August 26, 2012 | 1 Comment | Betsy Woodman
Every couple of years, we came back to the United States from India for about three months. Some things my sisters and I loved about home leave: ice cream, television, and magazines to name a few. Other things we were less fond of, including running the gauntlet of inquiring relatives at family reunions.
We could predict the questions: Have you ever seen the Taj Mahal? Have you ever ridden on an elephant?
My sister Lee and I both remember one visit, in 1960, with some relatives in a Massachusetts suburb. How plush their house seemed, padded and cushioned with wall-to-wall carpet, over-stuffed couches, and heavy curtains. American houses always seemed over-furnished to us. In India, our house had stone floors and whitewashed walls, and your footsteps would resound in the staircase.
Two of the cousins were assigned to entertain Lee and me. They were sixteen and fourteen years old, and Lee and I were twelve and fourteen. Grudgingly, they led us up to the older one’s bedroom. Lee and I stared, pop-eyed, at the décor worthy of a magazine, the cosmetics on the dressing table, the calendar marked with boys’ names.
“Are you going out with John tonight?” the younger girl asked the older.
“No, Peter,” the older one said.
“John’s going to be jealous.”
“That’s the idea.”
This cold-blooded suavity took my breath away.
It was painfully obvious that the two girls were desperately bored by their babyish cousins. They struck about for an idea of how to pass the time.
“Wanna go for a ride?” they asked.
It was the first time we’d been in a car not driven by an adult. We weren’t very sure we did want to go, but what could we say? We got into the car, and my cousin put her foot to the gas pedal. We whizzed onto Route 128, the speedometer needle climbing and climbing. In India, we were used to sparse traffic even in the city, and to speeds dictated by flocks of bicyclists, creaking bullock carts, and lumbering camels. (Today, of course, that would no longer hold true.)
After a terrifying ride, we exited the highway with a lurch. Back in the residential streets, the younger girl pointed out, “Hey, this is a 30 mile per hour zone.”
“Well, I slowed down to 50!” the driver exclaimed, and the two of them went into gales of laughter.
On return, we staggered back into the house, relieved to be alive. When the cousins thought they were out of earshot, we heard one snigger to the other “twelve and fourteen?”
My grandmother sensed that we didn’t have a very good time. As we rode home, she said, “I don’t think those girls were very nice. And they’re nowhere near as pretty as you two.”
Still smarting from the humiliation, we wrote off her attempted solace as grandmother’s bias. We might have seen the Taj Mahal and ridden on an elephant, but in America, we were still naïve and unworldly visitors.
Here we are, arriving at Palam Airport in New Delhi, after a homeleave in 1958. Deborah is on the far left, clutching Lee’s finger. My parents are center, garlanded, my dad with his hand on my shoulder. Jane is garlanded and carrying her doll. I love Jane’s and Lee’s dressy little coats and hats.