Twenty years ago, during his last semester of college, Jon C. Jenkins dropped out of school and went to India to work for the Institute of Cultural Affairs. A private, nonprofit organization, the institute sponsors community development projects around the world.
Out of his experiences in India and other countries — many shared with his wife Maureen — come these moving stories. Jenkins describes them as his “mundane encounters with God.”
THE TRIP TO MANMAD
The sun is just coming over the horizon. The women of Sevagram are squatting before dried dung fires, preparing the morning meal. Smoke and the smells of garlic, turmeric, and chilies fill the air. Muted sounds of water buffalo and cattle play in the background.
I am sweating as I pack my clothes and the English draft of the consultation report. I spend the rest of the morning cleaning up the area where we’ve worked. I return a rented bicycle. I say goodbye to our staff, who will live here for the next four years. I visit some villagers I’ve come to know.
I was invited to India to help with an experimental consultation involving twelve villages surrounding Sevagram — the village of Gandhi’s ashram in central Maharashtra. The event was beset with logistical problems. Transportation was by foot or bicycle. There was no room big enough to hold all of the participants, so the meetings took place outside. At times we had to use three languages — Hindi, Marati, and English.
I take the afternoon train to Bombay with nine others from the consultation. It is good to be done, good to be going to Bombay, good to travel with people I’ve worked so hard with for the past four weeks.
We board a train in Wardha, find seats together in the second-class carriage, and settle in for the journey. We talk late into the night, then make our beds on the wood benches. We cover ourselves with cotton blankets and go to sleep.
About 10 the next morning, the train stops in Manmad. We are used to delays, so we continue our conversation without worrying about it. The conductor appears and explains that we have stopped because of a wreck up the line; the train can go no farther.
Our group breaks up to claim our luggage and to get refunds from the railroad and tickets for the bus. We all meet at the bus station. Thousands of stranded travelers are trying to get buses to Bombay. We are nowhere near the front of the line. It will probably be several days before the track is cleared or we can get a bus. We decide to try the long-distance taxis. We feel discouraged, knowing that persistence is no guarantee of success, but the only chance we have.
We turn a corner into a darkish alley that opens into a kind of field. I realize we are walking through the red-light district. The girls seem to be convinced we are likely customers. I am embarrassed and turn to avoid their calls and sensual movements. A few yards ahead is a girl of fourteen or fifteen, with a thin, see-through rag for a sari and no underskirt. She is picking through a garbage pile. Her face is distorted in a way that makes her look retarded.
My vision seems to tunnel. Images flash through my mind, like a newsreel. I see a little boy in Sicily in the early Sixties begging for cigarettes. I see a young Filipina in Manila with a look so joyless that I can feel the brutality of drugs and prostitution. I see a leper sitting on the steps of a church in Bombay while his wife and children sleep on the curb half a block away. I see a man wrapped only in cellophane walking down a mountain road in Japan. I see a wino who has defecated in his clothes sleeping in a doorway in Chicago. I see an inner-city preschool teacher the day after her boyfriend nearly blinded her with her own high heels. I see a grammar-school friend scarred for life in a fire in his apartment, which a Los Angeles slumlord failed to maintain. I see a girl in San Francisco so strung out on heroin she will be dead in months.
This dusty, hot Saturday, I have the privilege of meeting a very significant person: a mad, starving, nearly naked little girl who picks through the garbage outside a whorehouse on the outskirts of a dusty Indian town.
Since that day she has a prominent place within my interior council of advisors and critics. She cares for my spirit by visiting my imagination from time to time, bringing with her that ever-lengthening newsreel.
THE PRIMARY SCHOOL
In Azpitia you are struck by what seems to be a lot of construction. Many plots of land have a foundation or four half-walls. There are piles of sand and gravel and bags of cement lying about the construction sites. But this seeming boom of construction is really unfinished building that has been unfinished for years. Little cash in the community forces people to buy only a few concrete blocks and a couple of bags of sand at a time to build a new house. This makes a lot of sense: it’s an investment in the future that has little chance of deteriorating. However, as time goes on, a number of the building projects are abandoned. The appearance of perpetual construction continues, not as a sign of growth and health, but as a symbol of stagnation.
The primary school had been condemned as unsafe after the earthquake in 1976. For years the village had been trying to get the government to rebuild it. The Ministry of Education and private donors agreed to finance a new school. The donors would provide all of the materials and the design. The village was to provide the labor, either by donating time or paying hired help. The work had to be completed within sixty days of the delivery of the materials.
The people of Azpitia had enough skill to do everything but the plastering and the final finish of the floor, so a series of workdays was planned in which to do the work.
The first workday was a wonder. I was one of the five outsiders among the fifty or sixty villagers digging trenches for the foundations. The ground was made of sand and large rocks. Shoveling it involved moving a little sand, then prying out a rock the size of one’s head. We worked at it like ants. Dust was everywhere; sand and rocks piled up all around the site. For lunch the village women had prepared “brutish soup,” a freeze-dried potato stew as thick as porridge. It was wonderful to stop digging, to watch the dust settle a little, to listen to the gossip of the village.
The work began again. A few people drifted off and a few more came. By the end of the day, I was ready to die. The men brought out wine, beer, and pisco (a local brandy). We had a real celebration.
Over the next five or six workdays, the foundations were laid and the wall pillars and walls began to go up. Then one day the only people to show up were two or three of our staff, one old man who hadn’t missed a day, and the hired plasterer. The next workday, only our staff and the plasterer came. Something was wrong. We were afraid the deadline would be missed. We were even more afraid we were creating a new symbol of unfulfilled hope.
Our staff decided that we would drop everything we were doing and work only on the school building. All of us went to the site and began to mix cement at 8 in the morning.
Mixing cement was hard work. First, ten buckets of sand were measured and placed in the center of a cleared area. Gravel and a bag of cement were added to the pile, which two people turned with shovels until it was mixed. A crater was dug in the center and water poured in. We began shoveling the mixture from the bottom outside edge to the top of the crater, being careful not to let the water overflow. When the water was absorbed, more was added. We kept mixing until the cement was the right consistency.
When the cement was ready, I climbed two steps up a ladder. Each bucket of cement weighed about thirty pounds. Someone handed me one and I heaved it onto my shoulder. Someone sitting on the frame for the beam lifted it off me and dumped it into the mold. The bucket was tossed down. Soon my arm and shoulder were tired; someone took my place while I began filling buckets. We continued to take turns. Long before lunch, I was in pain. My shoulder had a groove from the bucket. The muscles of my arms ached. The lime in the cement was eating into the skin of my hands.
At lunch we all ate without talking, staring at the food. Some lay down to rest. Soon it was time to begin again.
I helped mix another batch of cement and again lifted buckets to be poured into the frame. As the afternoon passed, we all got slower and slower. Occasionally a villager stopped on the way to the fields and said hello, but no one stopped to help. By 4 we could continue no longer.
A bath was the first thing I wanted. I filled the big clay pot with water from the storage tank and set it on the fire I lit in the yard. I wandered into the house to undress and put on a bathrobe. I got a beer; it was not cold, but such refinement was beyond consideration.
When the bath water was hot, I put some into a bucket and added cold until it was the right temperature. I went into the screened-off part of the porch. Using a big plastic cup, I poured water over my head. Sand and dirt ran off me. I poured another cup of water. I rubbed soap in my hair and over my body. More water. There was a little breeze. In spite of being sore and very tired, I felt quite content with life. I dried off. I was in bed and asleep not long after dark.
When I awoke I was more sore than when I went to bed. I laughed about how years of relative inactivity could be turned into pain in seven or eight hours. At 8 we went to the new school. Again, we were alone. The work was even more difficult; for some reason, it seemed more oppressive. Around 10, Mrs. Bartola, the owner of the largest store and a very influential person, brought cold beer for all of us. A little while later, one of the village women stopped as she walked by and asked why no one else was working on the school. We said we didn’t know.
The next day the old man and some of the youth showed up to work. The following Saturday we had a full work force — not as large as the first Saturday’s, but large enough to complete the school.
THE HOUSING PROJECT IN NAPLES
I meet with a priest at a seminary in Naples. I explain that we are looking for a development project in which our organization can participate. He wants us to meet some of his students who are doing pastoral work.
One student describes a big public housing project on the outskirts of the city, with more than a hundred thousand inhabitants. Originally, only residential buildings were constructed. There were no shops, no recreational facilities, no public services, no school, no church. There were no factories — no jobs — just apartments. By the time people actually moved into the complex, the mafia had control of the area. Hundreds of shops sprang up illegally. Apartments became sweatshops where shoes, watches, and clothes were made for export.
Drugs of every type are now available, as are prostitutes and guns. Of the 350 murders in the city of Naples so far this year, says the seminarian, nearly half took place here.
Each month, every apartment is visited and tribute collected for the local crime organization. It is not intended as a source of income for the organization; it is a ritual of submission, a reminder of the rules of survival.
A church was built there recently. The parish priest works hard, and students from the seminary help him in organizing activities, trying to better the lives of the residents. Education programs offer basic skills. After-school programs and women’s clubs involve people in various activities.
The seminarian describes the hardships involved in this work. He tells of the day the local Don asked the priest to baptize his godson. The priest said he knew who the Don was and, whatever anyone else said, he knew that the Don was a murderer and a criminal; he would not allow him in the church for any reason. The next morning, when the priest arrived at the church, there was a body on the steps. Its limbs and head were missing. It was so badly mutilated that its sex was not clear.
For me, the conversation seems to end. I ask more questions, but “I” am no longer present. I say I will be in touch. I thank all the participants for their kindness and go back to the train station. All this time “I” am somewhere else.
I imagine myself and my family living and working in that community. I imagine my sons growing up in that atmosphere. I think about what could happen when we actually came into conflict with the forces of the community.
My courage fails. Something deep in me dies.
THE OLD MAN IN BOMBAY
On my third day in India, I wake up at 5 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep. I go for a walk, sweating in the heat. Already, the streets are full. The cry to the Muslim faithful fills the air, competing with housewives bargaining with stall-keepers. The spicy aromas of food being cooked barely masks the constant smell of urine. The sky is startlingly blue; men’s clothes are bleached white as sunlight; saris swirl rainbows of unnatural brightness. A dung patty falls behind a cow and a little man in polished shoes does a little skip to avoid the splatter.
Bombay assaults your senses — and your sense of justice. Outside our front door lives a leper. He cheerfully begs money by wishing me luck. I pass a corner where three generations of one family live on a porch — a slab of concrete the size of a bed. Here they sleep, cook, eat, and procreate. A laborer carries a huge load of bricks on her head and an infant on one hip. Three men, wet with sweat, push a load of steel bars on a two-wheel wooden cart; the bars must weigh more than 2,000 pounds.
Bombay bruises your sense of dignity. We are guests of Bishop Joshi, the Methodist bishop. One morning Laura, another guest, gets up early to use the toilet. A rat has fallen into the bowl and is resting after struggling for some time to get out. When Laura sits down, the rat attempts with renewed hope to escape. Bishop Joshi sends his dog in after the rat. The dog shakes the rat to death.
Every day, my wife Maureen and I walk a few blocks to the railroad station, buy an Illustrated Weekly or India Times, and go to a restaurant for coffee. It’s not “real” coffee, but instant in boiling buffalo milk.
We always take the same route. One morning, as we reach the end of our quiet, tree-lined street, we pass an old man sitting in the shade of one of the buildings. His skin is much darker than that of most Indians. A fine dust turns his skin gray where he slept on the sidewalk. His hair is nearly white. He wears burlap sacks for clothes.
Every day we pass him. I never see him stand; he sits or lies down. He begs; he searches the garbage. Near where he sits, a banana salesman begins to park his cart. The salesman’s clients buy bananas, eat them, and toss the skins on the ground. We frequently see the beggar eating the white strands on the insides of discarded skins.
He seems to be shrinking. More and more he seems to be lying down instead of sitting.
As the weeks pass, Maureen and I continue to visit the railroad station. Our morning coffee and the old man become part of a ritual. There is something almost reassuring about his being there. He perseveres in spite of the heat and hunger. I am always stunned when I see him smile.
In the restaurant the chairs and tables are old; slow ceiling fans stir the air. The customers and staff stare at us as we enter. Because women are required to eat separately from men, we sit in a booth. We have a kind of privacy we never get at the house.
We talk, trying to share the pain we experience. We hope we can help each other understand the suffering that constantly grates on our sensibilities. We fail, but we keep returning to try again.
One day we leave for the restaurant as usual, going out the front door of the mansion and walking down the cooler side of the street. We come to the street’s end. The old man is not in the shade of the building. We never see him again.
THE DEATH OF A BOY
The development project in Sikroar was a difficult assignment. We carried water from a well, cooked over a coal stove, slept on charpoys in a room without windows, bathed with cold water, used a pit for a toilet, and were cold most of the time.
From the very beginning, Sripal, a boy from the village, visited our project every chance he got. He was about twelve years old, and quiet; he seemed to like to sit and listen to the staff talk. He would just smile and listen.
He would arrive before breakfast and, if there was no school, leave after dinner. He would do anything: care for the children of the staff, help with construction or cooking. He wanted to learn English, he said, but really he just wanted to help.
One day, I was digging the foundation for the new community center. I heard a scream and a lot of loud talk from the boy’s house. I went to find out what had happened. I learned that Sripal had run to the village from school to help with the project. He stopped at home to tell his mother where he was going to be, said he didn’t feel well, and collapsed at her feet — dead.
The herbal doctor was called. He came and did the only thing he could do: he pronounced the boy dead.
The boy’s mother did not believe the doctor. She wanted to go to Ghaziabad and have a medical doctor confirm his death. We had the only car in the village, so I said I would drive her. The mother and father, the pradhan (the village leader), the herbal doctor, three other people, and the boy’s body were crammed into the car. I drove the ten kilometers to town. At the doctor’s office, the boy was taken upstairs while the herbal doctor and I waited in the car.
We talked about the grief of the mother. When the boy was an infant, he had been diagnosed as having a congenital heart defect that required surgery to repair. The doctor, knowing they were poor, said it would be possible for the boy to live a happy, normal life without the surgery. The family didn’t have the money and didn’t want to borrow it, so they lived for the next ten years in fear, hoping that all would be well.
The family returned to the car in a few minutes; the medical doctor had said the boy was dead.
The mother now wanted to go to Delhi to see the heart specialist who had originally diagnosed the boy. She knew he could help. She had heard that hearts could be transplanted, and even if the boy was dead he could be saved.
The herbal doctor said no, it was not possible; the boy was dead. The husband tried to comfort her. She insisted we go to Delhi. The pradhan ordered us all back to the village. Sripal was dead.
The woman screamed all the way back in protest at the injustice, at her failure. The car resounded with pain. By the time we reached Sikroar, she was prostrate.
Sripal was too young for his spirit to be released in the funeral pyre, so he was returned to the waters.
The whole village went out to one of the nearby canals. Some village elders carried the body, which was wrapped in linen. A band began to play. Two or three men were digging in the canal. The boy was brought to the side of the water. The priest spoke and performed a ritual, then the boy was lowered into the water. One man put his foot on him, and another covered the body with brush. Dirt was piled on and some more words said. The burial was over.
We walked to the family’s house. The mother was carried. The women of the village crowded into the house, and the men sat in the courtyard.
As soon as the mother arrived, two or three women screamed and cried in grief until they were exhausted. Before they paused in their anguish, others began. The sobs and cries went on into the night. Whenever the mother came to consciousness, the shrieks rose intensely.
The men sat in small groups. Speaking quietly, they told stories of the boy. He was a good student. He cared for his family. He never got in trouble. He was gentle and kind. Several times his father expressed his pride in the boy’s work with the project. For three days, we mourned the boy, we delighted in his gifts to the village, we celebrated his life and his death.