In 1967, I was a young secondary school teacher, newly awarded an MA in history from St. John’s University. I decided I might try for a Fulbright study opportunity. To my surprise and pleasure I was given a place in the Institute for Indian History and Culture. This Fulbright for educators involved studying throughout the sub-continent with outstanding professors.
It was a study trip to thirty-five sites throughout the country, introducing we American participants, all twenty-some of us, to the huge diversity of India. The nation had only become independent of Great Britain in 1947. Because we were just twenty years into India’s national birth, we were privileged to experience elements of its past history, its present and to a degree its future.
In India we were treated to outstanding scholarship, studying throughout the sub-continent under distinguished scholars and individuals from journalists to politicians, saints and innovators. Since I had been involved in teaching world history at the secondary level in New York State, I hoped to further my knowledge and ability to interpret events. Our course work in India introduced us to leaders throughout the nation including Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, presidents and past presidents, professors, journalists, leaders in every aspect of life.
Incredible experiences remain in my memory over the course of my initial and many subsequent visits. I’m surely not alone in remarking on the incredible traffic patterns throughout India. Modes of transportation that I sampled included jitneys, scooters, rickshaws (both bicycle and human), buses, trucks, trains, taxis, planes, probably every conceivable vehicle except wheelbarrows. I could add in elephants and camels! I recall one taxi ride where drivers on the same narrow roadway played chicken, without regard to their own or the passenger’s safety. On one occasion I found myself upended in a ditch, with neither the taxi nor me the worse for wear, although the cab was on its side.
Another time, having visited Agra, home of the exquisite Taj Mahal, we were unable to secure overnight accommodations. Our rickety bus had taken the usual precaution of having not only a driver, but a mechanic of all stripes, aboard. That was usually enough to ensure quick repairs after a commonplace breakdown. Unfortunately, on this particular occasion it was insufficient. Our bus gave a gasp and deposited us near a small, sleeping village about midnight. We had a class to attend and a full schedule of activities early the next morning. We had roused almost the entire village and found our communication through a tape-recorded speech by Nehru, the former and first Prime Minister. While we did not share a language, we shared admiration for Nehru’s accomplishments and influence.
Time passed, and the bus seemed beyond repair. We then began to hail passing traffic, hoping for a lift for our twenty or so passengers returning to New Delhi. Close to one AM a truck halted to load us onto the bed, atop a cargo of rough marble slabs. A few lucky souls rode in the cab with the driver. I found myself wedged in the back, with a guard toting a rifle standing half in and half out of the vehicle. The bolt of his gun jutted into my back. The driver risked government prohibitions by taking passengers along, so every time we came to a checkpoint, all aboard scrunched down under a dusty tarp covering. Once we reached the outskirts of New Delhi the truck driver could no longer risk being stopped and having to pay a fine. We disembarked at a bus station, boarding a five AM bus for our hotel and classroom. Disheveled and sleepless we arrived in time for our eight AM class.
So many memories, so vivid; President Kennedy, whose wife had visited India, had been assassinated only a few short years before this first experience. It shouldn’t have been a surprise (although it was in fact startling), to see images of Kennedy everywhere, perhaps most impressively in modest mud huts in many villages. Later I saw them as well in upscale school buildings, where students were focused on the moon landing.
Other images seared into my memory were vast contrasts of poverty and wealth. The newly titled His Exalted Highness, the Nizam of Hyderabad, an Oxford graduate, had recently succeeded his father. At the time he was said to be the richest person in the world. As our host on our Independence Day he entertained us in one of his fabled palaces. I had picked up a parasite of some sort and had a high fever, but despite that I could not miss the chance for this experience.
Inside a high wall was a lush garden; a twin flight of stairs set above that glorious garden led to a marble balcony. There, guests viewed an entertainment of Arabian sword dances by torchlight. This had been preceded by a gala Fourth of July supper, replete with gold cutlery and service. Set against this staggering display of wealth was the sight of a poor crippled leper, begging at the gate. We passed by his agony and entered an obscene display of wealth.
I cherish my memories of our week in Kashmir, ensconced aboard a houseboat to draw up our final reports. Dal Nageen, where our houseboat was anchored, is set in the midst of Srinagar, nestled high in the Himalayans. Tension between India and Pakistan ran high, and Kashmiri separatists equated foreigners with pro-Pakistani sentiments. Consequently we found ourselves occasionally in the midst of tear bombing and attacks on Christian churches. Once I was accosted by a woman with her son in tow. He was likely a seventh grader and was studying English. She was veiled in the Muslim tradition and spotting me needed to satisfy her curiosity as to what I was!
Not only was there tension between India and Pakistan, but also between China and India over borders in the mountains. When our sojourn in Kashmir was over, we were to fly on Air India back to New Delhi and our near departure for the States. The fly in the ointment was an Air India strike. As long as they refused to fly in or out of Kashmir, we were effectively stranded. In time Air India agreed to evacuate us rather than have a UN flight fly us out. Our small Friendship airship took off from a temporary runway directly facing into the mountains. As we did an Indian fighter jet almost simultaneously lifted off directly into the same air space. Our pilot executed a maneuver to avoid a collision that caused us to go into a steep drop. As I looked out the window of our plane, I could literally see the grain on the stalks of wheat growing beneath us. That was the time for an Act of Contrition, but all I could offer was grace before meals.
Treated as visitors with ambassadorial rank, although all among us were teachers at one academic level or another, we enjoyed and profited from the experiences of meeting both modest villagers and leaders of state. Our professors and instructors were celebrated as both national and international intellectuals. Possibly the most recognized was the poet, Purushottama or P. Lal, founder of the Writer’s workshop in (then) Calcutta, and Kushwant Singh, journalist, legislator and author. P. Lal, with his wife and daughter visited us briefly in Connecticut some years later.
Now, more than fifty years later, my first Fulbright experience launched me on a lifetime of learning and sharing my love of India in particular and Asia overall. That first Fulbright experience resulted in publication of Indian Summer, a book co-authored with M. Foster Farley of Newberry College, S.C. My career brought me back to India, and throughout Asia multiple times. It was a formative experience in many ways.
Colleen A. Kelly, Ph.D. – Fulbright India 1967 & 1984