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Clement's Corner: Returning To India

Owen Clement's return to India, the country in which he spent his boyhood, was a journey into disappointment.

Returning to India in the year 2000 came as a total surprise for me.

My wife Jan had originally planned to accompany her sister Susanne on trip to Britain that year to visit Susanne's son Gordon who had gone over as a trainee vet. For various reasons the trip was called off. Jan had been somewhat ambivalent about going anyway.

One evening shortly after making this decision not to go to Europe she turned to me and said, "I think it's time we visited India. If we don't go now we never will.''

I was temporarily too stunned to respond. I think I agreed, although I cannot remember actually doing so. What I do remember is being confused as to how I would feel about finally returning to the country I so dearly loved after fifty-four years. I had always been very keen to go back ever since I
had left there as a seventeen year old boy and here I was now seventy-one years old, coincidentally the numbers of my ages were reversed, being asked if I wanted to return.

My wife's impulsive almost throwaway remark also amazed me, as up to then, she had showed no interest in wanting to make the trip with me. Both my sons had meant well when they had promised to accompany me on my pilgrimage but, due to their own family and work commitments, had been unable to do so. Consequently, I had long since given up the idea as an unrequited dream.

Now that it was about to become a reality, it brought out long dormant blocked emotions. I was the only one who had yearned to return. My parents and sister had never shown any interest in this regard. My father, mother and sister also never understood nor were they sympathetic to my wishes.

"How do you feel about it?" Jan continued.

"I have no idea," I said, which was true. I was no longer a homesick boy. A great deal had since happened in my life.

Jan soon busied herself making inquiries over the Internet and with travel agents. We soon realized that we would have very different agendas. She would be making the journey as a tourist, whereas I was going back to my beginnings. As far as I was concerned, as they say these days,I would have closure. I would finally be able to close the book on my life in India, or
so I thought. When I did finally walk on those streets in Kharagpur, I mused, I would at last literally have circumnavigated the earth. Not a great feat these days but to me, it would be a major milestone.

None of the large travel agencies were able to meet the special deal offered by our local agent in our small seaside New South Wales town of Woolgoolga. Because Woolgoolga has a large Indian population - the Punjabi immigration had been going on for over eighty years - we were able to take advantage of
the Federal government's offer of reduced fares available for family reunions.

We bought a new edition of Lonely Planets Travel Guide and studied it from cover to cover trying to decide on where we would travel to take advantage of aspects of India's unique scenic and architectural sights and, wherever possible, experience India's cultural durbars and festivals.

We flew from Sydney via Malaysian Airlines to Kuala Lumpur where, after a few hours we boarded the fight to Delhi.

Jan and I spent four weeks in October of that year travelling much of the Indian sub-continent by car, air and train.

Tragically for me this was to prove most unsatisfactory. Firstly, I was heartbreaking to see what Calcutta had become. The once beautiful city that I had known so well was now, as one expatriate Indian citizen had stated in a television program, "A gigantic slum." It broke my heart.

Secondly, our day trip to my home town of Kharagpur from Calcutta was an utter disaster. The two-lane trunk road between Kharagpur and Calcutta, which was always known as The Bombay Road, due to the recent monsoons was damaged to such an extent that it took us over five hours to drive the
congested 72 kilometres (100 miles) from Calcutta to haragpur and another five hot and humid hours back.

The car, not being air-conditioned, caused Jan to suffer heat stroke. And because the driver was not familiar with Kharagpur and his selecting a route that I did not know, we were delayed even more. Many other factors caused my visit to be shortened to less than an hour's drive around the town. We did not pass any of what I considered to be my most important locations. My long awaited return to show Jan some of the sights of which I had spoken never took place.

Unfortunately after our short period of driving around town, Jan asked the driver to head straight back to Calcutta where she could retire into air-conditioned comfort and shake off the effects of the heat. It was a bitter blow to me. Consequently, I still wish to return to India, even if I have to do so on my own. I doubt that it will ever happen, although once again one can never tell.

India was a culture shock to both of us in different ways. It was only after we returned to Australia and thought about what we had seen and done that we both became very keen to return, as we believed that we would deal with things quite differently. However, taking our limited finances and our ages
into considerations, we realize that our chances of doing so are
slim indeed.

Fate somehow though has a way of stepping in unexpectedly.

Clement

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