In 1966 and 1967 when I was twenty-two years old, I did a two-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a village called Khed halfway between Mumbai and Goa and not far from the Arabian Sea. A lot of my Indian friends innocently pronounced it “Piss Corpse.” My roomie and I built a couple of schools, killed a lot of rats, and helped start some poultry businesses. Mostly, it was a time of emerging from the bubble of American culture and growing up. I had one hell of a life-changing journey but death, sickness, corruption, love, friendship, political fanatics, drugs, thugs, psychosis, and personal palavers with a foul-tempered God who only I could hear were all part of the story. Here is a brief account of a dispute resolution meeting with the local governing council called the panchayat. It is excerpted from Chapter 22 in India-40 and the Circle of Demons, forthcoming in 2017 from Xlibris Publishing.
I have a few linguistic peaks but many more swampy, low-lying valleys in my Marathi language learning. Can get the gist of many conversations but not very fast. I can however tell when people are talking down to us. I also have a recurring creepy nightmare of someone telling me about an emergency back home but I can’t understand a word.
Meanwhile, our direct report, engineer Bal Khelaskar, is a good-hearted man who helps me with language and keeps a supervisory eye over us to make sure we don’t do anything too stupid. One day he says, “Want to go to the panchayat meeting?” For better and worse, this is Khed’s traditional power elite. People come to the panches to plan and implement development projects and get permissions.
The real money and power sits with Block Development Officer Ram Desai but Desai knows where his bread is buttered and what a fly in the ointment the panches can be if they aren’t on his side. They are the traditional, customary village political councils. Desai has to bow to them even if he is holding his nose and crossing his fingers.
The meetings are venues for socializing, gossiping, doing some village politics, and coming ever so slowly to collective decisions about anything that needs group deciding. Gandhi had a Jeffersonian vision of a decentralized independent governance system made up of many mini-republics filled with self-reliant people and panchayats were at the center of his ambition. What he didn’t count on was the legacy of English bureaucracy and the mendacity of Indian elites. I went to the meeting braced for tedium and verbosity. It wasn’t.
Forty people are gathered. Dick and I are warmly introduced by our notional boss, BDO Desai, given tea, cookies, flower garlands, and welcomed as new members of the village. The senior panch has a long white beard, a freshly laundered dhoti, and a bright turquoise-blue turban. His colleagues are just as noble looking. There is considerable hand shaking and namaste-making accompanied by extended head bobbles. The issue of the Peace Corps as a possible nest of CIA spies, which we had been accused of, never comes up.
The speeches grow long. Indians are fine orators, soaring to stratospheric rhetorical heights, but to my ears at least, many of them slip over the edge and turn into gas bags. The spontaneous welcoming comments go on for more than an hour as each person basically says, through long soliloquies, “Me too… happy to have you American Piss Corpse boys here, even though God knows why you are around or what you are doing.”
As we are coming to learn, this phrase “God knows” can carry multiple meanings. It can mean, “Maybe the gods know, or maybe they don’t.” Or, “Whether they do or don’t, I sure as hell don’t know.” Or, “Maybe you actually know, in which case, why are you bothering me?”
“God knows” is usually said with the non-verbal South Asian head bobble, a culturally specific and widely shared form of communication that can also carry multiple meanings. Basically, it’s a swivel and a nod connected together in a fluid right-left then left-right movement that may also be sometimes accompanied with eyebrows going up and down.
Many first timers who encounter Indians doing this think they are saying “no.” It doesn’t mean that, though it can. It also doesn’t mean, “yes,” though it can. It sometimes means “sometimes” or “someday” which could refer to yesterday, today, tomorrow, never, or always.
Confusing? The bobble must be precisely deciphered in its specific context depending on the particulars of the situation, moment, and place. It could mean, “I am more or less paying attention to you and thinking about what you are saying.” Or, “I agree with you, at least a little bit.“ Or, quite possibly, “I don’t agree with you in the slightest but I am too polite to tell you what a dumb fuck you are.” It could also mean something like, “I am acknowledging your corporeal existence on this planet as someone who is very, very strange and who just possibly may be a kindred homo sapien but nothing more and the matter must remain in suspended judgment.”
Or it could just mean, “God knows.”
After the ceremony honoring us, an interesting thing happens. Two farmers, glaring at each other with perfectly obvious contempt, enter the room along with a dozen wives, children, friends, gawkers, and hanger-on-ers. They exchange words and the mood changes. There is a lot of chatter and heads bobbling at 60-mph before the panchayat leader silences them with a bark. Then, one of the other elders takes charge.
For the next hour, prompted by occasional questions in Marathi too fast for us to fully decipher, and with a lot of emotional finger waggling and dagger-eyes, each of the disputants present their cases in venomous explanations, counter-explanations, accusations, threats, demands, offers, and counter-offers. All of this seems to culminate in a long, rambling speech by the panchayat leader after which heads bobble, eyebrows twitch, smiles emerge, there is deep bowing and foot touching, and namastes are exchanged. Eventually everyone adjourns for tea and smokes.
Engineer Bal tells us later that these two families own adjacent rice paddies down the road from where we live and have been fighting for three generations over a boundary. Each claims the other is encroaching on his family’s land. Out of this come many other routine and predictable grievances, in this instance, a water buffalo that wandered over the boundary, stomped down a half hectare of young rice plantings, and crushed part of a berm.
The courts being impossibly remote, these farming families have for years been making annual visits to the panchayat to air grievances and try to reach some kind of end to their conflict. The core dispute, Khelaskar explains, never actually gets resolved. It goes on. The families are habituated to the fights, sort of like Democrats and Republicans back home. It’s a historical ritualistic, and possibly somewhat recreational conflict.
These are also days of larger abrasions, conflicts, and killings. After the panchayat meeting, just before the cricket scores, BBC radio says there are communal riots in Gujarat. More Muslims and Hindus killing each other, as if that will make progress on anything. I’m reading the recently published journals of Albert Camus. He is ruminating on Nazis, Nuremberg, and murder and I’m thinking of Vietnam, Gujarat, and the farmers airing their perpetual disputes.
“The only really serious moral problem is killing,” says Camus. “The rest comes afterwards. But what must be discovered is whether I can kill this man in front of me, or allow him to be killed; and what must be realized is that I know nothing until I know if I can kill.”
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