Tag Archives: President Radhakrishnan

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.