A Connecticut Yankee in India
By SUNIL SETHI
Reprinted from the September/October 1998 issue of SPAN
Fabindia, the business the late John L. Bissell built, set trends
in the textile trade. But it was for
different reasons the transplanted American was so highly esteemed by associates.
A friend recalls
the man and
With their antennae permanently positioned to lure the passing customer, retailers tend to be the most sensitive denizens of the marketplace. Everything affects them—bad weather, rent laws, shrinking wallets or a depressed economy. But there are some shops that acquire an immunity to these and allied bazaar disorders. One such exception is Fabindia—drop in on any slow-selling summer afternoon and its showrooms are a buzzing hive of activity. John L. Bissell, the man who started Fabindia as a small enterprise 38 years ago and turned it into a household word representing good taste at affordable prices, was an exceptional man himself.
He was a highly individual American who brought New World merchandising to Old World handlooms, and succeeded in striking the precise balance between commercial profit and social commitment. He left the world of Seventh Avenue retail to make India his home but carried with him the lingering spirit of American liberalism that staunchly defends the virtues of honesty, self reliance and respect for the dissenting voice. In this he remained, as his banker friend Peter Jeffreys put it, “the quintessential Connecticut Yankee...captivated but not deceived by India.... His observant eye and critical tongue were not the least of the innumerable contributions he made to India.” Together with his wife, Bimla Nanda, John struck a talent for friendship and hospitality that placed the Bissells at the heart of political, social and diplomatic Delhi for 40 years. A more consistently successful, influential and enjoyable Indo-American partnership can scarcely be imagined.
When Bissell died in March, aged 66, after a long, valiantly-borne illness, John Burns, The New York Times’ South Asia correspondent, sent a couple of personal dispatches to his managing editor, Joe Lelyveld: “...I went to a memorial gathering for John Bissell this evening, along with le tout Delhi. Ministers, top bureaucrats, academics, artists, industrialists, writers, journalists, philanthropists, ambassadors, friends; all were there, about 300 people gathered under a shamiana in the drizzling rain that El Nino has brought to north India this year.” I.K. Gujral, then prime minister, was politely requested not to come lest his security disturb others; but M.S. Gill, the chief election commissioner, was there, reported Burns, “fresh from shepherding 330 million souls into his polling booths....”
Unknown aspects of Bissell came to light that evening, as family and friends took turns to remember him; most moving of all was a tribute read out in an emotion-choked voice by Arun Shourie, the writer and member of Parliament, on behalf of Mita Nandy, the moving spirit behind the Spastics Society, herself too ill to attend the memorial. “I met John 19 years ago,” she wrote, “when we started the Spastics Society in rented premises without the money to pay the first month’s rent.... He not only gave us all that we asked for continuously but also, unsolicited, gave us very large donations which helped to pay our salary bills. There was such dignity in John’s giving. He was a shy giver, he did not want to be thanked.”
Strong impulses, freak occurrences and unshakable convictions shaped the life of this lanky New Englander, with his slight stoop, air of quizzical concentration and donnish wardrobe composed entirely, it seemed, of crumpled kurtas and worn trousers. Professor Bissell, you were most likely to assume. But suddenly the gruff voice and taciturn manner—for he was hopeless at small talk—would dissolve into loud guffaws at a ribald joke retold with a string of expletives (“John, John!” Bim would remonstrate, and ever the decorous Punjabi matron, color deeply to the roots of her hair).
Bissell came, though he would be appalled in any way to show it, from a wealthy, well-connected family. His great-grandfather had presided over the fortunes of one of the great Midwestern railroads, and from that came his endless love of train travel. His grandfather was president of the Hartford Fire & Life Insurance Company, in the insurance town of Hartford, Connecticut, who later bought and lived in Mark Twain’s house. That gave Bissell the confidence to handle money responsibly and the feeling for spacious, comfortable homes. And his father, later an editor at Newsweekmagazine, who had traveled to India after World War II, fired his son’s imagination about the subcontinent. Young Bissell went to an exclusive prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, later to Yale, and spent two years in the U.S. Navy in Korea.
Bissell’s work ethic was essentially founded on the belief that successful merchandising must benefit the producer and consumer equally. As a middleman he saw his role as that of catalyst, not as percentage man or empire builder. The first inkling he had that he liked selling was during a coast-to-coast trip during college, which he financed by selling Isamu Noguchi lamps. After Korea, he went to work for a fabric importer in New York who had landed the contract to supply costumes for the film “Anna and the King of Siam.”John found Indian fabrics attractive but wondered why they never got what they ordered.
Soon afterward came his chance to find out why. He was training at Macy’s when its president, Martin Uzzi, received a request from the Indian government for an American professional who would help design and market Indian textiles for export on a Ford Foundation grant. Uzzi put up his son’s name but at the last minute the fellow backed out. Bissell was asked if he was interested and he said he could leave the next day. He landed in Delhi on August 15, 1958; on his first working day at the Cottage Industries Emporium he met the young woman who had been asked to vacate her office for him. She had just returned from America, after taking a degree in education, following the breakdown of her first marriage. L.C. Jain, till recently India’s ambassador to South Africa, was her boss and felt sorry about asking her to give up her room. “Don’t worry, Bim, he’s a Yank. Won’t last more than three months.”
Remarriage, says Bim Nanda, was not on her mind but Bissell courted her so assiduously for five years that she finally relented. “He would send me a rose and a note every morning. He waited and waited and wouldn’t take no for an answer.” By this time, she was working as social secretary to Chester Bowles, the U.S. Ambassador. Richard Celeste, the present U.S. Ambassador, was Bowles’ personal assistant. Celeste remembers “a lanky American lurking in Bim’s shadow who danced the jitterbug terrifically.” Celeste attended their wedding in 1963 and the Nanda-Bissells, he says, became “my surrogate family.” Bissell himself, typically, summed up the turning point of his life more succinctly: “I’m the guy who struck lucky twice,” he would tell friends, “I got the job first—then I got the girl.”
But it was India, their Indian family and Indian enthusiasms that held them together. Only once during his years in his adopted country, did he ever express the desire to return to America. “His parents were ill and he wanted to take a sabbatical year in 1984 but we compromised. Instead of two trips a year, he made three,” says Bim. Monsoon Bissell, his daughter, says that her father’s greatest contribution to her life was that he never made her feel “culturally divided...his essential Americanness, whatever that is, remained. For 17 years he took Hindi lessons but never mastered the language. The simple reason was that he was too interested in masterji’s everyday life for the lessons to matter.”
In the summer of 1993, while driving home in Connecticut, his wife beside him, Bissell suffered a massive stroke. At first he could neither speak, see, swallow nor walk but as soon as he could communicate he wanted to return to India. Very slowly he taught himself to eat and read and write again; he would go to Fabindia each morning in his wheelchair and got a special Trax vehicle made that enabled him to travel. Once he demanded to go to Lucknow and, on arrival, was taken to several weavers’ villages outside the city. At one such village, the weavers wanted to know who he was and what he was doing there. On being introduced as the man from Fabindia, some of the weavers echoed the name. “Fabindia?” they said, “you mean, the kurta people from Delhi?” Meena Chowdhury, his oldest associate at Fabindia, says that it was his favorite story during his last days.
Richard Celeste places John Bissell’s life in a wider context when he says that he was a spiritual child of Thoreau’s New England who discovered himself in a Gandhian setting. “It’s hard for me to imagine that a couple like them will ever exist again,” he says.