“Mother Doesn’t Do Much”: The Ambassador’s Wife in India


THE children of the fourth grade at the American International School of New Delhi were required to write an essay on what their parents did. Our youngest son. James, said the following: “My father is Ambassador to India, or the chief United States official here. He does many different types of work. He writes reports for the United States Government on Indian conditions. He has conferences with the Indian Government to improve diplomatic relations. And also Dad makes speeches to make a little better the understanding between the U.S. and India and he represents the President on official occasions. Mother doesn’t do much except arrange entertainment and administer the household.”

He has a point. I don’t rush about doing housework and errands. From 1951 until November, 1962, when we moved, the official residence of the United States ambassador to India was a onestory white bungalow set in a bright-green garden in a pleasant residential section of New Delhi. On the staff at this residence were three bearers, two cooks, a sweeper, a laundryman, a driver, three gardeners, and three watchmen — fourteen regular servants for a six-room house. The new house, being much larger, requires more. In addition I have a Darzi to sew for us, and our housekeeper from the United States looks after the boys.

In running my household I give the instructions, then check up and recheck. Sometimes we have too much help. One day my husband wanted a badminton net in the garden. Our three gardeners summoned six more helpers to put up two light bamboo poles. Another day, to hang three small photographs our bearer called the carpenter, who came with two assistants; one brought a tape measure, one a hammer, and one nails.

In an Indian household the mistress of the house not only supervises the servants she employs, but she looks after their families as well. As our cook said one day, “Madam is the mother of us all” — that meant fifty children at last count. We must care for them when they are sick, settle an odd quarrel, and keep a strict watch on their work. A gentle hand doesn’t pay — now and then I have to lay down the law. On the whole, though, they do well; also, they can organize extra help to handle our heavy schedule. We must be impartial in our favors; whatever is done for one must be done for all. We give a glass of milk and cookies to the children every day, tea to the servants, new saris to the wives at Diwali, small gifts and money at Christmas. All of these things, plus medical bills, run into quite an expense. I have wanted to set up a cooperative medical health insurance plan for the domestic employees of the American community, but the initial costs for this are high.

My day, in the hot weather (which is most of the time), begins about six o’clock. It is the only possible hour for exercise, so I go horseback riding. After a Hindi class at the embassy I consult with our secretaries and then return to the residence to check the day’s arrangements with the head bearer and cook, make out our accounts, and decide any other matters that arise. The brass nameplate on the gate is tarnished; must the sweeper or the watchman polish it? Should bougainvillaea be planted instead of the old cedars in the garden? Which gray should be selected for slipcovers for the official car? What books are we to present to the children’s ward at Safdarjang Hospital? May the second bearer have a chit to order his new shoes at a special store since his feet are so big? Should the ladies wear gloves, hats, and stockings to our Newcomers’ Teas? In a six-room house, where do you hang thirty-one paintings on loan to us from the Museum of Modern Art? On that I had lots of advice, all different; these paintings have attracted lively comment, much favorable.

Copyright © 1963, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

The rest of the day there are calls and callers, meetings, interviews, receptions, dinners. We either go out or have guests, often both noon and night, almost every day in the week. Arranging the entertainment is a constant occupation. I have heard of one career ambassador’s wife who, on her husband’s retirement, gave away all her clothes except slacks.

WE HAVE given parties for a remarkable variety of American visitors and Indian guests. We had been in Delhi six weeks when Vice President and Mrs. Johnson, Stephen and Jean Kennedy Smith dropped in for three days. The temperature was just under 120 degrees, but they bore up nobly. Since then we have had the Harvard Glee Club, the Davis Cup players, the Joe E. Adams troupe, the World Council of Churches, the World Medical Conference, the Bairds and their marionettes, Mark Robson and José Ferrer, who were here to make a film on the death of Gandhi, the American polo team, Henry Luce, Winthrop Aldrich, museum directors, zoo directors, Nobel Prize winners, several senators, the presidents of Harvard and Princeton, two young girl graduates hitchhiking their way around the world for two years on $500 each, the Peace Corps, the crews of our C130’s, who came to fly Indian troops and supplies to Nefa and Ladakh, James Farley, Yehudi Menuhin, Louis Untermeyer, Angie Dickinson, Averell Harriman, Luther Hodges, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Orville Freeman, Lowell Thomas, Norman Rockwell, Barbara Ward, and, of course, Mrs. Kennedy.

Her visit was a major event of the spring, eagerly awaited, much enjoyed, and not without problems. One was the number of people with an ironclad claim to meet her. She could see only a few thousand, and I was afraid we would not have a friend left in India. Yet in the end almost everyone was happy. Another problem was where she could stay in Delhi, since our house was too small; we rented a secluded little bungalow across the road. Word came that when alone she liked toasted cheese sandwiches for lunch. A selection of cheeses was sent from Beirut, and the Indian cook practiced until the result was judged to be exactly like a drugstore sandwich at home. We held our farewell dinner for her at the new Edward Stone Chancery. Since this is strictly an office building and had never before been used as a dining hall, we held a dress rehearsal with the same menu two weeks ahead.

In arranging guest lists, I have help. Indeed, I often do not know until a few minutes beforehand just who is coming for lunch or dinner, and the seating plan and place cards are sent over by our social secretary. It is quite a different principle from arranging a dinner in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There the seating is largely determined by who should talk to whom to make a pleasant evening. And the guests are people we know well or hope to know better. In Delhi there is protocol. Usually this is not my headache, since it is all worked out at the office. But not everything goes according to plan.

One noon we were having a luncheon for some generals. The number of acceptances had risen during the last hour before lunch from fourteen to sixteen. Fourteen was all our regular dining-room table would hold, and so at that point we had to shift to two round tables each seating eight. The guests began arriving at one fifteen; at one twenty I found myself meeting a general and his wife who were not on the guest list, and the total number was obviously now eighteen. What to do? There was no time to change from two tables of eight to three of six, so I told the bearer to remove the butter plates; this way we could fit in nine at each table. I thought we had concealed the error, but I heard later that our unexpected guests had noticed that the handwriting on their place cards was different from that on the rest.

Another day our eager staff set up a luncheon for a visitor to Delhi described as “the Civilian Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy” (I slightly disguise matters here). Suitable admirals and other top-ranking officials were invited. Our guests of honor seemed a bit overwhelmed by all the brass, and they thanked us effusively for our kindness to them. During the course of luncheon I discovered they were an elderly couple on a world tour and that their son had once been in charge of some sea scouts.

Many of our housekeeping difficulties have been due to the size of the residence. Now we have moved to a beautiful new mansion next door to the Chancery, also designed by Mr. Stone. In April, 1961, when we arrived, construction had already begun, and since the United States government was in charge and the experts had long ago made the plans, I did not expect to be involved. However, I soon found out that, like Blandings, I was building a house.

The servants’ quarters lacked windows and bathrooms; we redesigned them to provide both. I was asked to suggest what to put in the garden and set about learning the names and characteristics of the flowering trees and shrubs that make New Delhi so lovely. The local press noted that full-grown trees were being hauled in by bullock cart. Transplanting at this stage is not usual in India, possibly with good reason; though now everywhere else the landscape is lush and green, our new trees look like November in Vermont.

The new residence was built by hand. Stonecutters chipped away at rocks; plasterers and painters hung from apparently precarious scaffolding made of bamboo tied with rope; and beautiful straight-backed Rajasthani women in red swirling skirts and silver anklets carried away countless baskets of earth from foundations, swimming pool, and sunken garden, and lifted trays of cement into the house and up the spiral staircase on their heads. And they patiently planted thousands of tufts of grass to make our lawn, with their children squatting beside them.

Our first party at the new house was for those five hundred workers who toiled night and day for a year and a half to get it completed only a few months behind schedule. It was a gay afternoon of song and dance, and we joined them in a strenuous Punjabi number called the Bhangra. There were Coca-Colas and sweets, toys for the children, and speeches. Mine, in Hindi, brought a warm response, since it was brief and the only one they could understand.

Our new house gives us space. We can once more live under the same roof with our children, and it is easy to entertain in.

MY CALLERS usually come for some purpose. An Indian student may want to know how to apply to an American college. I am asked to visit a welfare center, a clinic, or to help with a fair. The Americans in Delhi have many projects in which we take an interest, including the construction of the new American International School. That, too, is taking longer and costing more than expected, but the architect, Joseph Allen Stein, an American who has been working in India for more than ten years, has created a most imaginative building, one which may well become a model for future school design.

I am often invited to go to the theater, to concerts, dance programs, and art exhibits. A troupe hopes to tour in the United States; I must find out how they should go about it or give an opinion as to how an American audience would react. This can be delicate. Once in a while I get in over my depth. I was told I should hear a famous South Indian singer, so I went. She sang devotional songs 1 could not understand, for more than four hours without a break. The Indian audience was ecstatic.

A small part of the day is devoted to mail. I am wary of the letters that begin “Gracious Lady Galbraith” or “Beloved Mother.” One young man wanted me to treat him as a son and send him ten lakhs of rupees (over $200,000) for a purpose he would tell me about later. A man from Kerala merely wanted me to build him a house. Another asked for books for a children’s library; we discovered that the library was his own. A Bible Society heard that an embassy car was for sale and hoped I would buy it for them to use to distribute Bibles, instead of their 1932 jalopy. The mother of a little girl who cannot speak would like to send her to the United States because there is no speech therapist in all of India; I could tell her that our medical program includes plans to bring a speech therapist to the All India Medical Institute in Delhi and to send Indians to the United States for this training.

We have attended impressive state functions — banquets for heads of state held under the regal portraits of former viceroys, receptions in the Moghul Gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, national festivities such as those for Republic Day or the inauguration of the new President. These ceremonies are conducted with great dignity and style, for the Indians have carried over the pageantry of their past into their new national life. The ceremonies are also conducted with great sobriety; because there is semiprohibition the toasts are drunk with fruit juice.

IT IS exciting to be in India now, lor one can see the old beside the new. India’s history goes back thousands of years. At the time the Pilgrims were building log cabins in Salem, Shah Jahan was building the Taj Mahal. But India became an independent nation a decade and a half ago. The contrasts are striking. In Delhi, buses, scooter taxis, and bicycles weave in among the tongas and oxcarts. New housing developments spring up around old tombs and ancient forts; those monuments are so familiar and numerous that no one can tell you for whom or when they were built. You go to a village, even on the outskirts of a city, and you see how life has gone on in the same way for centuries. There are the same wooden plows and plodding bullocks, the same cow-dung fires and Persian waterwheels, the same bright saris bending over the rice fields — though the ubiquitous black umbrellas used for sunshades must have come in with the British. You think there has been no change, and then you discover that the village now has a small dispensary, very simple by our standards; a handful of nurses and a doctor serve thousands of patients. Or there is an eye clinic, set up in tents so that it can be moved from district to district; two hundred thin old men and women lie on charpoys waiting for operations for glaucoma. Each operation takes about ten minutes, and the doctors are busy all day. Or a farmer comes proudly to show off his new crop of peas; they are much fatter and sweeter than before, because of improved varieties, irrigation, and fertilizer.

But it has become a time of peril for India. Its problems are very great. With half the area of the United States, it has nearly three times the population. People are everywhere — in the lonely jungle, clinging to the steep Himalayas, sleeping on the city streets, and clustered all over the plains. Most of these people are poor, customs are diverse, and many tensions have threatened to disunite the nation. India so far has kept a full parliamentary system of government, its heritage from the British, but the Chinese have already marched. In its plans for development India counted on peace. Will the cost of war to a poor country be disaster, or will the need for preparation hasten progress? Right now people are donating their gold bangles, their life savings, their blood; women are forming knitting parties, and girls in saris are training on the rifle range. In the villages the people are asking what they can do. There is a sense of urgency and national purpose, and also, initially, bewilderment. The Chinese action was a great jolt.

Since Independence progress has been made, though the answers to India’s problems are not simple. For instance, DDT has checked malaria, but the decline in disease has raised the birth rate. The solution to poverty can start with small things — a new well, better seeds, an outside market for village handwork, a teacher and a little school. It can also start with big things — dams and power plants and factories. The United States has helped with both.

One of our great privileges has been the opportunity to travel and to see what is going on. Usually we fly in one of our embassy planes — a Convair if the airfields are 4500 feet long, otherwise a DC-3, which can land even on the meadow in the narrow Kulu Valley. The Convair is comfortable for long distances. In addition to seats for sixteen passengers, it has a rear section for the ambassador, with two couches, a large leather lounge chair, a table and desk.

When we arrive at the airport on official visits we are garlanded, photographed, and driven off to the governor’s mansion or the state guesthouse. Usually a police inspector rides in the front seat. (Once, outside Calcutta, our protector jammed his finger in the car door and fainted; my husband picked up his bodyguard and laid him gently on the nearest table.) We call on the governor, the chief minister, the mayor; attend receptions, cultural programs, and dinners at which we forgather in good academic fashion, men on one side, wives on the other. We shop hurriedly for handicrafts at the government emporium, and, if we are lucky, have a little time for sightseeing. I may have a special schedule arranged by worthy women’s organizations. There are press conferences, and my husband often speaks. By now he has lectured at most of the leading universities in India.

At major functions my husband makes the speeches while I sit quietly on the platform and share the garlands. But if he is not around to talk, then I must. This can happen without warning. The first time was at a girls’ school in Cochin, where, having been invited to pay an informal call, I was led to the platform in front of the entire student body, seated on a red plush chair between the principal and the archbishop, and handed a printed program which read “Speech by Mrs. Galbraith.”

Twice I have presented mobile kitchens (jeeps with trailers) from Wheat Associates to be used to teach the village women how to cook the wheat we give them when the rice crop fails. I have judged floats in parades, distributed sweets to children, awarded prizes. In one village, after inspecting a neat little hospital, I was handed a baby spotted deer which promptly began to munch the flowers around my neck.

I have even undertaken trips on my own, to celebrate, as a state guest, the harvest festival in Kerala, when they have the wonderful snake-boat processions and the noisiest fireworks, and to visit the first Peace Corps group in the Punjab. That was in August, and it was hot. But despite the wearing heat, minor discouragements, and a few amoebas, they were hard at work raising chickens, designing housing for villages, teaching, studying and demonstrating methods of farming. Every one of them was enthusiastic about being in India, and no one complained of the simple living conditions. They were a good group, glad for what they were learning and eager to be of more service. They have already won the regard of their Indian neighbors.

Our travels have covered most of India, from the lush coconut groves of Kerala to the cool valleys of Kashmir, and from the monumental Gateway of India in Bombay to the small Naga villages beyond Assam. Our two weeks in April, 1962, near the Northeast Frontier now seem to have been planned with special prescience.

On this trip we stayed at a cinchona plantation near Kalimpong and feasted on roast goat and beer made by pouring hot water over millet in bamboo mugs; it ferments while you wait. Next we visited the Maharaja of Sikkim in the tiny mountain capital of Gangtok, where we were protected by five-foot palace guards in uniforms which make Hollywood seem real. In Shillong, the capital of Assam, we stayed with the governor in a large Tudor-style mansion, and then we crossed the Brahmaputra River to go to a game preserve just over the border in Bhutan. This little frontier country is so remote that it did not then even have a postal system; the first Bhutanese stamps were issued last October. We thought we would be roughing it, but we found that three hundred people had worked fourteen days to build us a camp on a bluff above the rushing Manas River. Out of split bamboo they had created a village of basket-weave houses which they had furnished with real beds, new sheets, fulllength-mirror dressing tables, all brought in by dugout for our two-night stay. We, too, were poled up the river in dugouts and were met on the opposite shore by six large elephants who carried us the rest of the way along a path lined with bright prayer flags. The riverbank on which we stayed is now one of the danger routes into India. It all seemed very peaceful then.

Our final stop was Manipur, in the green hills by the Burmese border. It was here that we saw polo played by men on little ponies, and danced with the Naga tribes, my husband wearing a headband with peacock feathers and I a golden cardboard crown. The Naga tribes, not long ago headhunters, are mostly in the hills. The valley people are a different lot, easygoing and gentle. Their women do all the work, but they also control the purse strings and, being independent, are free to change or discard a husband when convenient. They were a happy, graceful people, fond of bright clothes and dancing. Now they are close to the fighting.

WE TRAVEL in order to get acquainted with regional problems and politics, and also to highlight American aid. Of course, this help is not new; Americans have been contributing for years to agricultural and industrial development, to medicine and to education, through our government, our foundations, and other agencies. We do not believe, however, that such work should be done in secret. In Kerala, the most literate and the most unsettled politically of all the Indian states, my husband not long ago announced a loan for two vast dams which will more than double the present supply of electricity. In Calcutta, too, a loan was announced for a thermal power plant. On this occasion everything went wrong with the ceremony. It began with a cloudburst. The two speakers, my husband and the late Dr. B. C. Roy, got there by jeep, but the audience bogged down in the mud, so the speeches were not made. The teacups blew away, and when my husband planted the symbolic gulmohar tree he dug with such enthusiasm that the silver trowel broke in half. He symbolically watered the tree while it rained an inch an hour. However, all these disasters served to make a better story.

Some of the most heartwarming work is what we have done for children. This is largely accomplished through CARE. In Mussoorie, in the mountains north of Delhi, I visited a Tibetan refugee camp; the triple-decker cots, as many as seventy in a room, and much of the kitchen supplies had come from CARE. In Madras we met a ship which was unloading four million pounds of powdered milk from the United States government for CARE. One of our most beautiful mornings was spent at a school just outside Trivandrum in Kerala which was inaugurating a school-lunch program for several hundred children, with food also provided by the United States government through CARE. Girls in bright-blue skirts and white blouses greeted us with coconut lamps, flower petals, and garlands, and under the shamiana (colorful awning) which had been set up for the ceremony were chandeliers made of fragrant white tuberoses. Meanwhile, outside, little boys and girls sat patiently in rows, their leaf plates and brass cups in front of them, waiting for the end of the speeches so that they could eat. We were told that the school lunches do away with the truant officer; sometimes this is the only meal these children get in twenty-four hours. The program starts with the first grade, and poor parents have been advancing the ages of their four-yearolds to get them into school early so they will be fed. We have recently also opened another schoollunch program for 500,000 children in Rajasthan.

In early October we went by special train through central India on a ten-day U.S. A.I.D. tour. Our party of fifty included twenty-eight Indian and American journalists, for by showing them our projects at firsthand, we thought they would become aware of the contribution of the United States to Indian development. Our train had nine cars — three of air-conditioned bedroom compartments, two dining cars, two baggage cars, a car for the officials of the railway accompanying us, and the ambassador’s special coach, belonging to the president of the railway. Divisional superintendents were instructed to ensure “stabling” at quiet sidings, to keep platforms and surroundings scrupulously clean and the staff on duty tidy, to supply chilled boiled water and ice, and hot water for baths, good food, laundry facilities, and a doctor “equipped to meet any emergency” throughout the journey.

To go across India in this way, just after the monsoon, protected from the hubbub of the highways, is in itself a delightful experience. As the sun rises in the rain-clear sky you see the farmer already out in the bright-green rice fields driving his white bullocks and the women in blue or red or green saris coming from the well with shining brass water jugs on their heads, and in the remote stretches where only the railway tracks pass, the villages with their red-tiled roofs look very well kept.

We were busy. We visited power plants, a coal washery, the docks at Bombay where American wheat was being unloaded, training centers for teaching the use and maintenance of heavy equipment, a district experimenting in raising food production by putting into practice modern agricultural techniques, and the new Indian Institute ol Technology, now? being started with the help ol some of our leading professors, that aspires to equal MIT. South of Hyderabad we inspected a huge dam which, except for two tall U.S. cranes, is being built like the pyramids of old, by thousands of workmen, some of them children (though that is illegal), carrying concrete on their heads up zigzag bamboo ramps. For buildings up to the height of 120 feet we were told that human labor is cheaper than machines. It must always be remembered that this is a country of many poor people, and many people need jobs.

We also paid a visit to Literacy Village in Lucknow, the dream come true of a remarkable American, Mrs. Welthy Fisher, now over eighty. Here young women are trained to go out into the villages to teach reading, books are written, and ways of communicating new ideas to illiterates are devised. A favorite method is through puppets. We were treated to a skit on family planning, the romance of Birju and Chanda, whose happy marriage turns to despair when in five years they have five children. The bride has become an old woman, the children fight, and one who is ill vomits yellow liquid over the edge of the stage. When Chanda whispers to Birju that she is expecting yet another baby, he rushes out to hang himself, but is rescued by the village-level worker, who sends him to the doctor at the block headquarters for much-needed advice.

The trip accomplished its purpose. Many articles were written about our work in India. A week later the Chinese marched into the Northeast Frontier. After that, there was hardly any need to emphasize American aid. When my husband went to the Lok Sabha one day, even his car was garlanded, and strangers rushed up to thank him as though he were providing the assistance from his own pocket. But the appreciation of U.S. generosity and compassion is no sudden thing. It has existed for a long time, even in out-of-theway places. On our way to Bhutan across the hot dusty roads of Assam, where we had not met another car for miles, my husband was dozing in the back seat of the car with his shoes off when I noticed ahead of us crowds of people gathering as though for a fair. But they came to see us. In this poor little village they had heard we were passing through; they stopped the car to give us a letter, written in longhand and framed, expressing their warm friendship for the United States.

In spite of differences of opinion that arise, our relations with India rest on respect. The Indians know that we help them not because we are richer and want power but because we care and because we believe, as they do, in the value of human life and in the freedom and dignity of the individual. It is to our mutual advantage and interest to stand by one another since we hold the same faith.

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