Even after all the time I spent in planning and preparation for this moment, New Delhi still managed to sneak up on me as I dozed through the last 30 minutes of my flight, bumping me gently awake as we arrived at Ghandi Airport. The thick airlessness of the aircraft ramp gave way to the heavily conditioned air of the terminal as we dodged through intersecting lines of passengers boarding other flights. James, my flying buddy since Frankfurt and fellow Fulbrighter, smiled incredulously at the intermingling throngs of arriving and departing passengers as we had our first taste of New Delhi-style traffic. The next impediment we encountered was an H1N1 screening that utilized infrared cameras to scan the passenger line for the telltale high body heat signature of the feverish. My nose stood out as the coolest part of my body, I noted. Judged healthy enough by a masked medical attendant, we swept through passport control and had only a short wait at the baggage carrousel before dragging ourselves almost unnoticed through customs.
We had both been flying all the previous night and day, but were buoyed by the smiling greeters and a host of ebullient young Fulbright scholars who had also been on our flight. We were led out the terminal into the thick air of the city and boarded a private coach for the hotel. New Delhi was in slumber; most of the buildings had no lights on at that late hour, and as we drove through the practically empty streets, the city seemed tame and unobtrusive. James observed, “well, at least there’s no traffic at 2 AM.”
The crumbling and stained façade of the 70s era tower that was the Hans Hotel belied the relative comfort and cleanliness of my room, and after staring out into the glowing gloom of the city from my 17th story room for a few minutes, I collapsed onto my bed and stirred only when my 7:00 wake-up call came. Breakfast brought cheerful greetings and reunions with the other Fulbrighters who I had met and left only a week before in DC. After a hearty and culturally mixed breakfast of bacon, eggs, donuts and curried stews, we were taken by bus to the capital for a special meeting with India’s new Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao.
I’ve always been a sucker for the monumental architecture of government buildings, and India’s capital certainly did not disappoint, but when we were allowed to meet with a top government official in person I have to admit I was star struck. We were led down an intimidating maze of corridors of stone and marble, trimmed with dark wooden doorways bearing the names of titles of the country’s leadership. After taking seats around a large boardroom table, Secretary Rao entered with several staffers and took her seat at the head of the table. For the next 45 minutes, she talked to us about her background, her view of the Indian relationship with the US, and her belief in the goals of the Fulbright programs. She asked for each grantee to introduce themselves and their project or placement, commented throughout with interest and encouragement, and generally charmed us all. Then she took questions and when I asked her if she had one wish of a teacher visiting India to take something away, replied “I hope you will learn about our oral traditions of storytelling, something I fear is disappearing. The oral tradition reflects the power of expression…how you project yourself…literature is preparation for life.” Pretty much she owned me after that.