The Adventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer in India Fifty Years Ago

Review of David Macaray's book, How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims - When the Peace Corps was New

Every Peace Corps Volunteer has a near-death story. For David Macaray, supplementing his diet of curry and rice with a ball of opium did the trick.

But not to worry. Had he died, he wrote, “Our mothers and fathers would have received the obligatory telegram from the State Department: ‘Dear Parent: [stop] Your son ate opium, passed out, and set house on fire. [stop] He is deceased. [stop] Details to follow.”

Fifty years later, one wonders if Macaray, in a fit of nostalgia, ingested a bit of opium while organizing this sometimes heartbreaking but mostly hilarious book. Because it’s not really a book — it’s rather a play, consisting of 168 scenes dramatizing one crazy Angrez’s “weird” experience of India.

The scenes are wonderfully diverse: from “Leprosy,” to “The Argument for Arranged Marriages,” to “Diarrhea on a Bus” to “How to Explain the Electoral College at a Real College.”

A job well done?

In 1967, Macaray was assigned to Malerkotla, a city in the north Indian state of Punjab, where he was attached to the Irrigation Department. “Our mission,” he writes, “was to teach tube well maintenance to mechanics and staff assistants.” Not unlike many volunteers, he felt unqualified for the job. In fact, “Considering how little we managed to accomplish in the Irrigation Department during our two-year stay, introducing the Frisbee to Indian society may have been one of our most memorable achievements.”

Despite this, he one day answered the call to join a UNICEF crew sinking wells in the drought stricken state of Bihar. Their job was to install hand-pump water-wells in village schools. That was the good news — and Macaray was proud to see the immediate impact of their work. The bad news was that UNICEF had a strict rule that if a crew couldn’t sink a well in three days, they had to move on.

In one village, the local crew continued to hit solid rock — but begged UNICEF to stay, even volunteering to work around the clock. But the UNICEF team moved on. Macaray describes how the village then responded with anger and violence, born out of desperation. But even worse, he said, were those villages that didn’t react at all. “Other villages — the poorest villages any of us had ever seen — took the news fatalistically…which was more depressing to witness than having them react with anger.”

“It was Bihar, India,” he writes. “Despair and failure were a way of life.”

Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs — and one Atheist

During training, Macaray, a confirmed atheist, learned about India’s great religions from books and lectures. Once in the country, he learned by going to the barber shop. Although he lived in the Sikh homeland state of Punjab, his town of Malerkotla was a Muslim enclave.

As he recounts, “The Barbers in Malerkotla were Muslims. Not only because barbering was a low caste job, but because one of the key religious tenets of Sikhism was never to cut one’s hair, which is why Sikhs wore turbans.” Another reason that the barbers were Muslim, according to Macaray’s Brahmin neighbor and mentor Mr. Sharma, was that “few self-respecting Hindus were willing to do low-caste work. Hence, Muslim barbers.”

As for Hinduism, Macaray observed that it “permeated every aspect of Indian culture.” In fact, once when he went to the post office to pay a fee they had forgotten to charge him, the postmaster was so impressed he took him out to tea and declared they must have known each other in a previous life, to explain why he was repaying his kindness.

As Macaray traveled around India, every outing presented the opportunity for a lesson, many of which had a religious, class, or (officially banned) caste thread to them.

Sex and the Single PCV

There are two topics that every Peace Corps volunteer is obsessed with, no matter where in the world:  bowels and sex. In that order. Imagine you are 22, in an all-male Peace Corps group in a conservative country where if you looked at a woman sideways you might be on the first plane home.  Which is why, the reader might wonder, Macaray did not take advantage of the “full” services of the local Dwarf masseur who pedaled around town with his exotic kit of Indian oils. In fact, Macaray was so naïve that he ordered the a la carte massage and didn’t even know there was a special — only realizing it later when he saw the whole town snickering at him.

Most of Macaray’s other saucy stories involve Indian men’s seemingly endless curiosity about the loose morals in America. India may have been home to the erotic Khajuraho temple carvings, but America was full of “copulating sex fiends and pornographers.” Once again, Macaray notes, “The Peace Corps trainers failed to inform us that much of our time would be spent discussing sex. I had no idea.”

The Chappal Ambassador

Despite his self-deprecating tone and worries that he was not the Super Volunteer, one has to admire how David Macaray threw himself out there — how he spent two years engaging with Indians of all shapes, sizes and religions. And yes, he wore those buffalo hide sandals, called chappals, and not the wing-tipped shoes of “official” Americans, which is why I would call him a Chappal Ambassador.

And as a young Chappal Ambassador, one of Macaray’s many observations was how old people were respected, even revered, in India.  One day, he witnessed a fist fight break out among some young bucks, and was stunned to see a little old man step into the middle and stop the violence immediately. “In the U.S.,” he observed, “75-year old geezers were generally viewed as obsolete. In India, in 1967, they were venerated.”

One of those venerated elders was Macaray’s good friend and drinking buddy, Man Singh, forty years his senior. “He was 62 years old, spoke perfect English, and was totally blind, having lost his vision in a Japanese POW camp in Singapore during World War II,” he writes. Perhaps only in Peace Corps could such a friendship have blossomed so naturally. When Macaray was leaving India, Man Singh’s granddaughters made him a tapestry that they had designed, picked the cotton, dyed, and woven for him. “It featured pictures of peacocks, rabbits, chickens, geometric figures, and three little girls jumping rope.” The three girls, he notes, “represented themselves so I wouldn’t forget them.”  To this day, the tapestry  “hangs proudly in my den.”

Now that Macaray himself is 72, one wonders if he would venture back to a very different India, and see it through the eyes of a venerated old geezer. I hope he will — and then write about it.  If he does, I for one, can’t wait to kick off my own chappals and read it.

Kitty Thuermer (PCV/Mali 1977-79) was born in (then) Bombay, and attended Fast Times at Hindi High in New Delhi. She lived in India at the same time as the author, but because they belonged to different American expat castes, and because she was 15, her mother made sure they never crossed paths. Read other articles by Kitty.