|By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, October 04, 2003 - 9:45 am: Edit Post|
Benjamin A. Horwitz Journal of two years in Bhopal, India as a Peace Corps Volunteer
Benjamin A. Horwitz Journal of two years in Bhopal, India as a Peace Corps Volunteer
Trying to write about a time in your life that took place more than 30 years ago seems like a foolish endeavor. The first question one should logically ask is why the hell wait so long. Certainly the memories and events which took place so long ago, can’t be as sharp as they would have been had I attempted this book, say within five years of returning from India. And that of course is true. In fact, I apologize to those volunteers who appear in this story who remember things slightly differently. I’ve told this tale as best as my diary, photographs, personal correspondence, and 57-year-old memory have allowed me to. On the other hand, having a 30 year prism in which to filter, or perhaps a better word might be dissect those events, not to mention the maturity and perspective one gets as a result of just living those 30 years, may make those Peace Corps experiences more relevant. I suppose one could make an argument either way, but of course in this instance, it is a moot point. I did wait 34 years to write about India and the Peace Corps.
Fortunately, I had saved all the correspondence from my friends and family the two years I spent in the Peace Corps. I even saved the correspondence within India from fellow volunteers. Even more fortunately, my friends and family, for some inexplicable reason, likewise saved my letters to them. Couple that correspondence with a preponderance of 35mm slides which I took with my trusty Olympus 35mm camera, a diary which I kept for the first eight months of the adventure, and recalling the events and memories and emotions of those two years was really quite effortless. Writing about them was not as effortless.
Without becoming too melodramatic, the Peace Corps experience is one that stays with you, it seems, for a lifetime. It’s one from which you have a tendency to date all other experiences. The word “epiphany” comes to mind. But perhaps it’s a bit over-stated and pretentious. I’ve heard some former volunteers talk about how their Peace Corps service made a dramatic change in their lives, even their personalities, and changed them forever. This was not my lasting experience. I think I came out of the Peace Corps, pretty much the same person that went into the Peace Corps. I don’t think personalities change that easily from any two-year experience, especially when you’re already in your 20’s or older. This is not to say that people are profoundly effected by their Peace Corps service. I certainly was. It is impossible to make such a dramatic life-style change from the suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, to the environs of Bhopal, India, and not be effected in some profound way.
Before I delve deeply into those two years in India, there is one occurrence that continually re-appears in my consciousness (and my subconscious) at regular intervals. The occurrences are not as frequent as they were when I first returned from India. And over the years they have diminished substantially. Still, a couple times a year, the visions I am about to describe can pop into my mind at almost any time of the night or day. I have woken up from a sound sleep with the visions I am about to reveal. The events can pop suddenly into my mind while I’m just driving down the street. Often they appear to me while on an airplane. I have no idea what triggers these memories. All I know is that I have not been able to shake them for the past thirty years. And I suspect I’ll be carrying them with me right to the grave.
The story I am about to tell took place a little over a year after I had arrived in India. After living for a year in Bhopal, and having traveled already to Goa, Madras, Kashmir, and most of India’s larger cities; like most Peace Corps volunteers, I thought I had pretty much experienced all the unusual sights, sounds and smells that India had to offer. Of course you can spend a lifetime in India and never experience all of India. But being young, naïve and stupid, I thought I had “seen it all”. After a year in Bhopal I had already been through a hot season, and a monsoon. I was truly at ease with my surroundings. I could board a third-class car on a train; spend 40 hours sitting on the floor crowded with a mass of humanity; get off at an unfamiliar destination. Take a rickshaw to a specific location. Eat the local fare. Bed down in a bedbug infested hotel. Air my sleeping bag out on the roof so the hot noonday sun could chase out the bedbugs. Chat with some locals in Hindustani. And take care of my business. Get back on the third class train – and 40 hours later get back to the comfort of my home in Bhopal. In short, I felt quite comfortable with my surroundings in India. Bhopal was home. It felt like home. It’s where I slept like a rock, ate like a pig and read the morning English daily, Hindustan Times, sitting on the toilet. (Well, stooping on the toilet would be more accurate – Indian toilets being quite different from the American variety. Those who have traveled to the third world know what I’m talking about). I felt truly at home in Bhopal, India.
That first year had provided many unusual experiences and surprises- and as I mentioned before, naively, I though I had seen it all. I was beginning my second hot season in Bhopal - easily the most difficult weather to get acclimated to, if one ever does. Daytime temperatures would hover around 105, occasionally getting up to 110. It was just after noon and I had just picked up my mail at the local Peace Corps office and was on my way to the industrial estate where I was working with a local businessman. I was on my trusty Indian motor bike, which I purchased in my second year to make life a little easier. (You can add young and foolish Peace Corps Volunteers to the “Mad dogs and Englishman” adage.) The Industrial Estate was about a half-hour ride from the PC office. I would have to go right through the heart of the main bazaar, which was good because in this heat, regardless of how much water you drink, I could barely make it from lassi stand to lassi stand. (lassi is a phenomenally refreshing cold Indian drink made from yogurt; the yogurt made from goat’s milk.) Crossing a bridge over the main rail line into the city, about a mile from the industrial estate, I saw this disheveled old man, with spindly legs and a walking stick. Slung over his shoulder were probably his worldly possessions wrapped in some dirty old garment. He was walking up and down and occasionally crossing the rail tracks. This in itself was not an unusual sight. In fact it was a very common sight not only along the rail tracks but throughout the entire city. In size and stature and dress, the guy could have passed for Gandhi. I stopped in the middle of the bridge overpass and watched. I don’t really know why, on this particular day I stopped in the middle of that bridge.
In the distance, maybe a mile away was the Dukshin (Southern) Express coming from the south into the city. Even in the bright noonday sun, you could easily make out the bright headlight on the main engine. And of course, especially in the hot season, you could see the clouds of dust the train was kicking up. Maybe it was this guy’s strange walking pattern – up and down and then crossing the tracks – that held my attention.
The train was only a few miles from the station, so it was going no faster then twenty or thirty miles per hour, and then the train blew its whistle, perhaps because it was getting close to the station or maybe because it was warning this guy. But he just kept walking back and forth and occasionally crossing the tracks, seemingly oblivious to the oncoming train. He never picked his head up to look at the train, but instead kept his head down, riveted on the ground. And then, suddenly, it dawned on me – this guy was going to kill himself.
The train got closer, the headlight brighter, the whistle louder, and dust cloud thicker. The whistle was now one long constant blast instead of intermittent blasts, and then right in front of my very eyes, this poor soul lies down perpendicular across the outside rail – his head and right arm on the inside of the steel rail, his body perpendicular and outside the rail. In an instant the train rolled right over this fellow, severing his right arm and head. Something on the outside of the train snagged onto this poor soul’s torso and dragged it along side the moving train. It was a fairly long train.
It seemed like an eternity before the train passed under the bridge and left this man’s right arm and head lying in the middle between the two steel rails – the body long since dragged somewhere down the tracks, nowhere in sight. Transfixed by this goulish macabre sight I couldn’t move nor utter a sound. Everything became absolutely quiet. I don’t know how long I stood there – maybe several minutes, before the sounds of Bhopal came back into my head – a cacophony of car horns, moaning water buffalo, and vendors on both sides of the bridge hawking their goods. Eventually some people went down the embankment around the bridge to look at what was left of the old beggar. Suddenly crowds began to form and milled around the body parts. Crowds can form in India in an instant. After maybe 15 minutes passed, I don’t really know because the passage of time seemed surreal. An argument broke out between the railway police and the local police about whose responsibility it was to take care of this guy’s remains, and that’s when I left and continued on to the industrial estate.
Perhaps I wasn’t as accustomed to the sights and sounds of India as I thought I was. India: always a surprise just around the bend - a land of surprises and extremes and contradictions - too hot, too cold; too wet, too dry - incredible wealth, incredible poverty - incredible hope, incredible despair - teeming with life – and in the blink of an eye, just around that bend – death.
No one back home in the states who knew me well, or thought they did, ever imagined I would last two years in India. They all predicted that I would leave the Peace Corp service early. I didn’t. I stayed the full two years. I’m glad I did. Yes, I learned about another country and culture that I never in my wildest imagination thought I’d ever see. It was a great adventure. One I haven’t been able to match in the ensuing 30 years. I made and kept many friends from that experience. Good friends. Friends who have shared a common experience and understand the experience for what it was.
I never intended to save the world from poverty. There was no altruism connected to my joining the Peace Corps. No noblesse oblige; the Horwitz family had neither the rank nor the wealth. It just happened to be the right choice at the right time in my life. It was a good experience. It was worthwhile. It was exciting. It was educational in a way that overshadows and transcends any formal education. It was, as I previously mentioned, an experience from which we tend to date all other experiences. But basically - it was just plain fun.
|By dale illig (22.214.171.124) on Thursday, November 27, 2008 - 12:37 pm: Edit Post|
Ben, I enjoyed reading your journal. I was in Gazipur, Uttar Pradesh and Allahabad in 1969- 1972. Your posting has inspired me to share my experiences and some of the images that I have collected. thanks Dale Illig.