Santa Clara Mag Blog
Peter Ross: Peace Corps, India, 1964
Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
For the print edition of Santa Clara Magazine, we adapted this much longer essay by Peter Ross. You’ll also find memories of his Peace Corps experience in the new collection Even the Smallest Crab Has Teeth: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories—Volume Four: Asia and the Pacific, due out in November 2011 from Travelers’ Tales.
SATURDAY MORNING, NOV. 23, 1963. Calingapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India.
“Rossgaru, Rossgaru, Mrs. Kennedy shot! Mrs. Kennedy shot!”
Ramamurthy had scrambled what he heard over the all-India 8 a.m. news broadcast. It wasn’t Mrs. Kennedy who had been shot.
Several other teachers and I squatted by the short-wave radio in the high school library, with many students peering in the windows, to hear the even more shocking news: John F. Kennedy had been killed in Dallas.
The headmaster K. Krishnarao suggested canceling the half-day of school, in memory of the slain president. We settled on having several minutes of silence at the flag-raising that morning.
Saturday afternoon I bicycled the 18 miles to Srikakulam, where Tom, another volunteer, lived. Two more Peace Corps Volunteers came as well and we shared our grief. JFK was not just our President; he had promoted the idea of a “peace corps” early in his 1960 Presidential campaign, and he instituted it by an executive order the following year. Moreover, Kennedy truly inspired hope among the poor and disadvantaged of the world. They felt that he, and America, cared.
At Tom’s bungalow in Srikakulam we spent the weekend moping around, listening to the radio, and wondering if the United States had gone mad. However, it was very therapeutic to be with other Americans, especially Peace Corps volunteers who understood what Kennedy meant to our country, to the Peace Corps, and to us personally.
All that weekend many people, including strangers, came up to me to offer their condolences. Sunday evening one of the 10 boys who studied on my bungalow porch, because of its electric light, suggested that we stand and have a minute of silence for Kennedy. And that night we heard of the bizarre shooting of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.
Most students didn’t really know who JFK was, but I think that most teachers at least knew that he was President of the United States. And in general there was intense interest in anything and everything American. Rightly or wrongly, we were the role model for the world. In those pre-television, pre-Internet days in India, perceptions of America were wildly unrealistic, being based on movies and, among the literate minority, newspapers or old novels. The most educated teachers at my high school, including the headmaster, knew of our civil rights problems in the South, for example—but their understanding did not lead them to make any comparison with India’s caste system, which was more entrenched, and worse.
The road from Calingapatnam
I lived in Calingapatnam, a village of about 4,500 people. In those days, phone calls to other Peace Corps volunteers were not feasible. Sometimes it took the better part of an hour at the village post office and telegraph office just to get through to Srikakulam, and it was expensive. In fact, during my two years in India I could never afford to talk with my family in Wisconsin, halfway around the world.
Except during summertime, the 18-mile bike ride over flat terrain between Srikakulam and Calingapatnam was usually pleasant and not strenuous, even on my sturdy one-speed Indian bicycle. But the first time I rode the bus on that road I nearly had a heart attack. There was a tiny Hindu temple at the edge of Calingapatnam, at one of the few bends in the road. As we approached the bend, the bus driver, without warning, took both hands off the steering wheel in order to acknowledge the god of the temple with clasped hands and a slight bow. I was certain that we would run off of the road and crash. But at the last second, the driver grabbed the wheel—and of course I’m alive today to write of this memory.
A bicycle built for three
Although Calingapatnam was considered a large village, it lay where the road from Srikakulam dead-ended in the Bay of Bengal. I was its only native English speaker, and no meat was available there. So once or twice a month I would bike to Srikakulam, to speak normal-paced English with Tom and to enjoy his cook’s “burgers,” made of water-buffalo meat. One Saturday I gave another teacher a ride there on the rack above my rear bicycle wheel, as he wanted to save on the bus fare.
The ride was almost fun, as we conversed the whole way and he answered my questions about the countryside and the small villages we passed through. When I picked him up the next afternoon in Srikakulam at the town square, we came upon our young school clerk, Vasulu.
Vasulu was always a bit scatter-brained. That day he had come to town to see movies all day long and had just missed the last bus to Calingapatnam, so he was going to sleep on the sidewalk overnight and catch the first bus in the morning. Feeling compassionate and also a bit macho (or whatever we called it in those days), I offered him a ride on my handlebars. I recall much laughter among the three of us on the ride, and fortunately no one fell off—nor were we gored by a water buffalo.
Water buffalos were called “brake-testers” by car drivers. Normally gentle, they occasionally turned their heads unexpectedly to look at something. And if you were too close to them when they did, you’d pay for it.
Several times during our 18-mile ride the teacher offered to swap places with me and pedal for a while. I declined, as I was sure I could do it myself. I was also concerned about crashing, due to the tricky balancing act with three bodies on a single bicycle. Needless to say, all of my students—and perhaps most of Calingapatnam—knew of our expedition by the next day!
One Indian bike-riding custom was a bit unnerving: that of riding next to someone else on another bicycle and holding the others person’s hand as we rode. Most of us Peace Corps volunteers got used to the limp handshakes that some sophisticated Indians used in greetings. Holding hands with someone while walking took more getting used to. But I never felt comfortable doing this while biking, even at a slow speed and on a deserted road. It just seemed like a recipe for disaster. (However, I’ll confess that I never witnessed nor even heard of a crash because of it.)
The headmaster’s village
The Calingapatnam–Srikakulam road was the starting point for another memorable weekend for me. My headmaster Krishnarao invited me to join him, several other teachers, and a few older boys in walking to his “native village” 15 miles away, after Saturday morning classes. We walked eight miles on the road, then took off perpendicular to it, traveling the last seven miles through rice paddies, where we walked barefoot on the ridges made of built-up dirt. At one point a woman working ankle-deep in water saw us walking and called up to Krishnarao with a question. He answered, then turned to me with a smile and translated: She wanted to know if the British had taken over the country again! (I never got used to being called a “European,” and despite my correcting it dozens or maybe even hundreds of times, the designation never completely disappeared.) I also recall that during that trip several people who had obviously never seen a white person gently pinched my skin to see if it was real.
The headmaster’s small native village had no electricity or running water and probably looked much the same as it had centuries earlier. I heard not long ago that 300,000 of India’s half-million villages are still not electrified. Krishnarao and two other Brahmin teachers did all the cooking of the evening meal, so that everyone, of all castes, could eat the food.
Lessons in language, barbers, and cobras
One important question was overlooked in our three months of Peace Corps training in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: that of when to greet others with a namaskaram, the south Indian equivalent of a namaste. Indians, at least those in rural Andhra, never used this greeting with servants or students, for example. But my egalitarian spirit led me to decide right away to namaskaram everyone, regardless of age, status, or caste. In my first few weeks, children would go out of their way to greet me, breaking into spasms of laughter when I responded with my greeting of respect. I sometimes even encouraged this by adding the honorific suffix –andi, which usually was used only with superiors. But after some time the amusement died down, and I felt I had made the right decision.
My first village haircut was another matter. The afternoon I returned from visiting my headmaster’s village, I hired the village barber to come and cut my hair on my bungalow’s porch. It cost only the equivalent of about 7 cents. But the barber used a very dull hand clipper, and I decided that would be both the first and last haircut he would give me. A knowledgeable Indian later shared some wisdom with me about rural barbers: “They don’t cut, they pluck!”
One weekend when fellow Volunteer Brent Cromley was visiting me a bizarre incident happened on the porch. As Brent was about to leave, a cobra dropped from the porch roof onto my cook’s head, about tenfeet from us. It fell to the floor without biting him, then took off across the yard toward some bushes that contained dirt mounds with snake holes in them. We all backed away at first, since we were wearing sandals. Then Brent and I lobbed heavy rocks at the cobra. We missed.
That evening Krishnarao dropped by to see if I wanted to hire the leading Brahmin priest to walk around my bungalow, chanting a protective prayer. My cook, who was an untouchable, said he felt no need for it, so I politely declined. I later found out that the custom of saying a mantra in such a situation was not based purely on superstition. Cobras typically live in pairs in their holes, so if one is killed or badly wounded, its mate would come out looking for it, making that a dangerous time for humans to be about. A month after the cobra incident there was a religious festival where villagers poured milk down the snake holes, since one local Hindu god was a snake. Needless to say, I decided not to participate!
Lessons in geography
My bungalow porch was used most evenings and some mornings as a “study center,” one of several set up by the headmaster with my help. When I first arrived in Calingapatnam, Krishnarao and I would brainstorm each day after classes at tiffin (sort of an afternoon tea, with some sweets). Once he mentioned that many students couldn’t study at night as they had no light, especially those whose fathers were fishermen and went to sleep at dusk in their huts. I casually suggested that maybe some of the few places with electric light, like my porch, might be used for studying at night. I was somewhat shocked the next day at school when it was announced that a bunch of such study centers were to be set up, and Krishnarao and I spent the next week setting them up in elementary schools or large houses in the different hamlets, each occupied by a single caste, that constituted Calingapatnam.
At my own study center, during the first week I discovered how little geography my high school students knew. When I happened to bring out a map of India one night, they couldn’t find the capital, New Delhi. Nor could they show where Calingapatnam would be! After that I rarely had a free period at school. During the first or second period the headmaster would send a boy with a chit to me, saying that, for example, the teacher Subramanyan had taken casual leave that day, and would I take over his fifth period class? I kept my world and India maps at school, and would spend such “free” periods simultaneously teaching geography and conversational English. Both geography and world history had been sadly neglected, perhaps in reaction to the pre-Independence system of teaching too much British history and European geography.
These spontaneous geography classes were much easier to teach than my math or physics classes. When I first started teaching physics, the students did not know how to use simple rulers, since science and math involved only rote memorization of blackboard work or text material. And my math texts were all in Telugu, as Calingapatnam’s “Higher Secondary High School” had just started the conversion from an ordinary high school, so the English medium for math was being phased in only a year at a time. While our project as the fourth group of Peace Corps volunteers in India was to teach math and science in English, no Peace Corps or Indian official involved with it had ever visited Calingapatnam and discovered the discrepancy. Needless to say, the Peace Corps training dictum to be flexible rang especially true for me that year!
A portrait on a mud wall
Six months after Kennedy’s assassination, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s disciple, died. The country didn’t appear to go into shock as it had when JFK died, probably because Nehru was 74 years old and had died of natural causes. Almost two years after JFK’s death I was again reminded of his importance to the world while I was traveling home overland from India, with several other Peace Corps volunteers who had served in India. When we stopped to eat at a small café in an Iranian village on the Caspian Sea, there were only two portraits on the otherwise bare mud walls: a mandatory one of the Shah, and a larger one of President Kennedy.
I remember vividly the time that he came to Berkeley, Calif., in March, 1962, the year before I joined the Peace Corps. Kennedy spoke in the football stadium at the University of California to about 100,000 people, the largest audience he ever addressed. Although he was speaking at the height of the Cold War, Kennedy proposed a joint exploration of space, including “a cooperative Soviet-American effort in space science and exploration.” He also rejected “over-simplified theories of international life,” among which was the idea that “the American mission is to remake the world in the American image.”
But I was a busy graduate student in mathematics at Berkeley, so I skipped Kennedy’s speech. I told my friends that I’d catch him the next time around. Well, there was no next time.
Of course, JFK was far from the saint portrayed by the media in the early 1960s. But when I meet with former Peace Corps volunteers from that era, we sometimes wonder what the world would have been like if Kennedy had lived. And now every year when November 22 comes around I feel a certain sadness, for the loss of vision he gave and the optimism he aroused.