As a child I was always intrigued by some photo albums that lay in an old roll-top desk in our home. The maroon albums were mildly frayed but in remarkably good condition for their age. The people in the black-and-white pictures looked strangely familiar; they were four Indians in a distinctly European environment, looking slightly out of place, and yet seemingly enjoying themselves. Over the years, as inquisitive children pestering the family elders, my sister and I learnt the story of the photographs in those albums.
The story began in the year 1954 with a young Gujarati couple that had settled with their two children in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The husband, my paternal grandfather, was a chemical engineer in the British Chemical Company’s soap division, when he was deputed to visit a number of perfumeries in Europe to develop the company’s activities in Ceylon. My grandparents travelled to India first to drop their children with family here, and then, accompanied by an aunt, made a five-week steamer journey to England. There, they were joined by the aunt’s son, a student in England. They purchased a small Ford Anglia car and drove it to the edge of the English Channel and then ferried it across to France.
Over the next 100 days, the men dressed in European suits and the two sari-clad ladies drove across the Continent. As a child, I had listened to animated tales of how they experienced pickpockets in Rome, southern France’s beauty, the ruins of Pompeii. In Germany, my grandparents had met their daughter’s pen pal, whom she would meet only 40 years later. Then they drove to Norway to see the Northern Lights and the midnight sun. During this part of their trip they’d met my father’s penfriends’ family, the Kongstadts, in Oslo.
Some stories in particular I recall well. According to family legend, the ladies at some point gave a curious group of Norwegians an impromptu demonstration of how a sari is worn, on the steps of Oslo’s Royal University Library. The Kongstadts, unclear on how to feed these vegetarian guests from India, simply stocked their kitchen with a variety of produce, decorated the house with Indian and Norwegian flags, and gave them free rein of the kitchen. The ladies apparently produced a wondrous Indian meal, and so began a long friendship between two families that would continue only through letters sent each year at Christmastime. Births, deaths, weddings, and other interesting tidbits that had transpired in both families were penned in these annual newsletters.
Every December I would know the update had arrived when I saw the envelope with a Norwegian stamp and neat cursive calligraphy. Not just my grandparents, but my parents, sister, and I all eagerly read about what the Kongstadts had done through the year. It felt like we were keeping up with close friends even though I’d never met them. My mother continued to exchange letters with the Kongstadts well after my father and grandparents passed away, and eventually even visited them when she was in Norway over 35 years after that first trip. Every now and again the albums resurface, and we show them to my daughter and her cousins, retelling the travel tales we heard in our youth. As the next generation listens spellbound to stories of their great-grandparents, conversation often veers to discussing new and exotic corners of the world that each of us would like to explore.
It’s interesting how the story of this 1954 road trip through Europe has the power to live on and bring joy 70 years on. Perhaps its ability to animate and thrill family members three generations later stems from the fact that it is much more than the story of one journey: It is really a narrative of a philosophy of life, of a couple’s desire to explore places on their own terms, to interact with peoples of new lands. And because they documented it with photographs, the story of the trip has transcended their existence and become a journey for many lifetimes. And I think it has secretly instilled in each one of us Daftarys a dream to take off one day on an incredible 100-day long road trip, to unseen lands and lifelong friendships.
Appeared in the January 2016 issue as “The Journey of Many Lifetimes”.