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A Local Life: Raj Krishna

A Career of Internationalism And a Passion for a Homeland

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page C12

When Raj Krishna brought his family to Washington in 1969, people from India were a rare sight. There was just one Indian restaurant and a single Indian-goods store.

"When you'd see a South Asian face," said his wife, Darshan Krishna, "you'd stop and talk."

Raj Krishna, center, with his brother and sister in India. He lived in Bethesda for decades and traveled widely in his job with the World Bank but returned to India when he could. (Family Photo)

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Krishna had come to Washington as a lawyer with the World Bank, where he would eventually be chief counsel of the South Asia Division and, by the time he retired in 1995, legal adviser to the bank's International Trade Law Unit.

He sometimes spent more than 200 nights a year away from his family in Bethesda as he traveled from Afghanistan to Korea to Morocco to Cameroon. Yet no matter how far he journeyed, Krishna always remained a proud, if unofficial, ambassador of India. He kept his Indian passport and eagerly introduced newcomers to the food, literature, art and history of his homeland.

"Even in slicing a mango," recalled his daughter Anamika, "he would get into a discussion about which region of India had the best mangoes."

His most lasting contribution to extending the reach of his culture may have been India School, which he founded with his wife in 1973. When it opened, it became one of the first gathering places for Indians in Washington. The school's weekly courses, now conducted at a middle school in Bethesda, have educated more than 3,000 people in Indian languages, music and dance. Most have been the children of Indians living in Washington, but some have been Americans interested in the life and culture of the Indian subcontinent.

Darshan Krishna, who teaches Hindi at Johns Hopkins University, directs India School, and her husband was its leading advocate. He edited a quarterly publication, Highlights, that evolved into a glossy magazine with scholarly articles on Indian art and culture. He wrote some articles himself and, in 1991, edited a book on the history of Calcutta.

Krishna had a deep knowledge of the history, architecture and literature of the West -- "he was very worldly, very cosmopolitan," his daughter said -- but he was happiest when he could return to the sounds, scents and land of his youth.

"He always looked forward to his visits to India very much," his wife said. "It made him happy to touch that soil. He had always told me that he wanted to die there."

On Jan. 1, while passing through Bombay on his way to an extended visit in New Delhi, Krishna did, in fact, have a heart attack and die in his native land. He was 71.

He was an authority in such arcane fields as border disputes, de facto governments and laws governing rivers and waterways. Although he had been retired nearly 10 years, he continued to consult for the World Bank because his expertise included several countries now at the center of conflict: Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. He looked on in sorrow when disorder uprooted happy memories of places that had once seemed enchanted.

"I think it broke his heart," his wife said, "to see that the whole Afghan effort had come to nothing."

Krishna believed in negotiation, reconciliation and understanding, qualities he learned while growing up in Lucknow, a northern city known for its classical Indian culture and for its relatively smooth blending of Hindu and Islamic traditions. Krishna spoke Hindi at home with his family but was also fluent in Urdu, the language of the Muslim population.

"It made him a secularist to his core," his wife said.

He also was strongly affected by the peaceful revolution of Mohandas K. Gandhi, as India overthrew British colonial rule in 1947 when he was a boy.

"In the last few months," his wife said, "he was collecting material about Gandhi -- letters and photos." He had hoped to develop a program for schools showing the influence of Gandhi's ideas on Martin Luther King Jr.

Krishna had spent years in academia, first in India, where he received bachelor's and master's degrees in law and taught at several universities. He received a doctorate in law from the Australian National University before joining the World Bank.

He met his wife in 1959, when they were both on the faculty of the prestigious University of Delhi. They were of different religions -- he was a Hindu, she a Sikh -- and when they married in 1960, they defied the Indian tradition of arranged engagements by having a "love marriage."

Their school continues to thrive, with more than 200 students. The Krishnas' three daughters all studied at India School, and now their grandchildren are starting classes.

Before Raj Krishna left on his final trip, which was to last more than three months, his daughter asked him to stay, saying, "Papa, you have been here for half your life."

"You know, Anamika, India is my home," he replied. "I must go."

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