Return to India part II: my father’s story

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In the first of this two-part series, Peter recounted his tale of India in search of his father’s long lost friends. Five years after his initial visit, father and son return to India to reunite with those friends. Here is his father’s story.

This article was featured on National Geographic’s Traveller magazine website on 14th February 2015

Christmas Eve, 2013. It was the middle of the afternoon and the sun was warm on our backs. We stood on the roof veranda looking down on the dusty streets. A soft breeze was blowing which barely stirred the tangle of electricity and telephone wires that were draped between the houses in this relatively wealthy suburb of Bhilwara, Rajasthan.

Each house was painted in different pastel shades of blue, green and peach and set against an azure sky. It was quiet and the roads were almost empty.

This was indeed surprising, as this was India.

I stood with the Joshi brothers, Satynarain and Radheshyam, and with my son, Peter, who had been so instrumental in getting me to go back and look up these two old friends in Bhilwara.

More than 40 years ago, I had taught alongside Radheshyam. Both he and his brother had gone out of their way to welcome the lone Englishman who had looked so lost in this totally foreign culture. I had been about to complete my last year of teacher training and was keen to see the world and to try to do something to “help”. I applied to Voluntary Service Overseas and much to my surprise was accepted and asked to start a new project.

It turned out to be an incredible time that made a profound impact on me. I managed to correspond for a long time with Radheshyam but eventually this lapsed and we lost touch. Then five years ago, my son, Peter, having heard so many of my tales which had begun with “When I was in India”, and having already caught the travel bug himself, decided to go to India and see if he could track down my long lost friends. It was a long shot but things have a way of happening on the road. He received the same sort of welcome that I had received.

Reunited with old friend Satyanarayan Joshi, 2013

So, what of this India? This land I remembered from so long ago. This land of intense colour. Such light. The endless blue of the sky and the brown dust that seemed to be everywhere. In the markets, the air heavy with the smell of spices, were women with skin like leather, silver bangles and silver necklaces, bright red and blue traditional skirts and blouses with head shawls pulled forward over their faces for modesty, squatting, surrounded by baskets overflowing with vegetables, polished green peppers and orange marigolds. The noise and continual bustle. Crowded buses jam packed. Their cabs decorated – a gaudy shrine to some Hindu deity. Great black steam trains thundering across arid, yellow plains between lines of shimmering purple hills looking more like a scene from an old Western film.

And always the pitiless heat. Cycle home from school quickly and stand in the cold shower before the water is turned off until the evening. Sit in front of the electric fan – ah, the power has gone off again. Wait for the evening when the peacocks call as the sun slips quickly away and the night is thick and the stars so very close.

And the people.

People wanting to talk, to engage, to be your friend for life, your brother, to stare and to ask questions – and then yet more questions – like the babu in crisp white pyjamas who sits opposite you on the train, who wishes to show everyone on the carriage how good his English is, and yes, he would be travelling all the way to New Delhi where he would be happy to show you all, and I do mean all, the wonderful sights of this wonderful city.

And the school children, dressed impeccably in crisp, clean uniforms standing in line before the flag for morning assembly. This was always held on the roof in the cool of the morning and was a most serious affair. Here was order and commitment.

The noise, the drama and the constant bustle on the main roads lined with tchai stalls. Cows standing placidly in the street watching with disinterest. Hogs snuffling for waste. Red kites circling above and the occasional, saffron-dressed holy man marching from shop to shop with hand outstretched.

Music from the latest Hindi film played around the street wafting in through the window, advertising something or other. And, of course the poverty. People with nothing apart from what is in their arms. And there are so many. No safety net here. No guarantees about tomorrow.

But yet there seems to be an optimism, some hope even in the face of impossible odds.

But this is all stored memory – a kaleidoscope of vivid flashbacks. How can I file away and order these thoughts and emotions?
And what was it like going back?
The same?
Yes, the same. No, different. More people. More crowded. More traffic. But the same.

As ever, full of contradictions and as confusing as when I was there before. But one can never be indifferent to India. It seems always to induce a reaction and often contrasting and diametrically opposed reactions that may well change in a few minutes’ time.

I had originally arrived thinking that I would help make some change to make things better. Yet all too soon one realises the vastness of such an idea and even the conceit. Then that is replaced by the question, well, what exactly is it that I want to change? Clearly, to raise the standard of living of many and work towards reducing the poverty. But does that go hand in hand with importing the materialism, industrialisation and pollution? Certainly, I received far more than I gave.

In the end I was left standing on the roof in the sun wondering where all those years had gone. How easily they had slipped by. As I stood there, I felt Radheshyam take my hand and squeeze it gently. He seemed to understand my confusion and it was as if I had never left.

It has, of course, still left me with more questions than answers.

I remain very grateful to my son for his encouragement to return, his support, his interest and his love.

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