Recalling Details from the ‘60s in India


Written August 2000

Also attached here is a letter sent to the 7th-8th grade girls in Woodstock School’s K-Wing dorm with whom I was “matron” in 1962-63. That message is followed by more recent photos of some of those dorm girls become women.

If worldview is measurable, mine more than doubled between 1962 and 1965. In my twenties, I crossed mountains and cultures. The Himalayan peaks we first saw in the dark of night, thanks to splashes of lightning displayed outside the airplane’s narrow window. Served a whole mango at the first motel breakfast, I paused, not knowing how to tackle it. The bearer, his peaked headgear complemented with a cloth draped neatly over one forearm, noticed my need. Having wondered why he hovered near our table, stopping to rearrange the salt and pepper shakers, I welcomed his carving off the ‘cheeks.’ Then I balked again over the drippy mess from handling the large, oval seed.

I arrived in India a naïve believer in human goodness. Open to new and untested experience, what unfolded was rich beyond expectation. Not monetary, the wealth in store came through travel, religious diversity, and maturing friendships. Riding third class sleeper on India’s massive rail network provided sights and sounds plus a silent accrual of dust. Shedding shoes at the entrance to temple or mosque enhanced an aura of holy ground. And intimacy begun—with those like Diana, Fyrne, Thelma, Abhinandan, Ramath, and Shanti—never dissolved.

Throughout childhood and youth in a rural Iowa community, I had known increased self-awareness, curiosity, and trust in the Divine. But my ‘world’ consisted of the United States: having toured Yellowstone National Park and the monuments in Washington D.C., having known one African American student in my high school, and having flourished through college dorm life and extra curricular bustle.

Invited by Dr. Ernest E. Miller during our first year of marriage to teach at Woodstock, an international school in the foothills of the Himalayas, my husband and I welcomed the venture. During the first night on the hillside, from an altitude of over seven thousand feet, I looked out at the nearer bright stars and said, “Hey, I’m halfway around the world from home, and that’s the same moon that I see when over there.” The Boeing 707 that enabled our trip made seven stops en route. The restroom area in each transit lounge added cultural details: in London, each square of TP was marked “Property of the Queen.” At Middle East stops, a woman personally handed a towel to patrons after washing, whether in facilities marked for women or men. During that first early dawn bus ride, from Delhi’s international airport made stark by lack of technology to the Janpath hotel, I noticed more than farmers headed toward small fields.

By the time we had left Istanbul, western faces were markedly in the minority. By contrast, when boarding our 1998 flight from Chicago’s O’Hare, I stopped, almost balked when more Indians than Americans seemed headed with us to Chennai (formerly Madras). The official U.S. opening of immigration limits in 1965 had indeed changed the face of flyers from her exit ports. Compared to India’s population of 350 million during our Sixties stint, her current billion does not include thousands of NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) who regularly wend their way back to extended kin and business booms. The meaning of minority therefore shifts with worldview.

What were details of my maiden experience as a foreign woman? Having people, especially groups of young men, stare at me, boldly, without apology. How could a newcomer defend herself? To ‘stare down’ the culprits was not culturally wise, I learned. To shed the look of innocence and inexperience was crucial. To ignore unwelcome gestures while keeping alert to them proved to be a practical paradox. Not wishing to be tagged a North American ‘hippy’ was one goal; having recently read The Ugly American alerted me to further cautions.

Clothes became a factor. Being western made wearing western clothes a logical choice. But in the early Sixties even Woodstock girl students were not permitted to wear jeans, except on weekends (and then not when going to the bazaar). As teacher of girls’ physical education, I justified eating meals in the faculty dining hall in slacks or sweat pants, but shifting to English teacher involved more than a change of subject matter. Fortunately, some of those dress codes underwent altering during my time on the hillside. And equally fortunate, the shawar chemis, an Indian two-piece tunic with baggie pant combination, functioned well for traveling.

Obviously, a well-draped sari, as worn by most Indian women, reveals a fashion most elegant. Not from colored bolts that unravel ker-plunk, ker-plunk on a fabric counter, a sari of five-to-six yards speaks of wholeness. Most Indian women wear it well, gliding over space with grace. But, self-conscious about keeping the folds and shoulder drape in place, I seldom donned what required a friend’s assistance. Wearing one to a wedding in Delhi during a pouring monsoon shower did not make wading through puddles easier either. But Indians bunch the bulk of cloth with left hand deft. They “swab” the floor with rag or dung. They ascend a stairway with infant in hand. They play with mystery—“ever concealing, yet revealing.” Having missed a cultural opportunity to fully credit India’s distinctive garb, I do recognize how effectively saris display design and subtle color. Of homespun cotton or sleek silk, each is a miniature gallery.

To merely mention the monsoon avoids justice to its role in sustaining life—human and other. Crops to feed India’s billion depend on the monsoon. Failed rains prompt other failures of economic or grain and oil needs. Even worship depends on water and its sacred symbolism. A stream-of-consciousness flit through memory uncovers details. Welcome the first cloud burst across the Himalayan foothills, after a month of dusty dust and threats of fire from brittle twigs on parched hills. Let Shiva, Yahweh, or Allah—different names for the One God—be thanked in whatever language or dialect. For, streams of a monsoon season, beginning from a trickle, meander, then surge uncontrollably in a prolonged attack. Then, weeks later, duly honor the sun as it again convincingly shares its gifts of warmth and light.

Coping with rain takes on different forms. The dhobi struggles to get laundry dry within a week. Perhaps his child makes a bed of underclothes, testing the impact of body heat. Or when desperate, the bed sheets may just be re-ironed, without engaging the cool, mountain stream or flat stones for whipping. On the open bookshelf, mold forms wherever glue hides. A thin layer of scum gathers also on shoes left in the almirah, despite a small-wattage bulb left lighted among the hanging shirts in the wooden closet. The camera bag is stored there too. One night we moved the bed twice, to avoid drips that soaked through the ceiling. Thirteen inches of rain in one night, most of it within four hours’ time, played havoc with a bucket, hooked near the ceiling. To refinish the walnut coffee table from Kashmir became essential.

Valleys, temporarily lost in mystery, fill with low-lying clouds then once again re-veal their paths as the mist rolls on or rises to evaporate. That same mist surrounds the campus. With walls on two sides, the gym’s cement floor gets too slippery for worn sneakers. Gullies and drains overflow. Diverted rubble washes down from points higher and the khud’s supporting layers of stone give way below. The athletic field takes the squeeze as the track’s staggered starts lose their standard measure. Uprooted trees, soaked soil, and rock slides block former paths. Even cottages may lose their ‘footing.’ Wired communication gets cut off or delayed; shouts of “Hello, Hello” fail to resurrect the phone lines. With major slides of debris across the ghat road, passengers depart one bus to crawl over the uneven rubble, to board another one to finish the ride. The steep incline and hairpin curves remain constant, however.

How the students brag during monsoon days about hiking along dense paths. They collect as many as fifty innocent-looking bits of twig that attach to skin, blood-sucking leeches. Never breaking one off, the sucking continues through the connected end. Hopefully prepared, each finds a packet of salt in the depth of one’s pocket. Dropping that which preserves food directly onto the leech makes it drop like a water-logged tennis ball, bulged and thick. Hiking on, students note floral mysteries opened overnight—miniature lavender orchids and wild dahlias made wilder through orange and reds. Students in biology class gather specimens of fern—100 types at most—from shaggy, stubby oak trees. With a population explosion of their own, ferns stretch out eight to ten inches from the shiny bark, producing both shade and beauty.

No season is complete without a few soaking hikes. Mid-monsoon, the principal announced one bright morning a day off from classes—a “clear day holiday.” Get out and enjoy the sun. Being ‘matron’ of the junior high girls’ dorm, I with thirty eager kids headed out the winding Tehri Road. To scan the horizon, a portion of India’s plains with a meandering riverbed stretched miles below, was a sight even Kodak could not replicate. We had barely finished our sack lunches several miles out when the umbrellas went up. Two heads under one ‘umbie’ produced one wet left side and one wet right side of “Saimese pairs.” Once soaked, we turned the umbrellas into walking sticks, for steeper grades. Slushy tennis shoes bubbled, revealing latent laundry soap not fully rinsed. Favorite songs (“With a pack on my back, there is nothing I lack”) brought the hills to life. Laughter resounded as clusters of giggling girls enjoyed each other’s antics. So what if a cloth shoulder bag gets damp; soggy sao (the Indian version of LaChoy noodles) is better than no sao. And friendships deepen through sharing.

Younger Woodstock students enjoying an activity in the Quad area.