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'Going to teach in India meant a chance to be involved in what seemed then, and still does fifty years later, the most fascinating event in twentieth century history'

Both as an academic and an official with the US government Professor Ainslie T Embree remained a close observer of India for nearly 50 years. He served as the counsellor for cultural affairs at the American embassy in Delhi and special consultant to Ambassador Frank Wisner. From the insights gained during his tenure and exposure to India, Professor Embree believes that Indo US relations have reached a sound footing.

Mahatma Gandhi When Edward Thompson, the historian and novelist, who had worked in India for many years as an educator, was planning to go back to England, he wrote to Mahatma Gandhi that he was leaving India. Gandhi wrote back: "You should know better. You will never leave India." Gandhi meant, of course, that he would take India with him. Many of us have found it to be so, that India is what Nirad Chaudhuri called it, the Continent of Circe, capturing and holding those who come under her spell.

I think Indians themselves do not always understand why foreigners, who have no ties of culture and family, feel this way about India. I got hooked on India fifty one years ago -- and have stayed hooked through all the intervening tumultuous years.

My formal connection began shortly after World War II, after service in the Royal Canadian Air Force with the RAF. I was looking for something interesting to do, and a friend who had served as a missionary in India told me that the Indore Christian College in Central India, which had been founded by the Canadian Church, was looking for someone to teach European history.

As more than a parenthesis, another reason for deciding to go was that I had met a young woman who, prior to this, had accepted a teaching position at the American school in Madurai. Suzanne was to share my career, and shape her own, in the next fifty years of India. My students now often ask me why I went to India, and I think they are disappointed when they learn that my passage to India was prompted by such mundane reasons, and not some quest for the wisdom of India.

There were no courses on India when I went to school in Nova Scotia, Canada, sixty years ago, only some odd, faint, imperial memories. My college was called Dalhousie, after the grandfather of the governor-general, and Inglis Street, near the college, commemorated General Inglis, the hero of the defence of Lucknow, who had been born there.

But for a young idealist in Canada, as elsewhere at the time, India meant, in a way that is hard to recapture now, Gandhi and Nehru. They stood for a new world order, a better future for humankind, and not just for India, a tryst with destiny. Going to teach in India meant a chance to be involved in what seemed then, and still does fifty years later, the most fascinating event in twentieth century history: the transformation of an imperial possession, with surpassingly rich historical experience, into a modern, independent nation.

From 1948 to 1958, we were on the staff of Indore Christian College, then affiliated with Agra University, Suzanne teaching sociology, in one of the first programs in that field in India, while I taught British and European history. It was then that began serious reading in Indian history under the kindly guidance of mentors at the local colleges. They were crowded years.

On the personal level, our two children had the advantage of being born in India and beginning their schooling there, although perhaps it was not good for our son to be addressed throughout the city as chhota sahib. The college boys delighted in teaching him a rich vocabulary of Hindi obscenities, which he used at all inappropriate times.

Nehru Those years were filled with discussion of the events that I now teach to students as 'history'; Hyderabad; Kashmir -- if only it could have been settled as easily as the Hyderabad issue was; the making of the Constitution, with the most memorable arguments having to do with the national language and the place of religion; the Five Year Plans, symbol of so many hopes; Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai; foreign aid; anti-Americanism (which I enjoyed, being still a Canadian).

Missing from this list is much memory, even in 1948, of the impact in Central India of the terrible events of Partition, although Delhi was only 300 miles away. Then as now, perhaps one of the great strengths of India is her ability to localise and contain violence.

Courtesy: New India Digest

Ainslie T Embree, continued