CIRCA. 1954


I hardly knew my grandfather.

He died in 1991 when I was 5 years old. Plus, we didn’t live in the same city: me in Paris, he in Buenos Aires, so I just saw him during our New Year holidays in Argentina. But, in the years that passed since his death, I gathered some information about him. Nothing much, usually the same tidbits: he was a pipe smoker (I’ve gotten one of his pipes), he was quite grouchy, he read the newspaper from first to last page every day, he was a devoted family man, he enjoyed receiving friends, and basically, he loved to travel.

I don’t know exactly about all of his travels, but I know they were long (three months at a time) and he liked to explore countries that weren’t touristic destinations as they are now like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan or India.

Just recently my grandmother passed away. She was 101 years old. While emptying her apartment, my mother and one of my aunts fell upon some photo albums of one of his travels, the one made in 1954 without my grandmother, when he went to Paris, Rome, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Hong Kong, Philippines, Japan and back to Argentina via Hawaii and New York.

This was a trip that was particularly criticized by my mother and my aunts who couldn't see how he had chosen to travel alone, leaving wife and daughters for such a long period. So selfish! Also, as the story goes, my grandparents had bought a new apartment, entirely decorated it with new stuff, which was ready for use but to which my grandmother didn’t want to move to until his arrival (though she used to go there to have coffee with friends). So, she patiently waited for his return.

But I learnt, from a letter from my grandmother just recently found, that in fact, she wasn’t that angry or resentful, she simply didn’t want to move and “sleep alone in that new big 1m60 bed” where she would “feel too cold” without him. That private romantic streak quite touched me, as, I’ve been told, they weren’t exactly the cuddling kind in public.

The impressive Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, this hasn’t changed that much since then except that in the picture we don’t see any cars but camels. 

The Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai’s open-air laundromat, full of washers working hard on their clothes.

Anyways, back to the albums. Knowing of my passion for the country, they saved for me the one with the photos of India. It is an old album of 20 by 30 cm of brown cardboard with one big black and white photo on each page. They are mostly landscapes and people going on in their routines (no selfies then) except for one, of my grandpa on an elephant. He was 52 at the time.

But also, they found his travel diary. My grandfather had very precious calligraphy, very 19the century, with all the letters perfectly delineated but this is the funny thing: he wrote it on an agenda of 1954 where each page covers two days, so to be able to write all the events of the day in half a page he wrote with really diminutive letters which makes the reading very, very hard.  So, there was no much place for thoughts and reflections, just the details of places visited and the things done.

He spent twelve days in India, from January 22nd to February 4th 1954 (later in the 60’s he would go back with my grandmother) and during those days he visited Delhi, Mathura, Agra, Fatehpur, Jaipur, Varanasi, Calcutta, and Darjeeling. Obviously, at some point, he fell ill and had to stay in his room.

At Delhi, he stayed at the Imperial Hotel, where the first thing he did was unpack his suits. Not one, but several. Nowadays is funny to think that people used to dress up for travelling, not down. I’ve seen photos of him with impeccable grey trousers, blue blazer and of course a tie, in the Honduran jungle or at the Austrian Alps and my grandmother with a smart suit or dress and an elegant handbag.

He was a pipe smoker (I’ve gotten one of his pipes), he was quite grouchy, he read the newspaper from first to last page every day, he was a devoted family man, he enjoyed receiving friends, and basically, he loved to travel

First thing in the morning he had a haircut at his room (he was fussy about his appearance) and after going through some formalities at the embassy of Thailand for his next step, he met with his two companions just arrived from the airport. After lunch, they made a promenade through the residential area of Delhi with he compared to the Alvear avenue of Buenos Aires, one of the most elegant of the city. Thereafter followed an incredibly full program of visits: to the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid mosque, the Humayun Tomb, the Qutub Minar, the Parliament, the presidential residence and the Raj Ghat.

The next days were all as full: Mathura (“super interesting for its squalor, colour and Asian picturesque”), Agra and the Taj Mahal (“marvelous, magnificent”), in Jaipur he went to the stadium for a dance show  performed by companies from all over India, part of the celebrations of the Republic Day, to which the then president assisted,  which he loved.

The Taj Mahal with two persons seating on the grass discussing.

The Gateway of India in Mumbai taken from the Taj Mahal Palace.

My grandpa sitting on an elephant. He was 52 at the time.

At Benares, he was astounded by its filthiness and fell ill and in Calcutta, he visited the Victoria’s Memorial which he found “imposing” and a Hindu crematorium, which made quite an impression on him that he compared it to a “Dantesque spectacle”.

I can imagine, he had never seen a thing like that “corpses barely covered in the streets”, and as he commented with a big dose of irony “an excellent tonic for my physical and mental state”.

In Darjeeling he woke up at 4 am to go see the sunrise over the Everest, “a spectacle imposing and unforgettable”.  He mentions that at night he sleeps with a heater by the bed.

In Madras, he spent one morning trying to get an authorisation from Delhi to leave the country because there was no more place on his passport to include it, hoping there would be an Argentinean consulate at his next stop (Sri Lanka) to add a page at his passport.  (Just imagine, today, the idea to “add” a page to a passport…!) Saying this, there were so few Argentinean travellers at the time in the Orient that those who did travel were received fondly by ambassadors and functionaries, eager to meet fellow countrymen.

I’m happy to have this souvenir from my grandfather. Somehow it makes me feel like it is a special link between us, through my love for India - where I lived for twelve months (I did a Master in Chandigarh and then worked in Delhi) and to where I come back several times a year – is deeper and stronger.

But I like the feeling of looking at many of the places that I love so much and thinking that he had been there sixty-four years ago, thirty-two years before I was born.

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