During my internship at the Expatriate Archive Centre, I created an inventory for a small but fascinating family archive. It featured correspondence (and other materials) authored by an American expatriate couple that resided in India in the mid-1950s.1 Throughout their stay, the couple eagerly travelled outside the town they were stationed in to see new places inside and outside India. I found it very interesting to read the letters detailing these trips, and in this article, I will give a small glimpse into some of them in their own words.
In 1954, the couple and their friends visited the Taj Mahal. They arrived at sunset when the last rays of the evening sun illuminated the Taj Mahal with soft, pink-coloured light. As the Moon was rising, the white marble took on the Moon’s colour. When they returned to the Taj Mahal the following evening, it was surrounded by a pale blue haze, which made the author of the letter think of an impressionist painting. The author notes that seeing the Taj Mahal live and seeing its photographs warranted very different experiences, as pictures didn’t seem to do it justice, and the sight couldn’t be fully described in the text either. The Taj Mahal is mentioned again in the later correspondence written long after this visit, but the author’s admiration of it did not wane.
Two years later, the couple – now with their recently-born child – travelled to Kashmir, where they lived in a houseboat anchored on a lake. They had dinners on the rooftop, sitting “under the stars with music from the frogs”. The lake itself was “surrounded on all four sides by mountains of various heights”, with some of them being “high enough to still have snow on them.” The nature surrounding the lake featured tall poplar trees, as well as “all sorts of beautiful birds”, including kingfishers. The author was particularly fascinated with the flowers: “The prettiest thing was the lotus. I had never seen lotus blossoms before. They are similar to water lil[ies]2, but they stick about a foot or two out of the water and the blossom is m[u]ch larger and softer[-]looking than a water lily. The blossoms are all pink. They vary from a deep pink to an almost white pink. There were some yellow water lil[ies] on the lake too, so the effect was very pretty.”
The couple took another interesting trip in the later months of 1956, visiting Kathmandu soon after it opened for (mass) tourism.3 They stayed in a palace recently re-purposed into a hotel. The traces of its past were seen in the hotel’s structure, with its magnificent marble staircase, which led to an ex-ballroom with several crystal chandeliers. The author also once again described the beauty of the landscape, with its snow-capped peaks, which would become rosy pink at sundown, and noted an abundance of greenery: “There were [a lot] of green shrubs and trees. Some trees [. . .] greatly resembled our pines but [were] more beautiful with different leaf patter[n]s”.
Reading these accounts almost seventy years after they were written is fascinating. While the significance of the historical setting is undeniable, some elements are as relevant nowadays as they were in the 1950s. Thus, I am very grateful for the opportunity to read these letters and reminisce about them.