The man below the sign introduced himself as the Mumbai rep. of the company that had arranged our tour of northern India, a very pleasant man dressed against Mumbai’s 85º evening chill in full business suit complete with vest, long-sleeved shirt, and necktie. He greeted us warmly and then clove a passage for us through the crowd to baggage claim, then out to a taxi waiting in the spangled dark of Mumbai’s night.
After 46 years I was back on Indian soil, ready to show Mary Ann some of the many wonders I had seen during my first visit to a land I had learned to admire. At the head of the agenda, a visit to Pune, home of friends and the center of the first attempt by Indians to break the British stranglehold on their lives and liberty.
But, I must admit, I hadn’t seen much at all during my first time in Mumbai (then “Bombay”). In 1943, my U.S. Army unit had filed down the gangplanks of the U.S. Navy armed troop transport USS General A. E. Anderson after an unescorted voyage across what was then a Japanese pond (the Pacific Ocean) to Sydney, Australia, where we picked up an escort of two Aussie destroyers for the remainder of the voyage to Bombay.
On that occasion, our feet at last on solid ground, we had formed up and marched the short distance from the quay near the Gateway to India to Churchgate Station, and there entrained for Nagpur and Calcutta. I did, however, manage to see enough on that march and on the train ride through the city to conclude that the East India Company got a very good deal when it leased the place from the Crown for £10 a year. But, given the exchange rates at the time and the terms of the contract, the Dutch got a much better deal on Manhattan. They paid some 60 guilders worth of junk (about £1, 5 shillings) for outright purchase. Obviously, the Dutch were much sharper businessmen.
An even warmer welcome awaited us in the dining room of the Ambassador Hotel. Dog-tired after the long flight from Tokyo’s Narita Airport, we wanted nothing more than a quick dinner and a long, long sleep. We therefore ordered without much thought. A quick dinner we got—and a hot one. I should have known. I should have remembered. During my first time in India, I had formed a theory: in a hot climate one eats hot foods and drinks hot drinks because, as the chills and fever of malaria prove, the hotter the interior, the cooler the exterior.
Mary Ann was even more affected than I. There’s something infinitely touching about the sight of your loved one leaning over a broad plate, nibbling first one tidbit, then another, while, with each motion of the jaw, plumes of steam jet from each shell-like ear. I can’t say that aesthetically it’s more pleasing than earrings, but it is definitely more fascinating.
The next morning the tour guide greeted us with the news that our projected train journey to Pune could not take place; a derailment somewhere up on the Western Ghats had disrupted traffic for an as yet unspecified length of time. But never fear, he assured us, he had engaged a taxi to take us, together with a German couple, by the scenic highway. Fear I did not have, but when we saw the taxi, we knew we had lost something of inestimable value. Something similar in appearance to a 1970s Fiat, the vehicle turned out to be only marginally larger than a Volkswagen. Even worse, the German woman turned out to be only marginally smaller than an elephant.
This latter fact required certain readjustments in seating. To help keep the front wheels on the ground, the driver selected me to sit in front with him, not that I weighed so much, but I did weigh more than either Mary Ann or the husband (the latter only marginally heavier than a feather). I wondered why the driver did not put Brunhilde up there, but then logic told me he needed some elbowroom for steering and gear shifting. Mary Ann and the husband each squeezed into a corner of the back seat; the elephant sat in the middle.
Then it turned out Brunhilde did not want her suitcase tied on top with the other cases. She insisted on having it inside with her, and it was large. She said nothing about the husband’s suitcase, but then he was so small he probably carried his extra clothing in his shirt pocket. At last all was ready: the baggage on the roof tied securely, the wheelchair stowed, my crutches between my knees, Mary Ann and the husband shoehorned into the rear-seat corners, the driver in place behind the wheel.
All this proceeded despite certain linguistic difficulties. The tour guide had not waited to see us off. Instead, pleading other duties, he had dropped us on the taxi driver and disappeared. The rest took place in a Babel-istic fog. Both Mary Ann and I spoke English and French; I had some very rusty Hindi and Bengali; the Germans both spoke German, the woman a grotesque English with German syntax and pronunciation; and the taxi driver Marathi and what he called English. But where the driver got his “English” is still a major mystery.
So off we went toward Pune, as top-heavy as a Tata truck, and as soon as the driver engaged the gears, Brunhilde began a monologue of Wagnerian proportions about her previous stay in Pune. She had, she declared, spent a period of time at some ashram or other where she had sought enlightenment. She inundated us with a deluge of trivialities about the difficulties of life in India that left no room for rejoinder in that vast sea of dislocated grammar and decomposed pronunciation. Mark Twain once described German as a language in which, at the start of the sentence, the speaker plunges in with the first part of the verb, swims frantically through major and minor clauses, and emerges at the end with the rest of the verb between his teeth. And so did she—with “English.”
None of us tried a rejoinder. None of us dared. Instead we did our best to absorb ourselves in other matters. For myself, I watched the traffic and soon came to understand why the Maharashtrans revere Ganesh over all other deities in the Hindu pantheon. I have seen no other traffic as wild as Mumbai’s unless it be the Parisian kind in one particular spot: the exit from Place de la Concorde into Rue Royale, where on the edge of the Place the traffic lines up six lanes abreast ready to dash across the intersection and merge into the two lanes of Rue Royale. You can understand why, when the light changes, the traffic officer blows his whistle and dives for cover.
But that’s only one place in Paris; in Mumbai it’s everywhere, for during the years of my absence the city had supplanted Kolkata as the economic hub of India. I thought the driver would have served us all much better had he seated our Brunhilde on the hood of his taxi instead of in the back seat. She would have had a much more daunting effect on the opposing traffic than the miniature Ganesh dangling from the rearview mirror.
And I noticed something else. In the 1940s the city as I had seen it from the train was rather subdued, both in height and tone, but somewhere between then and now the city had burst skyward and broken into color—and what color! I called the sari and the lugade “magnificent.” By that I mean the bright but beautifully coordinated colors. One sees nothing as pleasing to the eye either in the United States, England, or Continental Europe, and it makes the heart sing. But the color along the streets of an Indian city, on the billboards, and shop fronts is different. On that taxi ride, I saw for the first time the riot of colors characteristic of a modern Indian city, colors so clashing, so dashing, so raucous, that they become downright cacophonous.
At last we broke free from the city, all fenders intact, angled southeastward across the narrow coastal plain, and began the climb up the Ghats toward Pune, a perilous ascent because the upward slant of the road favored the heavy weight in the rear seat. Both the driver and I leaned forward in an unconscious effort to compensate. The engine labored and strained, and the driver nervously eyed the heat gauge while I eyed the scenery. The Indian government had not yet built the four-lane toll road; we followed the old two-lane through tight curves and many switchbacks up the abrupt face of the Western Ghats—beautiful scenery, magnificent forests—to the top and the long slant of the Deccan to Pune.
We arrived in mid-afternoon, dropped off the Germans. We bid them farewell, and I offered the hope that Brunhilde would find further enlightenment. Our host, Commander Manohar Paranjape, greeted us at the prearranged spot while four men man-handled our four small pieces of luggage, each carrying one piece the two or three yards from the taxi to our new vehicle. Of course one man could have done the whole job, but together the four helped to keep up the show and augment the general air of speed, energy, and confusion. Loaded at last into our new transport, off we went, luggage and all, in an auto-rickshaw, that marvel of shakes and shimmies, clatters and chatters, and snorts and snuffles and belches.
For the first time since service in India and Burma during World War II, Frank Rogers revisited India, this time with his wife, in the fall of 1992 to gather materials for two of his novels and to see again a great land and a great people.