[In 1946, after having left India 23 years earlier at the age of nine, doctor and surgeon Paul Brand returned to the land of his childhood memories to take up work at the Christian Medical College & Hospital in Vellore. In the passage below he gives us a vivid description of his reactions on returning after so many years away.]
Our daughter, Jean, arrived while I was in the very act of packing bags. Two weeks later I hugged my wife, toddler son, and infant daughter and boarded a steamship for India. Heading east on a route through the Suez Canal, I relived the pain I had felt on the reverse journey, when as a nine-year-old I had travelled to England from my boyhood home in the Kollis. My family back in London, my future uncertain, my childhood memories resurrected—I felt very alone on that voyage.
Until the ship docked in Bombay, I had no idea what a grip the land of my childhood had on me. “Smells are surer than sounds or sights to make your heartstrings crack,” said Kipling. He should know: he too had inhaled India, a land of limitless redolence [great images from this BBC documentary starting 7:40 minutes in]. Memories came flooding back as soon as I breathed in the unmistakable atmosphere, a rich bouquet of sandalwood, jasmine, hot charcoal, ripe fruit, cow dung, human sweat, incense, and tropical flower blossoms. My pain vanished, displaced by nostalgia.
Six thousand years of tradition walked around Bombay in various disguises: nearly naked Hindu ascetics; Jainists breathing through handkerchiefs to avoid killing insects; Sikhs wearing their trademark beards, handlebar moustaches, and turbans; bald Buddhist monks in saffron robes. Human-powered rickshaws jockeyed for position in the streets with buses, camels, and even an occasional elephant. A farmer was using his bicycle to transport pigs—legs tied together, hanging upside-down from the handlebars, squealing like unoiled machinery.
I drank in the sights like one who has just had patches removed from his eyes. Beauty abounded: the vendor stalls of flowers and bright powdered dyes, the women in flowing silk saris the colour of tropical birds, even the horns of bullocks decorated with silver and turquoise. I found myself gawking, once more the nine-year-old child who had gripped his father’s hand so tightly in the streets of Indian cities.
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