I thought we had our accommodations set before arriving in India. For the first week, we had a Bed & Breakfast Guesthouse in Safarjung Enclave, paid for by USIEF. After that, the staff at Sampradaan Indian Centre for Philanthropy had set up a stay at a B & B in Vasant Kunj around the corner and down the block from their office. It allegedly was a fourth floor “penthouse” apartment with a bedroom that could have two beds in it, a separate kitchen, a bathroom with shower and a “private roof terrace.” And having breakfast included in the deal seemed good for us; at least one meal would be provided making it less cumbersome in a new country and culture.
I sent Mr. Bali, the owner who is a retired Indian Air Force Wing Commander, an email to introduce myself and, hopefully, to reserve the place. I never got a reply so I sent another email. Again, no reply. I thought, maybe that is just the way it works in India. But it did leave a lingering worry in my mind.
As it turns out, it was good that I didn’t reserve it. At the Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation in Washington, DC last week, the Fulbrighters were told not to finalize their housing until we had an opportunity to see it and decide if it met our needs. I heard some former Fulbrighters tell tales of great places they found and others tell tales of disaster. I thought, “Hmmm, this could be interesting.”
On the second day we were in Delhi, I met with the USIEF staff. They are great people who went out of their way to help us out on every account. A month earlier I responded to an email from Bharathi, the woman who is the main point of contact for Fulbright-Nehru Scholars, thinking foolishly that I did not need a “facilitator” to help me with housing and other transitional needs. I was hoping that my housing was set with the place in Vasant Kunj. When I met Bharathi in the USIEF office at 12 Hailey Road, I changed my mind and asked for a facilitator which turned out to be the best move.
On the third day, I went to Vasant Kunj, a “posh” suburb south of Delhi, and meet the Sampradaan staff. They are great people who are dedicated to building up the community-based philanthropy movement in India. A tall task, as I am quickly learning. Before we sat down to the workday ritual of sharing all that we bring for lunch with each other – “Like the ‘give and get’ we were talking about earlier,” said Dr. Pradeepta Nayak, the Executive Director, echoing how I had hoped my time with them would be mutually beneficial – we went around the corner to see Mr. Bali’s place.
Mr. Bali was not at home so his “servant-boy” named Gopi, which is the name of Lord Krishna’s cow-herding girl lovers, showed us in. Pradeepta and Surinder, the office assistant at SICP, accompanied me. While nice, it was not the penthouse apartment I hoped it might be. The bedroom was small but had A/C. The kitchen area had a refrigerator, microwave and sink, but no stove or hotplate. The bathroom needed a good cleaning, but seemed sufficient. The roof terrace was a great feature. It overlooked a nice neighborhood and had a cool-ish breeze blowing even on a hot afternoon. But we learned this apartment, although on the top floor of Bali’s B & B, did not actually have breakfast included.
After SICP’s shared lunch, my family, who had gone to the nearby upscale Vasant Kunj Mall, came to the office. Moijuddin, the Program Director, accompanied my family to Mr. Bali’s place. Leora loved the roof terrace where she danced around and imagined putting on nightly “shows” for us. Aviva did not like the uncomfortable bed, but thought the place looked OK. However, she thought that she and the girls would be isolated down in Vasant Kunj with no Metro stop or marketplace nearby, getting in auto-rickshaws or taxis to get anywhere. It may be good for my access to SICP, but not our family’s life here in India.
On the walk back to the office, we stopped in the shade to debrief with Moijuddin. It was obvious to me that Moijuddin wanted to talk more openly to us before we got back to the office. While he thought the placed was sufficient, he suggested we consider renting a room in or apartment near a hotel frequented by tourists, which would be more accessible to everything. He suggested Connaught Place and I learned that he used to work at a travel agency so knows something about all this.
Once back in the office, while my family drank cold Sprite, I gently told Pradeepta our concerns. Apologetically, I told him how much I appreciated the work his staff had done on finding the place and stated that I didn’t want to put him or SICP in an uncomfortable position with Mr. Bali, who they use when other guests come to visit.
Moijuddin was very deferential to his boss, asking at each turn what Pradeepta thought. Pradeepta thought we should explore Aurobindo Ashram which he said was “peaceful” amidst the chaos of Delhi. He had used it for a conference of community foundation leaders a couple years back and liked the atmosphere. We talked about other places too. When I called Mr. Bali that night to tell him we are still considering his place but looking at others the next day, he put on the hard sell. That made me feel even less likely to live there.
We stopped later that afternoon at Aurobindo Ashram, feeling that because the Executive Director of my primary host institution encouraged it, we should definitely see it. It was, indeed, a welcomed contrast to the Delhi we experienced so far.
Sri Aurobindo is a main character in the long history of India. He combined Indian philosophy, yoga and science in an innovative way at the beginning of the last century. A contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi who worked in the independence struggle, Aurobindo was a well-loved guru when he retreated into a contemplative isolation from the world in the 1930s and passed his spiritual followers to a French woman who became known as The Mother. Big and small photos of the two of them hang everywhere in the Ashram.
Now, when I was last in India, 20 years ago, I rode a rented bicycle out to Auroville which disciples of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother founded in the state of Pondicherry (now called Puducherry). It is a fascinating example of ingenuity and hard work, as well as a utopian new-age enclave that has 1,800 residents from 40 countries. The center-piece is Matrimandir (Mother’s Temple), which looks like a huge golf ball on top of a wide stem, or like a spaceship that landed in the lush southern Indian desert. In the inner-sanctum sits the largest crystal in the world (70 cm in diameter) which refracted beautifully radiant rainbows throughout the white chamber on the day I visited.
When my family arrived at the Delhi ashram, a stately older woman named Mrs. Patel welcomed us. She is Indian but spent many years in Chicago near Northwestern University where Aviva earned her Master’s in orchestral conducting. Once I told her I had been at Auroville 20 years ago she warmed to our family, realizing that we may not be the average American tourists.
As we walked the grounds, the dormitories, the dining hall, and finally the shrine, I asked my family, “Please think about what you are feeling in your heart and why you might be feeling that.” Quotes from Aurobindo and The Mother were everywhere, most talking about peace and harmony and right mindedness. Leora wasn’t sure she wanted to go into the shrine which had a rule of complete silence, but we did. Two towering photos of Aurobindo and The Mother were in the front and a few meditators sat facing their direction.
Later we debriefed over dinner. Each of us had a similar reaction: it was a rather strange place and the photos of the guru pair were particularly off-putting, but it seemed incredibly peaceful in the midst of the craziness of this city. Leora, who is full of rambunctious energy and creativity, was clear about not wanting to stay there. “I can’t be silent that long. And people will get mad at me if I make noise,” she quite astutely predicted.
The next day we traveled to Connaught Place on our own before lunch with our facilitator, Harsh Singh. He is a 21 year old who has just finished college with a degree in commerce. A freelance journalist for an English language newspaper, he also helps Fulbrighters get settled in Delhi. An impressive young man with an earnest demeanor, he was assigned as the protocol assistant to Prince Charles and Prince William during the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi last year. I would later learn that his father recently stepped down as a Member of Parliament from his village about 150 km north of Delhi and his brother was a facilitator for USIEF before him.
As we wandered in the mayhem of Connaught Place, I asked again for each of us to consider how we felt and why. Leora was not feeling well that day and we were all a bit out of sorts. Many men, known derogatorily as “touts” because they are trying to recruit business for particular establishments, approached us asking if we needed help with tours, hotels, restaurants, bookstores or anything else. Harsh, which appropriately means “happiness” in Hindi, was almost assaulted by a tout who thought Harsh was stealing us from him. “Don’t go with any Indian man, especially that fellow,” shouted the tout.
Later, in the family debrief, it was obvious that Connaught Place would not work for us. Although centrally located, with many hotels, it was just too overwhelming. Aviva said, “I must always have my guard up every time I walk out the door with the girls. I just can’t do that for the next 6 weeks.” Ilana nailed it when she said, “I didn’t know who to trust.”
The rest of the family went back to our first week’s B & B, while Harsh and I went to Sunita Singh’s guesthouse in Jangpura. She is a recent widow with a beautiful house in which she commentated on how her husband did all the craftwork. Although it had a small kitchen in the room, it felt like we were living in someone else’s home and that would get tiresome quickly. So, we walked by some other places in the neighborhood and made plans to meet again.
The next day I met my friend Shekar Narasimhan in Gurgoan. We had a wonderful breakfast at the Oberoi Hotel, which opened in April and features views of water from every room. It was absolutely exquisite. After breakfast a driver took us through Gurgoan to the office of Shekar’s development firm. Gurgoan has some of the most expensive property in all of India, second only to parts of Mumbai. This suburb of Delhi has million dollar condos and many multinational corporate offices (IBM has more employees there than in the U.S.). It is built vertically because land values are so high.
The next day my family continued our adventures with Harsh. We all bought Indian outfits at Fabindia, a store that sells clothes crafted by poor villagers and is truly a social entrepreneurial success story. We then looked at four places owned by one landlady in Jangpura and one by another landlord in a different area. We ended up renting the first place we saw, but were glad to see the others, just to feel comfortable with what we were getting into.
That night we went to Hotel Taj Mahal in central Delhi for a USIEF function welcoming 20 U.S. elementary school teachers on an exchange to experience the history and contemporary issues of India. We met many interesting people. And my daughters loved dressing up in our Indian outfits and going to that “fancy hotel.”
As we moved our bags the next day to our new accommodations, I became even more aware of the contrasts that are India. The U.S. Deputy Ambassador to India had said the night before, “Just when you think you know something about India is true, you will learn that the exact opposite is also true.” We had experienced both the poverty of housing and the exquisite beauty of housing in Delhi. We had all felt great anxiety and were trying to lean into it.
An epiphany came for me as we settled into our new place. We were all hot, tired, hungry and cranky. And Aviva, who had worried about our luggage tied to the top of a cab by the Sikh driver who whizzed us across town, said, “As I was riding in the taxi worried about our luggage and looked out to see that woman and child who lived under the bridge begging at our window, I thought, We must be thankful for all that we have; an air conditioned place to stay, clean clothes to wear, food to eat, water to bathe and drink. Thanks, God!” All I could say is, Amen.