October 22, 1961 – Dussehra festivities, the yogi, and Anita’s work in the clinic

Dear Magistros and Udells:

I’m writing to both sides of the family at the same time this week so as to save a little time. Gene is much better after that awful virus he had – it really was like a flu – and I am somewhat better after having come down with it about five days ago. I understand that it takes ten days to two weeks to really get over it, so we’re both trying to be patient about it. It’s quite infuriating, however, because the weather has never been so beautiful and we both feel as though we should be tearing around making the most of it. We’re not the only ones affected, however; I’d say that two out of every three persons in Delhi has had it or is having it. Jon and Ruth are fine, thank goodness. Cecilia is out sick, too, and I suspect that she has the same bug.

Tomorrow Gene and I are scheduled to start attending a series of lectures and classes held especially for foreign technicians and their wives. In addition to the lectures by various Indian scholars, there are field trips – including one to Agra to see the Taj Mahal – and we’ve both been looking forward to this for some time. I sure hope everyone is in shape around here tomorrow so that we can start. If not, we’ll have to postpone until the next time the course is scheduled – sometime in December.

This was a big week of festivities in Delhi, and in spite of our colds, Gene and I did try to see as much as possible since we know that we won’t be here at this time next year. All over Delhi various groups were enacting the Ramayana – India’s great national epic which is sort of Bible with the Hindus. The dramatizations go on for nine days and on the last day – when Rama (who personifies good) finally triumphs over the evil one, Ravan, there is great celebration with tremendous fireworks. We attended this grand finale at the fair grounds near the old Red Fort and took Jon and Ruth. The actors were on floats, drawn by bullocks, and these circulated through the fair grounds, accompanied by dozens of different bands, each playing as off-key as only Indian bands can play. On one float, Ram and Ravan were engaged in a mock duel. On another, someone was shooting arrows off into the sky; and on still another, Sita, Ram’s wife, waited patiently to be rescued. It was all very crude, but the people went wild; and Jon loved it completely.

They had erected – of papier mache – three huge figures, about 50 feet high, representing the three principal characters of the drama, and after about 45 minutes of very elaborate fireworks, they set fire to these three effigies and with a terrifying noise, they fell to the ground. By this time, Ruth had had enough of all this fire and shooting and was hiding in Gene’s arms; but Jon could have gone on watching for hours, and for the next two days, we heard nothing but his version of the Ramayana.

Just before the fireworks started, Nehru was driven through the fair grounds. He was standing in an open car and looked very vigorous as he tossed garland after garland of flowers to the mobs who were cheering him. Someone estimated that there must have been a million people there.

Something else which has had us all fascinated this week has been the performances of various “saddhus” (yogi or holy men) at Lodi Gardens, a park about five minutes away from our home. These men are the ones who have spent their lives in the study and practice of yoga. We see many of them circulating about. They are recognized by their clothing – a piece of saffron-colored cloth worn in various ways – and by their very long hair and the marks which they paint on their foreheads. Anyway, one of these men had taken a vow to remain standing for 40 days – and he did just that. Another had himself buried underground for nine days and emerged safe and sound. Gene went – at 3:00 a.m. in the morning – to see him being dug up; and the next day we all went back to see him where he was sitting, holding court as it were. Hundreds of people were coming to speak to him and from the donations that people had made, some of the other disciples had set up a feast and were offering food to everyone who came. Jon and Ruth were each given a banana, which they gave in turn to a couple of kids who looked lots hungrier than they.

In case you’re wondering how anyone can be buried for nine days and emerge alive – it’s all tied up with the control these yogis have over their bodies. They can seal off all the openings to the body, can lower their pulse and blood pressure, can even make their heart-beat stop. Apparently, when this particular man was taken out from underground, he was hard – as though he were dead – but when he emerged from the trance in which he had put himself, his body became normal again. Many of these characters are fakes, of course, but this one must have been on the level since there were witnesses to his burial and guards standing over the “grave” for the entire nine days and nights. It makes you realize what a strange land this is, for sure …

I had my first stint at the clinic on Monday, and that was quite an experience, too. This clinic – and it’s the only one of its kind in New Delhi – is run by some charitable organization for the extremely poor – in other words, the ones who have absolutely nothing. When I say clinic, don’t get the impression of some sterile-looking establishment filled with the latest in equipment and drugs. The clinic is nothing more than two small rooms of a very old and pretty sad-looking house. Everything is donated – hence, there is very little to work with. The volunteers mix their own medications, for the most part; the doctors who volunteer their mornings have no equipment to speak of; and in the section where I worked – on treating local infections and changing dressings – we didn’t even have hot water for washing our hands. The things I saw there were unbelievable, but I was too busy to be shocked at the moment – ghastly infections, mostly the result of boils; scabies; and on babies, ear, eyes and throat infections of the most serious kind. Most of my time was spent in cleaning infected areas and applying medication and new dressings. Most of the infections were so extensive that you wondered if the skin every would grow together again; and since we know that these poor people have no means of keeping themselves clean, they probably keep these same sores for months and months. We can’t realize what a luxury soap and hot water are until we see things like this – all of which could have been avoided by following just a few simple rules of cleanliness in the first place.

Well, all this is a far cry from the bomb-shelter conversations that must be taking place in your homes these days. We haven’t gotten our copy yet, but understand that this week’s Time has devoted quite a bit of space to the subject. I’ve been wondering whether we’d be for or against them if we were home now … It all seems so remote and weird, but very understandable at the same time, in view of the succession of world crises.

Enough for now if I want to have this catch the weekly APO plane.

We all send our love,


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