Vignettes of Indian-ness

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, I started writing about my personal impressions about Indian democracy but ended up writing a more personal memoir about my Indian experiences. Eventually, I revisited the work I had done and pulled out the more personal material to have two separate pieces. The one piece is now a commentary on “Personal Reflections on the Evolution of Indian Democracy” –  my effort to describe my politically focused concerns about democracy in India. Here I have tried to retain the elements of a more personal memoir – a work in progress of its own in four phases. I lived in India as a child from the ages of 2 to 8 and again as a teenager from the ages of 15 to 17; I subsequently visited India twice as an adult, once at age 30 and a final time at age 56.

Linking the Four Phases

My best friend when I was a young child was a girl named Belassi. I still have a picture of the two of us on my dresser. Sadly, she had died at the early age of 55 just before my last (and only) visit to the village/compound where we had lived and played together.  That was in Santal Parganas District of the state of Bihar (now Jharkhand), in a village called Benegaria.  Even more sadly, I have to admit, she had written to me, care of my mother, when I was in my 20s or thereabouts, and I had never responded to her letter. It had been written in Santali.  No one was immediately around to translate it for me,  and so I had set it aside for future reference and eventually lost track of it.   Except that I made a point of inquiring about her when I finally did get around to visiting that village (or compound), years later when I was in my 50s – only to learn that it was too late.  She had died just the year before my visit.

Even then (this was in the year 2000), contact with the village had been difficult.  There was as of yet no Internet in a place like Benegaria – or anywhere near there – and no phone, either!  Instead, I had to send telegrams to the neighboring town of Dumka, to the headquarters of the Santal Mission with whom my father had been a passionate medical missionary and evangelist, to inquire about the possibility of a visit. I was, at the time, a Deputy Director-General at the International Labor Organization (ILO), and I had all the latest technology on my side to organize a sort-of homecoming visit to India, at least at this official level. I had had the good fortune of befriending one of the Indian members of the ILO Governing Body, with whom I was indeed able to communicate by email through official ILO channels. This individual, Mr. I.P. Anand by name, was eager to have me come to India in support of the ILO’s newest commitment to a thing called “social dialogue” as a way to promote the ILO’s fundamental tripartite structure. That is, however, another story.

The point here is that Mr.  Anand encouraged me to combine this official ILO visit to India with a number of side visits of a more personal nature – to my boarding school in Tamil Nadu (in the hill station of Kodaikanal) and to the Santal Mission in Bihar – actually only that year of 2000 having been part of the spin-off new province of Jharkhand.  My side trips were constructed to fit in with a survey of jobs in the tea industry, justifying visits to the headquarters of the two main tea industry associations in India  (one, serendipitously, not far from Kodaikanal in a nearby hill station) and the other in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, the main transit point for traveling to Jharkhand. The Santal Mission itself, had once been in the tea industry in Assam, but that was a bit of a stretch. The main attraction for a train ride from Calcutta (Kolkata) to Bihar (Jharkhand) was actually an official meeting with the newly appointed Labour Minister of this new province – to be conducted at Rampurhat, the train station that connected travelers to the various Santal Mission locations.

Early Childhood Recollections

But I digress. I had this friend, Belassi by name. She was my childhood playmate. I remember her well – along with the other playmates that I had in those days. But she was my best friend. We played together and got into trouble together. On especially hot days, we would sneak into the bathroom of the house where I lived, take off our clothes and jump into the cool water that was stored in the brick-walled cistern in the corner of the bathroom. Otherwise, we would run barefoot through the gardens and walkways of the compound, only for my father to threaten to chain me to a chair if I didn’t keep my shoes on outside. And I spoke Santali in those days.

It was, according to my parents, my first language, and  I was resisting to learn any English. So they had to hire a Danish missionary to teach me English – an odd point that made it possible for me to claim years later that my American English was always colored by a touch of Danish pronunciation.  While my parents were too busy with their missionary duties to work on a child’s preference for the language of her playmates, they did insist that I learn the language of my birth. Which I did – and proceeded to chatter away in English whenever I was interacting with white people and in Santali with everyone else, regardless of where in India we happened to be! At least that was what my mother used to laughingly say about my language choices. (I myself do not remember this.)

I suppose it was significantly uneven, the power relationship that I had with my playmates, with Belassi and my other Santal friends. As I recall, we played together outside, whether it was in Benegaria or later in the neighboring village of Mohulpahari. Both were enclosed compounds centered around a hospital and health services complex. MY father actually oversaw the transition of the complex to Mohulpahari to accommodate a larger range of services. This was a sprawling compound with a reserviced old mansion as the core of the new hospital complex, to which were added a nursing school, elementary school, church, and several smaller homes for the staff of the compound;  two larger homes for the foreigners (my family, for one, but also another one for the two missionary nurses, Alice and Hilma, who ran the nursing school; and oh yes, also a rather enclosed home for the family of the Hindu physician who ran the hospital with my father.

My friends and I could slip into my home – the main house of the compound, after all.  But we didn’t seem to have other homes to go into. It was all basically outside, where we chased each other and played games . Of course, when I lived in the States as a child, in a suburb of Minneapolis, our playtime was mostly outside, too. (This was, after all, long before the I-Phone and Facebook.) But we did go in and out of each other’s houses. Not so in Benegaria or Mohulpahari. And in these locations, I was the boss. I dictated what my playmates could do and not do. This, too, changed dramatically when I went back to the States. My new neighborhood friends did not accept the premise that I was in charge.

Living in India, Phase One

But again, I digress.  My first time living in India started in 1946. It was a tumultuous post-war environment, and independence was looming for the Asian subcontinent. My dad had been released from his medical service in the US Army and jumped at the opportunity for a missionary posting with the Santal Mission in Bihar. My older sister was 9 and I was only 2 when we flew out from Minneapolis, requiring numerous stops along the way, including London and Cairo and Karachi.   From there, it was mostly by train that we traveled to Bihar, with at least one fairly long stop in Calcutta before continuing by train to Rampur Hat and then by car or bus to Benegaria.

I may have no memories of this trip, but I know that I was there for the partition – the most dramatic migration in history of millions of people moving in two directions, in and out of what was slated to become India and Pakistan (both East and  West.)  As I was growing up, I incorporated into my childhood memories the stories told by my parents and also by my older sister about those times.  They were tense, those times, and the stories were always prefaced with the observation that we were in the midst of this tension and yet were essentially isolated from it.

The isolated village of Benegaria was essentially far away from the chaos, but there was a time when the whole family traveled into the Himalayas north/northeast of Delhi to one of the famous hill stations near the city of Dehradun.  This particular hill station consisted of the twin towns of Landour, where my father went to study Hindi, and Mussoorie, where my sister was enrolled in the British Cambridge curriculum of Woodstock School.  (Hill stations were popular with the British, as an escape from the heat of the plains, and it was common practice to send their children to boarding schools like Woodstock.)   Shortly after my father had returned to Benegaria while my mother stayed behind to prepare placing my sister in the boarding school,  the chaos of partition came to the area.

The nights in Mussoorie were filled with the noise of gunfire, and threatening groups of armed men were reportedly breaking into Hindu or Moslem homes nearby.  My mother was on her own but aware that their household was safely  identified as occupied by Christians. Nonetheless, when the baker failed to deliver the daily bread order, the bazaar was put on strict curfew, and the Moslem dhobi (laundryman) disappeared, she concluded that both she and my sister had to leave and get back to Benegaria.

Here is where my own memory of how my mother described what happened next clearly became distorted.  What I remember hearing is that we had a separate compartment on a train to Delhi, presumably from Dehradun, and my mother discovered a Muslim woman hiding under the banquette. The story goes that she begged my mother to let her stay hidden there, which my mother agreed to do. During the night, however, as we were sleeping, the Muslim woman evidently disappeared.

Only recently, I came across a very different account of this story, written by my mother in a chapter of a book authored by my father.  But the essence of the story is the same – an Indian mother and her children with Moslem names was accosted by a man with a knife who accused her of kidnapping her children. She avoided being taken off the train by claiming to the guards on the train that she was a Christian traveling under my mother’s protection.

That was 1947. I lived in Bihar with my family for six years after that and before we returned to the States. I have lots of personal memories of the later portion of these years – playmates (like Belassi and the others, as already described), an ayah, a bearer, a punkah-wallah, a pani-wallah, a driver, a cook, a sweeper, lots of missionaries from Denmark, Norway, Canada and the US. A tricycle, child-sized rattan furniture but also a toy cooking stove made out of cow dung and clay cooking pots, glass bangles, snakes here and there, a live leopard caught in the compound and beaten to death. Singing hymns in Santali in the local church, visiting the mission headquarters in Dumka where there was a huge sitting room with an organ, celebrating special holidays by helping to serve everyone in the compound as they sat for a feast on the concrete floor along the verandas of the main building.  Each one had a “plate” of bamboo leaves, and we feasted with our hands on beef curry with rice, thanks to the secretive slaughtering of a cow in the forest in the middle of the night.  And my younger sister was also born during those years in India.

To return, though, to the experience of partition, I certainly came to appreciate that the wounds of partition would be long-lasting. During my second and third encounters with the Indian subcontinent in the 1960s and 1970s, I met people in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) who had fled from Sindh during the partition, and I met people in Rawalpindi (and the neighboring new Pakistani capital of Islamabad) who had fled from Bombay (now called Mumbai), also during the partition. Obviously, there is no way to put the pieces back together. We even tolerate the non-democracies or see-sawing nature of democratic practices in Pakistan and Bangladesh these days, but it is a sad commentary as we recognize the 75th anniversary of all that happened then, that the anniversary has stimulated so much angst about the deterioration of democracy in India itself.

Living in India: Phase Two

When I returned to India in 1960, I was 15 years old. I was there for two years and left a year earlier than the rest of my family to start university in the States. I had a sort of love/hate relationship with the country during these two years. Or, to put it more precisely, I had a deeply ambivalent relationship with the specific aspects of living in the country that I personally experienced. I loved the time I spent in the cities – Madras and Calcutta but also New Delhi; I loved the train rides and train stations; I loved the bazaars, the markets, the spices, the fabrics, the scent of jasmine flowers, the loudspeakers broadcasting popular Indian songs. I loved our school trip from Kodai to the other mission-run boarding school in Woodstock and our family trip to Kashmir.

On the other hand, I was not happy in boarding school; I disliked the cold and rainy weather in Kodai and longed for the heat of the plains; I found it difficult to adjust to  the outdated curriculum of courses I had to take at that boarding school; I disliked the rules (girls could not go off campus alone and always had to sign in and out as long as they were back on campus before 6 pm) and mandatory mealtimes. But I was also disappointed with my winter vacation months in Mohulpahari where my days were filled, of all incongruous things, with studying French by correspondence! There were no local playmates in Mohulpahari – they were all away at the high school miles away, including my childhood friend Belassi. And, besides, I had forgotten my Santali by then and was not encouraged to relearn it.  Although one might not describe all of this as a love/hate relationship, they were out of synch with my earlier expectations of what it would be like to be returning to India.

The irony of it all is that I ended up eagerly wanting to go back to the States – to be modern, grown up, American!  My parents were concerned enough about my welfare to recognize that I needed to get away from the school, with its conservative and limited  curriculum. Their answer, and one that I fully endorsed at the time, was a response to my passing observation that I had accumulated enough academic credits (thanks to the advanced and enriched courses I had taken in the American school back in the States) to graduate after my junior year. So why not, they concluded, send her back a year early to start university without sitting it out for an unnecessary senior year? In retrospect, it might have been wiser to have found a way for me to stay in India that extra year. And I have interacted over the years with many an American in love with India who found their youthfully curious way into one or another of the Indian universities to study. One of them even went to the famed Santinikaten that happened to be on the train route from Calcutta to Santal Parganas District!

But no, that was not to be. Not only was my family a Christian missionary family, but the family was imbued with the notion that Christianity was the way to both salvation and modernity. My parents were convinced (mostly expressed by my father but with the apparent deference of my mother) that there was no intellectual achievement or philosophy of life of any value in India. Yes, maybe Rabindranath Tagore was a scholar of repute – how could one ignore the recipient of a Nobel Price in Literature? But mostly the Indian world was only released from its ignorance, as my dad would regularly say,  by its exposure to Western – and Christian – values and fundamental knowledge! Even Gandhi was praised by  my father for having integrated western philosophy into his view of “satyagraha”.  Wow!  This point of view was further reinforced by the ultimatum that I would only be allowed to leave Kodaikanal a year early and go to university in the States if I could personally affirm that I believed in Jesus Christ!

Fair enough, this was a very specific family matter. But it does suggest that the 1960s were an important period of cultural change in and about India. Anecdotally, in any case, I was caught up in the idea of the “Westernness” of modern life, whether or not I could embrace Christianity. My favorite city of Calcutta was my escape from both Kodai and the Santal Mission, and I happened to have a Kodai classmate friend whose father ran the USIA office there. She brought me to their integrated club and pool – the Americans in India, after all, were enlightened enough to reject a whites-only mentality (in contrast to the Jim Crow laws of the American South), even if there were vestiges of British colonialism still around.

And, for teenagers, the main attraction was afternoon tea parties at the “in” (i.e. Westernized) restaurants. She introduced me to her friends, mostly young and cool locals, who were all dressed in Western clothes, even the girls, and all dancing to Western popular music.  It was quite the life – and an exciting future of togetherness to boot. This was, after all, the time when Air India had plastered billboards across the city with a smiling blond female saying “I was a DumDum blond until I flew to New York!” (The airport for Calcutta was known then as DumDum Airport and was only renamed Netanji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in 1995.)

That being said, it was from this airport that my parents saw me off to “return home” to the States. I was ready to be re-Americanized, as it were. The West, to be sure, was also discovering the exotic appeal of India in those days.  It was only a few years later, in 1966, that the link between Ravi Shankar and George Harrison opened up the Western music world to the rhythms and sounds of the sitar. The close relationship between the two even transformed the Beatles into a newer psychedelic style, while Ravi Shankar himself acquired a global following.  I myself was inspired by the Gandhian influence of satyagraha on the American civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King’s admonition at my Oberlin College commencement not to sleep through the revolution!  Clearly, this was a time when Indian and Western cultures were intermingling.

For me, the ebb and flow of enthusiasm for Western civilization, eventually resonated to the words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi himself when he was asked what he thought of it (Western civilization, that is) – that yes, he said, “it would be a good idea.”  Not that it was a good idea – just that it would be a good idea if only it worked! Not quite there, alas – even today – or perhaps, even more than ever so today. But also back in the 1960s.

Linking freedom and democracy with Western civilization proved to be highly questionable. The day of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 is remembered by everyone who was alive then, but it was the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and then of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, along with the horrors of the Vietnam War and domestic resistance to civil rights that made me wonder where freedom lay. But I will always remember how “Western” we all wanted to be, wherever in the world we happened to be – and certainly where my youthful generation wanted to be – in those days.

Phase Three in 1974

On my third visit to India, I had moved beyond this conundrum of mixed up Western values in my own mind and welcomed the opportunity to see my “second home” once again. This was in 1974. It was actually a Fulbright-sponsored academic program for college professors to study urban and rural development in Pakistan, not India, that brought me to the region. But I was able to maneuver clearance to travel into India during the mid-course break of the program. The latest Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 still had lingering tensions – there were no direct flights between Karachi or Lahore and Delhi or Bombay – and certainly none all the way to Calcutta. But the land-based border near Lahore and across into Amritsar was open for pedestrian traffic – the only official border crossing that was open in those days. So off I went – with a suitcase and two trombones.

What? Two trombones? Well, yes, two trombones. My parents, having heard of my travel plans, had asked me to carry them from the States to a newly formed band that was part of that Santal Mission way off in Bihar, India. They, my parents, were retired in the States but still deeply involved with the mission. A local high school in Minnesota had purchased a new set of band instruments and had agreed to donate the old ones to the Santal Mission. All the instruments had been shipped off in crates, but the two trombones had not fit into any of the crates. I agreed to bring them with me to Pakistan and hopefully sought out a route to the desired recipients. To my surprise and delight, it worked!

I was taken by the US consulate’s limo from Lahore close to the border.  A Pakistani coolie carried the suitcase and trombones to the border crossing, where I first met with the Pakistani border police and then with the Indian border police – explaining that I was planning to “join other band members” for a series of concerts in Bihar. They let me through. An Indian coolie carried my suitcase and trombones to a bus that took me into Amritsar. I spent the day in Amritsar, visiting the Golden Temple, before taking an overnight train to Delhi. I spent another day in Delhi before catching a flight to Calcutta.  All the while, I felt I was home at last.

The contrast between Pakistan and India was immediately vivid to my eyes and ears. People were free in India, especially the women. No one was covered up as they were in Pakistan. The chatter was free-flowing, and I even felt that I could breathe more freely.  I was appreciative of the circumstances of our hosts in Pakistan and sympathized with their vision for development, but I also felt the difference and quickly immersed myself into the India that I remembered. The family that happened to travel with me on the train from Amritsar to Delhi shared their meal with me; later, a Marwari couple who befriended me on my flight to Calcutta invited me to their home overlooking the Hooghly River for a vegetarian meal.

It was idyllic, and I came home laden with gifts – including a most elegant sari from the rich Marwari couple.  I stayed at the same Lee Memorial Mission hostelry that our family had used in Calcutta when I was a child, and lo and behold there was a Danish missionary from the Santal Mission staying there at the same time.  Regrettably, this was as far into India as I could go since there had just been a long railroad strike, and no trains were available for me to go further into Bihar. But the Danish lady was delighted to take the two trombones and assured me that they would join the other band instruments that had arrived by crate. The trombones, at least, made it to their final destination.

There were other disappointments on this visit, to be sure. One was that I found my old “boy friend” where his family had a shop in the famous “New  Market” – the old covered bazaar in Calcutta. I had hoped he would invite me to meet his family, but he admitted that he didn’t even remember me. And he certainly didn’t want his family to know about me. So instead we had a late-night drink somewhere before I returned to the Lee Memorial Mission.

By then, I had had a long day wandering about in the heat and dust of the city. Unfortunately, neither the electricity nor the running water were functioning at the Lee Memorial Mission – not that it was the Mission’s fault. It was merely the unreliability of basic public services – to the point that I had to travel back to Delhi without a shower – or a functioning hair-curler! Pity that, of course. Other travel delays also played their part, of course, and I arrived back in Lahore after two days of mostly un-air-conditioned travel in a heat wave – both grubby and exhausted! The contrast of a quick nap and shower, followed by an afternoon in and around the pool of the US consul-general’s home in Lahore was indeed striking!

Phase Four in 2000

My fourth encounter with India was the official ILO visit that I started describing at the beginning of this commentary. (Actually, there was another passing encounter in 1996 when I was representing the ILO at a major conference in Nepal, but I only passed through with a change of planes in Delhi. I only mention it here because there was one very unusual exchange with one of the local UN officials with whom we were coordinating the conference, who happened to be an Indian from Bihar. This official actually approached me to say he recognized my family name and that he knew my father from Mohulpahari. He further told me that there were many Bihari Santals who had migrated to Nepal for jobs. It was indeed strange to be recognized in such a different context.)

To pick back up on this ILO visit, which occurred in December 2000, it had been over 25 years since my 1974 visit, and a lot of changes were evident in my travels.  As I had noted then and was further reinforced this time around, there were almost no Indian women in Western attire. The urban elite and “modern” business world might still incorporate Western style attire for the men (although that, too, was more likely to be an Indian variation of business attire), but emphatically the driving fashion style for women was the sari.

On the other hand, a lot had not changed, either.  Just as I had felt in previous visits, I immediately felt that I was back in my second home, no matter the specific and varied settings.  I recognized the wide open expanses around Parliament House in New Delhi, such a contrast in itself; but I also resonated with the enclosed spaces and the entrepreneurial bustle of Calcutta’s New Market; and again, down south, I visited the ancient temples of Madurai in the heat of the night in my bare feet and bundled up for cooler weather as I took the Ghat Road to my old boarding school in Kodaikanal . And I rode the train  once again from Calcutta to Rampur Hat and feasted my eyes on the rice fields and bullock carts whizzing by my window, and I even occasionally smelled the jasmine wafting up if I closed my eyes. But things were different, too.

My sister-in-law took me shopping in New Delhi to an upscale collection of shops in Dilli Hat – far more sophisticated than anything I had remembered – where I purchased both typically high-end but tourist-oriented gifts for the family and a combination of Punjabi outfits and Western-style jackets for myself.  Elsewhere, too, I saw a lot more retail commercial activity, although much of it was still the familiar kinds of open-air shops specializing in textiles or kitchenware or spices or a recently slaughtered lamb hanging upside down.  (That was in Rampur Hat, but there was also the famed “Budge” popular with the students in Kodai.)  I visited a tea industry association’s headquarters where I surveyed a large meeting room of portraits of the association’s presidents over the years – vividly all Englishmen until well into the 1960s and then clearly taken over by Indian leaders. It took that long?  (But no women, of course.)

Most strikingly different were the experiences I had traveling to and from Mohulpahari. First, I had taken the early morning express train from Hooghly Station to Rampur Hat, intending to be met there by the new Jharkhand Labor Minister. Initially, I fell asleep in the early morning only to gradually become aware that the train was no longer moving. As I looked out the window with my groggy eyes , I saw that we were stopped in a small train station with people mingling about the platform.  Turning around in my seat to look around the carriage itself, I smiled at a young couple who smiled back at me and said hello in English.  I asked them why we were stopped since this was supposedly an express train to Rampur Hat, and they explained that there had been an announcement while I was asleep that there were some  protestors carrying spears some miles ahead who had lain themselves across the tracks and had refused to move.  The negotiations were in process as the train waited in the station for clearance to continue.

As it turned out, the protest lasted several hours.  We learned that it had been a group of Santals demanding better services for their people. I don’t know how the negotiations ended, but the protestors eventually ended up leaving the tracks. Once the train was cleared to continue, it was late afternoon – too late to meet the Labor Minister – and the train itself had been converted to a local since most of the other trains behind us had been cancelled.  During that time in the station, I learned that the young couple had a connection to the Santal Mission – the young man was the son of the Santal Mission’s legal counsel (a Hindu, not a Christian) in Dumka, and he was bringing his newly wed wife home to meet his family. She, it turned out, was a Hindu from Hyderabad, but the two had met in Dubai where both were working in computing-related jobs. Wow!  This was not your typical arranged marriage of Hindu traditions! But they seemed to be at ease about their future.

Upon arrival late at night in Rampur Hat, I looked for any sign of a ministerial delegation. No such thing. But instead, a young man approached me and introduced himself as being from the Santal Mission. He had been waiting all day for me at the station and had exchanged information with the labor minister’s delegation to confirm that that part of my visit had to be cancelled. So the rest of my visit was to be with Santal Mission stations in Mohulpahari, Dumka and Benegaria. We drove from the station in one of the mission’s jeeps to the Mohulpahari compound. It was already dark, of course, and there were frequent encounters on the main road with herds of buffalo going in the opposite direction, their frightened eyes reflecting against the headlights of our jeep. My driver explained that there had been a market in Dumka that day, and the buffalo were being herded into nearby Bengal where they could eventually be slaughtered, unlike in Jharkhand.

When we arrived in Mohulpahari, the most striking observation was that the gated compound was clearly a well-manicured oasis of Christian Santals in the midst of the dusty non-Christian village outside. In the morning, one could see how the muddy-looking walls of the homes were plastered with cow dung patties for fuel.  As we drove through the countryside, there were visible signs of Hindu, Moslem and even more Santal-specific religious structures.  The Christian compounds here in Mohulpahari, as well as in Dumka and Benegaria, were well kept and lush but very isolated.  In that respect, they were just as I had remembered them.

The external environment, however, was significantly different from what I remembered.  In large part, this was because of a major rock quarry outside of Benegaria. The main visible sign of this was a road into Benegaria, full of potholes from the heavy trucks that were being used to transport the rocks out onto the main road. And along the main road, there were clusters of men with pickaxes breaking up the rocks into smaller pieces and clusters of women carrying baskets of these smaller rocks up the steps to a conveyor belt and dipping the baskets over into the crushing machines that spewed out the ground-up rocks below. I don’t remember any of this from my childhood days. So the region seemed to be supplementing the farming economy with lots of non-agricultural jobs, albeit very low skilled and physically demanding.

One final point about this trip. On my return from Rampur Hat to Calcutta, I took an overnight train and had a sleeper bunk curtained off from several other bunks occupied mostly by men. No zenana compartment for me. But I wasn’t threatened in any way – except when I tried to photograph a little boy sweeping the floor of the carriage during one of the middle-of-the-night stops at a station along the way. The other passengers objected to my photographing the child, saying this was not the ways of India today, but I said back to them that it was only by publicizing these things that change was possible. And I was working, after all, with the ILO that had only recently adopted a new standard to end all extreme forms of child labor around the world.

Reflections from Today

The striking impression I garnered from my 2000 visit was that of a distinctly Indian culture and political system. How does this explain the growth in Hindu populism along with the liberalization? Others can provide more in-depth analysis of how this gathered momentum from 2000 to today, but I only suggest here that there were a few signs of it then – the protests associated with the Santals who had lain across the tracks and the very formation of new states like Jharkhand in response to tribal demands were precursors of the emergence of more and more regionally- significant political parties (and their manipulation by the BJP). For me, too, the distinctively isolated nature of the Christian mission compounds like Mohulpahari and Benegaria fits into my personalized vision of a changing pattern of India.

Today, the BJP leadership has even co-opted a Santal woman, Droupadi Murmu, to serve as India’s President – elected in July 2022. She is the first tribal leader (a member of a Scheduled Caste) to serve as president. Originally from Odisha, she was most recently the governor of Jharkhand from 2016 to 2020.  This personal connection to my own experiences with Santal Parganas – but also with India at large – has especially stirred my senses.

Obviously, this specific development is praiseworthy as an elevation of someone who used to be called an outcaste in Hindu society, but it is a manipulation of tribal and regional politics for a distorted Hindu Indian identity as opposed to the multi-ethnic, secular and democratic society that I thought was such an inspiration for me as a child in India. I worry about the future of India under leadership that manipulates divisiveness, just as I worry about this same kind of vulnerability to manipulation in the US and also here in France.  But I also know that each of these societies has had underpinnings of divisiveness that have to be addressed and not repressed if multi-stakeholder democracy is to prove its worth.

Will I ever go back to my “second home”? Or do I finally have to face the fact, as Thomas Wolfe’s posthumously published book title says, “You Can’t Go Home Again”? Memoirs can be a useful way of answering that question. I envy those of us global  nomads who found a way to be more involved in places like India, but that isn’t exactly what constitutes a global  nomad. I suppose I even envy people like Amy Klobuchar who chose to stay where they grew up and were able to use it as a launching pad for the kind of political career that I admire. Half of my childhood was there in Minnesota. Why didn’t I stay? Or go back? To either place? Too many questions.


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