It’s a sleepy village in India, but they believe a US president was born here

Author: By Peter Popham in Delhi

Carterpuri is in the thick of things. When President Bill Clinton arrives in Delhi later this month, he will pass within a few miles of this village named after Jimmy Carter, the last American president to visit India. Delhi’s airport is just down the road.

But Mr Clinton is highly unlikely to call in. There is, frankly, little to see. One’s first sight of Carterpuri is of a mud hut with a thatched roof, bulging with cakes of cow dung and straw, used for fuel.

Jimmy Carter passed this way in January 1978. What brought him to what was then called Daulatpur-Nasirabad here was the fact that his mother, Lillian Gordy Carter, had become friendly with the local lambardar, or headman, while she was working in India as a missionary and had been a frequent guest at his home.

These were not quite the Irish roots beloved of American presidents, but they were the next best thing. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter duly came to call, stayed an hour, presented the village with its first television set, visited the home where Lillian had stayed (it was in ruins – the Muslim landlord had fled to Pakistan in 1947), and tramped the goat tracks that pass for roads. Rosalynn was dressed up in the local costume, and they even ate some locally made bread.

They did not stay to plant a memorial peanut bush. But the legend sprang up, as these things do, that Mr Carter was born in the village. Daulatpur-Nasirabad became Carterpuri in his memory, and 3 January, the day of the presidential visit, became a village holiday.

The holiday is marked no more, and the haveli (mansion) where Lillian Carter stayed is even more ruinous than when they visited. Even in ruins, though, it is the only building in Carterpuri on which the eye cares to linger. From the big, ornate entrance and the ogee arches of the windows comes a whiff of the Mogul empire.

The village postmaster, Kartar Singh, seats us in the front yard of his neat pebbledashed house and hands around his collection of laminated photographs of the Carters and letters from the White House.

“It was all farming land back then,” says Kartar Singh, pointing back towards the main road. “Now there’s a factory near by, and the workers rent places here. Everything’s changed since those days. We’ve got a high school as well as a primary school, a bank, drainage, electricity, telephone lines.”

As often in India, first impressions deceive. The water buffaloes, the narrow rocky pathways and the piles of dung cakes do not tell the whole story. But while we are scouting out the neighbourhood from the roof of the ruin where Jimmy Carter may or may not have been born, we get a different view.

A cross-looking older man in shirt and tie buttonholes me, speaking in English. “No progress in Carterpuri,” he insists. “Look.” No more than a mile away, beyond the main road, is a development of apartment blocks that would not be out of place in Europe. “Progress in private colonies. Poor man is no progress.” He points over the rooftops. “This side, this side, water available. Carterpuri, no drinking water. It is not a model village.”

Both sides have a point. But Carterpuri’s development, like that of much of rural India, is the old, lumbering style of slow incremental change. All around, as the angry man indicated, greater Delhi is undergoing the radical makeover that accompanies soaring land prices, lifestyle aspirations, and a middle class on the move. Carterpuri, for all its improvements, starts to look like old India, the way state television looks alongside Rupert Murdoch’s Star channel, or the way an old diesel Ambassador looks parked next to a made-in-IndiaDaewoo Matiz.

“Don’t listen to him,” says Atar Singh, the postmaster’s brother, as he guides us over a stream that has formed where a pipe burst, “he’s mentally defective. Carterpuri has water, electricity, bus service, sewer available, road available. Every man has his problem.” They are the two ways of looking at village India: content with one’s (slowly improving) lot; or seething with envy.

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