June 30, 1961 – 105 degrees and a hotel from a Grade B movie (Anita)

June 30, 1961

Dear One and All,

It’s hard to know where to start this letter. While waiting for our typewriter to be released from customs, I’ve written it in my head dozens of times. Now that I’m faced with the blank sheet of paper, the thoughts don’t seem to come so easily.

It’s about 104 or 105 in Delhi today, and even the Indians are saying it’s quite hot. Jon and Ruth are taking a good nap in their air-conditioned bedroom, and Gene is sitting wanly on the couch. Perhaps I had better explain that statement, and then we’ll have the bad news over and done with.

Over the weekend, Jon and I had a touch of what is called here, “Delhi belly.” Hypochondriac that I am, I dosed us up with everything I had brought from the States and on Monday, I submitted stool specimens to the Embassy Health Office for examination. It was nothing serious, and we were fine in a few days. Gene had had a few symptoms, too, but in his usual manner thought (1) it would go away and (2) he might be able to eat his way out of it. The result was that on Wednesday he came down with a very serious attack of acute bacillary dysentery. He has never been so ill in his life, and I have rarely seen anyone so sick. The big joke of all this is that the diapers I had carried in our suitcases for 14,000 miles – in case of trouble with Jon and Ruth – got used in helping take care of their daddy. Anyway, we got hold of a very nice Dr. Suraj Prakash; and while we were waiting for him, I got Gene’s specimen over to a lab for analysis. Dr. Prakash came, diagnosed and prescribed, and then for the next 24 hours, he and I were supposed to keep in constant touch with each other. The fact that telephones all over Delhi decided to go out of order during this time make the situation a bit more complicated, but we got it all worked out somehow. Gene is much, much better and had some food today. By this evening, he should be quite well, and Dr. Prakash is assuming that he’ll be able to return to work on Monday morning. Meanwhile, he’s been feeling quite embarrassed, despite the fact that everyone who’s been through the same thing understands and has been so sympathetic. He certainly learned the hard way about not messing about with Indian-type bacteria.

Now to go back and try to fill you in on what’s been going on here:

I will never forget our first night in Delhi. Before we landed, the stewardess announced in French, fractured English and, I suppose, equally fractured Hindi, that the temperature in Delhi was 90 degrees. It was 8:00 p.m. But it had been 108 that day, so when we entered the customs room, there was that heat to contend with. The place was mobbed, and I must admit that my first impression of Indians was a frightening one. Everyone was dirty, ragged and dusty – everyone was a different color but in none of the faces could you read any kind of expression. We had awakened Ruth and Jon from a sound sleep, so they were tired and very cranky. Fortunately, I had filled my thermos with good water before getting off the plane, so I was able to quench their thirst at least. And I had a few soda crackers with which I tried to console them. We sat, steaming, on a filthy bench while Gene tangled and wrangled with the customs inspector. Dr. Leonard, our Chief of Party, who was one of the reception committee, says he’s been through customs in 40 different countries, but India is the stickiest and the most exasperating. As you know by now, they finally took our typewriters, camera, etc. and gave us a receipt (written with a stub of a pencil – I have yet to see a good-sized, well-sharpened pencil here).

We were led outside to two black cars (TCM official cars) and started on our drive to 1 Man Singh Road, the location of our apartment hotel. There were no lights along Palam Road and the children were awed by the darkness. The headlights picked up many bicycles – one with a woman in sari and sleeping baby on the back – and a bullock cart of two. We entered the compound walls of 1 Man Singh and, naïvely, I thought there might be a desk clerk, or maybe a bell hop. Nothing. The wide veranda was in darkness and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Finally, the Leonards succeeded in rousing the chowkidar (night watchman) and we were led up this spiral staircase (30 steps – we’ve counted them many times since) to our quarters.

Our quarters are beyond description, but it might be safe to say that they remind one of a Charles Addams cartoon. The ceilings must be 20 feet high; the furniture is large, overstuffed and weird, and all the wood and wood-work is a very dark brown. Hanging from the ceiling of each room are those fans I used to think only came with Grade B pictures. In addition to the monstrous living room, there are two bedrooms. Ours is rather crowded because the bed (it’s really a charpoy with a thin mattress over it) is king size. Jon and Ruth have a very small room, but their beds are very small, too. Actually, they are crib-sized, but neither one has made any comment on same and we’re keeping our mouths shut, too. We have a kitchen in which there is a refrigerator but no sink or water of any kind. We have a strange room off the kitchen which is lined with wardrobes and must serve as a storage room. Then we have the bathroom. Here there is a washbasin, and this is where you wash dishes if you have to. Also in the bathroom, we have an old-fashioned type tub which drains out on the floor and then the water goes through a hole in the floor. It’s dept from running all over the place by a concrete rim on the floor about 5 inches high. (I keep stubbing my toe on it.) Off the bathroom is the powder room which contains one toilet and one hamper. The kitchen and bathroom are enormous.

The food here is British; so is the time meals are served. In addition to the three meals, there is an early morning coffee brought up by Joseph, the bearer, and late afternoon tea. Joseph brings us our bottled water which has been boiled, supposedly, and he does the light housekeeping around here. There is a sweeper who comes in to clean the place each morning. He does the rugs with a dust-pan and brush and the tile floors are done with water and a languid swish-swish of a large piece of cloth which he trails about after him.

Jon and Ruth eat breakfast with us, but have their lunch and dinner served upstairs; otherwise, it would be too late. Besides, the atmosphere in the dining room is such that breakfast is really the only time their chatter and general enthusiasm can be tolerated – not by us, but by what seems to be the practice around here.

But to go back to our first night – we threw the kids in bed and thanks to the air-conditioning, they fell into an exhausted sleep. We were all awake by 4:00 a.m. or so – because of the change of time – and I fixed them some powdered milk. Also, more soda crackers. At 7:00 Joseph came in to introduce himself. He’s blind in one eye and talks only in a low voice or a whisper. Jon shook hands, as usual, and Joseph said: “God bless.”

When it finally got to be 8:00 a.m. we wound down the staircase to find the dining room. It’s a family type affair, and each family has its own table and bearer. It was the bearers that got us. I thought the kids’ eyes would pop out of their heads. They wear white pants and fitted jackets, but it’s the head gear that’s so wild; their white turbans have some kind of wicker basket in the crown and from the basket there emerges a flaring white fluff of material which sways as they pad around silently in their sneakers. If all this sounds glamorous, don’t be misled. By contrast to the exquisite linens and china and silver of Japan and Hong Kong, this place is genteelly shabby; and these white uniforms and turbans are hardly a gleaming white. On the contrary, this is the original tattle-tale gray. And after having sent our clothes to the hotel dhobi (laundry man) once, I know why, too. Anyway, these men in the dining room all have very luxuriant mustaches, and I haven’t figured out yet whether that’s the caste mark for waiters or not. They are all very sweet and attentive, and if I have to leave the room to take a ‘phone call, for instance, I’ll come back to find them feeding the kids or coaxing them to have more.

The children have been eating a good breakfast. The other meals don’t appeal to Ruth, but Jon loves this uninspired British cooking and he has been eating very well. For Ruth, and for the rest of us at times, I supplement this hotel cooking with supplies from the Commissary. After two days of getting rather upset about the meal situation here, I got an electric hot-plate from TCM (it’s part of the stuff I’ll have in our home anyway) and on this I’m learning to dash off other dishes.

When this hot plate came, I was all set to plug it in and make up some Lipton’s soup, but fortunately Joseph was around and suggested that maybe I ought to have the electrician up. After some time, he did make it up here – a swarthy Sikh wearing the typical red turban plus a narrow hair-net over his beard. With the help of Joseph and Cecilia (the children’s nurse), we finally reached and elementary level of communication. The upshot of the extended conversation was that if I plugged in the hot-plate without first unplugging the refrigerator, I would electrocute myself. Then we went through a practical demonstration – several times. After this, everybody thanked everybody and since I figured we were all good friends by now, I suggested that maybe he could fix one of the lamps that had gone out the night we arrived. He suggested that he would do it some other day, so we all nodded again, and that was that. A week later he showed up and spent an hour or so fussing with the lamp – I swear he was cutting the wires with his teeth – but it still doesn’t work.

Speaking of the Commissary, one of the first things we did was to locate it and stock up on things like Sugar Jets and Jif peanut butter. The prices are higher than at home, but we save on cigarettes and if we were interested, we could save on liquor, too. It’s kind of a hole in the wall – at home, you’d pass it up for a nicer-looking place – but it does have those items which we need here even more than at home – paper cups, Kleenex, etc.

It’s located some distance behind the American Embassy which is by far the most exquisitely designed building we’ve seen here. Gene will take the usual photographs so that you’ll have a look, too.

We get there by taxi, as we get everywhere here. Once in a while I see a bus but I’m not about to get on one yet. Matter of fact, I consider myself lucky if I get a cab driver who understands some English. There is a so-called cab stand outside the hotel walls. (It sounds as though we were living in a ghetto, but I can tell you that the kids and I get out more than most Americans here). This cab-stand consists of a bunch of charpoys under a tree. On each charpoy there is stretched out one cab driver. They’re all Sikhs and wear a turban of sorts – not the tailored kind, but just some dirty rags wound around their heads. If it’s the middle of their siesta, they have their turbans off and their hair hangs down to the middle of their back. When you summon one, he removes himself from his cot, tucks his hair up under the turban and goes to his cab and sort of bows. The cabs are all at least 20 years old; the doors don’t always stay closed; and on our first trip in one, the steering wheel kept sticking, so that we kept running off the road. The traffic is wild, of course, with people on bicycles all over the place, cows grazing, bullocks pulling carts, ponies pulling carts, and people pulling carts. The cabs just go in and out, and the traffic is supposed to be on the left, they’re all over the road. The highest fare I ever had was 4 rupees, and that was when I used a cab for nearly two hours and kept him waiting at each stop.

We now have two favorite taxi men and even if it’s not their turn to take us, they will get us into the cab and make sure that whatever driver we have knows where we’re going. Jon goes through a big ceremony with all of these boys and there is always much salaaming and hand-shaking between the two. (It’s pretty useless to worry about germs.) I think we made our first real contribution the day Jon saw a middle-aged gentleman in a Ghandi cap and shouted: “Is that Mr. Nehru?” The driver ignored all traffic and simply turned around to beam at Jon.

The children’s favorite mode of transportation is by scooter-taxi. This is really an adventure. First of all, none of these drivers speak any English, and secondly, the scooter-taxi is nothing more than a scooter with a rickshaw body. It’s as good as a roller-coaster, and, of course, quite breezy. There’s enough room for Cecilia and me, and we each hang on to one child for dear life. When I ride them alone, I sit dead center, keep a straight face behind my dark glasses, and try to emerge looking dignified and unruffled. These cost half the price of a taxi, but there’s no meter. You’re supposed to figure it out from the speedometer or something.

I have mentioned Cecilia and it’s time I explained about her. She was hired, tentatively, by one of our friends here to serve as the children’s nanny. I have learned that there is a distinction between nanny and ayah, and Cecilia is the former because she is a Christian, speaks, reads and writes English, and eats Western food. She is from Goa, therefore of Portuguese origin. Very dark skinned with lovely features; long pig-tail down her back; Western dress. She arrived to be interviewed the morning after we had gotten here, but before I got a chance to talk to her, the kids had led her downstairs to the garden to show her the swings and sliding board. I was left to read her recommendations, which were excellent, and that’s how she got hired.

(continued on July 1, 1961)

I was planning to launch into an account of how Cecilia and the kids and I spend our day, but once again we had a bit of an emergency. Jon and Ruth were chasing around the apartment just before lunch today and she lost her footing on the tile floor and her head met up with a concrete base-board. A Captain Goff, one of our neighbors here, took Ruthie and me out toward Old Delhi to a Dr. Sen’s Nursing Home. We were told on arrival that the accident ward was only open from 9:00 a.m. to noon (by now it was 12:45), but somehow they decided to take care of us. She got one suture and a magnificent bandage and home we came. We go back on Monday evening so that the stitch can be removed. As you might imagine, she’s quite proud of her bandage and also very specific about just what the doctor did to her.

Since we’re on the subject of accidents and illnesses again, I might as well report that Gene has reached the stage of eating rice, boiled potatoes, jello, cornstarch pudding and other equally inspiring delicacies.

Gene had a terribly funny thing happen to him today. Up till now, I had been doing all the reporting to Dr. Prakash on his condition, but today I thought he was up to going out to the hall to make the call himself. (We have no phone in our room. Matter of fact, when a call comes, someone answers the phone downstairs, then someone else comes up the 30 steps to tell us, then that same someone races down the steps to plug us in! And after all that, you’re usually disconnected.) Anyway, Gene went out to make his call and came back in a few moments very red-faced. Seems he must have dialed the wrong number, but when he asked if it was Dr. Prakash, the voice said, “Yes, please,” so reluctantly Gene went into a description of his present physical state. The voice kept saying, “Yes, please,” so Gene continued with his details. Finally, the voice at the other end indicated that this was NOT Dr. Prakash and Gene came back to the room in haste.

Anyway, to get back to Cecilia and the children … Back home, when Dr. Norton wrote us about getting a nurse, I thought he must be exaggerating the situation here a bit, but I can assure you that I wasn’t off the plane two minutes when I realized what a real necessity – not a luxury – such a person is here. And during this settling-in period, I would be utterly lost without her since I’m out every day meeting people, signing papers, and most important of all, looking at houses to rent.

The housing situation here in Delhi is quite appalling. The city was planned some 25 years ago for ½ million people, but there are some 2 and ½ million here now and more coming each day. In the past few years, the powers that be have had to allocate only small amounts of power to each new home; as a result, the only homes available with a minimum of power for our requirements are very old ones. The new flats – and they are lovely – have barely enough power to run one refrigerator, let alone two or three air-conditioners. The idea is to try to latch onto a home that is being vacated by another American family, and as you can imagine, this is not something you do in one or two weeks. In any case, I go out nearly every day with one of our three agents to inspect flats or homes which are for rent. (Incidentally, the landlords make the most of this tight housing to raise their rents to ridiculous prices.” I have seen some very unusual places, believe me, including one this morning in which every single window in the house was of frosted glass – the kind one usually finds in bathrooms – and there was no hope of having it changed. (It was built by a Muslim.”

Very often, you find arrangements where it’s impossible to go from one bedroom to another without passing through an open veranda. Can you imagine answering a child’s cry during the night and having to dash out into the open – through a monsoon or Delhi winter temperatures? Then there are the kitchens which seem to have been designed to make work, and more work, for servants. There is no such thing as counter space; the sink is small, square and deep without any kind of arrangement for draining dishes (maybe they just drop them on the floor); and, of course, there are no cupboards or shelves. In each kitchen there is an Indian stove – a structure made of concrete for cooking with charcoal – and most Americans simply have this covered over when they take a house, and put in the TCM kerosene range, wherever there’s room.

On the good side, rooms are large; each bedroom has its own private bath; and the houses are all masonry with beautiful terrazzo floors (good for cracking open small heads, did you say?). Usually, too, there are unusual veranda arrangements, a roof patio if you have the upper floor, or a nice enclosed garden if you have the ground floor.

Now all we have to do is find a home with the proper number of KW’s, the right arrangements of rooms, and a rental that’s not too out of line, and maybe we’ll get ourselves settled one of these days.

Our rental agents are Mr. Gupta, Mr. Prakash (no relation to Dr.) and Mr. Verma, and I could devote pages to each one. Needless to say, we’re getting to know one another quite well. Mr. Gupta drives a ’47 Austin which would make Gene’s ’49 Plymouth look like a Cadillac, and on our first tour of inspection, we stopped at least 6 times to have one of the front tires pumped up. His doors don’t close too well either and there’s always the exciting possibility that you’ll drop out into the road. And I do mean road, because there are very few streets as we know them here.

Through all of this I’ve said very little about the heart-breaking poverty and general misery that we see everywhere we go. How human beings can survive some of the living conditions I have seen is beyond my capacity to understand, and if I were to try to describe this in words, it wouldn’t seem real to you either … unless, of course, you’ve already been to this part of the world before. In any case, my impressions are still too raw, so I’ll wait awhile on this subject.

I’d like to go on for several more pages, but since I’m imposing on Gene’s Girl Friday, Sheila Forman, to make some copies of this for you, I’ll hold off until another time. Until then, you may be sure that we’re having ourselves quite an adventure – in more ways than one.

We all send our fondest regards and look forward to hearing from you.

Love,

Anita

A note from Gene at this point: my work is shaping up slowly, as is my understanding of organization charts, interrelationships of people, bureaus, institutes and offices. The total educational task is staggering in needs and scope and there should be no dull moments here.

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