By: Peter Breyer
Half a century ago I embarked on a two-year journey to India. It was a cold afternoon at Idlewild Airport, New York, in December of 1965. I and fifty other Americans had arrived from communities throughout the United States. We were all looking forward to the journey of a lifetime. The plane took off. We touched down briefly in London, Frankfurt, Belgrade, and then a longer stopover in Beirut. Some of us ventured into the city through the gauntlet of vendors, cabbies, and hucksters, hoping to take advantage of the three-hour layover so we could say, “I was in the Middle East, in Beirut, can you believe?” Then on to Teheran and finally to Bombay, India. At dawn we touched ground. The air was so thick that it smelled. We walked into the terminal. Large, swirling fans hung fom the high, dirty ceiling above. Counters were piled high with stacks of papers. And dozens of officials scurried about. A thin, dark man in khaki pants approached our entourage. His shirt was frayed at the cuffs and collar. His face was pocked.
“What do you have to declare? Yes, that must be declared,” he said to one of us with a camera around her neck. “You must fill out this form,” he continued.
“What for?” she asked.
The official continued to smile, shaking his head from side to side. “This form you must complete,” he repeated.
Another came out of the rest room.
“Two foot-pads and a hole in the ground,” he said to a friend. “It’s just like what they said it would be.”
A horde of dark, skinny men came and loaded our trunks onto lorries. We boarded a bus. It would take us to our hotel in downtown Bombay, we were told. The bus began to move. Dawn wanted to turn to day, but the mist would not lift. I saw a man squatting by the road. His head was wrapped in a white cloth. His clothes looked like rags. The one man then became many, all squatting and defecating. The road was rutted and the bus bumped about. None of us talked; we only looked. We could not stop looking. We had seen the films, heard the lectures, and read the books. But nothing could have prepared us for that 45-minute ride to our hotel in Bombay. We saw what looked like the refuse of the earth before us. It was a different world. Not the slums of New York or the rural decay of Appalachia, but a level of impoverishment that hardly seemed human. And so began my journey with the American Peace Corps Volunteers of India Group 20-B.
Being one of the few volunteers who actually selected India after rejecting the Philippines, I arrived with a feeling that India was indeed a special place. As a philosophy major, I found its ancient Hindu religion, dating back to old Testament times, fascinating. I was also drawn to its music with its non-harmonic tones. And then, there was the Kama Sutra. Surely, a culture that produced that manual, must be worth visiting. But that was the India of books. The India I was about to live in was poor beyond description, and what better place to test my idealism? I would be part of the development of rural India, so I thought. I wanted to accomplish something meaningful before setting out in graduate study and a career.
The weather in Mysore State in southern India, where I was stationed, was relatively temperate compared to northern India. Beautiful sunny days, one after the other. Lush, green landscape. Rice paddies and eight-foot-high sugar cane made possible through a massive irrigation project built by the British during the 1930s. “I could live here the rest of my life,” was my initial reaction. A young man’s enthusiasm, which was soon tempered by endless routine and the frustration of attempting to relate to Indians as if they were like me. Stationed with a female nurse and another generalist like myself, our charge was to help build and educate our village in the use of latrines. It didn’t take me long to understand that the major barrier wasn’t language but something far greater—a different approach to living. Consequently much of my time in India was not work-related but coming to terms with an ancient culture so very different than my own.
One experience in particular stands out.
We all had our favorite attachment to things Indian—jewelry, pottery, wood carvings, etc. For me it was jewelry. I wanted a ring, a big fat one. One that looked distinctively Indian and not from an established jewelry store. I wanted to tell the folks back home afterward, “I had this ring made for me in India.” And they would oohh and aahh. I needed to find a local artisan to make it for me. I asked Ycounta Gowda, our best village friend, for advice. He suggested an artisan three villages west. It was a fine, bright morning when I set out to have my ring made. It was just like the morning before and before that.
I mounted my bike, a sturdy, one-speed model with lever brakes. The shallow water in the rice paddies glistened in the early morning sun. An occasional bullock cart on the road carrying small sticks of firewood and others with sugar cane passed me from the opposite direction. The large, wooden wheels of the carts turned slowly. I thought that the same carts were probably being used three and maybe even four thousand years before. One thin man with his head covered by a large, white cloth wrapped in turban style greeted me with a wave of his stick. There was a sameness to them all—thin, gaunt faces, sunken eyes, receding gums, and a week of stubble on their faces. Two young boys were pulling pieces of cane from the back of the bullock cart. They stared at me as I passed them. I thought I might be lost. I stopped and asked a small, barefoot boy walking behind some water buffaloes for directions. I waited until he finished gathering the dung just deposited by one of the buffalo onto the straw basket on his head. Cow dung seemed like one of the major products of rural India. Mixed with water and once hardened, it was like cement, and it could be used to glaze dirt floors. Fuel for cooking was another use. His white teeth shined and his large smile was infectious. He looked happy.
He reassured me that I was headed in the right direction. I continued to pedal. The grade steepened and I began to breathe harder. After losing some thirty pounds and down to 152 on my six-foot-two frame, I was a light load. But my strength wasn’t what it once was. We boiled our water and I ate gigantic portions of rice. But I, along with my fellow volunteers, was also supporting a host of parasites that continued to sap my strength and reduce my weight.
I reached the village and asked some children for directions. I walked my bike. It was a small village, perhaps seventy-five huts with thatched roofs and mud-brick walls spackled with cow dung. More children gathered around me. One led the way and two dozen more followed. They walked very close to me. I felt that they wanted to touch me but they were afraid. I continued to walk straight without acknowledging their presence. By now the children were routine. I wasn’t about to ogle them like a recently arrived volunteer I remembered, who dropped everything and tried to make a lifelong friend of every small child she encountered.
The lead boy stopped. He entered a hut before us. A young man came out. In my crude Kannada (language of the former Mysore State in southern India), supported with some sign language, I explained the purpose of my visit. I was told to wait. By now the crowd around me had grown to three dozen and no longer only children. In my headquarters village of Shivalli, with a thousand residents and a health center, I was a common sight. But in this small hamlet, I was a novelty.
An older man exited the low doorway. He wore the traditional lungi and a torn, weathered white shirt. Greeting me in the traditional manner—two folded hands together and a slight bow, “Namaste,” he sent the young man who greeted me away. I was invited into his hut. All the children were shooed away. He didn’t want his sudden importance shared with others. I took off my chappals, bent down, and entered. I sat cross-legged in a corner of his hut, always a difficult exercise for me. Despite its apparent smallness, I realized that there was more than one room. Several children and an older woman watched me from the cracked open doorway to the other room. Those giant eyes, always staring.
Many minutes passed. The young man who was ordered to leave suddenly reappeared with coffee. Served in a glass, it was the usual mix of one-third coffee, one-third milk, and one-third sugar. The older man sat opposite me. We drank together. He talked rapidly in Kannada and I did not understand. I sipped my coffee slowly. The man then showed me a large, silver coin. From his rapid speech and signs, I understood that he would heat the coin in the crude brick oven located in the corner of the hut, and he would fashion it into a ring. Somehow I was expecting something a little more elaborate. We discussed the price and engaged in the usual bargaining. Feeling self-conscious with everyone watching my every move, I nodded for him to begin, hoping that he would make the ring as quickly as possible. Paying in advance and coming back later was not a realistic option.
He made a fire in the brick oven with small sticks and dried dung. Holding the large coin with iron tongs, he heated it slightly and then began pounding it on a metal anvil. Although fascinated with the simplicity of his craft, I despaired at the length of time it would take. Sooner or later I would have to pee. And that time surely came. I politely excused myself, exited the hut, and walked behind it. I managed to pee in the squatting position, the normal procedure for men in rural India. I felt blessed that I had moved my bowels that morning, and my diarrhea had only been mild. I had been taking so much Paregoric, a foul-tasting anti-diarrhea medication, that I thought I might be addicted.
Upon returning to the inside of the hut, I realized that the silver coin was beginning to assume the shape of a long, thin cylinder. Time passed slowly and his family never tired of their incessant staring. I never got used to being viewed as an item for display. Toward noon his wife brought me some water, then large, dry leaves attached to one another for my plate. “No, not hungry,” I said. She shook her head and smiled, then disappeared. Moments later there was one hardboiled egg on my plate of leaves and a glass of water. Yes, I would have to drink the unboiled water. Eggs were a luxury in post-independent India. God knows where they got that one egg, and it was for me as their honored guest. I ate the egg as half a dozen hungry faces looked on. To refuse would have been the gravest of insults. Then a small ragi ball appeared on my plate of leaves, a locally grown dark grain, ground like flour and mixed with hot water. They were favored by the poor since an uncooked ball of dough would stay in the stomach for an entire day. It gave the sensation of being full. I forced it down little by little, all the time telling my hosts how delicious it was.
The most poignant memory of the day was the ceremony of me eating alone in front of hungry people. The young girls with their dirty hair and torn saris, the little boys with shorts and no shirt, and the mother of these young children, who already looked middle-aged. All were barefoot. And, through their poverty, they looked happy. How could people so lacking in everything that I took for granted be happy? There was a desire in me to reach out to them. To make their lives better. That’s why I and my fellow volunteers came to India. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that maybe they could teach me more than I could teach them.
My ring-maker asked for my hand and measured the finger I favored for the ring. The process was coming to a conclusion as two long, thin strips of silver were wrapped over a wooden dowel. The strips of silver were fused together in the shape of a ring, and then the two rings again fused, forming a double ring. It was large and ungainly. Not exactly what I had in mind. But I had a genuine Indian ring and that made me happy.
I returned home to America. I married, had a son, a career, a granddaughter, and a life. At some point I could no longer find my Indian ring. I became upset at the thought. It was like a treasure to me because of its authenticity. I had long tired of showing the ring off to my friends. They didn’t care about my ring or India despite my constant stories. But then I realized: The ring may be gone, but the memory of sitting in that hut and experiencing humanity at its most basic level will remain with me forever.