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  • Writer's pictureSundeep Bhatia

A lifetime visiting India 1970 to 2014 Part 1.1970 to 1990 by Sundeep Bhatia

England is my Home.I am very proud to be a British citizen and to be living and working here.

However my heritage is Indian .

My father came to this country,from India, in the 1950’s ,in order to work in the fledgling National Health Service.

At the time the NHS was crying out for Doctors from the subcontinent.

He returned to India at the end of 1963 to get married before returning,after a few weeks,with my mother who was also a qualified Doctor.

I arrived on the scene in 1966 followed by my brother in 1967.

My parents never taught me Hindi or Punjabi.

However they kept us in touch with our ancestry by making regular visits to India.

My first trip to India was at the age of four.

We travelled on the Soviet airline Aeroflot. That was my first flight .

Bad weather meant that the family was stuck in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.

I have some recollection of events but gaps in my knowledge have been filled in by my parents.

We were locked in a hotel so that we could not mix with the locals. We were also locked into a waiting room at Tashkent where the only thing to do was to read communist literature provided by the state. The flights ran out of drinks and no priority was given to parents with children.

Aeroflot was,in 1970,as close as you could get to a budget airline.It made Ryan Air seem the height of decadence.However the cost of a ticket in those days was £200 which,when inflation is taken into account,represents a modern day ticket cost running into thousands of pounds.

It was the first time that my parents were travelling back to India since they got married.

The fact that we flew by Aeroflot was appropriate.

India,in 1970, reassembled an Iron curtain state. That impression took hold the moment that you landed at the ramshackle Indira Ghandi airport. It took several hours to collect your luggage and to clear passport control and customs.

For a four year old,set in his ways,the lack of home comforts was almost unbearable. Soft toilet paper was impossible to come by. Squat down toilets were the norm. Tvs were black and white and broadcast for only a few hours a day. There were hardly any programmes for children. Breakfast cereals,milk and even water did not taste the same as they did in the UK.

Yet the overwhelming memory of that visit was of the unconditional love of my relations.

Life long friendships were forged with my uncles,aunts and cousins ,during that visit.

My brother and I were figures of astonishment. Young Indian boys,with Juras and handkerchiefs on their heads speaking with full English accents.

We were spoilt rotten. Uncles and Aunties showered us with chocolates. Cousin sisters swooned over their sweet English Cousins.

I repaid the kindness by misplacing my uncle’s contact lenses !

Travel in those days was very difficult. There were no highways. It took several hours to travel from Delhi to visit my mothers family in Haryana.A distance of 100 Kilometres.

Everyone had one of two types of car,assembled in India ,because foreign cars could not be sold there and it was difficult and prohibitively expensive to import cars from abroad. The choice of vehicles comprised a Hindustan Ambassador and an early sixties Fiat model.

The Ambassador was a reincarnated Morris Oxford.When Morris stopped making it,in the late 1950’s it sold the production line to India.

Ambassadors only recently stopped coming off that production line. In later years the Ancient Morris power plant gave way to a,by comparison,exuberant , Isuzu unit . I remember that a few were imported to the UK as examples of retro chic. A company called Karma cabs decked them out in spiritual psychedelia whilst using them as novelty taxis. Prior to its deletion it remained the car of choice for government departments.

Somehow this antiquated Jalopy has become a symbol of India in the same way as the Taj Mahal.

It reminds me of the brightly coloured 1950s American vehicles still prowling the streets of Cuba.

The other vehicle was an equally antiquated Fiat which has long since ceased production.

(There were also a few Triumph Heralds produced by a local company called Vanguard.)

All of the above vehicles,in 1970,were adequate for Indian roads where the maximum speed a vehicle could do was 60 Kmph without a wheel falling off.

The only exception to the above rules was the city of Chandigarh where an Uncle and Aunty of mine lived.

Chandigarh,in the 1970s was a beautiful modern place with state of the heart housing,wide boulevards,sculpture parks,rose gardens and green parks .

The city was designed in a coordinated manner with Sectors reserved for certain activities.

Sectors added together,in any direction,always added up to 39. A third of the city was to be built on whilst two thirds remained green. My Uncles house,in Sector 11 was comfortable and modern.

Chandigarh was ,unlike the rest of India,decades ahead of its time. In fact it was ,and remains,a far better place to live,than the English new towns of the same period.

There were certain aspects of 70’s India which would stand it in good stead in decades to come and which shame me even now.

I,at the age of 48,cannot speak Hindi or Punjabi. Yet my cousins could and do speak fluent English.

In fact the education system had survived unscathed,since the time of the Raj,unlike that in England. There is one other thing I remember ,about early visits to India. Many luxury goods were unavailable and my parents would take over suitcases of Marks and Spencer clothes,irons and hair dryers whilst I would record cassettes of the latest English music.

However ,in 1991 a decision was made which would change the face of the Country forever.


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