Friday, September 4, 2015

FLASHES OF MY LIFE - 5 : 30 Indian Fulbright travel grantees once stranded in Milan

Thirty Fulbright travel grantees from India  stranded in Milan  - A 1962 real story!

This is  the story of how in my life I was once sucked into a certain leadership position that unexpectedly turned out to be not so enviable at the time, though at this distance in time I can talk about it with pride.

Ninety of us Indians travelled to the United States in August 1962 as Fulbright Travel Grantees. Our sponsors for the entire trip was United States Educational Foundation in India  (USEFI), Delhi. We had a four-day orientation in Mumbai (then called Bombay), at the end of which we were divided into three batches of 30 each, each batch having a different travel itinerary. However, in the first lap of our journey (August 1 to 9) by boat from Bombay to Naples we were all together. For the first four or five days many of us who were first time travellers by boat, had sea-sickness and due to the turbulent nature of the Arabian Sea  we really passed through an ordeal, added to which, the vegetarians had a testing time of finding the right type of food for them.  When our boat the ORANSAY passed the strait of Messina (between Italy and Sicily)  it was night time  and we had the exciting sight of Mt. Etna in eruption on the left and the city of Reggio on the right, beautifully lighted!. At Naples the batches separated and went their different ways. At Bombay itself at the end of the orientation, leaders of the three batches had been elected. I was elected leader of my batch. There were 25 men and five women in my batch. Most of them were headed for a graduate education in the U.S. Five of them including myself were going to take up faculty positions in different universities in the U.S.

At Bombay the USEFI gave our tickets upto Naples and further told us that at Naples a representative of the Council of Student Travel  (CST) (with HQ in Paris) would give us necessary money as well as tickets for the onward journey. Our itinerary was to alight at Naples, travel by train to Rome, and again travel by train from Rome to Rotterdam from where we would take another boat to New York.  We alighted at Naples at 7 AM 9th August. The student representative Mr. Papacio  and the taxis at his disposal were not prepared for our 90 pieces of luggage for the thirty of us. By the time we could find a bus for us to carry our luggage and reach the train station, our train had left. In fact this was a thrilling experience for me, because, 6 pieces of luggage were left behind, and so as leader of the group and with the help of Papacio, I searched for the pieces,  found them and then followed in a taxi with these six pieces, the bus carrying the others..  I had a proud feeling  then (!) –later the next day that feeling was going to change to a diametrically opposite position – that I was really managing a family of 30 members with 90 pieces of luggage! Finally we all arrived in Rome by a later train .

One Mr. Marconi, also a student, took care of us for the evening and night, gave us just one fourth of the money we expected to get, and the next morning put us in a train to Rotterdam. Only after he put us on the train we came to know that no reservation had been done for us but actually we had been shoved into a compartment which was completely reserved from Milan onwards. So all of us, thirty Indians along with 90 pieces of baggage had to alight in Milan, around 5 PM, completely stranded. When the train was departing from Rome Mr. Marconi had signalled to us that he would send a telegram to Milan station master and set matters right; but obviously this must have goofed up somewhere. We had no idea of when our boat was to depart from Rotterdam the next day. The Station Master at Milan tried to help us by suggesting that we could go by the next train, leaving around 11 PM but it would reach Rotterdam only late evening the next day and even in that train there might not be accommodation enough for so many of us!

In the meantime some in our group of 30 had several different opinions (some of them as crazy as you can imagine) as to how to meet this crisis situation. I could get constructive help and advice from four or five in our group of whom I cannot forget Dr. A.M. Vaidya, Dr. Manohar and Joseph Edwards. But it was an eye-opener to me that even in such an adult population of well-educated youths, about half a dozen or so were so upset at the turn of events as we left Rome, that we had to treat them almost as children lost in a mela. We four or five  who managed to keep our cool found it very challenging not only to control them, but we had also additional problems of fire-fighting since one of the ladies was in the habit of picking up quarrels with the men in the group. There were another two or three who were so argumentative that they almost threatened to break from the group and run away in Milan, as if they knew where to go.

We needed all our wits to keep them in the group with the rest of us. There were a few others who cared the least, whatever might happen; and so this was the other extreme, namely, total indifference! Well, in about 24 hours I learnt a lot, by the hard way of course, about the hazards of leadership! The five of us took an unusual decision to immediately contact the US Consul in Milan (whose office we learnt was within half an hour walking distance from the Station). As our good fortune would have it, though he had left the office  he promised to come back before  we arrived at his office. He made the necessary phone calls to Paris and Rotterdam and made some arrangements the exact nature of which was not then clear to us. But he asked us to go back to the Station and be ready to board the 11 PM train. He was really glad that instead of trying to contact the Indian embassy or Consulate, we chose to contact him, the US Consul – which, according to him, saved the name of the U.S. since we were travelling under the sponsorship of USEFI.

What actually happened at 11 PM was very Indian! The train was to start from Milan so as it was backing into the platform from the yard, we noticed that thirty towels had been used to ‘reserve’ thirty seats for us in the very familiar way in which we Indians used to appropriate seats in trains in those days when every seat was free for all!. On the train that night we had some funny experience. The half a dozen persons in our group who were crestfallen while we were stranded in Milan still did not cheer up!  There were beautiful sceneries; we were crossing the Alps. They would not even open their eyes and see outside! We reached Utrecht in Holland around 2 PM the next day. We had to change trains to go to Rotterdam.  There were only 15 minutes to move on to the right platform and board our other train.  But the Consul in Milan had anticipated all this and had arranged for several porters to transfer our baggages from one train to the other train.  When we arrived in Rotterdam at 4 PM or so,  the WATERMAN, our ship for travel across the Atlantic with 800 on board, which was scheduled to depart at 2 PM was waiting for us, 30 Indians.  In no time our passports and other documents were checked by a whole team of customs officials and within half an hour all of us were on board and the boat whistled off. None of us had any time to check whether our baggages had been uploaded on the boat or not but the Captain assured us that everything had been done, thanks to the excellent logistics that must have been charted out by the Consul at Milan.

The point of this story is our  leadership part  had been  put to the severest test during the fire-fighting and trouble-shooting and I must say this much in fairness to the story – the majority was always positive and helpful. Even the simple problem of loading and unloading the 90 pieces of luggage presented challenging leadership problems of coordination and discipline. Incidentally, the luggages were really very heavy, because we were all scheduled for travel by boat and we had to tranship them six times in two days ourselves, at Naples, Rome and Milan!  When we alighted in New York (August 20) we found only one of our 90 pieces was missing – that of my friend Edwards – but in about two weeks the CST traced it and sent it back to the owner.

Well, one more interesting fact! On the WATERMAN we thirty Indians gave a public performance to the other 800 passengers on India's Independence Day August 15. Programme included a vedic prayer, a recital from Gitanjali of Tagore, sAre jahamse acchA ( a chorus song); Tamil song vaNDADuM solaithanile; a Hindi bhajan;; Bharati's song: Aduvome paLLuppADuvome; a Gujarathi folk song; an English song and an Italian song; a film song 'kAhe gabrAye'; Nadasvaram  (from a tape recorder) of the song SingAravelane;  Janagana Mana. 


1 comment:

  1. Appa,

    I loved reading about the ups and downs of this trip, I never really grasped it fully before. I can totally understand the plight of the 30 travelers and the hapless leader who must have thought - what have I got myself into?!? :)

    I think the 800 passengers must have been bewildered by the multitude of languages and cultures in your Independence day pageant. An American friend once told me that he was always surprised to see how Indians are always ready to perform in front of an audience.