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The Dignity of Ancient Culture

THE eucalyptus near my northern California home fills the air with invigorating freshness. The scent sparks memories of my days in Ooty, once a British preserve on India's Blue Mountains. This queen of hill stations was a spectacle of English style, complete with topiary hedges, daffodils, and dog shows, even boasting a central plaza named Charing Cross. I moved there with my family shortly after India's independence. Though the country had returned to our hands, it was I who felt the immigrant. Even the eucalyptus that had become synonymous with the region had been imported by the British from Australia, another of its many former possessions.

The pretty cottage we bought from a British couple was the first on the mountain to receive an Indian name. Girija, we called it - ``mountain standing'' - and we soon attracted the notice of our neighbors.

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The Blue Mountains, or Nilgiris as they were called, were home to large tea estates run by British planters with the help of South Indian workers. Our neighbor was one of those planters, in charge of a thriving estate that supplied a busy tea factory. He lived with his wife in a spacious bungalow and used to invite me for dinner on Saturday nights.

We became quite close, but there were barriers between us - I imagine in some ways like it has been between United States soldiers and some of the people in the Persian Gulf. The British had assumed the role of the powerful foreigner and we the dependent nation. Their success had conditioned them to think less of us in ways that could not be overcome by even the best of intentions. Too often had I witnessed the ease with which sensitive Brits arriving in the subcontinent had grad ually lost their sense of equality and fellow feeling.

My mother once summed up the situation in a good-natured exchange with one of my friends. In the midst of a conversation with me as interpreter, my friend asked her why she had never learned to speak English.

``Tell your friend this,'' she turned to me with a mischievous smile. ``When I come to his country, I will learn English. Now that he is in mine, ask him to learn Malayalam.''

Though they were in our country as residents, few British had troubled to explore our culture.

My neighbors had a beautiful garden, and I was introduced to all the flowers by my hostess, who took a special pride in each one. The blossoms had been mentioned by Shakespeare, and even though I was an ardent student of his plays, it was the first time I had set eyes on them. From there we went to the spacious drawing room which also served as a library. Though the shelves were lined with books about India, I could not find a single title by a native author.

The dining room was rather Victorian with Sheffield cutlery and Wedgewood china carefully arranged on embroidered tablecloths. There were about a dozen of us at this dinner gathering, retired Army officers and planters with their wives.

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Several colonels were talented raconteurs with keen powers of observation. Their anecdotes about our ancient customs drew exuberant laughter but lacked understanding of our ways. It was quite difficult for them to see the artistry of our large family celebrations, where invitees would sit on grass mats and eat food from nature's china - banana leaves.

They overlooked the beauty and the symmetry of borrowing plates from the forest and returning them to the environment in the form of food for our cows. The tradition was an act of respect for God's creation, as well as an economic measure.

The colonels' remarks that they had brought civilization to India only exhibited their lack of knowledge on the subject. Most had not even bothered to explore the great epics like the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, Kalidasa's poetry, or the writings of Bharavi. Ancient India had been the great superpower of its age, rich in culture and learning, agriculture, gold, and jewels.

Though my hostess told me I was free to dispute these men, I extended to them our chivalric custom, namak haram, by refusing to challenge those who had in goodwill invited me into their midst. Instead of bitter argument, I gently noted India's place in history and outlined some of her accomplishments in literature and science.

They listened with some appreciation and openness, and I believe most of them reflected upon my words.

To one guest who had commented that my unfamiliarity with waltzes meant there was no classical dance in South India, I explained about Bharat Natyam, a 3,000-year-old art of devotion and beauty. The name comes from bhava (feeling), raga (melody), and tala (rhythm).

The dinner was a great success and my host and hostess were gracious enough to say that they wanted to see more of me. I, too, had enjoyed their company. Personal contacts like these helped heal the wounds that inequality had caused over the years.

WHEN I left for the winter to resume my teaching job, my neighbor did something I can never forget. ``Don't worry about your mother and your sister,'' he said. ``I'll be here to take care of them.'' And he did.

The contacts the US has made in the Gulf can become an opportunity for understanding. A thousand years of Arab history, its literary and scientific tradition, have earned it a high place among the most civilized regions of the ancient world.

An honest interest in their achievements is an integral part of any peace process, one that on a human level would be more lasting than any politically negotiated accord.

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