Tag Archives: Dr. Sabnis

Culture Shock Brought Need ‘To Get Away’

Glendora Press – December 28, 1969

 Culture Shock Brought Need ‘To Get Away’


In the process of rebuilding the dilapidated basketball courts outside my window, I found my most efficient Indi­an worker, the carpenter.

I already had a reputation as a carpenter, which may or may not have been good. Dur­ing those first months, I had built a closet for my room. I did this for two reasons: 1) I needed somewhere to hang my garb — and when the monsoon with its mildew producing tendencies arrived this would serve to hide my mildewing clothes; 2) it was another way to keep me from feeling sorry for myself and daydreaming. Indian nails, which bend on anything but a perfect hit, hammers, whose handles break, and other materials of similar quality caused reason #2 to be quashed under deeper frustration.

The office workers upstairs had heard of my project and daily came by to check on its results. In the process, they’d say, “Ah, Sir is a carpenter too, yes? “ The carpenter came up to see my place after he had been assigned to build the basketball backboards, and I am con­fident he knew I was not a carpenter. But to the Indians, who seldom get the chance and who often look down on work with the hands, I was a ‘carpenter too.’

The carpenter was a good man and good at his trade. I had no problem once I got him the wood for the basketball backboards. I did have problems getting the right materials, and it was irritat­ing to feel that one of the In­dians should be obtaining the materials, but they knew just as little, or claimed to, about finding and purchasing the required materials.

I had not built these on a hunch that the basketball courts would prove popular. Some older boys around the park had been criticizing the center for not doing anything for them. I asked about the courts, and they said that long ago they had been used.  I asked what would they do if they were fixed and equipment made available. They said Dr. Sabnis would not do those things, but if he did they would be there to assist as I requested.

To inaugurate the center we got our Peace Corps team together for an exhibition. The Indian team we had asked to come never showed. The crowd of 300-500 claimed they had some old players and they would play us. They did. It was like the Harlem Globetrotters playing the junior high. We did not try to embarrass anyone, in fact, we clowned it and the crowd loved it. They loved it so much and understood so little of the game’s rules that they encircled the court to some­times one-third its size.

The size of the crowd was an omen. The next day when I stepped out to start some kind of practice sessions I was greeted by about a hundred kids.  The next day almost the same, as was the next, but the same faces seldom ap­peared. Daily, there was al­most a fresh batch of about fifty. I never saw the older boys who claimed they would help form a team, wanted the courts, and knew some bas­ketball.

This protect turned out to be a flop. Had I stuck with it long enough, perhaps I could have shaped the mobs into some teams. But most of the kids spoke Marathi, and Hindi was my stronger medium, weak as it was, and only with much intensive language work would this change. Other in­volvements now would not allow that study and b-ball mob organizing time.

The year 1966 was the last year Peace Corps India had three month seminars: these were most of the physical job accomplishments I would en­ter into my late April report. The seminar was approaching at just the right time for me. Culture shock, which we had been warned about in training, probably had me strongly engulfed. Being continually sick, I was not accomplishing enough.  I was being frustrated trying to find the right, in my own mind, work involve­ments.  I was seeing babies, whose thighs were not any bigger than my first two fingers, being given giant hypodermic nee­dles three times a week just to stay alive. These sights were everywhere and left me with only my diary to turn to for opening my feelings, where I’d wonder if I’d be able to stick it out; all were indica­tors that it was time to get away. Before departing I made another overture through my chief motivator, Dr. Sabnis, to get a few work projects moving. I left before he arrived for work on the 18th of April but left a note for him mentioning a few things which must he done on the movie scheme and this ex­cerpt:

“One other problem. I’ve talked with Mr. Lally on many occasions about repair­ing the rusted out pipes and broken flushers in the public latrine. I’ve also talked to his assistant in charge of the specific repairs. On April 1st these repairs were to be begun. Well, following many de­lays the repairs have still not begun. Mote than a month ago Mr. Mokashi told me he was looking into such repairs, but thus far I have had no as­sistance from him in this area. The latrine is filthy, the stench is almost unbearable, and it’s not very healthy. I would think a little repair such as this would be much appreciated by the users of the center.

“As usual, I have come to you with the work which taxes my patience primarily because around you action usually centers. Today I hope to start relaxing and allow the action to be in the realm of touring the greener places of India.

I think Peace Corps initiated the three month seminars to help volunteers adjust to the throes of culture shock.

The seminar showed that no one was quite sure what they were doing, where they were going, and too proud to admit they were not sure they would cut it.

  1. Dave, and I took ten days after the seminar and bummed it. We ate in little Indian towns that were not crowded with slums, and did we eat! . . . We are prob­ably still being talked about in some towns as we were in the eating circles of our UCD group.

(That’s part of the reason fellow PCVs didn’t invite us over often for dinner. Al tried to rectify this situation through Peace Corps administration by suggesting that the bigger guys should get an extra food allowance. Coming from a guy who would drop 40 pounds, be felled by a special case, which did not kill, of spinal meningitis, and constant amoebic and bacillary dysentery, he deserved to be lis­tened to.  But the adminis­tration’s ears is as far as the request got.)

It was a ball traveling in crowded buses, with smelly In­dians and seeing the green hillsides of the south. It was a ball taking over a bicycle-shaw from an Indian, telling him to sit and relax in the back and speedily pumping dawn the streets amid shocked looks of by-standing Indians.  It was great to travel and to see green lands and healthier people.

We returned to Bombay rest­ed and in a better state of mind. Walking onto the mai­dan (large playfield) made me feel as though I had been working on my last project since I left. In the sundas (toilet) there were two or three gov­ernment employees cleaning the urinal, emptying the toil­ets, and fixing the plumbing.

They did not like the jobs that they were being forced to do, but the jobs would be done.

Fixing the sundas would still take a week or two, and after it was fixed it would often be locked at night. To me, lock­ing it merely meant the alley­way to my sundas would be used instead.

On returning from the break I endeavored to start sonic pure community devel­opment work. Organizing the people in the chawls to under­take projects of their own was what I had in mind. It didn’t take long.

One night while roaming in the chawls area I met fairly well-educated English speaking Indian. He seemed to have many of the qualities a leader from the chawls should have.  But after some talk is some great thing about India’s needs, but I suggested that the councils should be formed in each of the chawls buildings to act as catalysts for worthwhile programs, with the implication that he would make this sound leader of such an undertaking.  He went on to tell me how it was in the chawls.  A Marathi family living in 10’x15’ room and separated by 3 inches of concrete would not trusted the Gujarati family living next door and consequently could not be expected to engage in joint projects for their improvement.  Caste, fear of theft, and the harshness of their economic positions were some other reasons he claimed such group action would not work.  Since my Marathi was too poor to work into the chawls to validate such statements, I had to (though I doubted that such could not be overcome with the proper effort) accept his statements.

Our poor language training hindered many of us from being successful as strict urban community developers and hindered other successes, though it did not kill all successes.  Another example of the poor’s poverty of mine was brought home to me soon after this incident.

It was difficult to live in a chawl because getting a room there meant an Indian family was driven out. They had tight enough conditions. Therefore I had an ex-file closet for a room, and it had a fringe benefit — a night watchman.

Dondi was a neat guy and seemed to think he was my guardian besides being the bearer of my morning bucket of washing and drinking water.  We’d often banter back and forth, in part Hindi and part Marathi. The evening before a national holiday in celebration of independence and President Radhakrishnan who, exemplifying the ideals of Indian democracy, was from the Harijan, or low­est, caste and nonetheless had become India’s first president from that caste, we bantered and Dondi gave me another insight.

“President Radhakrishnan from third class Harijan caste. I from second class Harijan caste. So if he come to my home to ask for water or food, I no give.”

To Dondi’s words I said little. I just thought…

To communicate and change things on the ground floor you must work through the parts of the system available to you.  So I plugged away doing what I thought was beneficial, although the projects were not always as poignant as I would have liked.

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.