Early in 1951, my wife and I soon began to settle into a relatively enjoyable life in Nilokheri, the experimental Indian village we had somehow wound up in, with the help of the many welcoming and affectionate people surrounding us. I worked with my friend Manik Gupta, who had dedicated himself to ensuring that the village should fulfil its original impetus to become a centre of co-op enterprises, run by and for the peasant community that it had established. And my wife Shirley, with the help of a number of young women, daughters for the most part of the individuals who were running the village, and resident only temporarily while on holiday from their schools elsewhere, set up a nursery school for the children of the local people, which quite soon was bowling along successfully.
In our little house, indistinguishable from any other in the community, we began to live a life roughly analogous to that of the peasants, eating the same food, suffering from the same lack of cleanliness in the production of the food, and, as time went on, beginning to suffer from the slowly developing intense heat, just as they did. The butcher from whom we bought our meat had the habit of clutching the meat between his toes as he cut it; the milkman who passed by every day with his unforgettable guttural call, took care to drain his milk into our pail by pouring it through his filthy old dhoti, and so on. Slowly, we adjusted to these conditions, which worsened as time went by.
Manik was not the only idealistic outsider who had been attracted to the village. Another was an engineer called Mr. Nanda, whose family history was a study in itself. His grandfather had been engineer to the Maharajah of Kashmir, that favoured valley in the far north, whose population was Moslem, but whose ruling dynasty were Hindu. Panditji, as it happened, had spent much of his youth there, and had developed such a love for the place that when the time came to divide the various principalities of which British India was composed, he just could never see his way clear to relinquishing his hold on Kashmir, against all the good arguments to the contrary.
Our friend Mr Nanda was the engineer responsible for the construction of the village, as well as of the sister village in Bengal, but he had brought along with him his father, an aged gentlemen who had never been required to undertake employment, but who was described by his son as “the Bhagavad Gita incarnate.” This old man, who seemed to be an extremely gentle and undemonstrative person, was in fact what I suppose one might call a religious leader, although of a sort quite different from our definition of such a person. Every day one could see him going off, shovel over his shoulder, to help some peasant or other in his work in the fields; occasionally he would set himself up on one of the roads, cross-legged, and hold some kind of evening service at which he would talk in gentle tones to those who gathered around him.
Mr Nanda one day asked if we would be interested in accompanying him to a meeting of the Organization of the Ascetics of India, an organization established, he said, [if I remember correctly] by the English woman Madeleine Slade, daughter of a British admiral, who devoted her life for 35 years as if married to Mahatma Gandhi. As we entered the grounds of this meeting, held beside the banks of the Jamuna river, Mr Nanda told us that “25 per cent of these fellows are genuinely religious, the rest are fakes.” They were, it must be said, a very strange group, with long beards and hair, dressed in the skimpiest of loincloths, and all carrying their begging bowls. We sat in the immense tent in which proceedings were droning on, and after half an hour or so Mr Nanda said, “I’ve had enough of this, let’s leave.” We began to walk through the grounds and came upon a deathly pale immensely tall European, in fact an Austrian playing the role of guru, dressed in flowing robes and accompanied by women who were throwing petals over him as he walked. He stopped to talk with Mr Nanda, and at one point said, “Allow me to introduce you to Mr Ralph Singer, of the USA,” whereupon a little American popped up from behind him to shake hands. “We could meet later in the hospitality tent,” said the guru, and passed on with his petal-throwing entourage.
As we left the grounds, we had to walk diagonally through a park, and that was a walk I have never forgotten, for both sides of the path were lined with beggars of every known deformity and disability, each of them holding up hands pitifully asking for alms, while we had to just walk on as if we were seeing nobody. This is something that must confront every Indian with any pretensions to prosperity every day of their lives, and personally I cannot understand how they can suffer it and remain sane.
Eventually the heat began to overcome us. Not only were we not eating the same sort of diet to which we had been accustomed, but we were soon exposed to attacks from bacteria against which we had no real defence; in other words, pretty soon we began to suffer from diarrhoea, exacerbated by the onrushing intense heat, that seemed to be all-pervasive throughout the 24 hours of the day, except for maybe a half-hour of respite at around 5.30 am. The moment the sun went down at 6 pm, we could put our hands on the walls of our little house, and feel exactly as if we were living inside an oven. Then, we had to drag our beds into the open if we wanted to get any sleep at all. But the moment the sun came up again at 6 am, we felt as if we were back in the scorching heat of midday, from which every person was hiding behind the blue-painted windows of their houses and offices. Of course, we were not so badly off as the people around us. When a man had a toothache, for example, his only available remedy was to wrap a bandage around his jaw. When I had a toothache, I went into Delhi to visit a dentist. I remember that occasion well, for after the treatment we went to an air-conditioned bar where we became friends with a young man called Pat Mohan, a charming fellow who worked as a cameraman for Pathe News. When we left the bar in mid-afternoon, the wave of heat that hit us was, and is, beyond description. We walked along with Pat as he outlined to us the superior moral qualities of Indian life, followed by the inevitable chorus of small beggars. At one point Pat turned, without pausing in his monologue, and cracked one of those kids across the head with a smack that could he heard 100 yards away, then simply resumed his story as if nothing had happened.
In the British colonial days, this was the time of year when the entire administration was wrapped up and transferred to a number of hill stations, whose climate was mild and agreeable, leaving the majority of the population, the Indians, who felt the heat just as keenly as did their British rulers, to deal with the killing heat as best they could. At one point we took the advice of Manik to take a few days’ relief from the heat by going north into the hills to Simla, one of the hill stations, where I remember the intense relief, the beautiful scenery, and eating cashew nuts as we sat idly looking out over the surrounding valley.
Eventually, all of Manik’s hopes came to nothing. A formal statement was issued that there would be no co-op businesses in Nilokheri, whose affairs henceforth would be totally under the control of the Government of India. So Manik retired in defeat, as did our friend Nandi, a young man from southern India who dropped in on us every day after his work to rail against the dictatorship of the administrators.
Before we left we had the strange experience of a visit from Panditji himself. The peasantry from all the surrounding villages began to gather, sitting in the dust expectantly from about 8 a.m, for a speech timed for 3 p.m. We had been advised we should sit up on the platform with the rulers, but had instead chosen to sit in the dust with the people. We took our seats at a reasonable time, settled in, and when we looked up found ourselves at the centre of an unnerving ring of peasants who were staring at us as if we were the first white people they had ever seen. After ten minutes of this, we retreated to the platform.
Nehru spoke for half an hour or so. When he finished, no one applauded. They simply all crowded forward as if desperate to touch him, thereby experiencing darshan, as they call it, defined as “the beholding of a revered person or sacred object, resulting in the human viewer receiving a blessing.” Afterwards we joined the lineup to meet the dignitaries. We shook hands with Lady Mountbatten, reputed to be Nehru’s mistress, who invited us to visit her in Delhi. Which, of course, we never did.
Eventually we realized that neither our health nor our finances could sustain us much longer in Nilokheri. We decided to go to Kashmir, believing we had enough money to get us there and back to Bombay to take a ship to Britain. We had often taken walks through the village, and received frequent invitations to enter the homes of people who would immediately send a son out to the store to buy a bottle of pop, that they could ill afford, so that they could treat these people who “came from Panditji,” as they had been told. Now that we were leaving, these visits became rather different in tone. Usually the people would call us in to urge that we stay to help them fight the administration.
We were granted an audience by the HTA who left us in no doubt that he was disappointed in us. He told us we apparently did not have the steel to move mountains, but were rather the sort of people who could be pushed around by circumstances. I could not really disagree with his judgment. A man who had lately arrived to be second-in-command told us we should not be disappointed. Change would take a long time to happen, he said. He identified himself as a leftist when he told us that during the years when the British administration had been searching to arrest P.C.Joshi, secretary of the Indian Communist Party, he had personally hidden him for nine months.
Another recent arrival, a Dr Vohra, who had been secretary of the all-India Yoga Association, took charge of our catching the train. A man whose body was totally under control, he had such energy that when he talked in his conversational voice he could be heard on the other side of the village. As the train paused momentarily to allow us to embark, he ran up and down, yelling at everyone to move our luggage, to help us board, to do this and that, so that we had a sense that our departure took place in a flurry of affection and concern from these people who had welcomed us so warmly during these past months.
It remains only for me to make a judgment about this whole enterprise. It was foolish, no doubt about it. Indeed one of our sons years later made no bones about accusing us of a neo-colonialist mentality. The very idea that people like us could be needed to help India! Absurd! he said. Ridiculous! Once again, he was correct. Do-gooders are always sticking their noses in where they are not needed.
But we were just a couple of kids, fresh out of New Zealand, and kids often make mistakes from which they greatly benefit.
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Years later I heard that S.K.Dey had become a member of the Indian Cabinet, as minister for rehabilitation. One of his Cabinet colleagues I ran across told me he had run the rehabilitation effort, which had been heavily subsidized by American Foundations, into the ground. Just another do-gooder, like us.