A recent weekend holiday took us to the mountains of New Mexico where, among the scrub bush and bear scat, is a cabin built decades ago by Jenny’s friend’s grandfather. At the time of construction, Grandpa Zahm stocked the cabin with reading material, and its library hasn’t shrunk since. Dusty piles of archaic prose begged to be read: Eisenhower-era National Geographics kept pristine by the arid air, breathlessly taking us to Manchuria, Zanzibar, Rhodesia, and Siam, complete with ads extolling the technological marvel of “long-distance telephoning”.
Among the yellowed pages were some of our favorite places as they were before we knew them. Like the Singapore River in the 1960s, when the Clarke Quay steps — which are today crowded by the young and hip licking ice cream and watching drunken expats across the river — was a stagnant chaos of fishing boats and standing puddles and floating trash.
We also rediscovered Delhi in the 1980s, immediately after the Asiad Games. No pictures of the Lollipop building, alas, but the article sang the glories of the new flyovers and a presented an image Chandni Chawk so familiar as to be proof that the street is ageless.
And then there was a May, 1963 cover story. “India in Crisis” was the headline, referring to a historical fact of which we were previously unaware: in 1963, apparently, all of India expected to be invaded by the Chinese.
Here’s how the author justified his title:
Even as we talked, Communist Chinese troops forced their way deeper into Ladakh and the North East Frontier Agency, and India’s ill-armed jawans fought desperately to hold the world’s loftiest battlefields. Towns along the Himalayan border blacked out; home-guard forces in Calcutta and New Delhi frantically dug trenches and put up air-raid defenses. India’s cherished neutrality lay shattered—perhaps forever—and the nation was united as never before.
Despite the ominous title, though, the “crisis” question quickly takes a back seat to the author’s deep love of India and its people. Throughout his piece, he wrestles with a singular question: how do you define India to those who have never experienced it? The article begins with this very challenge:
I met him one night in a Banaras hotel. Quite by chance, we had walked out together onto the darkened veranda after dinner. Now we stood chatting and listening to the nighttime sounds of an Indian city.
He was about eighty—a retired lawyer from Calcutta—dressed in an old-fashioned way and with an old-fashioned manner of speaking. We talked of the difficulty of explaining his country to anyone who had never been there.
“Look here,” he said suddenly. “Suppose all Europe could somehow be united under one government, with one parliament and one prime minister.
“Now, take away two-thirds of Europe’s area and three-quarters of its wealth,” he said “but leave most of its people. Let Spaniards speak Spanish and Bulgars speak Bulgarian. Let Turks mistrust Russians and Russians bluster at Englishmen. In short, leave everything else just as it has always been.
“Now,” he asked in his courtly, rather Victorian manner, “what would you have?”
He paused impressively.
“Why, my dear sir,” he said, “you would have something very like modern India.”
Then he bade me goodnight—“Old men must have their sleep,” he said—and left me alone to ponder his words.
From that introduction, the author journeys across the country. And it was as fascinating for us today as it must have been for subscribers forty-seven years prior. Varanasi, for instance, had fewer space invaders, but was otherwise as we know it.
And while we never made it to Kolkata, we instantly recognize this icon of the city.
And of course, here’s Chandni Chawk in 1963…
…and then as we first encountered it 44 years later.
A few more cars, a few more colors, but otherwise an ageless street indeed.
Throughout the article, the author attempted to understand the country in which he traveled. He summed up his attempts to do so in a way to which we could easily relate: “I was sometimes angered by my own inability to understand one aspect or another of this most complex of all nations.”
Complementing the article was a report from the battlefields of Ladakh, where India was defending its border three miles high in the Himalayas.
The highlight of the article was the quote that introduced the gallery of India’s diverse people. We reprint it below for its poetry and insight, and for how it amplified our longing to return. Soon, India, soon…
India presents a sample of its 440 million faces
People are India’s pride—and problem. The nation’s myriad faces all have mouths to feed and eyes that look questioningly for what the future may bring to a land that mixes automobile factories and wooden plows with jet aircraft and crossbows.
India is atomic physicists at Bombay and Naga tribesmen in Assam. It is ruby-decked maharajas and ragged street sweepers, Oxford-trained philosophers and unlettered farmers. It is tough Sikh soldiers, peace-loving Jain monks, Hindus, Moslems, Zoroastrians, Christians, Buddhists, and Jews. India wears fedora and fez, turban and Gandhi cap, the latest London fashion and the simplest loincloth. It speaks more than 800 languages and dialects, ranging from the Hindi of millions to Assamese tongues used by as few as half a dozen.