John K Galbraith and Chester Bowles were not only friends of India, but American ambassadors who, along with their spouses, immersed themselves in the Indian culture and ways. Besides a bundle of cherished memories, they left behind much more. Like their simple, practical interventions that changed lives.
Reading the weekly column of the Editor-in-Chief in Sunday Tribune (October 18), I was reminded of my brush with US Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith in December, 1962, during his visit to 17 Infantry Division, that had been moved post haste from Ambala cantonment and deployed close to Cooch Behar. It was the most awkward of times to host a visitor — within days of the war-hardened Indian Army’s lacklustre account on the battlefields of the Sino-Indian war, in the Thag La-Se La region — but we had no choice. There was neither an agenda nor any brief about the purpose of the visit, but General KP Candeth was well versed in diplomatic parlance and we knew he would handle the visit suavely.
As the Ambassador emerged from the one-on-one meeting, he noticed a few tanks in the near distance and said, “General, those tanks look familiar.” “Yes, Mr Ambassador,” replied General Candeth, “they are indeed the US Army’s World War II vintage Sherman tanks.” And Mr Galbraith responded diplomatically, “I think we ought to give you better ones, for your future needs, General.” Paradoxically, when the Patton tanks, the latest armament from the US army’s stables, did arrive, they were deployed on the wrong side of the Radcliffe Line!
About six months later, I was granted a few weeks’ leave and I made haste from Gangtok to join my wife at Chandigarh. We had planned a quiet few days at our favourite destination, our friend John Bandon’s guesthouse at Manali. Borrowing my father’s Fiat car, on the first day we could only make it to the PWD rest house at Palampur. There was no fuss about prior reservation in such establishments in those days, and the chowkidar promptly ushered us to suite number 1.
Typical of the Raj days’ ambience, the bedroom alone had space and furniture enough to house and furnish an entire modern day flat. Wide windows on one side opened onto a pine-covered ridge and on the other side, onto a manicured lawn bordered with neat flowerbeds. But the centrepiece was the double bed; we stood transfixed not by its antiquity but by its enormous 8 foot length!
Shortly, the chowkidar filled us with the narrative that a few months earlier, the Galbraiths had chosen to halt here for the night on their drive to Manali and knowing that Ambassador Galbraith was over 6 feet, 6 inches tall and his wife almost 6 feet, the Punjab government had worked overtime to especially fabricate this bed.
My next brush with Ambassador Galbraith (in absentia of course) was in the sand dunes of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, where he had become a legend with the staff and workforce of the Indira Gandhi Rajasthan Canal Project.
We were out on training manoeuvres in the close vicinity of the canal, which had attained about half its intended length and construction was afoot at a high pitch. The main workhorse for conveyance of construction material to the sites was the camel cart, which had the traditional wooden wheels, sans ball bearings, and so could haul no more than 30 per cent of the normal cart capacity.
Now, Ambassador Galbraith on a routine diplomatic visit to the canal was appalled both by the wasted cart capacity and especially the extra strain on the camel. That is when in a flash, the centuries-old camel cart wooden wheel got replaced by the discarded balloon tyres of aircraft — which when fixed to an axle with ball bearings revolutionised the camel-cart design and camels hauled even more than the intended capacity, without breaking a sweat and with looks of utter nonchalance!
The water channel of the canal was brick-lined on the inside but the outer flanks of the two banks were supported by compacted sand-piles, the tops of which allowed light vehicle traffic. The desert wind is known to erode any sand structure faster and deeper than even rain, so desert grasses and shrubs were planted on the outer slopes of both sand banks to minimise erosion.Two rows of trees on either berm of the top carriageway would provide shade as their roots would also help keep the sand trapped in place. And at the base of both banks, another row of trees up to 20 feet deep was to act as the windbreaker. This grand design was implicitly implemented. But imagine the irrigation needs of the huge number of plants and trees in the hostile desert environs in the first at least 10 years. Once again, it was the camel carts that roved mornings and evenings over the canal carriageways, irrigating the saplings as the carts ambled on. It is not hard to visualise how soon the water tanks would be decanted and each cart would go back and forth between the replenishing station and the canal road.
Astonishing as it would appear in hindsight, it was again the innovative mind of Ambassador Galbraith which came up with a brilliant irrigation contraption: a portable diesel pumpset was fixed to a wooden platform. This was floated upon the canal-water surface and when required, the pump was started and its platform hitched to a camel’s harness to make for the finest, highly efficient, and the most economical and mobile irrigation facility! So today we have perhaps the longest canal in the country with a flourishing ribbon-forest along both its edges, home to countless desert living forms.
In all fairness to the residents of Roosevelt House, we need to recall another, perhaps the greatest, work-aday innovation which freed countless thousands of India’s safai karamcharis from chronic spinal disorders. Ambassador and Mrs Chester Bowles were frequent visitors to Chandni Chowk on Sunday mornings. They observed and realised the discomfort to karamcharis of continuous bending at the small back, and pivoting on their heels to the right and left to sweep with the traditional broom, endlessly.
I think the credit belongs to Mrs Bowles, who one morning sent their driver back to fetch her walking stick and engaging a woman karamchari in chit- chat, she took her broom and inserted the pointed end of the walking stick inside the handhold edge of her broom. And golly, you had the new-look broom with a 3-foot stave (now a common sight) to hold from and sweep with greater ease, from a comfortable stance.
I hope the “Make in India” minds are reading this text!
Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956, Lt Gen Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces.