It was still called a tarmac in 1966 when I first touched ground in India along with my family. It was only the middle of March, not yet the hottest time of the year, but warm enough to feel the heat rising up to meet us as we made our way down the steps off the plane at Bombay airport. My first glimpse of India was a little obscured—I’d been blinded by steam-covered glasses. I had to hold our bags with one hand and cling to one of my wailing twin sons (I can’t remember which one) with the other. Next to me, my wife, Ruth, struggled with our other son. It was just before dawn.
We’ve told many stories through the years about this nightmarish experience, and I remember later describing the twins, Rob and David, in diapers as ‘trailing clouds of glory’. They had just turned two, and parenthood had never seemed so onerous. Thinking back now to our hot walk across the tarmac, I can picture our two older children, Carrie and Christopher (ages five and eight), trailing dutifully behind as we pathetically made our way towards the entrance to the airport. Later, we noted that even the beggars had ignored us.
Exhausted, we sat at a table in the airport dining room. I was convinced that I had to protect my family from any food that could not be peeled and any liquid that was not safely and securely bottled. So I ordered Coca-Colas and hard-boiled eggs for all of us. Looking back now, I am embarrassed of my fresh-from-America paranoia when I remember that elegant restaurant with its fancy linen tablecloths and the turbaned bearers who came to wait on us.
Since that first arrival, I’ve travelled back and forth from India to America at least 50 times and spent two separate lifetimes in India. Each period of time seems like another reincarnation. I’ll focus here on the years between 1966 and 1972, my first life in Kodaikanal.
What is now Kodaikanal International School was then Kodai School, primarily a home away from home for the children of missionaries, a smattering from USAID and US consulate families, and others from the Arabian Gulf. We referred to KIS then as ‘Little America’, and most of my students were white Anglo-Saxons. There were only a few Indian students at the time.
With four small children, we were a busy family. Ruth was kept occupied by the children, but she also volunteered as an assistant to one of the classroom teachers. Our social life consisted of informal gatherings with other mission families or with staff members. Rob and David were free to explore the town of Kodai on their own, along with Major, our boxer, who was always with them. And everyone in Kodai knew them, so if they strayed too far, someone would surely bring them home. One time, Sara Dennison1 found them starting to walk down the ghat. Just a short distance, they had thought. Sara brought them back and was kind enough to downplay any gossip that might have been spreading about the Granners being careless parents!
I was assigned as a piano teacher. I also taught English… or tried to. Having received most of my academic and private training in music, I was totally unprepared professionally as an English teacher. It was my ninth-grade students (Ann Lomperis, Hans and Bill Schmithenner, and others) who guided me through that first year as a greenhorn teacher. Later, mainly because of the encouragement of those remarkable students (who are still my good friends), I developed a genuine love of language and literature. It was a major shift for me from music to English—the realisation of my true vocation.
At this point, though, I was still living a carefree life. I was wildly adventurous and ready to spread my wings into all manner of creativity. That was when Bob Dewey, then the pastor but also a gifted drama coach, approached me. ‘I need to you to play the piano for my production of The Music Man.’ I responded boldly, and without much reservation, ‘Sure. When do we start?’ That was the beginning of my passion for musical theatre, fostered by my involvement in productions like The Sound of Music, The King and I, L’il Abner, The Crucible and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown over the next several years.
Life in Kodaikanal was always an adventure. I remember going up and down the ghat road in a number of different ways and moods. The first time I was sitting on the left side of the front seat of a car. In the US, that was always the driver’s seat. This change—along with the sharp curves and steep cliffs—made me feel like we were going to drive off the mountain! Later on, it was great fun to ride down on bicycles with my two older children. One time, with immense stupidity, I walked 35 miles all the way down by moonlight with an equally stupid group of hikers. (Walking on concrete makes your legs feel like cement after 20 miles or so).
I remember feeling suddenly rich because the rupee was devalued in 1966. When we first arrived, a dollar was worth Rs 4.50. Then, a year or so later, it was suddenly worth Rs 7.50. We lived at Loben2 then, and we splurged on brass pots and rosewood elephants and carved walnut tables, available at Carpet Castle and Banday Brothers and from the “Old Brass Man”3 who used to carry his wares in a huge Santa Claus bag and spread them out on the floor whenever he stopped by.
Driving across the Back Road from Kodai to Munnar in a Ford van, I took a group of my students. They were all actors in a class production of Harvey. We were going to perform at the High Range Club there. After the performance, we didn’t consider returning on this route, because wild elephants were a constant threat on that deserted road at night. So I decided to take a faster route. I stopped the van at a T-intersection just outside of Munnar to ask the way to a particular highway.
Three roads diverged in front of me—one to the left, one to the right and one very steep hill road straight ahead. In my limited (almost non-existent) Tamil, I asked, ‘Entha varli? [Which way?]’ I was certain it would not be the hill road, but all of the villagers pointed up the hill, saying repeatedly, ‘Antha varli!’ So I started driving this minivan (crammed with 11 student passengers) straight up that small road. It became narrower and narrower, and treacherous switchbacks made it very difficult to manoeuvre. We did finally find the right highway. But by that time, we all realised I had been driving on a footpath through a tea plantation!
Experiences like this dotted my first life in India. But, all too soon, it was over. By the end of the school year in 1972, it was clear that I needed to return to the USA and finish my MA in English.
In retrospect, I can say that those early years in Kodai have had a profound effect on me. It was a period of self-realization as I made a dramatic shift in my professional career. I also developed a world view that I carry to this day: learning to respect students and teachers from diverse regions and with a wide range of cultural experiences; working in a multi-religious context; and becoming aware of the needs of others in the wider community apart from Kodai School.
Like the swallows returning to Capistrano,4 I have returned countless times to Kodai since those early years. In the 1990s I had a chance to return to teach IB (International Baccalaureate) English and to assist, again, with dramatic productions and musical activities in the school chapel. I also followed my inclination to become involved with projects in support of community members outside the school. I was fortunate to be helpful in starting NGOs such as Bethania Kids, The Potter’s Shed and now, in recent years, a rural public health initiative known as Rural Pre-Ventures.
When I am in India—and I do still plan to return as often as possible—I make my home at Kavithalayam (literally, a house of poetry) in Pallangi. When I first came, I was a complete stranger. Now, when I return, I feel like one of the ‘old timers’ in Kodai. Still, I always remember what the humanitarian Brother James Kimpton, a dear friend, said: ‘You will always be a rich, white foreigner.’ These words remind me to show respect to my hosts in my adopted country, India.
1 Sara Dennison was a beloved and well-known teacher of kindergartners and first graders at KIS from the early 1960s until her retirement in the late 1970s.
2 Loben is one of the duplex staff cottages just below Bendy Field in the KIS compound.
3 Carpet Castle and Banday Brothers were well-known gift shops opposite the KIS entrance. The “Old Brass Man” was a Santa-type travelling salesman with a large bag filled with brass animals and small trinkets. He visited mainly the homes of Kodai staff then because we were ‘suckers’ for his business!
4 Every year around the Day of San Juan (23 October), the cliff swallows of San Juan Capistrano (southern California) take flight and head back to their wintering grounds in Argentina, 6,000 miles south. They return every spring in mid-March.