Escape from India

Janek was sent to India, for the second time, in 1968. The first time was as Commercial Counselor with the Polish Embassy, from 1956 to 1960. This time he was there as Westinghouse International's vice-president for India, Burma, Nepal & (as it was then) Ceylon. He ran a small office, with a secretary and a couple of staff, and spent a great deal of time on the road, visiting various Westinghouse offices and projects around the subcontinent. This Westinghouse was not the one that people associate with toasters and air conditioners - it was the heavy industry branch of the company. They built hydroelectric generators and desalinization plants and when we traveled as a family, we seemed to stop to visit an inordinate number of dams.

Life in India the second time was good. We started off living in a luxury hotel - the Oberoi Intercontinental, with a fabulous pool where Jan loved to swim and befriended many other expats and the airline crews who were always passing through. In late fall, Janek and Wanda moved into a gorgeous white mansion at 4A Maharani Bagh in a brand new development on the southern outskirts of the city. There were a living room, a dining room, two smaller rooms (each with its own
bathroom) which became his and her studies, a kitchen with a walk-in pantry, a small "powder room" for guests off a huge centre hall with a curved wrought iron staircase leading to three bedrooms, each also with its own bathroom - six bathrooms in all, for two people. White marble floors throughout. A veranda that ran the length of the house off the master bedroom, and below along the living room. And servant quarters above the garage. There was James the bearer (or butler), Cook the cook,  and a sweeper, a low-caste Indian who did all the nasty jobs James and Cook refused to do because of their status. In addition, there was the mali, or gardener, who came every few days; as did the dhobi, or laundry man, and a night watchman who stood guard from sunset to sunrise. There were two cars – an Australian  white Ford Fairlane sedan and an Indian-made Ambassador car, both of which were luxuries in a country where the waiting list for an automobile for the average person was seven years. And, of course, a driver to negotiate Delhi's chaotic traffic of cars, overloaded buses, horse carts, three-wheeled scooter taxis, dogs, cows, pedestrians, none of whom seemed to register that there were such things as rules of the road.I left Delhi in June 1969, after finishing high school, and left Janek and Wanda to their six bathrooms, innumerable servants, and hectic social life of cocktails and dinner parties. They had a lot of friends, especially among the European and American diplomatic corps, as well as some old Indian friends from their first tour  with the Polish legation. Janek worked (including travel), Wanda played tennis and bridge. The "white" transient population in Delhi had enormous privilege and, in a caste society where status is determined by skin colour, was held in high esteem. It also didn’t hurt that US dollars went a long way in rupees.

The country was governed by the Congress Party, with founding father Jawarhalal  Nehru’s daughter Indira Ghandi as Prime Minister since 1966. Things were initially stable for the most part. Gandhi followed a leftist philosophy inherited from her socialist father, including a policy in 1969 of land reform, and ceilings on personal income, private property, and corporate profits. She also nationalized the major banks, which put her at odds with the rest of her party. There was growing nationalistic unrest in the Punjab, with a secession movement brewing. She went to war against Pakistan in 1971 (and won) and expelled 10 million Bangladeshi refugees.  These things made her popular with ordinary Indians but raised the ire of various special interest groups.Then things turned for the worse: there were crop failures in 1972 and 1973, and skyrocketing world oil prices. Mrs. Gandhi's rule was challenged by railroad employees’ strikes, a national civil disobedience campaign, an all-party, no-confidence motion in Parliament against her, and, finally, a legal judgment that declared her 1971 election win invalid and barred her from taking her seat for six years.


Janek signing an agreement for a new sugar refinery

Janek on an elephant hunt

Indira Ghandi

On June 25, 1975, Mrs. Gandhi declared a State of Emergency and the government suspended civil rights. She pushed through amendments to the constitution that exonerated her from any culpability, and jailed thousands of her opponents.

None of this had any immediate effect on Jan or his work. Until, that is,  she decided to expand her nationalization efforts to include all the foreign firms in India. Congress made it a condition of doing business in the country that a company would have to cede a 51% share to Mrs. Gandhi's government. Needless to say, this did not win her any friends among the international business community. One by one, international firms simply closed their offices and withdrew. Coca Cola was one – after that, you couldn’t get a Coke in India for at least a decade. When she realized her scheme had backfired, she decided on a bold move: take hostages.

She thought by sending American businessmen to jail, their home offices would hastily see things her way and hand over the controlling shares to win their employees' freedom. She miscalculated. Much to Janek's cost.

He was arrested on trumped up charges of "corruption" - there may indeed have been a few bribes involved, but that was the cost of doing business in a very corrupt country. There was even an article in the national slander sheet, Blitz, accusing him of paying out millions. As if. He was taken from the mansion in Maharani Bagh to Tihar Prison. I don't know the details of the story: was he handcuffed? Was he allowed to call a lawyer? All I do know is he spent a miserable night in a cell. Typical of Janek, even that turned into a great story. In the cell next door was Charles Sobhraj,a notorious French-Vietnamese jewel thief and serial killer who was in Tihar for the poisoning death one of his robbery victims. Janek realized Sobhraj was living well on the inside - he had personal servants and food brought in from outside. What he didn't know at the time was that Sobhraj had smuggled jewels into the prison and used them to attain rajah status among the inmates.

Janek’s stay in Delhi’s underworld was brief, but there was more to follow. And it was a shock: Westinghouse flat out abandoned him. Their response to Mrs. Gandhi was essentially: “Do whatever you want. He doesn’t work for us.” And while the “legal” proceedings were underway –presumably there was to be a trial – Janek was forbidden to leave India. He would have needed an exit visa, which was denied.

He was not the only one in this situation. The head of Goodyear suffered a similar fate. And  was the oppressive atmosphere in Delhi that his Indian friends stopped taking his calls. I can only imagine Wanda’s response to all this, given her history in German-occupied Poland and her days under Stalinism. Somehow, entirely to his credit, he managed to persuade the authorities to let her go. Oh, and take all their belongings with her. As soon as possible, she left for Virginia, where Adam and Lucy had settled.

Janek was stuck in India alone indefinitely. But he was not without his resources. Among their American friends was a couple named Arthur and Jean Reppun. They worked for Pan American airlines in Delhi. Jean, I think, was Australian (one of them was). Through them, Janek contacted Julek. And asked to borrow his passport.

Julek later told me that the Djament brothers spent a lot of time saving Janek’s ass when they were growing up. But as soon as the request came in, Julek was there for his younger brother. He “lost” his passport, which in fact he handed over to Jean to smuggle back to India. And to make Janek’s Ozziness more convincing, he sent along a traditional khaki bush hat.

Janek thought he and Julek looked sufficiently alike – balding, blue-eyed, only two years apart in age – that he took the chance of passing himself off as his own brother. He boarded a bus in Delhi and spent about two horrifying bumpy and noisy days travelling through the Punjab, probably passing through the Sikh holy city of Amritsar (where Mrs. Gandhi didn’t have many friends) and crossing the border into Pakistan. Julek’s passport, and the hat that partially obscured his face worked like a charm; no one at the border post thought to wonder why a 62-year-old white man was riding the people’s express, and they waved him through.

From there, he went to Lahore, which is a major Pakistani city and caught a plane. He was gone. Never to return.

Back in New York, he needed to settle his affairs. Westinghouse reached a deal with him: let’s call it an early retirement, shall we? He didn’t have much choice. He could have launched a lawsuit against the company for abandoning him in such an ignoble way. But he wasn’t young, and he certainly did not have deep enough pockets to go against their lawyers. So he accepted a pension and signed all the papers. And then went down to the D.C. area to join his beloved Wanda. They bought a house in Fairfax, Virginia, and lived there for more than twenty years, during which time he was mostly depressed and certainly soured on the idea of American corporate loyalty.Janek had proven once again that he was an escape artist: he had escaped Hitler, he had escaped Stalin, and now he had escaped Indira Gandhi.
                                                                                                   — as remembered by Eve