Tag Archives: sundas

The Peace Corps—Bringing Hope to the Downtrodden

 Glendora Press – December 24, 1969

The Peace Corps—Bringing Hope to the Downtrodden


(It’s time to wrap up this series on India and the Peace Corps, and it has been sug­gested that I do so by writing of what some of my friends and I did as volunteers. I hes­itate to do this because talk­ing about oneself is often in­terpreted as a bit of braggadoncio or the accomplishments may be belittled as insignifi­cant. The writer cannot win. He can never clearly explain what, or all, of what his friends and he did or what such experiences did to them.

I’m grateful to Mr. Lloyd for having given me the chance to share a few experi­ences with the readers. These experiences are an important part of what any PCV does or has done to him.)

The first time I met Dr. Sabnis, Labor Welfare Com­missioner for the state of Ma­harashtra and my Indian su­pervisor, if I had one, he stressed the importance of buying some Gandhi kadi cloth work clothes.

We bought the sheer, white, pajama-like shirt and trouser, and I have worn it thrice since, twice in the states. Dur­ing that meeting he explained that he had asked Peace Corps for a man good at ath­letics who might coach. Aside from that he was not sure what I should or could do.

Coaching was alright with me, but I did not want to spend most of my time learn­ing Indian sports on which I would try to add better tech­niques and instill a better spirit. The problem of the crowded slum I lived in were not those a good athletic pro­gram would alleviate. So be­fore the Doctor could start stuffing games down my throat, I started looking for a different kind of Involvement.

Not m u c h involvement clicked for what then seemed like a long time. The only reg­ular clicking, which took up a great deal of effort and time, was caused by the pull chain -of the flush toilet I used so of­ten those first six months.

The condition of the sundas graphically portrayed the way I felt, particularly during those first half-dozen months. Physically I was run down, sick, underweight and the frustrations of finding little satisfying work made my mind feel like it was overflow­ing with wastes.

Sundas in India means toi­let. My sundas’ walls were filled with hundreds of crawl­ing cockroaches but compared to the public sundas mine was in regal condition. Cockroach­es, however, were not present in the public sundas. I guess even cockroaches were not strong enough for it.

The squatting urinals were at the end of the room and, in one way or another, were al­ways filled. Filled, if not with people, always with excre­ment. Both holes, about 18 inches deep before entering into the piping system, were overflowing its contents onto the floor.

I never became native enough to use these squatting urinals. For me, it took same effort just to walk into the horde of flies and stench which the place aired. Though many Indians used the place (humans can get accustomed to most things, I guess), many did not. Instead, they would use the walls, alley­ways, etc., and public observance was no hinderance to natural undertakings. Later I would, with mixed success, try to change this situation.

During those first months, I scrambled to get a sense of direction for the months to come and to familiarize my­self with the employees of the center where I worked and lived, and with the people of the surrounding chawls. I quickly shed twenty pounds, of the thirty I’d shed during my whole stay, during those first three months.

The stomach situation got better when two Peace Corps volunteer girls were found liv­ing across the street. They got me to eat at the better estab­lishments, but we all started realizing that our budgets would not hold out by eating at grade one restaurants.

They initiated the search for an Indian cook, whose salary Peace Corps would pay, and found a mother of five from the chawls. Peace Corps required a physical check of all hired cooks, and this check found Shakila filled with amoebic and bacillary dy­sentery along with something more serious like a high TB (tuberculin) count, though I cannot remember for certain if that were it.

Peace Corps gave her some medication and by the third month we had a cook, and I loved it. Beef, since the Hin­dus won’t eat it, was very cheap in the chawl market. Of course, with rats, flies, roach­es, dirty hands and dirty breath permeating the open air market, the quality was not the best. And, of course, at first Shakila would not pur­chase the beef for us. She would, however, in the priva­cy of the girls’ room, cook it.

Our diet consisted of rice and chowpatties for lunch, and either stew, or separate portions of beef, vegetable, and potatoes, for dinner. I gorged myself and burned up the energy. The girls, at first, gorged themselves, but since they were not burning it up, it started to show. In the end, I gorged, and the girls ate like they did not want it to show.

I threw myself into any ac­tivity which I thought might keep my mind off my physi­cal and living condition. In the mornings I had two or three young kids come to learn English. The truth was probably that they were com­ing to improve my Hindi and teach me Marathi, but, for my ego, let’s say I tried to teach them English.

Soon the three grew to many, for in running around the city I had found that USIS had some simple reading books for youngsters and this helped enlarge my English class. I still had my special 2 tutors and favorite kids come early, but by 8:30 am, I often had about 20 kids sitting around a little reading table listening and trying to read stories.

My cubicle of a room was next to a large conference room that Dr. Sabnis used to host government dignitaries. Outside of it there was a slop­ing balcony of 25-ft. by 5-ft. This is where we had our reading classes. The confer­ence room is where, I sug­gested to Dr. Sabnis, we should stock a library. He said there would not he enough interest in it and that he needed the room for his meetings. Well, I did not press the subject, but the crowd of kids the Doctor saw each morning pressed it for me.

By my fourth month, the Doctor would be convinced that the library would be a good idea. Perhaps it was partially a political gesture; he might have wanted to im­press the dignitaries with his sacrifice of a room to further the cause of his needy mas­ses. Whatever the reason, it was a step in the right direc­tion.

I stressed that an Indian should run the library and establish his own system over it. I did not want to he a head librarian and making it their show was what we were sup­posed to be trying to do.

Doing it their way meant that the cabinets to most of the books were locked. Unfor­tunately, most Indians, suffer­ing from some form of inferi­ority complex, will not ask for a book just as they will not ask for a change in the sys­tem. If it is the system, it is assumed to be right. I men­tioned this to Dr. Sabnis, and he replied that many of the books were valuable, were his in other words, and would be issued on request to those who could be trusted to use them properly. For instance, I was one the books could be trusted to.

These books were not the el­emental reading that was needed by these people, and this kind of explanation furthered my belief that show was part of the reason the library was to exist. It was not a completely bad situation though. At the least, it got people out of the crowded chawls and into a room where they could read in relative quiet, and I stocked the open shelves with books and maga­zines from the American, Bri­tish, and Russian information centers. USIS (United States Information Services) had a great deal of books and magazines that they were not worried about having returned. I showed the librarian how to get more of these and im­pressed the philosophy of use on him. He figured I was some kind of bera shab (im­portant person) and therefore followed my instructions.

An extension to the library was the movie project. I start­ed the movie scheme by showing a couple hours of movies for a couple of weeks in a row. That soon shifted to having an Indian show these. Then I was told by Dr. Sabnis that the center had a projec­tionist who had been assigned to such a scheme long ago.

The movie scheme, with 10 to 12 hours of movies shifted between three centers each week, worked well for the pe­riod that Dr. Sabnis and I kept on top of the situation.

Kids and adults were so starved for the wonders of film that a few minutes after the projector went on the grounds 400-500 people ap­peared. Even with the bad au­dio portion which was often the case, the cinematic expo­sure to the developments of the outside world was a tre­mendous education for them.

I also tried to contribute to the center’s athletic program. I played a few games: cubari–where the kids squat next to poles and zig-zag in and out of the long line of pegs escap­ing the opponents tag; and whip-lash-tag-and-tackle-the-last-guy-game. I figured they did not really need me to play those games often. The game I decided to get involved in was much closer to my heart. I decided to rebuild the dilapi­dated basketball courts that existed outside my window.