(Editor’s Note: For two years prior to joining the faculty of Glendora High School, Dwayne Hunn served the U.S. Government as a member of the Peace Corps. For the next several issues the Glendora Press will carry articles by Mr. Hunn in which he vividly describes the stark reality of life in teeming India and some of his experiences there during his Peace Corps duty.)
By DWAYNE HUNN
American kids can roller or surf skate down driveways into quiet streets. There (India), they skate in congested streets, There, they skate to stopped taxis, grab onto their doors, and ask for “bukshis.”
Few of them stand and lean on their boards as American kids so often do on their boards or skates. They cannot, for they are often without feet. Chopped off at the knees or hips, they use roller boards to make their begging trips.
I drowsed in a few Peace Corps training sessions, and in two of them I was jolted awake by the remarks of the speaker. One speaker’s subject of masturbation jolted my Catholic conscience upright. The other jolt from slumber came via a statement that, “Fifty per cent of India’s beggars are purposefully maimed.”
“How can you make a statement like that and back it up?” I querried. I can’t remember his exact answer, but I think it had something to do with a state government survey. I found such a statement hard to swallow then.
One of the nights that I was escaping from my Worli living experience found me exchanging gorg experiences with a fellow volunteer at the Bombay Peace Corps Hostel. He and his wife warmed up by telling of how they observed a baby deficate diarrhea, scoop it up in her fingers, and eat it. Her mother didn’t stop this until she noticed the intense stares of the couple.
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They then related a story they had heard from another friend. The friend had been on a crowded train. A woman on the train was holding a howling baby who had bandaged eyes. After more than an hour of crying, and after the mother had refused three offers by a man interested in looking at the baby’s eyes, the man took the baby and unwrapped the bandages to find a cockroach gnawing on each eye. I too find this hard to swallow. But after having been there, the lecturer’s statement is less hard to swallow.
There the game of life is played close to the bone, so closely that it sometimes cuts into the marrow. They are not eating each other, but they may be modifying some of their own lines to ensure money to feed other family members. Those children who have been fated to beg to help support the rest of the family feel the pain of inflicted ugliness, less a gouged eye, a chopped arm, a hand-made-paw. The Hindu religious-philosophical concept of dharma, meaning one’s fate could be a trick of India’s earlier elites to ensure their comfortable position and the poor’s defeat.
Life magazine spoke of a saintly Sister Theresa of India. I also knew a Sister Theresa, a different, but similar one. She was also Spanish, and her happiness and resolve also seemed unconquerable. She and three other Spanish nuns directed the Cheshire Home for 50 paraplegics.
The 50 would never be able to live on their own, some couldn’t urinate on their own, some would soon die, come couldn’t utter an understandable word, a few were spastic. One could do nothing more than squirm across the floor, clutch a space with a paralayzed hand, and utter grunts and groans while showing one of his two faces—a smile or a lost frown.
Here the nuns lived, prayed, smiled and sang. Sister Theresa, it was said, was from one of Spain’s richest families. When she couldn’t raise funds for the home’s needs, she wrote to her other family. Sister, and some others like her, would spend their lives with the sick and dying in a parched and barren land.
After two years, I’d see my parents, America, affluence. Many of the 150 orphans I worked with never saw a parent or…Showing them a new game, wrestling with them, scolding them—seemed to make their eyes shine brighter. They had beautiful eyes and smiles, even if there wasn’t much which stood out on their bodies.
Easter calls for a big feast in most American homes. At the orphanage it was no different. The kids gathered their tin plates and looked forward to the Easter breakfast of a plantin, mush—meant, I guess to be oatmeal, and a roll with a touch of jam inside. For lunch they gobbled the dahl (high in protein), curry with their hard roll.
Around 3:30 p.m. they’d have their daily snack of powdered milk. (Thrice daily Uncle Sam supplied the powdered milk, and most of the other food.) Dinner was also a treat for the curry sauce had meat in it and it rested on rice. Dessert was a piece of candy for every kid, with even a few pieces left over. The candy was a gift of a tourist.
Three hunks of bread, a small mound of rice, gravy with a few chunks of meat in it, three cups of powdered milk, a banana, and a piece of candy—filled. Their bodies couldn’t stand out, but the smile and love reflected from their eyes and teeth could, and they were as bright as any kid’s I had ever seen.
Zubair Shaik, about 11 when we came, could not understand our American humor, our jibes at the rote memorization he brought home from school, our desire to see thing work, our dissatisfaction with the way of life of the general population. Zubair looked up to us, like most Indians did, but it wasn’t just because he was small, like most Indians. He followed us around, and we took him around. When 1t was time for us to leave, he could reply to our jokes with his own snide, American-like wit; he could laugh heartily, and we loved him. And Zubair loved us. But it was Bill, his neighbor for 20 months, that Zubair loved most.
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Bill left two days before I did. A large crowd of those who loved him gathered to bid farewell. It was a dear and trying situation for Bill and Zubair. In his last hour at the airport, Bill tried to stay out of Zubair’s range.
It was I who had to hold Zubair, first in my arms, then on my shoulders as Bill boarded and the plane taxied. It was a tragic departure, and yet it was beautiful. Much of what I saw in India was tragic, and yet it could excite a feeling of beauty.
Hollywood can make dollars produce beauty. It can produce “Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady” and the world marvels at their beauty. In India, the masses, the rich, and the PCVs use these produced beauties to escape the tragedy, ugliness, and their own weaknesses that they so often see around them.
I loved to escape to an air-conditioned movie and its solitude and excitement. I hated to leave them because it was a harsh return to heat, smell, crowd, and filth outside; and there wasn’t the hamburger or icebox to return to enroute to a comfortable bed. When you consider the number of losing battles you fought with bedbugs and mosquitoes, you didn’t even have a comfortable bed.
It was late when “My Fair Lady” ended. The streets were nearly deserted, relatively clean; stars were bright, and the air brisk and fresh. I whistled as I followed a guy and girl walking hand-in-hand.
I rounded the corner across from the Bombay Rugby Club, still watching the couple, still feeling content. I hardly noticed the stench from the garbage pile. (The city’s garbage is stacked at night in sheds, or when the sheds are filled, on the sidewalk.) There were about five piles, each two to three feet high, spread on the sidewalk to my left. The normal contingent of rats, dogs, and a cow or two engaged in snacking. I didn’t see any birds; normally they eat with the others.
I did, instead, notice a man. On a back pile, partially hidden by darkness, squatted a frail, ragged man. I walked next to him, unnoticed by him. In silence, I watched him for about a minute. From his full squat, his hand moved over the pile; feeling a bone he pulled it, shook and brushed some other garbage loose from it, put it to his mouth, and chewed its remains.
In Hindi, I asked, “What are you doing?”
He replied, “Food, Shab.”
With that he weakly returned his face and hand to the pile. No beckoning for money was made, but I reached into my pocket for change.
“Thank you, Shab,” he said.
From bus windows, I had seen full grown men, robed in only a loin cloth, scavenge from daytime garbage piles. Walking the sidewalks, I had seen little kids recover broken egg shells from the same, dip their fingers into them, and suck the eggs’ remains. Then they’d find other shells which they’d run home to their hutments, or tenements with, I suppose for mother to perform her culinary magic on.
Next to these experiences I can remember the parties thrown by the movie stars, the rich businessmen, and their sons and daughters. I can remember the quantities of good food, when the law said no parties of more than five persons shall serve food.
I can remember the rich’s infatuations with drink, sleek clothes, Beatle albums, and sex. I could go to these parties and escape the experiences of the masses which I knew better and cared more about changing than the party-givers.
But I haven’t learned to forget that too many rich enjoy living on a hill while condoning the life of the masses in an earthly hell.