BREAKFAST AT TEENMURTI HOUSE

I had returned to India in 1954 after two years of study at Briarcliff College, New York, and was enjoying home food, the winter sun in the gardens of Delhi, and a welcome respite from study.  It was December. I was surprised to receive a phone call from a woman with a deep American mid-western accent. She asked for ‘Sh –rah-da’, the way Americans usually pronounce my name. She introduced herself as Mary Ann and said she and her friend Amy were school teachers from Ohio travelling around the world after their retirement. They said they were friends of my college Dean, Helen Probasco, who had given them my address and phone number. They were staying at a hotel in Connaught Place and would like to meet me, they said. I invited them to tea and they arrived at our home that evening, two tall middle aged ladies, formally dressed in suits, worn over silk blouses.  With similar graying hair styles and spectacles, they could be mistaken for sisters. They were obviously delighted to be in a home after several days of staying in hotels. They asked my mother and me many questions, about India, Delhi and our family. My father arrived rather late from office and joined us. Immediately they brightened and we understood the real purpose of their visit. “Could he arrange for them to meet Prime Minister Nehru?” they asked. (My father had been Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister until the previous year, and they must have been told this by the Dean of my college). My father demurred, explaining that Prime Minister Nehru had a busy schedule. He would have to check with the PMO as he did not work in that office any more. They quickly explained that they were in Delhi for only two days and had hoped…–.

Father said, “Why don’t you go to the Prime Minister’s House at Teen Murti tomorrow morning?. When he is not busy he usually meets people at 8 am, what we call a public ‘darshan?’”.  They looked at each other doubtful, skeptical. They left soon thereafter, clearly disappointed at the outcome of their visit, but thanking us warmly for our hospitality.

The  next morning the two women took a taxi to Teen Murti house , got out at the gates and walked in looking warily at the guards. They had carefully brought with them their passports and other identification, ready to show the papers, but these were not needed. To their surprise they found they were not the only visitors.  A few yards ahead there was a  group of  farmers and their families from Rajasthan, the men wearing large multicolored striped turbans, the women in bright yellow and red skirts, their veils  pulled down to cover their eyes, but revealing smiles and large nose-rings. On their wrists and ankles they wore heavy silver bracelets and anklets which jingled as they walked.

Curious about this group of visitors, the Americans followed them, observing their clothes and listening to their chatter. The little children were dressed in their best outfits, miniature images of their parents. The boys balanced their outsize turbans twisted elaborately around their little heads.  The troupe led by the men, the women and children behind them, walked into the gardens of the PM’s house escorted by two attendants from the PM’s household, the American ladies followed trying to look inconspicuous as they felt they were uninvited strangers. Some of the peasant women and children squatted on the grass prepared to wait; the Americans did not know what they were supposed to do, so they stood at the back awkwardly.                                                                                                                                   Soon Prime Minister Nehru came out of the house, walked briskly across the verandah, down the steps towards the group, smiling, greeting them with a Namaste. They quickly rose when they saw him, rushed forward, the men raised their folded hands high in greeting, and the women pulled their veils down and stooped to touch his feet. Nehru gestured impatiently, asking them not to bend down before him, picked up a small child and put him on his shoulder.  An official photographer clicked pictures. Nehru asked them questions – where had they come from? What had they seen in Delhi? They eagerly talked about their village, their train journey to Delhi and their pride and joy in being able to meet him, their Pradhan Mantri. Suddenly, Nehru noticed the two tall foreign women in the background. Surprised, he called out: Who are you?   They replied that they were from America. He gestured to them to wait, as he politely asked the attendants to escort the Rajasthan group to the gate.                                              .

MaryAnne and Amy told Nehru about their dream of coming to India and how their retirement holiday had made this possible. He walked with them for a while, interested, asking them questions about their school and education in America. — And then he invited them to have breakfast!

I heard a long and descriptive account of their meeting with the Prime Minister, from Maryanne and Amy, that afternoon before they left Delhi. A bit envious, I shared their happy excitement at this unexpected encounter. They would travel around the world, but they knew they would never forget their breakfast at TeenMurti.

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Looking Inwards : An X-Ray

My maternal grandfather Dr. Kesava Pai was determined to become a doctor despite parental opposition. He was supported by his teachers at St. Aloysius College, Mangalore, who persuaded his parents. He finally left home to travel to Madras where he studied at Madras Medical College. At the end of his course of study he topped his graduating class and won the Johnson gold medal. Choosing pathology as his specialization, he joined government service. He spent his early professional years on research, first on anti rabies and tetanus vaccines at the Pasteur Institute, Kasauli, leaving his wife and small children in Mangalore. Returning to Madras he joined the King Institute, at Guindy, Madras, specializing in research and treatment of tuberculosis. He rose to become the first Indian Director of the King Institute where he made a name for himself as a specialist in tuberculosis. TB was then one of the major killer diseases, along with cholera, smallpox and typhoid. It attacked all strata of society from the poorest to the well to do. Many of Dr. Pai’s patients were prominent Indian residents of Madras, and many came to consult him from distant places in Tamilnadu.
Long before streptomycin was used successfully to combat TB early diagnosis, fresh air and a nutritious diet saved those who could afford treatment. But there were many of his patients in the government hospitals who looked to him for a cure, as the disease relentlessly consumed them. Consumption was an apt other name for tuberculosis. In the 1920’s Dr.Pai went on what would now be called a sabbatical, visiting TB sanatoria in Switzerland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, meeting his counterparts, specialists in tuberculosis in Europe and England. On his return to India he was appointed Director of the King Institute and the  British government awarded him the title of Rao Bahadur.
His grandchildren – we were three little girls, and often our cousins joined us – enjoyed the warm security of the home our grandfather built in Pudupet, Madras. The red brick two- storey mansion, with a small garden in front, had two drawing rooms on the ground floor, one of them, to the right as one entered through the car porch, was called the “gosha room” exclusively for grandmother’s women guests many of whom were “gosha” – women in purdah- from the Muslim elite of Madras city. All of us in the family, women and children, were strictly forbidden from entering the rooms to the left on the ground floor, for these were grandfather’s consulting rooms. Grandfather was always worried about infection from his coughing sick patients and during the hours of consultation he was out of contact with any of us. At other times of the day and on Sundays we were invariably with him in his study, and spacious bedroom next to an airy terrace at the back of the house.
Our education was enriched by our talk sessions with grandfather with his many interests, other than medicine. Evenings on the beach, observing the clear night sky, we learned to recognize the constellations, learned about the tides, and the monsoons. At home, seated in front of the horn of the old HMV gramophone, (emulating the iconic dog!) we listened to bhajans and learned about Tukaram, Dhyaneswar, Kabir and Surdas, the saints of the Bhakti movement, their life stories and their poetry.
Above all, we were subjected to all the prophylaxis, inoculations against typhoid, cholera and malaria; health and hygiene was always a primary concern. Having seen the horrors of hydrophobia at the Pasteur institute in Kasauli, he would not allow us to have a pet dog. We asked about X-rays and he explained this miraculous invention that allowed one to see inside the body, the underlying bones and tissues. He showed us the X-rays of one of his patients whose lungs were eaten away by consumptive TB bacilli. We learned about Pierre and Marie Curie and their relentless search for an element they called radium.
In 1940 my sister became seriously ill with pneumonia. In consultation with our family physician, he agreed to try the new “sulpha” drug that had been introduced by May and Baker. Named MB693 the drug had been used with great success on wounded soldiers on the war front fighting gangrene. My sister recovered rapidly. Stimulated by the urgency of the war medical science had made rapid progress in its research on new chemical combinations for healing medicines.
Dr. Kesava Pai was born on December 21, 1879 – incidentally he shared his birthdate with Josef Stalin. He died in 1965. In his lifetime he had seen the Wright brothers lift their flying machine off the ground, emulating a bird in flight. Before he died he had seen Russian Luna 2 crash land on the moon. (Neil Armstrong took his ‘one small step’ on the moon ten years later). He had seen two world wars, which were followed by extensive scientific research, especially in medicine, impact on the health and life of human beings. Penicillin, streptomycin and a host of new antibiotics have saved countless lives. A shrinking of the world through improved communication has facilitated the sharing of knowledge among different countries of the world.
Today, almost fifty years after Dr. Kesava Pai died, I lay on a gurney in a hospital waiting to be wheeled into the radiology department of a large hospitalfor a “scan”
SCANS have brought in a new medical vocabulary, acronyms like CAT scan, PET scan, CT-guided FNAC, bewildering in the diverse instruments of technology, and completely silencing the questioning mind,  ignorance forcing one into submission to awe-inspiring technology. Trying to understand all these procedures I do what most of us do in this computer guided education – Google it.
“A Computerized Axial Tomography scan, or a CT scan as it is more commonly referred to, is a special x-ray technique that produces images of your internal organs that are more detailed than is possible with conventional x-rays. While both types of x-rays produce images using beams of radiation, the way they use those beams is what makes them different.
CT scans are used in situations that require more detailed images than those created by conventional x-rays. For instance:
• To diagnose and locate tumors or masses in the body.
• To identify areas of infection or the presence of abscesses (pockets of infection).
• To guide procedures such as biopsies and radiation therapy.
• To monitor diseases such as cancer. “
I had already got a humble X-ray – just as grandpa would have done it. Remove all jewelry, watch, metallic objects, undress, wear a striped hospital robe, press the chest against a plate Take a deep breath and HOLD IT.. DON’T MOVE! That’s it. You are done now.                                                         A very short wait and I am clutching my X-ray in a stiff envelope. I take a peek… No grandpa, I don’t have TB-scars in my lungs.
But the doctor is not happy. The X-ray only shows me one dimension of the lung, she says… You need a CT scan so I can see the other sides. (Nowadays we can see the other side, behind the moon too. So, why not?).
I am nervous. I have a canola piercing my wrist for an intravenous injection. I am wheeled into a white, cold room, awed by a huge machine like a giant doughnut. Another gurney with a white sheet, on which I lie, before they slide me into the maw of the doughnut. An injection into my wrist suffuses my body with warmth. As the machine whines, overarching lights twinkle like the stars in the night on Madras beach. A disembodied voice on a speaker instructs me “Take a deep breath and HOLD IT. DON’T MOVE”  No, not my grandfather speaking from heaven above, but a sweet young nurse from Kerala, with a name tag, JAICEY, handles this machine that dwarfs her. She pulls me out like a cookie on a tray, and smiles. ”You are done!” she says and she helps me get down and find my slippers. I get dressed and am relieved to have my cell phone to communicate at last after a lonely wait in the Radiology dept. waiting with other people like me in striped gowns and pain-pricking canola in their wrists. I call my son to tell him I am ready to go home. I find a text message from JAICEY to tell me she is praying to Jesus Christ that I will soon be healed. I realize why her mother would have given her that unusual name conjugating two initials JC, — and I realize I am blessed!!

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Guest Relations

Coming from the hot sun into the cool lobby of a five star hotel is a relief. As I walk in I am greeted by a smartly dressed young woman seated at a table with a sign that said Guest  Relations. I have been invited to dinner and my host who soon comes out of the elevator, greets me warmly and leads me to the dining room. When I am seated he asks, “What would you like to drink? “  “A glass of water please!” I reply.

*       *       *       *

When I was a little girl, my mother  told me to always offer a glass of water to someone who entered the house. That is a gesture of our hospitality, she said. Atithi Devo Bhava. A guest is like a god in the house. So whenever the door bell rang, and the postman, vegetable seller, or whoever stood there sweating in the heat, I asked them : Would you like a drink of water?

On a trip to Jaipur in the sixties, I was  traveling with a group of American teachers on a study tour of India.  In our “airconditioned” (barely cool)  bus we carried an icebox with water, cokes, and chicken sandwiches for a picnic lunch.  Before the ubiquitous  plastic  bottles of mineral water, we always carried our own food and water whenever we traveled. The road to Jaipur from Delhi was then a one lane slow. bumpy track .

The landscape was brown baked dry  in the summer sun. Suddenly  we saw a beautiful sight. A group of Rajasthani women in their colorful attire, were walking single file along a narrow path between the fields, carrying bright brass water-pots on their heads. Their bright red and yellow full skirts swinging, they were walking towards a well and a clump of trees a short distance way.

“Stop!” yelled the Americans in unison. They piled out of the bus and ran across the field, towards the well, cameras in their hands, stumbling over the cracked clods of earth. Clearly this was a Kodak moment. Possibly a great picture for the National Geographic.   I ran after them, and talked to the startled women, explaining that the strangers wanted to take their photographs. They smiled and nodded, giggling under their veils, posing  with their water pots, rope in hand at the well.  The cameras clicked. I was hot, and walked towards a tree to sit under its shade for a while to cool off.  I noticed a woman seated next to me, her pot already filled, by her side. In her hand she held open a small metal lunch box which contained two chapattis and a little pickle. She smiled, held the box out to me and said “Come, have some lunch?”  A welter of emotions washed over me. I was humbled when I remembered  our lunch of chicken sandwiches, embarrassed because I could not accept  her offer without perhaps her thinking I spurned it, and touched by her generosity.”Thank you,” I stammered, “ I am afraid I have to go, the bus is leaving.”  She understood, nodded and said Namaste.

Sometime later, I went with a friend to Kutch in the drylands of western Gujarat. There in a settlement of Rabaris, migrant camel herdsmen, we were photographing their beautiful embroidered clothes and artifacts. We stooped to enter a round, thatched,  window-less Bunga. The room inside sparkled with myriad lights, reflected sunlight on mirrors embedded in sculpted patterns of clay on the walls. We took pictures.  It was midday and time for us to head back to Bhuj in our taxi that was waiting outside. “Do stay and have lunch,” said Vanka-bhai. My friend and I looked at each other, uncertain and hesitant. But he urged us, we were hungry and we accepted and sat on the mats on the floor.

Quickly his wife made a dough of coarse bajra flour, kneading it on a large brass plate. Her daughter-in-law  had in the meanwhile peeled a fistful of garlic pods she took out of a basket,   and ground the garlic on a stone slab with red chillies and salt. We watched as the older woman deftly slapped the heavy dough on her palms and baked chapathis on an iron skillet in the small hearth, alight with wood kindling. In half an hour we were eating our lunch on brass plates, seated on the floor near the hearth, as we were served fresh hot chapathis eaten with spicy garlic chutney . Our burning palates were cooled with thin buttermilk ladled out of an earthen pot.  Surely this must be one of the most tasty and memorable meals I have eaten!

*       *       *       *       *

In the hotel dining room the waiter has brought me cool mineral water and set it on a table covered with starched white napery and shining silver. A menu card appears before me and my host invites me to order. An awesome choice of dishes, five star hospitality.

But my mind goes back to the dry desert and its  Atithi Satkar (“guest relations?”)  I know that real hospitality is when people who have so little, share their substance with those who have too much.

 

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Friends are priceless – IV

(This quartet series (Part IV) is all about my friends whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my trip to US in the year 2008)

MEHROO

Mehroo and her daughter Shirin waited for me at a restaurant in St.Peter from where we drove an hour or more to the Minneapolis suburb ofGolden Valleywhere Mehroo lives.

Mehroo, a Parsee fromHyderabad  came toSwitzerlandin 1956  to do research and  study under a well-known Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, in Basel. Her first trip away from home, she was entrusted to our care by her uncle, a friend of my father-in-law. A nervous twenty-year old with permed hair (which she considered fashionable for Europe!) she arrived at Zurich airport. She visited us on weekends and accompanied us on trips by car to many of the beautiful mountain valleys, and on a long car trip to France and Spain. There are many photos in our album of our happy picnics and hilarious stories of our encounters with people with whom we conversed in our phrase-book French and Spanish.

These and many memories brightened our conversation fifty years later, in her kitchen, as we ate an Indian dinner she had cooked, with her daughter Shirin, American son-in-law Brendan, and twelve year old granddaughter Sophie..

Still diminutive, her hair is now straight and white, restored after chemo-baldness, which made her look older than one would expect. We talked about the intensive security at US airports and her having to decline the metal detector because she had a pace-maker. She helped me buy prosthesis because like me, she too had had a mastectomy. Now feeling well with a remission from lymphoma after chemo-therapy, she took me shopping in the Mall, and we wandered around the beautiful trees and flowers at the Arboretum.

The last evening before I left for home, we had a picnic dinner that Shirin had brought, in theMinnehahaWaterfallsPark. There we listened to the Minneapolis Sinfonia Orchestra play classical and popular songs to an audience of young and old seated on park benches, parents and small children, joggers and cyclists,  stopped to listen to the strains of John Lennon, Chopin and Haydn in the evening hours.

Twilight is the most beautiful part of the day –Go-dhuli – as the cows come home and to the tired and foot weary there is a promise of rest until the dawn of another day.

This thought, and the strains of the Sinfonia music sang in my mind as I flew fourteen hours into the rising sun, and then into the life giving monsoon clouds of India.

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Friends are priceless – III

(This quartet series (Part III) is all about my friends whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my trip to US in the year 2008)

GWEN

At the small railway station in Quincy I was met by Eric Sieck, the elder son of my friend Gwen Sieck who I had come to visit.

Gwen who is from Madras (sorry Chennai)and I were in the hostel at Queen Mary’s college, Chennai in 1948 – 50.

After graduation she received a Rotary Fellowship to do her Master’s in Nutrition  and Dietetics at theUniversityofIowainAmes.

On her return to India she taught at the College of Nursing in New Delhi. In Madras and Delhi we had shared weekends and many occasions with each others families.

She returned to work at the University atAmes, and there she met and fell in love and married Larry Sieck. At the University of Missouri where Larry taught Civil Engineering they built a home and raised two boys. Gwen’s widowed mother came fromMadrasto live with them, where she developed a close bond with the grandsons. Both boys went to medical college on scholarships given by the Armed Forces, and after a stint in the military started work in the area of their specializations, Eric an ophthalmologist and Brian an ENT surgeon (sorry, an otolaryngologist).

Gwen lived alone in her own home in Missouri when Larry died, — until she had a fall, and later was hospitalized with an abdominal obstruction. Both sons came down to care for her, but then they persuaded her to sell her house and come to live closer to them so that they would be within call.  Knee replacements, diabetes and other ailments made it necessary to have 24 hour nursing care. Eric then found a fine nursing home a short distance from his house in Quincy where he works as an ophthalmologist at a Medical group practice.

I visited Gwen at Sunset Home, a facility for senior citizens which consists of two types of accommodation – Assisted Living in small attractive apartments with all services provided,  and a nursing home with round-the-clock nursing care where all the residents were wheelchair bound. From the upstairs windows one had a view of the distant Mississippi river, now in flood causing great distress to those who lived close to its banks. It had burst through two or three breaches in the levees, and the citizens were busy filling sandbags to block its course. Barak Obama, Senator fromIllinoiswas shown on TV helping them in this task.

It was a joy to see Gwen after many years. She had lost a lot of weight, but the smile that reached up to her eyes was as bright and happy as ever. Her room is full of photographs. Her granddaughters (she has four granddaughters and four grandsons), have given her a small wooden screen which has framed in it pictures of all the important events in her life – her marriage, babies, weddings of the sons, and the birth of her grandchildren. We talked long hours on people and events in India.

It was the weekend of Fourth of July. There was a special event at Sunset Home. The residents of the apartments had got together a “Kitchen Band” to entertain those in the nursing home. I wheeled Gwen down to the Recreation room, where an impromptu stage had been set up.  In front were rows of wheelchairs. The “orchestra“ was seated behind a Red White and Blue cloth stretched across the hall. Near window were a CD player and the Emcee – a woman social worker who had rehearsed the orchestra for this special performance. The players all had  kitchen tools for percussion – in the back row a man with a wooden ladle beat on a plastic bucket, a woman with a washboard, another with a metal plate and spoon,  two wooden spatulas, a tambourine, a jar with beans which made a noise like maracas, pan lids for cymbals, graters and egg beaters..!!  The conductor a woman in her eighties waved her spoon like a baton as the record played patriotic songs and marches. The orchestra beat the rhythm thoroughly enjoying all the old and stirring Sousa numbers. At intermission they came and spoke to the wheel chair audience, introduced themselves and engaged in conversation. It was the most moving musical evening I have attended as I looked around and saw the enthusiastic participation of both the musicians and the audience in singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Battles were being fought against Aging, and paraplegia, and they were having a lot of fun marching along.

On July 4th, Gwen’s two sons and their families sat together for a meal in Eric’s house. Brian and his wife,  both doctors from Lacrosse,Wisconsin, drove down with their three sons. The “boys” carried Gwen’s wheelchair down, folded into the car and then wheeled her into the dining room. Eric asked a blessing, and we all ate together, the adults in the dining room, the children in the kitchen. There were no fireworks in the town as the floods had submerged the ground near the river where the firework display was usually held.

The following day, the sons again carried and wheeled Gwen to a family meal at a Greek restaurant. The “boys’ were so caring and gentle with their mother as they included her in this gathering, that I felt the warmth of family togetherness.

On July 6th I left Quincy with Brian and his family. Gwen and I did not say Goodbye– instead she said to me in Tamil “Poitte -va” – Go and Come back.

I stayed overnight at Brian’s home in La Crosse. The next morning Sandy took me and the boys – along with several students from their school – to a summer camp in St. Peter, Minnesota.  Here The Parcel from India was passed on to ….


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Friends are priceless – II

(This quartet series (Part II) is all about my friends whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my trip to US in the year 2008)

ALICE ANN

From Connecticut I drove two hours to Kennebunk in southern Maine with Brenda, a friend with whom I stayed there. The sole purpose of the trip was to visit Alice Ann Almost ninety years old,  living in a “retirement home”. I had been a frequent guest in her home since I met her when I stayed in Connecticut with Betty almost forty years ago. AA (as we called her) was married to Vin, who worked as a muclear engineer after his return from the War. They have four lovely daughters, all of whom were Betty’s students at the local high school. It has been my singular good fortune to have been their house guest and enjoyed their unbounded hospitality all these years in every place where they had lived. After Vin retired they moved to Atlanta,Georgia where he was a consultant for a few years. I visited them there. Then they moved to a lovely small town community of mostly-retired people, inNorth Carolina, the attraction being a lake and a golf course. I visited them there too and Vin took me out on his boat. My next visit to the house inNorth Carolinawas a sad one. Vin had Alzheimer’s and was moved to a special home nearby. Alice Ann took me to meet him. He was the same good-looking man I knew but his eyes were blank, no sign of recognition of me – or his wife. He politely followed us to his room, neatly furnished with his personal possessions and photographs. There was no conversation, until he picked up a photograph to show me, pointing to and naming his wife and four daughters pictured there – without recognizing his wife who stood beside me. He died the following year.

Shortly afterwards, AA’s daughter and her doctor-brother who lives in Kennebunk, persuaded her to move to a retirement home in Kennebunk where she could live independently, but near her brother and one of her daughters. I went to see her there too a couple of years ago. She had a beautiful two bedroom apartment with a small kitchen and all the utilities. She had all her favorite artifacts she had collected from her travels with Vin. Her grey cat Josephine kept her company, but her daughters and grandchildren often came to visit and stay overnight in the guest bedroom. The retirement community provided all the household care and food from the common kitchen if the residents did not wish to cook themselves. An emergency bell would bring help within minutes if the need arose. Alice Ann managed to ring the bell when she fell in the bathroom and had to be moved to a nursing home on the premises. With arthritis and a cervical problem she is confined to a wheel chair. She greeted me with her bright smile.  It was a delight to see her and spend two days with her, and Josephine who sat by her side. Most of the residents had pets; they were encouraged to keep them because they obviously improved their morale with companionship. Nurses’ aides walked the dogs.  When I visited her with Brenda and her dog, I was wary about taking animals to AA’s room. But there was no objection raised by the receptionist at the entrance.

The dog wagged his tail when AA stroked him while Josephine curled on her exclusive chair looked at the dog with narrowed, fixed-focus, inscrutable eyes!

Attendants dropped in to help her to the bathroom or took her for physio-therapy. I was her guest for an enjoyable lunch and stayed to watch the Wimbledon games on the TV in her room. The conversation revolved around grandchildren and their achievements. There were many photographs, and on the walls there were framed silk paintings of elephants purchased in Jaipur.  We talked of their visit to India in 1988. There was no mention of pain or sadness. Her brother Jim brought her strawberry shortcake which we shared. It was almost like being in her home again. We hugged each other and  I promised I would return to see her soon.

The flight from Portland,Maine, to Chicago was short and pleasant despite the exasperation when I was told the airlines would charge me for a second checked-in bag. Fortunately I was traveling light and I carried the smaller bag on, only to have the security personnel throw out my toiletries, which I had forgotten to transfer to the checked bag!!.

Stayed overnight with a friend in Chicago and then took the Amtrak train to Quincy,Illinois. The four hour train journey took me through unending fields of corn and soya beans, with the occasional barn and tall silver silo – which must be the American farmer’s phallic symbol – worshipped as the Source, not of the Ganga but of ethanol and hog-food.!

 

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Friends are priceless – I

(This quartet series (Part I) is all about my friends whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my trip to US in the year 2008)

There was a day recently when memories of old friends overwhelmed me, perhaps triggered by the fact that I had recently celebrated my 75th birthday. Over these years I had been enriched by friendships that remain bright. The oldest of these associations was a friend I met in college 60 years ago, and the most recent of them were two friends I met forty years ago

They are all inAmerica, in constant touch with me – thank goodness for e-mail -. despite the ups and downs in our lives. There was a strong urge to meet them and just talk and laugh over past memories. I looked at my desk calendar and saw that June was a free month, and on an impulse I picked up the phone to enquire about air fares to the US.

On the night of June 15th/16th I was airborne on the new Air India non-stop flight to JFK. Thirteen hours and four full length feature films later I landed at NYC at 6 am – half an hour early. (AIRINDIA arrived early??!!).

I tried to call Betty several times but could not get through until someone kindly informed me that the phone “did not work” Trundling my bag to another corner of the vast terminal I found a phone that got me Betty’s excited voice. She would meet my “limo” atHartford, she said. I told her I would see her in three hours, as the van stops at several points inConnecticutbefore reachingHartford. But that was my lucky day – ALL the passengers were going to Hartfordso we zipped along getting there in two hours – again catching Betty by surprise when I called her from the bus terminal.

BETTY will be 80 years old in January 2009. She came to India in 1967 with a group of US teachers on a study tour to develop curriculum materials on India for high schools. We became good friends; she returned to India 1969 on a year’s sabbatical and was “adopted” by my parents as their eldest daughter. Through her I got an opportunity to go to the US for a year in 1970 as a consultant to Connecticut public schools; I stayed with her, driving a jeep I borrowed from her to visit many high schools in the state.

The only child of her parents, she asked her widowed mother to come down from her home in Maine to live with her, and took care of her mother until her death in 1999.

Since she was diagnosed with cancer of the colon in 1988, Betty has had a series of operations volunteering to be a “guinea pig” for the oncologists at Hartford hospital with treatment that involved intensive radiation and anti-cancer drugs. Then, it was the mother’s turn to take care of her daughter!  In the 20 years since the first detection of cancer Betty has been twelve times to the hospital for tests, diagnosis and treatment of malignancy which has involved the removal of her colon, breast, uterus, ovaries, and part of a lung.  Her doctors agree that she is one of the most remarkable patients they have had to treat. They credit her positive optimistic attitude for her amazing endurance. On one occasion during the removal of her lung tumor, a medical mistake almost cost her her life. Emergency procedures saved her, but she had a long and difficult convalescence. Some friends urged her to sue the hospital, but she refused. “They have been very good to me, and I have much to be grateful for,” she said.  The ovarian tumor has grown back twice. She faces another scan in August this year, before the doctors decide how to tackle it. Her medical insurance does not completely cover all costs, and certainly not home nursing. So while she continues to live alone, she has the expense of domestic help once a week for housecleaning, and once a month for lawn mowing and garden care. She is grateful for her pension and Medicare because she does not have any other source of income or investments. Nevertheless she gives generous gifts of food and clothing to poor immigrant or black families, especially so that they may feed and educate their children.

Every summer she goes to a “camp” a log cabin she inherited from her father in the woods by a lake, in her beloved state ofMaine. There is no running water and electricity, but there is a telephone. Good friends living nearby look in on her. This summer she told me she was not sure she could go to Maine as her doctor’s appointments were set for frequent intervals throughout the summer. So I did not expect her to go, or that I would accompany her.

She met me at the bus station in Hartford and drove me to her lovely home.  The walls are full of memorabilia from India, exquisite crafts and paintings.. “So you have come to see the sick and the dying!” she said with a laugh and I laughed with her at the huge joke! I found she had shopped and stocked her refrigerator with enough food for several meals, foods that she knew I liked   Nevertheless, we did go out to dinner and shopping and except for a brief rest in the afternoons she was willing to drive me anywhere. We discussed her medical report but there was no morbid discussion on how long this fight would continue

After early dinner by 6 pm it was a ritual to watch baseball or basket ball on TV, her only relaxation – except for a rare occasion of going to a movie with friends.

There were no tearful Goodbyes as I left. Except the usual promise – “I’ll be back”

(On the Fourth of July I phoned her, only to be told she had driven her car, alone, to her camp in Maine – a seven hour drive. She was happy and delighted to be in her home in the woods of birch and pine).

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