be best to live in India as we had at home: Peg would do the marketing and cooking; the boys and I would help with the dishes and the cleaning. But a friend at the United States Educational Foundation, to whom we confided plans, shook his head. “In India, ” he said, “I think you don’t really have that option. We must find work for everyone if we can; already your servants have been chosen and their lives are in your hands.” He thought for a moment and then added with a twinkle, “Besides, you will learn much from them.”
The first time we arrived at our new home on Flag Staff Road in that leather coffin of a taxi , they were lined up to meet us: Rashid, the cook, in his white uniform; Santaram, the sweeper, in tattered pajama and khaki shirt; Bunwari Lal , the dhobi (or washerman), his mouth already screwed up into a piteous complaint even before he had met us. The position of his mouth never changed, only the complaints issuing from it. His wife was desperately ill; likely she would die soon. He had many, many children , too many for us ever to sort out their names or remember them except as an assorted series of afflictions, perhaps sent directly from Allah .
Nor was he the only servant with complaints. Santaram’s baby was desperately ill and he had to take the train north to his village to see about it. Further, it appeared that Rashid’s house, in some distant village, had collapsed at the southwest corner, a calamity to be sure but scarcely to be compared with his wife’s illness or the inability of his son to find work.
The complaints which issued from the intelligent and calculating Muslims impressed us in varying degrees, but it was the Indian sweeper who touched us most deeply. The first time we saw him, John, our seventeen-year-old said, “It’s something about his eyes; he must be always scared,” and when we learned of the lot his dharma had bought him in the land where even today in Gandhi’s own village a sweeper can’t go to the communal well, we determined to do something for him.
And so, on Fridays, when Rashid was allegedly worshipping at Jami Mashid, the architecturally brilliant Moghul mosque (more likely gambling or gossiping, we thought, and thinking up new disasters designed to elicit extra rupees from Americans who had never been taught to count money) on those holy days we tried to teach Santaram at least to wait on the table. His first day was prophetic of the last. We were having a dinner guest, a visiting scholar, and the cook had made for the occasion a “Friday hot pot,” an assemblage of the week’s leftovers, brilliantly disguised with Indian spices and featuring hot dumplings. We seated ourselves, tinkled the bell, and Santaram marched in with a plate in each hand: in the middle of each was a lone dumpling. He placed one before Memsahib, one before the visitor, proudly eyed his work and went back to the kitchen for more.
“That surely can’t be all of it,” Peg said hopefully, and going out to the kitchen, found the rest and served it. Santaram looked woeful and stayed in the kitchen the rest of the evening.
We kept trying. Once when the cook left, he explained carefully in Hindi to Santaram how to put up two sandwiches for John and David to take to school. One sandwich should consist of tuna fish, mayonnaise, and cucumbers. Did he understand? Santaram nodded happily. Oh, he understood, oh yes. The other sandwich was to consist of peanut butter and grape jelly. Did he understand that also? Happily, he replied, that Oh, he did understand even better than before. When the boys unwrapped their sandwiches that say, they found that each contained peanut butter, grape jelly, cucumbers, mayonnaise, and tuna fish. But they said nothing to Santaram. They were afraid of his eyes.
We never did know whether we did the right thing in trying to lift Sanataram above the level of sweeper. Whether it was his genes or simply cultural privation, he could not learn to do anything except sweep. He did that well enough, and, proud that he could touch our plates and food without defiling us, he came a little arrogant. Probably we should never have meddled with his dharma, for we heard that he had trouble after we left.
From the servant, we learned much about feudal relationships, especially about noblesse oblige, and what it meant to take on the complete responsibility for several families. We joked our way through much of it but not all. One night after dinner, my wife, who is sensitive to the moods of others, said, “Rashid is unhappy.”
“I know,” I replied, “the goat he is fattening for the festival of Id is not doing well on the leftovers from our table that which Rashid so thoughtfully puts aside before he before he serves us.”
But she persisted, “Something is wrong.”
“Rashid,” I called.
Guiltily, he spat a vast spray of red betel across the driveway, tucked in his shirt, put on his white cap and came running.
“Yes, sahib,” he said .
“Well, sahib, there are not many leftovers and the goat I am fattening for the festival of Id. . . .”
“No,” I said, “Tell us what is wrong,” and he began to cry.
“It is my wife,” he said. “She is dying.”
I gave him 30 rupees, instructed him to go to his village and bring his wife back to Delhi to see the doctor who had been trained in London and who would cure her. Santaram was a fine spare cook and with a little help in the kitchen from Memsahib, we would likely survive until his return.
And so he brought her back, small, completely in purdah, covered and veiled but so desperately thin that the clothes clung to around her frame as they would around a skeleton. She was not much more. Would she let the Indian doctor look at her, we asked. Rashid, in turn, asked her, and a vigorous quarrel ensued. Despite her sickness, she had not surrendered all her wifely prerogatives.
Peggy interrupted and asked it would make a difference if she went along and stayed with her while the Hindu doctor examined her. The eyes melted; the head bowed; she wept. It was emotional enough around our house for a few days.
The doctor quickly discovered that she had a septic goiter. She had one chance to live, he said, only if she would consent to be operated on at once. Rashid explained it to her; she refused. He threatened; pleaded; she was adamant. We had other, more educated Indians explain it all again , but knowing the full consequence, she pre dignity, not to submit to the violation of purdah, to the probing Hindu fingers, the nurses who walked around without veils, to the terrifying ritual that ended with a knife in the hands of an unclean man.
Nothing could sway her. Finally, the doctor gave her some pills for anemia, some wonder drugs to retard the poison and some other things. She left them all in our kitchen. Before she 1eft, however, she went to the bazaar to consult a folk doctor who read her horoscope and prescribed sensibly, according to the whim of her personal stars. Back in the mud village, in a hut with a small, skinny goat and two bright-eyed boys, she took her medicine faithfully and, uncomplaining, died.
My central task in India, as I conceived it, was the classroom at the University of Delhi; everything else was subordinate to that. Before lectures began, I used to walk to the University each day, to visit the library, to get the feel of it. I would walk up Flag Staff Road to the jungly piece of land called The Strip, on up The Strip to the top of Flag Staff hill and then down the other side of the Strip and into the University grounds. I loved more than anything else that walk through the wild country. The Strip was about three-quarters of a mile wide, some fifteen or twenty miles long, and had been set aside by the government as a permanent green place in the midst of the encroaching cement. In it one could see peacocks, monkeys, and some people of low caste, or none, who had established squatter’s rights by building little shacks. Best of all were the songbirds singing things every morning that I had never heard before and sooner or later during the year, every tree, vine, and weed blossomed.
That walk may still be my most vivid memory of India, but I had to struggle to enjoy it for, from the first day, I was stopped every few minutes by men or women in taxis, automobiles, motorbikes, bicycles, and even ox carts who wished to give me a ride, who thought it a discredit to India that I should be walking along the dust of the road in the sun. And, no matter how politely I refused, I was always dismayed by the look of disappointment in those sensitive eyes. Still, I wished to walk. One day I asked a friend whose wisdom I had come to admire, how I could refuse rides without giving offense, how I could establish a walking privilege. He thought a moment. “Tell them,” he said, “that your wife has asked you to walk for the sake of health.” It proved to be a brilliant formula; it was my Golden Bough. It always brought smiles, nods, and good will and soon I was allowed to plod on in solitary enjoyment.
At the top of the Strip was a circular, fortress-like structure, the old monument from which the British flag had been flown in days that not many now could remember. More than a hundred years earlier, during the Sepoy Rebellion, British women and children had taken shelter there and, defended by a few regulars, had survived. Some of the bullet holes were still visible.
I always stopped at the Flag Staff and rested, sitting on a stone wall, and always I saw the holy man who had now taken over the circular fortress as a place of worship and abode. He had wild hair, matted beard, both whitened with ashes and, wearing a loincloth, he would sit cross-legged each morning, eyes closed, facing the east, his face bathed with light, in communication with his brother, the rising sun. After a time, there grew up between us a silent but perceptible companionship. I was sure that he looked for me, that he was aware of my presence coming up the hill, resting on the wall, that we were coming to know one another, although he never looked directly at me nor I at him.
I gradually came to know how he lived. A water main which ran along the top of the hill had sprung a convenient leak which served him as fountain, pool of ablution, and laundry; and the poor people, mainly the squatters, would bring him bowls of rice and pieces of fruit. And I came to understand that the holy man was not merely picturesque, that he too had his struggles and his anguish, for in modern India holy men are widely believed to be homosexuals or confidence men, at best idlers who are useless; at worst, relics of a dead age, themselves inhibitors of change. I knew that the Maharishi, whom the Beatles had made famous in the West, was booed off the stage at the University of Delhi, by my prospective students among others, and I knew that even the Mahatma, whose memory is still fresh among the people, was considered by some bright and impatient minds to be a saintly anachronism.
I think that both the Holy Man and I felt, without animosity, that my briefcase and his begging bowl were competing for the allegiance of India and the real question was whether folk religion would succumb to intellectual analysis. I really did not know where my own sympathies lay.
Only once did he speak to me. After several months of silent meetings, I was resting one day when, without looking at me, he opened his eyes and said, as if he were speaking to the sun, “What time is it?”
Involuntarily, I laughed. It might have been a profound question, one of the most profound that a Westerner could be asked, but it could also be one of the most superficial. Anyone who wears a wrist watch in India is plagued hourly by that same question, generally by curious people whose curiosity does not really extend to the wheel of the stars or its microcosmic counterpart. They merely wish to know if the watch ticks or the man speaks.
And so I had laughed, not condescendingly or even mischievously, but simply because I was momentarily overcome by the ludicrousness of such a question from those enigmatic lips.
“Holy Man,” I said, “if you’ll tell me the year, I’ll tell you the hour.” Immediately his eyes closed, he communed again only with the silent, splendid sun, and he never ventured into my world again. I pleaded silently with him from time to time but it was never any use. He had annihilated me from his consciousness along with the insects and the monkeys.
While I was still becoming acquainted with the University, even before classes began, a good friend said to me, “Fulbrighter is a bad word around here.”
“Why?” I asked impatiently, but thinking he had already said too much, he politely changed the subject by inviting me to drink some tea. That ritual, in India, does not permit of unpleasant conversation, and so we talked of the bougainvillea vine whose scarlet and white blossoms burned outside the window like an invisible presence.
However, I found out soon enough for myself that, in the past, some Fulbrighters has come to India to take and not to give and their work had lacked commitment. Worse, my best-paid colleagues earned around 20,000 rupees a year. I was being paid three times that much. How, under such conditions, could one altogether avoid envy? But there was something more. Fulbrighters were Americans and anti-Americanism, overt or unspoken, is the new international disease of our time. Frustrated men often need someone or something whom it is legitimate to hate: the American is now it; he has replaced the Englishman.
I sensed it the first day that I walked through the university. Everywhere I saw graffiti on walls and on the sides of buildings, sometimes printed signs, all bearing the current slogans: No intellectual imperialism; CIA quit the country; Freedom is more important than food. I also heard disquieting stories of how the usefulness of other Americans at the University of Delhi had been destroyed by angry revolutionaries who had successfully accused them of “political activity.”
I tried to understand and not merely resent it. For example, an American foundation had recently given the University of Delhi law school half a million dollars. It was said, and certainly popularly believed, that this gift had been accompanied by certain conditions which involved changes in procedures and methods. I never found out if it was really true, but I could imagine the reaction on my own campus if a foundation from a foreign country tried, however constructively, to alter the nature of our law school. Nothing is harder to dispel than charges of undue influence where large gifts of money are being dispensed.
I was to discover that many of my students were radical; their sympathies, they said, were with Chairman Mao. I’m not sure how much they knew of him or his system or the problems he hasn’t solved; I think they saw him as a man who, by a powerful manifestation of the revolutionary will, altered the nature of a vast, unwieldy country and gave it direction and hope. That is what they want and most of them seem to feel that a social revolution is brewing. Such students made it clear to me that I must not mistake their personal affection for me for any love for democracy, which they consider a failure in India.
I made it an inviolable rule never, even by indirection, to speak of political matters in the classroom. When it was appropriate to speak of the political theories of Thoreau or Frost, I clearly labeled them, requesting the students not to consider then as my own. After a while they relaxed and, at least in a measure came to trust me, discovering that I considered it unforgivably unprofessional to use the classroom for a sounding board. And finally I too relaxed and enjoyed the intellectual freedom of an Indian classroom without ever desiring to abuse it. the classroom is not. I learned too that freedom in the classroom is not what some professional association prescribes , nor is it what some faculty council dictates. It is a tenuous, unspoken bond of association which arises from the nature of the institution, the teacher, and his students. While I was there, academic freedom was a reality at the University of Delhi although it had, I believed, perished at some other Indian institutions, a victim of the radicals.
Anti-Americanism came to a head one week when a whole series of new posters announced in bright red Hindi that a public meeting would be held in which American intellectual imperialism would be proved and denounced. This meeting was to be held on Friday and it seriously occurred to me whether I should absent myself that day to avoid provocation. However, the night before the grand exposure was to occur, the Russians marched into Czechoslovakia. Naturally, all the steam went out of planned protest; in fact, some two thousand students marched against the Russian embassy. Also, some faculties of the University circulated written petitions in protest, but the indignation never ran high and it all came to very little. When Asians protest American mistakes or motives, they seem to find endless energies and boundless grievances; similar protests directed against Communist affairs soon dissipate. They are perfunctory, even polite; it is hard to imagine anyone throwing a brick or shouting “Kill” over some Communist peccadillo. I cannot explain this strange phenomenon, but I recommend its study to those whose duty it is to make coherent policy in Asia.
Once, in a fit of discouragement, I told a special friend that I thought I should go home; that without protests or noise or anger or righteousness, I should simply act, that it was time to withdraw. Until that moment I never knew how unfair an Indian could be.
“You cannot ,” he said.
“And why can I not?” I asked, my voice rising.
”Because we love you,” he said softly, and I felt a terrible weakness. He had taken all my answers and left me only my petulance.
Outside of the classroom I acknowledged freely to my students that India, of course, must find her own way, hopefully without fanaticism, without adopting some cruel dogmatism that sacrifices men to theories; and, above all, be the way of democracy. I’m not sure that democracy can ever be given or accepted as a gift; it has to be hungered for and fought for; there has to be a conviction that its price is above that of rubies; it must be earned. In India it has not been earned; not yet.
I never had any illusion that I could change the pejorative image the American in India; but I determined that, if I could help it, Fulbrighter was no longer to be a bad word at the University of Delhi. I knew only one course of action. Descended from files of Scotch Presbyterians, all of whom had lived by the ethic of work without, like Carlyle, shrieking about it, I simply determined to work as hard as I could and at my best level. Consistent with this discredited ethic, I agreed to teach English literature as well as the American which, presumably was all that I was obliged to teach. When asked to teach in the evening college, I quickly agreed and am glad that I did, for some of my finest experiences were there. Further on almost every weekend, I lectured in the colleges around Delhi or at other universities somewhere on the subcontinent.
I did more important things, too, at least for the classroom. I worked every night incarnating vague feelings and thoughts, searching for phrases that carried meaning, but a meaning integrated into beauty of rhythm and sound.
In this classroom, at first, I was almost totally discouraged, feeling that I was a failure. I sensed that many of the students were watching me with reserve, some with actual hostility. I came to realize that my accent was difficult for all of them. A native of Idaho, I speak with a Western drawl , with harsh r’s and diphthongized speech in which the separate sounds are difficult for a foreign ear to distinguish. I tried to speak slowly, in a booming voice, enunciating every syllable, but this primitive technique interfered with the quality of my thought and destroyed any hope of beauty, Later some of my students hilariously mimicked my agonizing struggles to elucidate Milton’s theory of Logos in simple, slow phrases.
One day I angrily gave it up. Almost defiantly I told the class that I was going to do my best work and in my native Idaho tongue, that if they would generous enough to allow me a week or two we would then discuss it and see if I should continue. I had a manuscript on Milton nearly finished; it contained original research and many of my own critical ideas. I gave these, nasally diphthongized, in all their complexities; the students confessed later that they were straining their ears through those first two or three weeks but, after a while I ceased sounding funny. Still I was worried and needed reassurance.
I was having tea one morning with the departmental chairman, a man who brilliantly combines the physical energy of the Indian villager with intellectual sophistication. A teacher from one of the colleges, Miranda House, was also there, and she said to me, “My girls say that they look forward all week to hearing your Milton lecture.”
I was taken completely by surprise and almost overcome again with that hopeless weakness. I tried to find some gracious reply, and I walked home that day without hearing the songbirds in The Strip. Peg knew that something had happened and I told her “They hear me. Now I can teach.” It was as simple as that.
That is why I have a special feeling for the girls at Miranda House, and not because of their reputed beautify as some might suspect. They are beautiful, to be sure, but not more than the girls form the others colleges. Rather it is because it was from them that I first knew that I was wanted and no teacher can function long without that feeling.
Slowly a sonnet about them began to grow in my mind. The octave came readily, but I could never find the sestet (perhaps I never will). What I did find, however, expressed both the physical and formal beauty that sensed in the Indian girls.
When you strolled in your bright, slowing saris,
Aspen bodies swaying under silk
Like bougainvillea vines, scented and supple,
Wild with scarlet, chastened with innocent white,
I thought of the sinuous otter curving in a stream
Undulating within his own rich fur.
I thought of a single willow arched above a pool
That stirs into healing, grace from a hidden spring.
After that, the classroom was pure delight. We talked to one another; we laughed frequently, and before long I set up office hours. Then slowly at first but with gathering momentum, the students would come to visit me. At first they might have thought up a question or two as an excuse for a visit, but after the first time not even that was necessary. Best of all for Peg and me was when, in the spring of the year, as we were getting ready to leave, they would walk down the lane to our house and come in for tea and talk. They were probably the most beautiful children, both boys and girls, that we had ever known.
When the weather began to cool, in October, the Educational Foundation arranged for the first seminar of the year to be held at Simla, a hill station at the feet of the Himalayas. We drove north through the Punjab, through the new city of Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier, a spacious city more Western than Eastern in its feeling, and on through the foothills to Simla, whose main street and ornately old-fashioned hotels remind one of a provincial English town.
The first night there we used a blanket and, except for the monkeys playing on the tin roof, it was like a night in the high Wasatch in July when the valley floor is too hot for sleep and you climb until you feel that coolness on your face before rolling out the sleeping bag. I arose just before first light and went out with the field glasses to see the Himalayas. At that time of year there is only about an hour during which they can be seen. After that, the clouds roll up and engulf them, or else the black smoke from a hundreds of thousands of dung fires, rising from every ravine or valley or meadow, blots them out. The peaks were far away but, through the glasses, awesome enough. There were all the familiar shapes that peaks assume in high mountain ranges: pyramids, saber-tooths, fingers, knuckles, horns and the rest; but still, there was a difference. It looked to me as if a high ridge, supported by successive layers of high-backed foothills, had been created at an elevation of about 18,000 feet. Then, on top of that ridge, had been piled the Wasatch in one place, the Wind Rivers in another , the Teton in still another, until something quite beyond unassisted human imagination had been achieved. Those peaks created in me a longing such as I had never experienced—to be young again, not that I might test myself against them, but rather that I might simply become companionable with them. Only a young man could do that—and a daring one at that. All I could do, each day, was watch them until smoke and clouds hid them. Once, just before we left India, at Nainital, we had a perfect glimpse of the range, Nanda Devi spiraling 26,000 feet upwards in front of us. It was as pure a moment as I ever experienced and there is no other mountain range on earth that can produce similar sensations in the breast of a mountain lover.
At Simla, for a week, we attended day-long sessions on American literature. Soon enough I sensed some differences between that seminar and a similar one that might be held in America. It was soon apparent to me that there were a few students who could be persuaded that Bacon wrote Shakespeare; that is, their knowledge of the language was a little shaky and that they had no grasp of American culture. Consequently, far-fetched interpretations and almost silly conjectures were possible, the kind of thing that in an American seminar would be thought too idiosyncratic or trivial for serious consideration. I also learned quickly how dangerous a new critical approach can be for those whose understanding of rhythm, pronunciation, or idiom is at all imprecise. There were not many such papers, however, nor did they by any means set the tone for the seminar.
Rather, it soon became apparent that there were those who understood the most intimate nuances of the English language and who had felt and thought themselves deeply and sensitively into the literature itself. And I found something even more significant, and that was the interest of Indian scholars in the ethical and moral content of the literature, which they refused to divorced from the esthetic. I compared their rich exploration of this dimension of literature with some of the barren and pedantic analyses I had heard in American seminars where only the esthetic or intellectual aspects were considered relevant, and I found that their papers somehow engaged what was most human in me. I now feel strongly that to divorce the esthetic from the ethical and moral is to dissect our humanity, and anyone who feels one must make a dissection to avoid tedious didacticism does not know the subtle fires of the Indian mind.
Not all of the seminar was completely pleasant: certain themes of suspicion and dislike, not of me as a person I think but of me as an American, emerged. The thing that hurt and puzzled me most was an initial reaction to two lectures I had delivered on Milton, original lectures, too. Mr. Sayal, the efficient and knowledgeable representative of the Educational Foundation, told me that they had aroused some resentment. They say, ”Why do we have to hear an American interpretation of Milton?” I decided never again to offer the lectures but soon word of them had spread around and apparently not everyone disliked them, for after a time, wherever I went they were requested. They often generated some of our finest discussions, for I touched on Milton’s mysticism, and most Indians love to argue about anything related to the divine ecstasy.
A little less elevating than the Milton dispute was the first attack by a Marxist sympathizer. This gentleman had read in Blitz, a journal whose name suggests its quality, that Americans were a violent people by history, tradition, and nature; they were, therefore, likely to destroy the world some day. I wish I could have said that it was all untrue but no one, including me, would have believed that. I did suggest that subsidized propaganda was not the best source of understanding anyone, and other Indians, more embarrassed than I, quietly said a few other sensible things and incident was past.
Such incidents were common; although unpleasant, they did not seriously disturb me, or, so far as I could tell, anyone else. Everyone was seriously concerned, however with the final speech of the seminar, delivered by a Bengali who was a distinguished cultural historian. He raised in vigorous fashion the most serious doubt that any Indian student of English or American literature can have about himself, and that is whether or not his motives are tainted. This was not a simple matter of asking whether or not he was a victim of cultural imperialism. No, far beyond that, all kinds of echoes from past and present were being raised. English, after all, was the language of India’s conquerors and humiliators; it was still the language of a social elite who were not always socially conscious. It was the language of trade and travel; of Fulbright grants and professorial exchanges, of social and economic advantage. What had it really to do with the deepest needs and concerns of India?
It was a profound and searching question for modern India, answered at the time with eloquence and courtesy by one of India’s most brilliant men, but everywhere I went after that, I felt that central issue even when it was unspoken.
I loved the seminars and the experience they generated: wandering with Peg, John and David through Ajanta and Ellora caves; boating at Jabalpur in the quiet hours of the morning on a pure lake surrounded by white cliffs, watching the artisans quarry and carve the rock into sensual goddesses and sacred animals, feeling a peace so solemn and undisturbed that I can recapture some of it now just thinking about it.
I remember spending two hours at the golden temple of the Sikhs at Amritsar, watching the sun set over the tank , watching as the gold of the temple, the sun full on it, turned the water first bronze and then into flame–scarcely miracle enough for such a place. I loved to watch the clean strength of the Sikhs, both men and women who worshipped there with unconscious piety, their reverence for the divine mingling with their sense of their own human grace.
And I recall Triveni, the sacred spot where the Ganges and the Jamuna mingle with some hypothetical underground stream, a spot where pilgrims come by the millions and are healed by the thousands as the mighty streams whirl and eddy, stirred by an unseen hand.
Nor was it all lyrical beauty. One can never forget being mobbed by dozens of urgent, angry beggars in a mosque or the starving herds and herdsmen in Rajasthan, where the monsoon had failed, or the most poignant sight I ever saw: the small dark sweepers, the gatherers of human filth, human or animal, standing at their little clay huts, surrounded by their swine, looking curiously at the other villagers and the strangers who walked near but not among them.
But the first seminar was the real initiation: it was shock and discovery and the first sense of minds so good that it seems impossible this world could produce finer. When I returned from Simla I entered a little into the life and mind of India. Still an alien, I felt not altogether a stranger, for in the interior dimensions of those minds I had felt a deep and lasting affinity .
When we came back to the plain , the sun was still strong, but there had been a noticeable break in the weather. We had endured the heat and survived; we would be leaving before it came again and so I wrote a sonnet in which I tried to capture how it felt.
In this coppery kingdom, the tyrant sun
Issues all decrees. The kite forsakes his hunger
In the fierce cauldron of the sky. The buffalo
Blows in the steaming mud of his shrunken pool.
The Queen of the North, pure mother of the snows
In the hidden Himalayas, bows at his brassy feet.
Sweating behind shutters, we breathe and eat and think
As he commands. Graciously, the poor are exempt.
Feverishly, I remember crystal daggers on the eaves,
Green songs muted under frost, fur hunched under sage,
The virility of spring withered into brown stems,
And I remember slanting shadows on a white field
As crows are flung from the brittle arms of a tree
That strangles in a wilderness of snow.
There is so much more to tell, but one can only suggest it: how Peg watched and loved the Indian dancers, the sensuous girls from Orissa, the martial males from Assam, and how she began to learn of the metaphysic behind the music, that a musical note is the only possible expression of the name of God from whose mind the universe came as notes come from the flute, and that translating these notes into words led to the strange inability of differing cultures to understand things from one another. Or how she learned, never without guilt (“my mother didn’t raise me to be a memsahib”) what it was like to have total leisure, to be released from all the female drudgery and to play hostess as an art, where the enjoyment of the guests becomes the end and is not ancillary to shuffling back and forth with loads of dishes. And how she learned and made me realize that the deepest joy lies in such simple things: an unexpected visitor, a small gift, a conversation that leaves a radiance behind it, a few lines of poetry that come spontaneously and unexpected.
I need to express the effect of John’s visit to the ashram on the Ganges, near Hardwar, living on tea and rice, worshipping with the holy men, pondering the different values of East and West, regretting that strange inability of differing cultures to assimilate the soundest things from one another.
I must express our keen pleasure as we watched the almost imperceptible changes in David, our twelve-year-old, who found it so hard at first to surrender Christmas in the mountains or the family Thanksgiving, who missed his friends, his school, and his cousins so much, but who finally put on a kirta, began to burn incense, and speak in Hindi, who caught the sense of adventure which, at times, overcame his nostalgia for a world he longed for and found so different when he returned to it.
No one who has over lived, really lived in India, will ever be the same again. It is both an endearing and a shattering experience. The poverty, the blight of caste, the technological inefficiency, the submerged violence, all these are there and only a fatuous romanticist could ignore them.
But to counter these, there is the beauty of the people, a haunting beauty because it has so much inward dimension. There are the mountains whose reality outstrips all imagining; the subtlety of a religion which still finds its finest expression in the art forms, particularly in music and in dance. There is, in India, a slower and gentler way of life where the human values of personal integrity, playful affection, and even love are endlessly enduring. Our best efforts in such a land are scarcely enough today; shoddy work is unthinkable.
Since my return to America, I have thought much of our role in India. I now realize what Augustine might have told me before I went, that doing good is hard in the world, that virtue without grace turns sour and has failure at its core. We Americans are large, loud, and sensate; we know how to make and build and fight, all necessary things at rims. But the new American in India must know other things: hot to give, to feel, and especially how to yield, how to harness and tame all that assertiveness, all that egoistic energy that strives to make the world over into its own image. We subdue nature, conquer disease, and diminish space, but there is something unlovely in our method, something that lacks gentleness and silence. We need a new and softer music of the inner life.
Continually my wife and boys ask if we will ever return. To that I can give no final answer. I can only say, “Not now; not yet.” Some kind of inner changes must first occur, some different feeling must arise between our two nations. I don’t speak of political or economic changes but changes of the heart. Such changes are not likely to arise in one man’s lifetime but one can hope.
On our way to the airport, John said , “I’m not leaving unless you promise we can come back.”
“I’ll promise this much,” I replied. “You can come back.” There is man’s hope, that his sons may succeed where he has not, that grace and virtue may some day come together in a generation which, knowing fully the futilities of the past, still has hope for the future.