“I DON’T UNDERSTAND what is ‘first class’” about this train car, my husband said.
I looked around at the dirty, rusty old car, with bent bars on the open window, red betel juice stains on the walls, and the single hard seat in the small cabin. I looked through the bars to the bustling train station, with hawkers, beggars, food and magazine stalls, travelers, crying children, hungry dogs, and all the noise that went along with the bustling activity in the humid Bombay afternoon. I could smell the pungent odor that is always present in India — a combination of rotting garbage, sweaty bodies, and smoke from dung fires. The sights, sounds and smells were coming back to me after thirty years of being away. I suddenly realized why such a decrepit car would be labeled “first class.” “It’s because we are the only people allowed in here,” I explained to my husband. “In India, there are people everywhere. You are never alone. It isn’t the quality of the cabin that separates us from the others. It’s the luxury of having some space and time to ourselves.”
We sat back and made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the hard bench in the humid afternoon air. The only first class tickets available for the four-hour train trip had been “Non AC” — that is, no air conditioning. I didn’t mind, however, as the heat and noise contributed to my nostalgia. The humidity, the vivid colors, the sounds of life at the station, and the scene of the ramshackle slums of Bombay as the train pulled out of the station were quickly bringing me back thirty years. Back to a time of idealism and the eternal belief of youth — that we really do have the power to change the world.
Joining the Peace Corps
My husband and I had joined the Peace Corps right out of college in 1966. The Vietnam War was raging, and we were among the “Peaceniks” who felt there was a better way. We were given three months of training in poultry management and the local Marathi language before we were sent off to Nasik, a town of 100,000 in the state of Maharashtra, India. There were twenty-one of us in group “India 26” — all of us scattered around the state whose most famous city is Bombay. At the end of our two years of service, most of us had come to the painful realization of how hard it really was to make any significant difference in the lives of people in a culture that is 5,000 years old. As a result, most of us gained more from our experience than we were able to give.
We returned to America in 1968 to begin the process of establishing homes and careers; and soon the PTA, the school board, and the local soccer leagues along with our jobs drained us of any leftover zeal to change the world. For some of us — myself included — eventual divorce, and the life changes that go along with it, also became a part of our life experiences. I remarried and moved on.
An opportunity to return
In 1998, my new husband, Pat, and I were invited to represent our software company at a conference in India. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and to extend our business trip by two weeks and travel to Nasik where I had been stationed in the Peace Corps. It was not an easy decision to make and I was not sure what — or who — I was looking for by going back. However in November of 1998, thirty years after leaving India, we flew from Seattle to Bombay, and after one night in a hotel, found ourselves on the first class train to Nasik . Less than 48 hours after leaving home, I would be back in Nasik with a new husband, very little memory of the Marathi language, and thirty years of change — both within and without. I had no idea what to expect, and as the train moved slowly through the afternoon heat, passing lush fields and towns crowded with noise, people color, and life, I began to reflect on the people I had known when I lived in Nasik, wondering how — and if — I would find each of them when we arrived.
My first thought was of Chief, a wealthy Hindu, who was used to power and money. Chief had a “purse” from the government, which he received for having been a “Chief” of a small sovereignty at the time of independence in 1948. Chief lived in the largest house in Nasik — full of servants, friends, family as well as local and at times national politicians. Chief gave large dinner parties, traveled the world, and was a very gracious host to the local foreign community. It was Chief I had called to say we were returning to Nasik, and he had been most gracious in arranging for a place for us to stay.
Falu and Roshan Irani were of the Parsi community. They lived in a small, older home on the family compound with their two teen-aged sons. Falu had been educated in England and raised in a wealthy family. He was a gentleman farmer, enjoying the time in his fields on his tractor and the feeling of dirt under his fingernails. Falu was also a hunter, helping local villages when a leopard or tiger crept too close and started taking their livestock or sometimes, a child. I remembered many evenings spent with Falu and Roshan, she sitting quietly after serving us an exquisite meal while Falu sipped whisky and philosophized on the meaning of life or told wild tales of his hunting experiences. Falu and Roshan were very peaceful people, rarely leaving the solitude and peace of their quiet compound.
The D’Souza family drifted next into my mind. They were Christians, with four teenaged children. Elias, at 19 was out of school and worked full-time with his parents on their small poultry farm. This very poor family was just starting their poultry endeavor with their first two hundred chickens when the Peace Corps Volunteers who preceded us in Nasik had begun to work with them. Those Volunteers were retired Iowa farmers who wanted to do something significant in their retirement. When we arrived to replace them, they had helped the D’Souza family build their poultry farm to nearly five hundred chickens. They had also started raising broilers as well as chickens for egg production. Most of our time as Volunteers was dedicated to this fine, hard-working family. At the time, they lived in the feed shed adjacent to their poultry house. Elias had once told me that the best gift Ivan, the retired farmer, had given him was to teach him how to work and to work hard. I knew Elias had put everything into his family’s business, and I was very curious to see if they were still in operation and what level of success they might have achieved.
The last family that I recalled touched my heartstrings the most, being among the poorest of India’s poor. Our sweepers had been “Harijans” or outcasts in the strictly stratified Hindu culture. All of the children in the family worked, and most days, ten-year-old Uma came to clean our rooms along with her six-year-old sister and two-year-old brother. Uma had a twinkle in her eye and a great smile. She would teach me Marathi words and I taught her English words, which she was very keen to learn. Each holiday she took time to teach me about the local traditions and would bring special sweets or colored powder to show me how they celebrated. I had held Uma at her wedding as she cried before she went out to meet her new twenty-one-year-old husband – ten years her senior. I had encouraged her to only have two children, hoping she and they could have a better life with fewer children to care for. I had long ago lost track of Uma and had no idea how or where to find her. I assumed she was living somewhere among the poor masses of India. I had committed a full week to trying to locate her on this trip.
Arriving in Nasik
It was evening as we pulled into the station. Nothing looked familiar as I walked towards the large, new station, and I almost wondered if I was in the right place. Suddenly a well-dressed man came towards me, and I realized it was Chief. The sight of the older, but familiar face was very welcome and I was relieved to be greeted with such warmth so very far from home. Chief took us to a restaurant for dinner, then drove us to the bungalow of a friend, where we would stay. It was only later that I would learn why we were not given accommodations in his own, large home.
As Volunteers, we had enjoyed many meals and lively evenings in that magnificent home. Now, the morning after our arrival, I stood dumbfounded in front of it as I saw its wretched state of disrepair. The house had not been painted for years. Porches were sagging, the roof needed replacement and the yard was no longer maintained. Inside I could see that the house had not been cleaned for a long time and garbage was being thrown out the back door. Chief sat on the porch, petting his dog and drinking beer. As we began to talk, I realized that he had already had a lot to drink and that my dear, old friend was an alcoholic. He talked about his circumstances, saying that the purse from the government had run out many years before, and that he had been left without an income. His sons had been raised to be “idle wealthy” and were not adjusting well to establishing themselves as businessmen. With a growing sadness, I left to attempt to find my other old friends.
Falu and Roshan
We walked through the streets of the city, which had grown ten times in population over the years. The center of the town had changed so much it was difficult to orient myself. As we neared Falu’s compound, however, things began to look as they had thirty years before, and I approached their same small yellow house with a comfortable sense of the familiar.
My knock was answered. There stood Roshan, her face closed with suspicion at the strangers standing on her porch. Suddenly, her eyes widened and she smiled her warm, wonderful smile, as she recognized me with my full head of gray hair and my new husband. She welcomed us and as we shared tea she filled me in on thirty years of their family history. One of her sons now lived in the U.S. The other lived in the compound with his wife and two-year-old son. Falu himself was well, but had gone from being a reclusive farmer to a reclusive writer. He rarely left the compound, using his time to write stories of his hunting adventures. Falu slept all day and wrote all night, she explained. She invited us back for dinner to have a good visit with him.
That evening we laughed, remembered, and shared many old stories. Falu and Roshan were the same gentle people, happy and comfortable with the lives they were living. I asked them about the D’Souza family and it was from them that I got my first understanding of the measure of D’Souza’s success. They had prospered, beyond their wildest dreams, I was told. Roshan gave me their phone number, and I could hardly wait for the morning to make contact with them again. Roshan also knew something of Uma, as Uma’s family had also worked for Roshan. She was quite sure that many years before, Uma had moved to a town approximately 200 kilometers to the south. She had not heard anything of her or the family for a very long time.
That night my head was reeling. So far I had found two of the four families I had known so well thirty years before. Tomorrow I would learn of the D’Souzas and I had a lead to Uma. Would I actually find them all, coming full circle with my experiences over the span of thirty years? I contemplated the changes in Chief’s life — undoubtedly he had had too much money and too little discipline, slipping slowly into a decrepit and — for him — humiliating lifestyle. Alcohol had drained him of any energy to improve his condition, and he was simply drinking his time away. Falu on the other hand, reclusive as he had become, was still his old self — warm, humorous, and dedicated to his new writing career. I wondered what I would find with Elias and his family the following day. I finally drifted off to sleep, thinking mostly of Uma and wondering whether I would be lucky enough to find her among the masses of India’s poor.
The following morning I phoned Elias D’Souza. After recovering from such a surprise call, he invited us to visit their office later that day and to come to their house for dinner. As we drove up to the building that afternoon, I began to realize that something very big had happened with CHEMNR Farms. The building was large, the grounds expansive. As I came up the stairs, Elias ran out to meet me — there it was — the same great smile, only now on a handsome, successful, fifty-year old man. Over tea, Elias related the story of their success. He stressed that everything was based upon his having learned to work hard from Ivan and Edith Brotzman. For years he had not even had a Coke, as he put every rupee back into the business. All of the children had worked with the family business and all were still involved. Only his father had passed away. Richard, his younger brother, was an integral part of the business, even though he had been paralyzed at age fourteen by the use of an unsterile needle during an appendectomy.
The business now had farms in many locations and employed several thousands of people. The business volume was over fifty million dollars a year, the largest chicken operation in all of India. Elias travels the world on business trips, and tries to get to Florida several times a year to visit Ivan, who has remained like a father to the entire family.
After a tour of the facilities, we were taken to Elias’ home. Where once we had worked side by side, debeaking and plucking chickens in their dirt yard, now stood a 12,500 square foot mansion, complete with manicured grounds, swimming pool, and Italian marble floors. Elias’ gracious wife, Terry and their three young adult children greeted us with warmth and curiosity. We were so comfortable with these fine people that we accepted their invitation to move to their guestroom and remain with them for the rest of our stay. Over the course of the next few days we visited Elias’ mother, brother and sisters, meeting their children (including an Edith and an Ivan) and reminiscing over the changes their hard work had brought.
But Elias had one more surprise in store for me. During our first visit to his office, I had told him of my desire to find Uma, and the very small lead I had from Roshan, that she might be in a town called Ahmednagar, about 200 kilometers to the south. Elias took down what little information I had and offered to call his good friend, Mr. Roy, who happened to be the Superintendent of Police in the Ahmednagar district.
That very evening, as we returned from touring the CHEMNR — now C and M — farms, Elias greeted us with the news that Mr. Roy had called him back saying that Uma had been located. I couldn’t believe my luck, and asked if they were very sure that it was she. His answer brought tears to my eyes — “Yes,” he said. “they are very sure, because when the policeman asked if she was Uma Chhajalane, she at first was very afraid. When they said an American woman was looking for her, she began to cry, then laugh, then cry and laugh again.” I realized it must be her, and that we still shared the emotional bond that had so tied us thirty years before.
The following day, we hired a car and drove to Ahmednagar. Mr. Roy had invited us to his bungalow to be reunited with Uma. We approached the imposing compound dominated by the stately English-style bungalow with its large covered porches. Trees shaded the well-kept yard; servants rested or walked slowly through the hot sun. Several government jeeps were parked on the side of the house. I felt nervous and suddenly very unsure of myself.
Mr. Roy and his wife, both of whom were very excited about the scheduled reunion, greeted us at the door. He had brought Uma and her family to the compound, and they were already waiting for us. His making the arrangements, and bringing her to his home particularly touched me, as India is a highly stratified culture. Mr. Roy, as the Superintendent of Police, was one of the most important people in the district. Uma, as a low-class sweeper, was one of the least important. Yet Mr. Roy treated her with tremendous respect throughout our visit that day. Both he and his wife were extremely enthusiastic about the event, and those under him followed his commendable example.
After sharing a cup of coffee and making a “game plan” for the day, Mr. Roy took us out to the porch, where Uma and her family and friends were waiting. There was a cluster of animated, village people. Although I hadn’t seen Uma since she was twelve years old, I knew her instantly, and as she ran to me and we threw our arms around each other, I felt my heart would burst. She was so small, at about 4 feet 8 inches — no taller than when I had last seen her. She gave us flower leis, homemade sweets, placed red dots of respect and welcome on each of our foreheads. She had even hired someone to take photographs. I wondered how she could afford all she had done to make our welcome special.
As I could no longer speak Marathi, we conversed in English with the help of an English-speaking young man accompanying Uma. His name was Sunil, and I was soon to learn that he had a special place in her life. I was also about to learn what my longest-lasting influence as a Volunteer may have been. In the sixties, we were very concerned with the growing population, and many of us committed to the concept of zero population growth — that is, having no more than two children to replace yourselves. As a Volunteer, I had strongly encouraged Uma to have no more than two children, assuring her that both she and her children would have a better life with fewer to provide for. Uma had believed me and had given birth to just one son and one daughter. How could I know, in my youth, or have the foresight to understand the consequences of that commitment on her part? Now, at the age of 42, Uma was a widow, her husband having drunk himself to death some years before. Her daughter, Sarika, had married the previous year and had moved to another city, becoming part of her husband’s family as is the custom in India.
At this point in the telling of her story, Uma’s voice became shaky and she began to cry. Her oldest child, her son, Sunil, had been killed in a motor scooter accident the previous year. He was one of thousands of young men who are killed in car and motor scooter accidents every year in India, with their terribly overcrowded roads, jammed with speeding buses, full of dangerous potholes, and snuffing out young lives in tragic accidents on a daily basis.
Sunil had still been unmarried. Suddenly Uma was truly alone in a country with no social safety net, where your sons care for you when you are old and unable to work. Yet Uma now has no sons. I felt the weight of my words of thirty years before and asked myself for the first, but not the last time, how much of her situation resulted from my own words to her, however well intended at the time.
As we crammed thirty years of history into our first excited minutes together, the others in the group that had come with Uma were gathering around, staring, smiling, and generally fawning over us. Uma introduced us — her sister Jaisri was there, whom I had also known thirty years before. Uma explained that she now lived with Jaisri, also a widow, along with her son, his family, and Jaisri’s mother-in-law. Various friends and neighbors had also come to share the day. I could see that they were wearing their best clothes, their faces full of smiles and curiosity. All the while, the young man, Sunil, continued translating their Marathi into excellent English for us.
Gently, Uma put her hand on Sunil’s arm. “This is now my son,” she said. “That is why I call him Sunil.” I saw the warmth of the smile that passed between them. Yet had I not just been introduced to “Sunil’s” real mother? I saw her there now — tall for an Indian woman, in a bright green sari, smiling through the crowd with pride at her son. Sunil went on to explain that he and his mother lived near Uma, and that they had been very worried about her after losing her only son. Sunil had begun to check on her every day, to see that she was eating and whether she needed anything. Soon, Uma was calling him “Sunil,” and they began to grow close. “Now,” he said to me, “I visit her every day. If I ever missed, she would worry that something was wrong. But it is OK, because I never miss. She has had enough worry and sadness in her life.” Where there is no safety net by the government in India, their rich cultural fabric holds strongly together. Needs are met. People are not left to suffer alone. They fill in the gaps for each other, and life moves on. I was very impressed.
A visit to Uma’s home
At this point, the entire entourage proceeded to load themselves into the two government jeeps that stood waiting. Pat and I were pushed aboard, and off we went, through the streets of the town. People were hanging onto the sides of the jeeps; colorful saris were blowing in the wind. The excited drivers honked their horns as though they were escorting a maharaja, warning everyone to get out of their way. Uma and her family laughed, waved, and shouted for joy. It was a glorious moment for them, these hard-working people from the lowest class of their society, riding jubilantly through the streets of their town in the jeeps of the Superintendent of Police, celebrating their moment of glory.
We arrived at a small, clean compound. The walking areas were built up, so the drainage ditches cut into them actually worked and the walkways were clean and dry. The houses with their shared walls had been recently painted a faded whitewash of pastel blues and pinks. Uma’s unit consisted of a small living room, an adjacent room with a table, a tall wardrobe, and a color TV set, much to my surprise. A kitchen off the back had shelves lined with colorful brass and stainless steel pots, and a washroom had running water for several hours a day. The community toilets were behind the housing units. I could see the bedrolls stashed here and there around the house, and it was clear that at night all of the floor space was taken up as sleeping space. The house had a wonderful smell — onions, curry, spices — and they had a feast ready to be spread. Gone, however, was the smell of a dung fire, as they cooked on two propane burners. That meant that gone, too, were the constant eye infections of the women as they labored over the relentless smoke of the dung fires of the past.
We were brought into the dark kitchen, where Uma, laughing, had both of us making chapattis to go with the chicken curry meal they had prepared. Pat and I ate alone, while what seemed like the entire population of the housing compound stood at the door and watched our every move. We looked through her photo album, seeing pictures of Sunil and her daughter, Sarika, as they grew up. The last photo was that of a handsome young man with dark eyes, staring out at us, taken just weeks before the accident that took his life.
Uma opened the wardrobe and removed a bright orange sari, which she handed to me as a gift. I was overwhelmed at the amount of their giving out of their poverty. We talked, laughed, took photographs, shared memories. The afternoon passed.
Finally, it was time to go. According to the plan we had made with Mr. Roy, only Uma, Pat and I returned in the jeep to his residence. The three of us were escorted into his living room and were offered Coca-Cola. Uma at first refused the glass offered to her by the servant, thinking it was not meant for her. Mr. Roy, however, spoke kindly to her, and told her she was a guest in his house and to please accept the refreshment. She blushed and took the glass from the tray.
A gift for Uma
At this point I took the watch off my wrist and put it on Uma’s slim arm. She smiled her thanks. This was my time to talk about how to give back to Uma. I asked Mr. Roy to ask her what she needed, or what I could do for her. I didn’t know how, or in what form I could meet her greatest needs.
Upon translating my request to her, Uma gave an animated response. I saw tears come to the eyes of Mrs. Roy, who had joined us, and even Mr. Roy seemed to collect himself before he spoke. “She says she has everything she needs, Mrs. Carey. She is just so happy you came to visit her.”
I felt tears stinging my eyes as well. This was a meeting between two women — one of the richest in the world by most standards, and one of the poorest. Uma had spent the day welcoming us, feeding us, giving us gifts. This was now her opportunity to ask for anything in return and she knew I would try to give it to her. Yet short of bringing back her son, there was nothing that she really needed or wanted in life. She has strong emotional support with her adopted son, Sunil, her sister’s family, and her neighbors and friends. She has a roof over her head, plenty of food, and enough to wear. She has a job cleaning for the government making $700 per year, which combined with the incomes of the other adults in the household is enough to meet their daily needs. She even has an advantage over many Indians because she works for the government, which will mean she will get a pension in the amount of half her salary when she retires.
I was touched. I was impressed. And I was very humbled. She really did have everything she needs. She doesn’t face loneliness, hunger, fear of danger, or lack of purpose. What could she possible need from me? It was quiet for a moment while the reality of her strength and position in life settled into us. The moment passed, but it will not soon be forgotten.
After some discussion with Uma and Mr. Roy, we finally did discuss how I could send her some money on a regular basis, which she said she would accept. He cautioned me not to send more than $700 a year, the amount of her salary, as he felt it was important not to set her up as a target or alienate her in any way from the safe emotional and cultural environment that she currently enjoyed.
The three of us parted from Mr. and Mrs. Roy, thanking them for their hospitality and gracious hosting of my reunion with my dear old friend. The fact that the Roys were of a high class, and had treated Uma and her family as guests in their home was not lost on me. As we left, Mr. Roy told me he would check on Uma periodically, making sure all was well. The man was a jewel.
We climbed back into the car we had driven, bringing Uma along to return her to her home. Along the way she asked us to stop at several places, dragging us out of the car and bringing us in to meet her boss, her co-workers, other friends. She wore the big smile I knew so well as she showed us off to her friends, and I was happy for her. I was happy for myself. Just as when I was in the Peace Corps, I came to give, but received more than I gave. Once again, I was leaving with a full heart and a renewed appreciation of what matters in life. Thank you Uma. Thank you India. Thank you Peace Corps. I am a better person because of you.
by Barbara Carey (India 1966–68)
This essay won the Peace Corps Writers' 2002 Moritz Thomsen Experience Award.