An American nuclear physicist’s love for India

The family of Arthur Herrington, American scientist and strategist analyst, who passed away recently at the age of 87, visited India in April to ring in the Tamil New year visiting various temples in Bangalore. His daughters Eldrid and Edith Herrington speak about their family’s deep connect to India and to Veena player Vijaya Krishnamurthy whom Herrington cherished as his third daughter

Arthur Herrington’s daughter Dr Eldrid Herrington, Senior Fellow in Medicine at the University of London and a member of St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford, in History and Literature, wrote in her tribute to her father in the Daily Telegraph this January:

“Arthur Herrington joined the US defence department in 1965 to find that it had no complete inventory of nuclear arsenal. As Director of Nuclear Weapons he developed a full picture of the stockpile and advised that $ 500 million of weapons be scrapped. In an era of gung-ho naivety he became a bridge between scientists and politicians, educating decision makers about the life and death implications of nuclear science.

He developed MIT’s first graduate programme in Political Science, with a focus on the effectiveness of defence and intelligence. He was hired by the government for his unusual combination of scientific and strategic acumen. Without him the Johnson Nixon and Carter years may have been even more volatile than they were.”

Arthur Herrington was a man of many interests. He went to MIT for undergraduate and postgraduate studies, then worked for Standard Oil of Indiana, the Atomic Energy Commission, MIT, the MITRE Corporation, and finally the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, from 1965 to 1980, in various roles – from 1970 to 1980 as a consultant. After that time he started and stopped a couple of companies – one designing and building boats and the other in commercial real estate.

The family’s relationship with India began with their grandfather- Arthur William Sidney Herrington. Eldrid narrates the story. “The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and America entered the war. In March 1942, Roosevelt knew that Churchill was sending Sir Stafford Cripps to India to discuss Indian “independence” and India’s participation in the war effort. He sent his own envoy to counter the Cripps Mission, Louis A. Johnson, who had been his Undersecretary of War. Louis brought my grandfather, whose company, Marmon-Herrington, had been making tanks and trucks prior to the war and for Lend-Lease.

Arthur Herrington in India in 2006

“Louis and my grandfather befriended Nehru and my grandfather in particular had great sympathy with the Indian industrialists he met, all of whose efforts had been stymied by the European preferences scheme: GD Birla, Walchand Hirachand, Tata, JC Mahindra, and, I believe, Visvesvaraya. Louis’s and my grandfather’s sympathies for Congress and for these Indian industrialists infuriated Churchill to such a great extent that he and Roosevelt had the greatest fight of their relationship. We know what happened next: Quit India.”

Eldrid has in her possession the gifts that Nehru bought for her grandmother – ‘a shawl of some of the finest handiwork ever known’, as well as a photograph inscribed by Nehru to her grandfather.

The shawl gifted by Nehru to Arthur’s mother

For Arthur himself, his love for India came with veena player Vijaya Krishnamurthy, whom he called his third daughter, along with Eldrid and Edith. Arthur was very close to Vijaya’s family and visited India to attend her nephew’s wedding. Both Edith and Eldrid have visited India several times.

Vijaya moved from Wisconsin to Maryland around September of 1992 to teach Computer Science at the local college in Montgomery County. She taught during the day and in the evening sat in Arthur’s C++ programming class.

“He was sitting across from my table and as usual I started chatting like I do with strangers. One thing lead to another and soon we went out for dinner and I was invited home for Thanksgiving in November 1992. After that I went for Christmas and then never stopped. From day one he treated me as his third daughter. We argued and cooked and talked about all topics in the world,” says Vijaya.

Her parents Alamelammal and Krishnamurthy who had visited USA from India had just returned in October 1992 back to Bangalore. They thoroughly enjoyed their visit to US but could not come back on another visit to US. Vijaya’s friendship with Arthur blossomed and in the next many years he had mastered Indian cooking and his kitchen was well equipped with all Indian spices.

Arthur with Vijaya’s father

“Art was part of my life like I was for him. He was very generous to include me throughout every event that happened after 1992. I truly feel lucky to have him as an additional American parent in addition to my loving parents. I come from  traditional Iyer family and it is amazing that everyone from the Herrington family followed all Iyer rituals when they visit India. Even recently when Art passed away on Dec 31st the Shubam for him was done as per Indian rituals on January 12, 2019.”

Vijaya introduced them to a lot of Indian customs and practices. Eldrid is a vegetarian and this dismayed Arthur, who grew up during the Depression. “He grew up during the Great Depression. He felt that no one should refuse any kind of food. I do not find that lifestyle healthy, sustainable, or ethical. He tolerated my vegetarianism because he accepted Vijaya’s vegetarianism, which he realized predated the Great Depression by several thousand years,” she says.

Her engagement with things Indian is not a dabbling kind. Eldrid loves and practices Yoga, but believes that its spiritual and cultural practice is less understood in the ‘west’. “When Vijaya’s parents were alive, I did namaskar to them. They are no longer here; so I do namaskar to their images. Vijaya showed me a form of yoga which functions as prayer.”

She loves listening to Vijaya play the Veena, and through her was introduced to Bangalore based Vainika Dr Suma Sudhindra. She also loves the music of the legendary Veena player Chitti Babu.

Arthur with his three daughters

There are parallels between her love for classical music and architecture, both Indian and Western. “This is how I think about my introduction to Indian music, having grown up with “classical” music. I grew up loving cathedrals and knew the stonemasons who created the National Cathedral in Washington DC. I went to many churches and cathedrals across Europe, spanning a wide variety of styles. Vijaya took me to Hoysala temples in Karnataka, with stonework so fine and strong that thin strings are suspended from their player’s fingers by the width of a reed. I had never seen anything so beautiful. I feel a bit that way about Indian music. It is ancient and complex and seems to have incorporated in its origin musical aspects only latterly embodied in jazz and compositions by Schoenberg and Webern.”

Edith Herrington lives across the Potomac River from Arthur Herrington’s house (South), in Northern Virginia (outside of Washington, D.C.) on her husband’s family farm. She visited India almost 20 years ago and says she shares her father love for travel. On her first impression about India, she says, “Viji’s family was so welcoming, the food was amazing, and that the traffic was crowded and would have scared me if I had tried to drive!

Edith says that having someone who knows the area, culture and language when traveling to other countries provides a deeper experience. “Staying with Viji’s family, I was allowed to see a home and the traditions of visiting/having visitors first hand. She and her family truly ‘rolled out the red carpet’. Hiring a car to take me to almost every temple within driving distance, going to see nature/animal preserves, even a bus ride with a group of people that allowed me to stop the entire group, just to take a picture of a haystack! (My husband does hay for his family’s farm and I was thrilled to see how it was done differently, if even for a moment.)”

Had Vijaya not invited her, Edith says she would have visited India anyway, but “more likely gotten the “tourist experience” up north, including the Taj. I have a whole “bucket list” of places to travel, and after my husband retires we will probably visit those locations!”

The love and respect that Vijaya’s family and the Herrington family share is very apparent to anyone seeing them together. Curious, I asked Edith if this very obvious kindness and graciousness is a cultural trait or something unique to their families.

Edith observes that her father was always bringing home strays – human or animal! “We have a tradition passed down from his parents, to share in our good fortune, provide shelter, and a comfortable place to stay for anyone who needs it. I carried that tradition along by bringing home from school people who didn’t have a place to celebrate the holidays. Sometimes my car was packed to the brim with people, and dad was always happy to have a crowded house.”

Edith is not sure whether this love for the athithi or guest is a global, regional, or cultural trait. “My first thought is that dad got it from his British family, but truly I think it is just what he would have called “good breeding” — just the right thing to do, the right way to be. If you have the food, the space, the ability to do so, why not get to know someone new over some good food and time together? I don’t have much space at my house, but I do what I can to house our many family members and friends when they are in town! I am not the consummate host that my dad was, but I try!”

One can’t help but think, Arthur’s daughters are so very Indian.

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