1965 India: The Lost Journal Story

First, some background. When I arrived in India in July of 1964, straight out of college and about to spend ten months teaching English courses to students at a public university the center-India city of Nagpur as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant, I began keeping a journal in a thick copybook of the kind that my students used. I'd bought it at a local bazaar. Our Nagpur group of 8 Fulbrighters had reached India at hottest, wettest time of year. Monsoon. Humidity was 100%. Mosquitos were everywhere. We slept under nets. On sunny days people held umbrellas over their heads to block the 100 degree temperatures. Nagpur was so unbelievably strange. Disorienting. Later we'd say it turned us all upside down. So this journal at the outset was my defense against levels of discomfort I'd never felt. Today I look back on these three monsoon months as bootcamp for perhaps the richest year of my life. But it wasn't that way at the time. All eight of us, after teaching our classes, would sit literally in our underwear in the airy living room of our large eight-room bungalow. Reading, writing letters home. Sipping tea (there was nothing cooler). Seldom talking. Trying to escape the unescapable. 

My journal was my closest companion. It wasn't my first journal, which itself has been only a pre-journal: a bulky frame of the colors I loved: of bird clipped from old National Geographics, paint samples I'd sneaked out of the local hardware store, nifty wallpaper samples that my 2nd grade classmate Wally Lustig had traded for marbles and baseball cards. All of this stuff held in a durable oversize brown folder whose cover was embossed with an image of a native American that I could run my finger across. This folder was magic. I took it where I went as Linus in Peanuts takes has blanket. Well one Saturday afternoon we went to see a movie at the Westville Theatre and I stashed it under seat. And forgot to take it with me after the film. It was never found. I felt I'd lost the center of me. Because in the middle of this pre-journal I had only recently inserted ten or fifteen sheets of blank paper. I was going to write on those. About things I saw going on around me. Well, that's what got me into my India journal. Since then, though there have been gaps, I've never stopped.

Like my pre-journal, my India journal began obliquely. In shards and snippets it recorded the confusions and absurdities of Indian life that I saw everywhere around me. I'd spent two years traveling and living in Europe and Africa, but Nagpur overwhelmed me. I began recording the nonsense: things the young man's business card that summed up his educational as "BS Nagpur University, failed". Or, more meaningfully, The story of Moti (Pearl), the pet white goat of our cook Sami. Moti slept every night with Sami and his wife on the bare ground of their hut set in the rear of our bungalow. Moti died suddenly. Probably poisoned, Sami guessed, by someone angered at his refusal to sell her. What struck me was that Sami showed no anger. His grief left no room for it.   

Moti died in in April, long after the monsoons had ended. By now our eight member Nagpur group had settled comfortably into the long, temperate "winter" that began with the end of the monsoons. All of us had entered into Nagpur instead of fending it off. It was quite a change. A transformation, really, that immersed in a new life doing things we'd never even thought of doing before. All this I recorded in my journal. Things like my remarkably pain-free survival from a course of rabies 14 shots administered after a hairless, three-legged dog that had bitten my hand when I tried to give it a biscuit. My journal recorded my sitar lessons with a teacher who told me never to stop in the middle of an exercise, "not even if the wind is blowing the roof off your bungalow out into the Kursturchand Park" outside. It recorded my Christmas visits to Calcutta to meet with legendary sarodist Pandit Ali Akbar Khan and to Mumbai to meet Pandit Ravi Shankar. And so much more. And finally, at the end of our year in India, it recorded almost all of the stunning five-minute accounts that each of the 40 American Fulbright Teaching Assistants was asked to share at our Final Conference in May of 1965. 

Now for my story. It was October, 1964, the monsoon rains had ended, temperate India was now beckoning, and I was traveling with John Deans of the Fulbright Aligarh group the overnight train heading from Madras (Chennai) to Bangalore. It was wedding season and the trains were jammed, jammed like Japanese trains at rush hour. We'd been lucky to find seats. Mine was about the size of a dinner plate. But after a few hours I got restless. I got the itch to fetch my journal. So I up I stood, pushed my way through the standing passengers to the high rack where I'd stashed my zip-top suitcase, brought it down, balancing it in one hand, and zipped it open it up with the other. I fished for my journal, found it, and placed it on top of the suitcase so I could zip it back up. But the train swerved sharply. Down fell my journal. Out an open window. Gone.

The train slowed. We passed a shoddy-looking station. I saw a sign written in the circular-letters of some strange alphabet. Telugu, I think. This had to be the name of the station. I looked at the passengers and asked out loud if anyone knew the station name. Silence. I asked again. This time an old man said something I couldn't understand. We went back and forth. But he kept saying the name and finally got me saying it. Kotidinianakawandam it was, something like that. I went up to Deans, my traveling companion, and said, "How about a great adventure?" I was going back to Kotidinianakawandam for my lost journal. "Sewall," he said, "you are out of your mind." So we agreed to meet in Bangalore "If you make it," as Deans added with that knowing smile of his.

So on the train went, for hours, not stopping until long after midnight. I got off. It was a tiny station with a single table and an overhead light in the waiting room. I asked for the station master and told him I had to find a lost business document. He could have cared less. Told me that no train ever stops at Kotidinianakawandam. Not possible. I was dog tired. I put my head down on the table and dozed off with my suitcase parked between my legs. About 4am I felt a gentle tap and heard a hesitant "Hello". I looked up and saw big bearded man with a deep baritone voice, a dark-skinned Burl Ives. He was the new station master. Hearing of my loss, he was all but apologetic and offered to put me on the next train going back. This was a freight train that would reach Kotidinianakawandam around daybreak. OK. But I envisioned people using the footpaths that run along the tracks spotting my journal and tearing out the written pages to use the clean ones.

An hour later, the train rolled in, all twenty ancient, rickety cars of it. A milk train it was, laden with heavy metal tanks. Five or six men stood at the railings of an open-ended caboose. I boarded it along with a man whom the station master sent along for security. With a lurch and a great clanks of cans the train set off. For an hour talked with its conductor, a Hindu and former landowner in what is now Pakistan. In the bloody partition of 1948, he'd been forced off his land and everything he owned. The only future he could build for himself was what he had now: that of a graveyard shift train conductor riding this local milk train. His resignation at his loss, like our cook Sami's at the loss of his goat, stay with me to this day. He accepted life as it came to him.

After an hour all eight of us pulled out our blankets and sleeping bags. Soon we were lieing flat. The conductor shared his blankets with me. I looked up at the sky and stars as the train rattled along, its milk barrels clanking against each other like a gentle clanking thunder as the train swerved from turn to turn.

On your back the world is different. Tired as I was, the conductor's story had wakened me somewhat. Now this moonless sky full of low-hanging stars wakened me further. Then something happened that I can't account for to this day. Looking upward, it dawned on me that I was in a place where no one could possibly find me. And a place where no one I knew would ever want to be. Yet here I was virtually in the middle of nowhere. Somehow I felt supremely safe, filled with a warmth and joy I'd not known. The feeling was one of belonging: of belonging here and everywhere, all at once. Even if I never found my journal, I knew now that my search for it was worthwhile, precious. I fell asleep.

At the crack of dawn I heard the milk cans. We were still approaching Kotidinianakawandam. I had visions of barefooted kids and moms walking paths along railroad tracks and spotting my journal. Finally, at the twilight before sunrise, we arrived. With a farewell to the conductor, I deborded the train with my guard, who knew what I was looking for. Before I could drop my bags on the platform he tore off in the direction of my lost journal. A 100 yards ahead I heard him shout and saw him waving it in the air. At this I shouted a cheer and ordered hot tchai for everyone on the platform, about a dozen of us. Soon my journal was back, soggy from the morning dew but none the worse for wear, and my security guard had some new rupees in his pocket. And with glorious almost ceremonial flourishes, the tchai walla (tea seller) was sending rainbow streams of steaming milky tea thru the air as he poured tea from pot to cup. I wonder if the Kotidinianakawandam station has seen such joy since.

By evening I was in Bangalore with my buddy Deans, who still maintained that I was crazy. But from that time on, India, and life itself, meant something new and different to me. As for Deans, after graduating from law school, he married a fine Filipana and made his mark in the world as the exclusive distributer in Vietnam of Carvel soft service ice cream in Vietnam. Me? I'm still searching for lost journals and finding them. Some of the time.