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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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December 2008 Archives

Small World

“If you fall in love with someone in Paris, then for the rest of your life, you will always know what time it is in Paris.�

I first read that sentence in Look Magazine, forty-some years ago, and I’ve thought of it often since. It’s a sweeter way of saying something that has become so familiar, it’s almost a cliché – the idea that international travel builds bridges across cultures and between people.

I’ve used that idea as a sort of mantra all my life, starting when I was a high-school exchange student. But I don’t think I ever felt it more keenly than I did at the end of November, when terrorists took over the heart of Mumbai.

I had been in India barely two weeks before, attending an academic conference on travel writing at Jadavpur University in Calcutta. I wasn’t in Mumbai, except to change planes in the middle of the night, and I didn’t fall in love in Calcutta. But the trip had given me a new connection with India, and that made the horrific news hit all the harder.

Images from the trip were still in my eyes – the sunlight blazing through the campus trees in the morning; streets so crowded, they felt like traffic jams in motion; the way people thronged the sidewalks and roadsides; how the white bulk of the Victoria Memorial shimmered at twilight. In other words, I now knew what time it was in India.

But the width of the country lies between Mumbai, on the west coast, and Calcutta, on the east, and that distance was reassuring. It let me believe that the people I’d met at the conference were far away and safe. That was, of course, denial: people move around in India the way they do here, and extended families are extended indeed.

When the siege was over, I emailed the professor who had organized the Calcutta conference and told her how sorry I was about the attacks. She emailed back immediately.

“It has been a harrowing time for us all,’’ she wrote. “One of our colleagues in the English Department saw her husband taken hostage for 48 hours in the Oberoi, and two of my cousin’s in-laws were shot dead at the Taj.’’

And suddenly India, with more than a billion people, seemed small and closely knit, and I was stunned at how close terrorism had come to people I knew.

What she wrote next made me remember that old Look Magazine quote, as well as the words of comfort we heard from around the globe after 9/11, and how small that globe has become:

“In times like these,’’ she said, bringing tears to my eyes, “we realize that the world is not made up of nations but of people, people who reach out to others like them who are in pain.’’