July 16, 1961 – long letter re. trip, arrival, first impressions, conditions in Delhi (Anita)

July 16, 1961

Hi there,

After my first grand six-page effort, it’s taken me quite a while to work up the steam for another letter. Actually, it’s a case of having had too much steam, for since the monsoons really got underway, the weather has been incredibly hot and sticky and to go out means to walk into a Turkish bath. Even at night it feels as though someone had enveloped you in a hot, wet blanket. We had two days of intermittent rain this week – with sunshine in between and during rain – and not what everyone has been wanting – cloudy days without rain. With the temperature only in the high nineties, everyone feels renewed energy and is making the most of the breather before we get more sticky rain or more sun. Jon has adapted the word “monsoon” to his own language and it no longer rains, but it monsoons, or is monsooning.

Gene is completely recovered from his dysentery and looking quite fit. He is in full swing at the Institute of Audio-Visual Education now and I’m leaving a description of that situation up to him when he gets around to it. In the meanwhile, Jon and I had another try at dysentery, but fortunately we didn’t make as much a production of it as Gene. Ruthie is the only one who’s escaped this immunization process so far, but of course, she had her little set-back when she conked her head. It’s all over, the scab has dropped off, and the scar will disappear very shortly. The doctor had us go back twice – once to look at it and the second time to remove the suture. They’re very casual in that hospital and when he had us in the second time, we were ushered into the nursery – all four of us. I started to back out when I saw two tiny cribs in which there were newborns, one of them obviously premature, but the doctor waved us in and invited Jon and Ruth to take a good look at these creatures who were protected from us by only the filmiest of gauze sheet.

Well, I’ve done it again by starting “in media res” (I think that’s what I mean) instead of going way back to the beginning – the beginning being when we left Philadelphia – and trying to fill in the gaps for you.

By now you’ve probably heard that on the morning of our departure Ruthie blossomed out with the German measles which we’d been expecting, and Jon was not quite up to par either, having run a temperature that night in the motel. Since we couldn’t go back to an empty house, and since we’d already celebrated our departure the night before with a bottle of sparkling burgundy, we took off in spite of these slightly disconcerting developments. Ruth was more spotted and Jon, more feverish, by the time we got to my brother’s but in all the excitement of seeing their five little cousins, my two kept insisting that they felt fine and started right in playing with their relatives. I still don’t know how Jon stayed on his feet, but finally, when I couldn’t bear his glazed look any longer, I dragged him in (over my husband’s and my brother’s protests – they thought I was getting too protective) and by then his temp. was 103. We took him to the family doctor and the big question in everyone’s mind was: Is he getting the real measles? The doctor told us to wait it out till the next morning and bring him in again. He spent a horrible night and the next morning the doctor decided it probably wasn’t measles and gave the poor kid a 5cc dose of some preventative stuff – not Gamma Globulin, however. By that afternoon he was fine, tearing around, and he and Ruth – now more spotted than ever – proceeded to have a wonderful time for the rest of our stay. I have never seen seven kids have more fun together – they’ve all got the same enthusiastic temperament and it’s amazing how well they click despite the range in ages from 10 to 2.

The trip from L.A. to Tokyo was made via PAA with two stop-overs. The first was Hawaii where two of my former students and their husbands and families met us with leis and bought us cooling drinks. The adults had a fine Teachers College reunion while the children played about in the airport just like old friends. We stopped next at Wake Island for refueling, and what a weird, desolate spot that is. By this time we had made friends with a suave, lanky Indian who was on his way to Hong Kong for a buying trip and a cute little girl from Tennessee (accent and all) on her way to join her soldier husband in Tokyo. As you can imagine, after some 15 hours together we were all fast friends. This was the longest day of our lives when we kept flying into more and more sunlight, passed the International Date Line and time seemed to be standing absolutely still. We left L.A. at 9:00 a.m. and arrived in Tokyo after 5 p.m., but by my watch which hadn’t been changed, it was 2:00 in the morning – and don’t ask me of which day.

Most of our time in Tokyo was spent in trying to catch up on this crazy time difference. We did find ourselves waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning, as we had been told we would, and how to while away the rest of the night until breakfast? Fortunately, the picture windows in our hotel suite provided a magnificent view of the busy city that is Tokyo, and I can tell you that even at 4:00 a.m. there’s something going on. There was one man on a roof top across the way who did an hour of spirited setting up exercises each morning, for instance.

In spite of our mixed-up schedule, we managed to take a very nice four hour tour (with the kids), but shopping was out of the question since whenever we had the time, they were taking extra naps. We loved the atmosphere in Tokyo – a mad, brisk pace something like New York only more so since everyone seemed so purposeful. Everywhere we went people helped us with the children – lifting them off busses, carrying them for us, entertaining them when they got bored. We attended a tea ceremony in an exquisite garden and just as the tea mistress got going on her intricate routine, Ruth decided she had had enough. Gene took her out of the tea house and was going to stay out there with her, but a lovely woman in a kimono appeared and held out her arms for Ruth and carried her down the path so Gene could come back in. When the ceremony was over and my daughter was returned to us, she was smiling and carrying a flower. Again, when we were delayed at the airport for over an hour, before leaving on Air France for Hong Kong, a young Japanese hostess saw the children getting restless, took them to a little toy counter in the airport and before I realized what she was doing, she had about a dozen of these wonderful Japanese motorized toys going like mad all over the floor. She didn’t leave us until we were in our seats on the plane.

I can’t go on now without saying something about Air France and its service. It was such a delightful change from the efficient, but almost grim and dedicated-to-duty type atmosphere that we’d had on TWO and PAA up until then. On AF the hostesses look anything but business-like. Their uniform isn’t really a uniform, but a smart blue shirtwaist dress in Paris blue, worn extremely short and usually with a bit of petticoat lace showing underneath the hem. They were the only hostesses I saw who kept their spikes on throughout the flight, bumps or no. There are more male stewards than there are hostesses (we discovered soon after take-off that this was because of the Bar) and they are all very smooth and handsome as they stroll through pouring champagne and wine or urging you to have just a tiny bit of Camembert or Brie. I was a miserable failure from their point of view since I really didn’t have room for a different wine with each course plus an aperitif and after-dinner liqueur, too; and when I asked for a coke once, the poor fellow just shrugged and rolled his eyes upwards. (I think they thought that because I spoke French I should know better.) We were certainly grateful to Jon and Ruth whenever they fell asleep at mealtime since we knew that cuisine like that wasn’t going to come our way again for quite some time – fifteen months, to be exact.

As for the business of flying, I’m not too sure what they were doing, but here again there was a certain kind of flair that was decidedly different and Gene and I both agree that we have never made such rapid descents in our lives. It took both of us several days after we got to Delhi to get our ears unblocked. (Jon, whose ears had had us so concerned all along, never said a word about any pain.) The descent in Hong Kong would be terrifying no matter what the air line, for at one moment it looks as though you must hit the mountains, and then you’re sure you’re going to land in the bay. It did give us a dazzling view of the China coastline, then the island of Hong Kong itself, and Kowloon; and as we skimmed over the mountain tops, we saw the thousands of refugee shanties covering literally every available inch of ground.

The smells and sights of Hong Kong are not to be described by an amateur like myself. Besides, I have ony handfuls of vivid flashbacks – of a woman walking along with a live chicken struggling in her grasp, of a man who looked at least 95 breaking rocks patiently under a hot sun, of a woman doing her laundry in a tiny basin on the deck of a sampan while her husband and children slept wherever they had fallen on the dirty deck, of the eight year olds carrying their younger brothers or sisters on their backs, and of all the rest that is the poverty of Hong Kong. (And how that we’re in India, we can say that we’ve seen worse.) In contrast to the poor were the beautiful slim girls in their black patent spikes and skin-tight Cheong Sans slit to the thigh. Even the girl attendants at the airport and customs wear them, in white linen, just as tight and slit just as high. With their Parisian hair-dos, they were just about the smartest women I’ve ever seen anywhere.

The expeditions that suited the kids most were the ferry boat rides between Kowloon and Hong Kong. We enjoyed these for the scenery, which was almost too beautiful to be true, and besides, I kept expecting William Holden to show up at any minute with his sketch pad while Gene kept his eye peeled for Nancy Kwan. One morning we crossed over to Hong Kong and took a wild half-hour ride over the mountain to the other side of the island so that the children could play at Repulse Beach. It gave us a sort of strange feeling to be just about the only non-Chinese on the scene, but you can be sure that Jon and Ruth weren’t the least bit dismayed as they played and dug in the sand. One of the men at our hotel had given us a “letter of introduction” to the head waiter of a little café on the bay and that’s where we had lunch, on a terrace overlooking the beach where middle-class Chinese played mahjong on their card tables and, in general, did just what middle-class Americans would do at Atlantic City.

We enjoyed the flight from Hong Kong to Delhi very much. There were stopovers of an hour or so at Phnom Penh and Bangkok, and these were fascinating because of the wonderful array of nationalities that were arriving and departing. I had myself a wonderful time eavesdropping (behind a French newspaper) in the languages I know and wondering about all those I didn’t know.

You’ve been told of our arrival in Delhi. We were kept so busy our first week here that we didn’t even have time to get sick, and that is really an accomplishment. The first day here our Chief of Party and his wife asked us to go out to the Central Institute of Education with them. We were suffering from still another change in time, and, of course, it was over 100 degrees. We drove our through Old Delhi, which, as I’ve learned since, is about as bad as living conditions can get in this area. It was quite an initiation for a newcomer, believe me, and as we rode along in a comfortable car, more or less protected from the sun and dry gusts of scorching heat, I could only wonder how human beings could survive five minutes of what I was seeing, let alone a lifetime.

There are some pretty bad living conditions in Delhi, too, and they are in evidence everywhere, the closest being not too far outside the garden walls of this place. There are the sidewalk dwellers, the park dwellers, the traffic island dwellers and all the rest. Then, in what seems a more organized way of life, we see migrant groups from Rajasthan who are responsible for all of the construction work here and who set up little communities of tiny grass huts near their current job. Both men and women work, while the children swarm in and about the bricks and mortar, and between them a man and wife can earn a little over a dollar a day. The women dress in an orange-red flowered dress and wear lots of bangles on both ankles and wrists. They will carry the bricks and/or mortar on their heads to the men who lay the bricks. Or, if they’re doing a road job, they will balance containers of molten asphalt on their heads and pour it on the ground to be spread by the men. They work from 8:00 to 6:00 in these fantastic temperatures and then, after dark, we can hear the jungle-like sound of their drums and bells and singing as they relax from the day’s work. I don’t know what they’re singing about, but everyone tells me that they are the happiest and strongest people in India, never sick (because they eat ghee made from water buffalo), and able to withstand anything. (As Gene told one Indian, remarks like these used to be made in our own country in the time of slavery.) In all of the road building and other type of construction that goes on here seven days a week, I’ve seen only one piece of actual machinery and that was an antiquated steam roller that looked like something from Toonerville Trolley.

Among the many other visits we had to make our first week was one to the Indian Foreign Registration office. Had I not known for sure that we were in Delhi, I might have assumed that someone was leading us into the Casbah. The office, when we finally got to it after what seemed like miles of smelly, dark porticos, turned out to be very hot, very dusty and very dimly lit. There were three clerks behind a counter [seated cross-legged on tall stools], one of them an enormous Sikh, and before each one were mountains of papers and record books. All three were writing with the kind of pen that makes big Rorschach blots everywhere and there wasn’t a filing cabinet in sight. I’ve learned since that files as we know them are not used here. Papers are tied up in bundles and left lying around – the better to collect dust. If they like you, they can usually find something. They gestured to us to sit down and I did, gingerly, but Gene found his bottom touching the floor when he tried to because his end of the leather couch had stopped holding up people long ago. For the rest of the interview he sat with his chin slightly below counter-level. There followed a long series of questions, with everyone misunderstanding everyone and the Indians, particularly, misunderstanding each other. Maybe it’s just that they weren’t trying very hard; it was pretty hot. After much cross-examination, they produced two yellowed (and dusty) forms which we filled out, and then they recopied these elsewhere amidst much scratching of pens, splattering of ink and constant tumbling-down of papers that weren’t very securely tied up to begin with. The three took turns emitting great, heart-rending sighs. We’re due back there to go through a similar performance in a year, but I know that by then it wouldn’t even occur to me to write home about it. With each passing day one takes more and more for granted.

We made several other official-type visits which I won’t go into, but you can take my word for it that they were all more or less along the same pattern. Everywhere I seemed to sense a lack of communication among the Indians, even though they all use English as their official language. This is probably due to the mother tongue, or tongues, which make each person’s accent just a bit different from the next. Needless to say, our ears have been strained quite a bit trying to catch on to the different intonation, and this becomes particularly difficult over the phone when wires get crossed – as they always do – and there are four and six-way conversations going on. Only Jon and Ruth – as is usual with children – remain undaunted by it all and seem to understand everyone with ease. Incidentally, they can still sing a little Japanese song that a girl guide taught us in Tokyo. At my insistence Cecelia [the ayah] throws in a bit of Hindi whenever appropriate, and one afternoon I heard Ruth giving a good imitation of the hotel proprietor as he shouts in Hindi for the night-watchman.

The children are scheduled to start nursery school and kindergarten on August 5th. The Playhouse School, which is run by U.S. trained Mrs. Bimla Mehta, has a lower and upper nursery and the same separation for kindergarten which gives the kids a pretty good chance of getting in the proper age group. For the children these classes are known as the green class, the blue, etc. Sterile drinking water is a feature of this school and tables and floors are disinfected daily. Our neighbors here at the hotel (he is chargé d’affaires with the Mexican Embassy) will have two of their three in the same school.

As for the depressing job of house-hunting, it continues. We have hopes of getting either of two fairly good places, both of which may be vacated by TCM families sometime (?) in the near future.

Meanwhile, our air freight found its way to us some ten days ago, and it was just like Christmas around here because I got out things like Jon’s front-end loader, Ruthie’s favorite bunny, their holsters, guns, baseball bat and caps, etc. Our own household stuff I didn’t even bother unpacking (except for a few towels, plastic containers, etc. – and did they ever look beautiful!) and we’ve just left these packing boxes in our wardrobe room and bathroom. Both rooms are so enormous that the storage of these things doesn’t get in our way at all, but it does serve as a reminder of how unsettled we still are. We’ve heard that our car is on its way from Bombay to Delhi by rail, but don’t expect it for still another month. That’s all right with me because I’m not that eager to drive in Delhi traffic. Most Americans use drivers, but Gene insists I can learn.

Since our first week here I’ve been getting all kinds of pressure to teach at the American International School. They’re desperate for a French teacher and the way in which I’ve been approached makes it very difficult for me to refuse, but I’m afraid I’m going to. Their classes start the first week in August and I can’t see undertaking the job so early in the game – especially when I think of the unpacking and getting a place set-up that is yet to come. I’ll probably feel obliged to help them out during the second semester, though. As usual, the pages have filled up too rapidly and I’m left with the usual backlog of too many things unsaid. They’ll just have to wait for another time.

We’ve enjoyed getting your letters and look forward to more. Gene, Jon and Ruth join me in sending our fondest regards.

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