Confessions of a Renegade (Part 2)
Peace Corps Years
Reminiscences of an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Punjab in the Nineteen Sixties
Eddie J. Girdner
Punjab was a lovely place in the 1960s, once one got settled, but getting a place to live was not so easy for me. After all, we were in a position that was not only strange for us but probably even more strange for the locals. Our place would be a little one-man outpost, an extension, whether we liked it or not, of the American presence in other countries. This made some people wonder. It was easy to believe that we might be encroaching on the local village for some sinister purpose. But what could that be? I have thought about it and it beats the hell out of me. We were just nice guys in a very strange place. We took a wrong left turn some place. The sixties generation of live and let live and do your own thing. And keep away from the military. It is indeed ironic that we were forced to rely on Uncle Sam to save us from the American military machine. Uncle Sam would have to save us from Uncle Sam!
The next day after I arrived in Banga I thanked the BDO and his wife for their generous hospitality. Later in the day, I was taken in the office jeep to where I thought I would be living. It was a small village some five miles to the east of Banga, called Kariha. It is not far from Khat Kar Kalan, where Bhagat Singh, the Indian nationalist, was born. There is a statue of him along the Newanshahr – Banga road along the way.
I was taken to the large compound and house of one of the big farmers of the village and the Banga Block. This was Serdar Hardev Singh, who was the Sarpanch of the village and also the Chairman of the Panchayat Samati of Banga Block, Jalandhar District. He was into politics and with the Green Revolution, the farmer class was gaining more political power in the state. They were predominantly Sikh Jats. He was a link for their interests in the state government in Chandigarh.
I am not sure how it was arranged that I would be taken to Hardev Singh’s place. It is logical. I was coming from America and so would be honored by being the guest of one of the prominent local political honchos. That was all fine and understandable, except that it was completely wrong and unworkable from the perspective of getting me settled into what I was supposed to be doing as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was the responsibility of the Indian Government, through the Block Development Office to provide me with a place to live. It should be an independent dwelling, where the volunteer would have some privacy, rather than being the guest of someone. So this was a wrong move on the part of the officials, but they were just trying to do what they thought best.
Under the circumstances, I ended up staying in Hardev Singh’s guest house for about a month. But this would not work, except as a temporary place to stay till an appropriate place could be found. I was hesitant to push the BDO to find me an appropriate place.
Kariha was a rather poor village, compared to some other villages in the area and Hardev’s Singh’s big new pucca house stood out as a sort of mansion at the edge of the village. He had a new car, a pale green Hindustan Ambassador, with a driver, which marked him as a very big man indeed. Almost every day, he was on the road for some meeting or errand around Punjab. Hardev Singh owned a significant amount of land in the village. His son, Jatinder, a young man who knew good English, was mostly in charge of the farming operaions. In the kharif season in July, he was growing fields of bendi tori (okra), and hybrid maize. I spent some time driving his tractors in the fields, just for a diversion, as if I was going to be one of his hired hands, working for board and keep. Maybe they thought it would be a good deal to have an American in that capacity. But Jatinder had several men working for him. That way, I learned something about the farming operations of a big farmer in Punjab. Of course most of the peasants did not own a tractor at that time and were farming the old fashioned way with bullocks.
It was a short walk out to the main road or to the small railroad station. There was a small train that one could take from Kariha to Banga. I took this train several times to Banga while I was waiting to get my bicycle, which the Block Office was also supposed to supply. But it took a good deal of bureaucracy to somehow appropriate the money and go to Ludhiana and purchase the bicycle. If I missed the train, I could walk out to the main road and catch the bus coming from Newanshahr.
It was a pleasant stay, in any event. The room had an inside shower and laltrene, which was true luxury in a village in Punjab in those days. I was able to do some reading when I got my books from the Peace Corps. Some days were rainy and cool during the summer monsoon, and it was pleasant to relax and do some reading. The food was simple, but delicious village food. Lovely vegetable dishes and chapatis. By this time, I had developed a taste for Punjabi food.
One day Jatinder asked me to go with him to Ropur, a town to the east on the Chandigarh road. He drove and we went in his father’s new Hindustan Ambassador car. He was going to collect payment for some wheat which he had sold. I remember that the payment was in the form of a huge bundle of rupee notes. I don’t know how much. Perhaps a couple of lakhs of rupees, which was a lot of money in those days. The money was wrapped up in newspapers and he just put it on the front seat of the car between us as we drove back to the village. It struck me as a strange way to handle money, but it seemed that it was relatively safe in Punjab in those days.
The family had a servant boy who came from the hills. These young guys work for room and board and low wages. Sometimes he would bring my food, as the women usually stayed hidden in the back rooms of the house. One day this young guy came to me and took me to the small wooden building where he was staying, next to where they kept the car. It was at the side of the compound next to the wall. He pointed inside and said: “Sahib, your house.” I was surprised, but then realized that I was being a nuissance and the Serdar was looking for a way to get me out of his guest room. There were six or more beds in the guest room where I was staying and where his overnight guests often stayed, and it was a problem having me in the way. I was being removed from the guest house and so had to discuss it with the BDO and urge him to find me an appropriate place to stay. I needed an independent house, where I could do my own thing.
I would go and discuss this with the BDO and he would keep saying “Yes, yes, yes, of course, of course, it will be done.” And he would go on shuffling the thin papers under the punka, placing glass paper weights on them to keep them from blowing away, and removing straight pins from them and sticking them back in, and calling his chaprasi to bring tea. And all the time, old and timid peasants would creep into the BDO’s office and greet him with a humble Sat Shri Akal or Namaste and make a humble request.
The promises would go on, from day to day. And then I would try again, and then again nothing would happen, and I would remain in limbo, my house just coming, just coming, but never arriving.
And so one day, as the big man, washed his hands of me, I was shifted to the Circuit Rest House in Banga. I am eternally thankful for his wonderful hospitality. Putting me up for a month and feeding me as I lived in his beautiful and comfortable house and was asked to join for drinks of rum or whiskey with his friends and political colleagues in the evening out in his pleasant court yard. Of course, I could not follow the discussion in Punjabi, but they treated me very well. But they had been imposed upon and put in a difficult situation.
It took a couple of months before my bicycle arrived and was turned over to me. This improved my mobility, but now I was stuck in the rest House. This was a rather spooky place for sleeping. The big room had seven sides and five doors. The main part was one big room, where the court was held periodically. When the SDM came during the month, I would have to pack up all my things in my big trunk. I had to find things to eat on my own. Sometimes I could have the chowkidar bring me some boiled eggs, toast and tea in the mornings. The rest of the time I had to get my meals at the “Hotel” across the street, which was just a small dirty Punjabi dhaba.
I had my transister radio that I bought in Tokyo. This way I could get some news from Voice of America or BBC. While I was in the rest house, the Republican National Convention was being held in the US. Richard Nixon was going to be the Republican candidate. We called him “trucky dick.” Mainly because he was tricky and secondly and more to the point, that he was indeed a dick. That was when he chose Spiro Agnew, the Governor of Maryland, to be his running mate. Nobody had ever heard of this creature, or few, anyway, and it was said that his name sounded like it had been conjured up on a ouija board. He won the election, of course. He was said to have a secret plan to end the War in Vietnam. That plan turned out to be a secret plan to keep it going for many years more. Well, thats about as close as any politician can be expected to keep their election promises and the American voters who fell for it, probably deserved what they got.
While I was staying in the Circuit Rest House, I was shown another house in Banga, which was not bad, but somehow no action was taken on it. One day one of the agricultural officers told me that there was a place in another village where I might stay. This was a quite big and rich village to the northeast of Banga, called Mahil Gaila.
One day I was asked to pack up my things from the Rest House and was taken there by the village jeep to the Agricultural Cooperative Society. I was given big upper room in the compound. Down below was a small cooperative store and the offices of the society, which served as a bank and made small loans to farmers. It was a clean place, with just a mungie for furniture, but it was terribly hot in the day and stayed hot all night after the cement walls had heated up during the day. Also there was no arrangement for cooking or getting food. I bought a small kerosene cook stove, the kind used in Indian kitchens, to do some cooking myself, but what I could do was very limited, indeed. Across the road in the adjacent compound, also belonging to the society, was a hand pump, where one could bathe in the open in the evening and wash up ones pots and pans after cooking. The society had a chowkidar and night watchman who looked after the place.
I did the best I could. I went to Ludhiana one day and bought some canned goods from the stores there and things like strawberry and marmalade jam for bread and some Nescafe. I existed that way for some time, but it was a rather miserable existence.
After some days, I discovered that across the village lane, in the other compound, was the old buildings of the Cooperative Society. It was a nice, one story building with two large rooms separated by an open veranda between them. At that time, these rooms were being used to store bags of fertilizer, but were mostly empty. It was painted a pretty pink color. I asked the head man of the Society, Serdar Madho Singh, about staying there. I thought that I could live in one room and the other room would serve as a kitchen and room for my cook. This proposal was accepted and I had a place to live at last, after a couple of months of being shifted around from place to place and sort of living out of my trunk.
I bought the frame for a big mungie, a charpoy, and the chowkidar of the society wove the strings for me. It was bigger than the normal mungie and would be my bed as long as I was in the village. I wrote to the Peace Corps Office in Delhi asking them to send me a cook. After getting settled, I asked the village mistry to make me some furniture for my house. I bought a large desk in Jalandhar and a chair and brought them by bus to Banga and loaded them onto a tonga to bring them to Mahil Gaila.
There was, of course, no arrangement for a toilet, and I was forced to follow the practive of the villagers and use the fields for my nature calls. This is not something that is normal or easy for a Westerner to get used to very quickly. At that time, in the late summer, most of the crops had been cut and so there was not much cover in the fields. If one wanted some privacy, one had to hide in the sugar cane fields. Sometimes I had to use the fields at odd hours of the day. And so it was sometimes off to the cane fields even in the heat of the day.
But in spite of all this, I was happy. I had a place to live and there was some potential. There was a place to have a real latrene in future when I could have the time to build it and a place for a garden and place to build a small building for some chickens.
When the weather cooled, I planted my garden in the compound and another fall garden in Madho Singh’s compound. Moolies, pollock, mirch, sarson and so on. It could be irrigated with the hand pump. I cleaned and painted the rooms when it got cooler.
I started a project to grow sugar beets. The Sarpanch, a friendly farmer who owned some land in America, Swaran Singh, provided some land for a small plot. I got some seed from the Peace Corps. This was quite successsful as a winter crop. The small field yielded a large pile of beets (shalgum), but I really do not know what they were used for.
In a little bit, I had fresh vegetables from my garden. I remember an old and poor man from the village who used to come and take greens from my garden almost every day. I was a curiosity in the village. People would watch what I did and maybe they thought I was nuts. I certainly did, from time to time, doing what I was doing. But you only live once, or maybe not, but anyway, it was fun for the most part.
I was expected to spend some time in the Block Development office in Banga. I talked to the agricultural officers and got to know them. I attended the star meetings which were held about once a month. The young officers wanted to know about America. Sometimes they wanted to know what I knew about agriculture. Actually, I knew quite a bit about agriculture in America, having been a young farmer there, but not so much about agriculture in India. I guess that they did not really understand that I was there, not so much to produce food, as to avoid having to kill communists. Somebody said that the Peace Corps volunteers ate up far more food in India, than they ever produced, which I am sure is true.
There were village level workers, who were assigned to a circle of ten villages each. I sometimes accompanied the young person from my area on bicycle. His name was also Swaran Singh, a simple young person. We would check the crops and visit farmers in the area and drink a lot of tea. Always Punjabi tea. Continuous drinking of tea all through the day.
We were supposed to live at the same living standard as the local Indian population in the village, so as not to appear rich. This was somewhat unrealistic, because we were going to look rich to Indians whether we had any money or not. We were paid seventy-five dollars a month by the Peace Corps, a little over five hundred rupees. But this was a quite good salary for Indians in those days. Out of this, we had to pay our cook and everything else we needed. The block provided us a house and bicycle to use. The Peace Corps also paid for a table fan which was necessary, but was vulnerable to the frequent electrucal cuts. The power was usually off in the hottest parts of the day.
I had many friends in the village, both young and old, and met many students from Sikh National College in Banga. The men in the village often greeted each other by the name “comrade.” I do not know to what extent it was just a joke or if there were really some political notions behind it.
This was the time when the style of Punjabi dress for young girls was very tight pajamas and kurta, with chuney. I thought it was terribly stylish, and cute, and it was easy to start to fall in love with some of the young girls who looked very beautiful as they streamed through the roads on their bicycles. But there was little hope in that, it seemed.
Of course, the question everybody wanted to know was what the hell we were doing there. The Indians couldn’t figure it out. I don’t think we could either. I think it was an adventure. What were the Peace Corps officers doing in Delhi? I am sure that it was much more interesting to work for the Peace Corps and travel around the world and be stationed in a far away country, than to work at some dull job in America. I cannot think that many were terribly idealistic. I remember one big guy who had been a corn farmer in Iowa. There was no money in that any more. He worked for the Peace Corps, and his wife was with him. It was a hell of a lot more exciting life than living in dull Iowa. He was the kind of guy who would grab your hand and crush it like hell when one met him. He once gave us a party at his quite elegant house in Delhi. So these Americans abroad were having a quite nice life.
The good thing was that we were pretty much left on our own by the Peace Corps and we didn’t have to fight anybody, as we would have had to do if we had gone into the military and been sent to Vietnam.
A lot of people got idealistic and bright eyed about the wonderful things the Peace Corps was doing. I suppose that a lot of people could not get away from the ethnocentric idea that the American way of life was, after all, best. If I was like that at the beginning, I changed my mind over time. I always pretty much agreed with the Indians that there was never any reason for us to be there. We were not doing much harm. But I am not sure that we were doing much good. We meant well. We were trying to be peaceful and not to hate or harm anybody. We were, after all, part of the sixties generation. Peace, brother, peace. Give peace a chance.
Probably the most reasonable slot for a volunteer was being a teacher, but maybe we were all teachers in a way. At least we could show the locals that not all Americans were monsters shooting their way through the world for imperialism. We were supposed to know something about agriculture. That was mostly window dressing. Most people in our group had never even lived on a farm or done any farm work. I had because I was raised on a farm and had to do part of the growing of crops on the family farm. So I knew how to grow corn and soybeans in the Midwest but that didn’t mean that I knew anything about farming in India, such as an Indian peasant or the agricultural officers would know. I think it was terribly arrogant to think that one could take an English major from an American university and send him to India to teach Indian peasants how to grow crops. Could anything be more absurd? So in that sense, we couldn’t do much good there. I could take soil samples for the farmers which told them what kind of fertilizer to use and so on. But Punjabi farmers were doing OK on their own in the Green Revolution era without our help. They needed tractors, good seeds, electricity, water, and capital, and they knew where to get them if they were available.
Looking at the absurdity of the situation, some people started to think that we must be American CIA agents. I don’t think that I ever learned anything in India that the CIA wanted to know. Besides, most of us would never have worked for the CIA and we hated the war in Vietnam.
I think most of the talk about development is poppycock. In my opinion, the Peace Corps never accomplished its intended purpose, but it accomplished some much more important things.