India-40 and the Circle of Demons: A Memoir of Death, Sickness, Love, Friendship, Corruption, Political Fanatics, Drugs, Thugs, Psychosis, and Illumination in the Us Peace Corps
by Peter S. Adler (Maharashtra, India 1966–68)
$23.99 (paperback), $3.99 (Kindle), $34.99 (hard cover)
Reviewed by Richard M. Grimsrud (Bihar, India 1965–67)
THE SAGA OF A CENTRAL INDIAN PEACE CORPS GROUP
This well-written, and almost perfectly presented memoir (I noticed only 2 typos in my reading of it, astounding for any book of 383 pages), was generally slow going for me at the beginning, became a page-turner largely because of its excellent irony in its extended middle section, and bogged down some at the end, perhaps, because it was a bit verbose and excessively philosophical in its conclusion. Nevertheless, India-4o . . . is certainly a good read for anyone with an interest in India and its development over the last half century, and everyone with some experience in the Peace Corps.
The opening section of the book “Departures” and especially Chapter 7 well captured the bonds formed during training by any group of Peace Corps Volunteers in learning a new language, often a new skill, and certainly a new culture in which all will be immersed for the next several years. I found the pre-training narrative somewhat longer than I expected, but the setting for the American milieu at the time of training in pages 10 to 14 was interesting and artfully done.
On the other hand, I found the time shifts during “Departures” up to 2013 in Chapters 4 and 7 discombobulating and maybe effecting some anachronisms in the rest of the text like the reference to the “hanta virus” on page 113, an unknown phenomenon till the ’80s, I think. But the use of this otherwise apt metaphor there points to one of India-40’s greatest strengths, the way Mr. Adler observed things throughout his Peace Corps experience, particularly in India, and his pungent sense of humor kept the narrative moving throughout the book and, in the end, made it a fun read. I must say, though, I think the “Departures” Part was too long, and I could hardly wait for the author’s group to get to India (although that may well have been exactly his intent).
When India-40 did get there, things very quickly gained momentum in the Second Part called “Initiations.” From about page 127, where the protagonist reached his duty station in Khed, until the farewell party there at page 304, I was mostly captivated and covered all those pages in little more than a day. At first, I was irritated by the repeated intrusions of Shiva(ji) in the action, but by the end I began to see the method in Mr. Adler’s madness especially since his narrative applied to his home state of Maharashtra. Spending my service on the other side of India in Bihar, where Rama and Buddha were king, the history of Shivaji presented by India-40 gave me an excellent insight into a very different area of a very complex and variegated country.
Then too Mr. Adler seemed to slide into a different register down the way when he told of the pretty Japanese-American woman in India-44 who got under his cynicism enough to become his life-mate and the mother of their three daughters. I think their respective renditions of their first date on pages 261 to 270 as “the world trembled” may be the high point of the whole work.
In any event, when I reached page 383 of this tome, I had gained an appreciation for the sweat and skill which the author poured into India-40 and the Circle of Demons: A Memoir of Death, Sickness, Love, Friendship, Corruption, Political Fanatics, Drugs, Thugs, Psychosis, and Illumination in the U.S. Peace Corps. Like any reader, I suspect, I was stunned at the Coda’s revelation that several of the book’s most engaging characters were a figment of his creativity and imagination. On top of everything else I learned from Mr. Adler, through reading about the “demons” in his Peace Corps experience, it is clear that quite a fiction writer lurks within him.
India-40 is obviously a labor of love that will touch any RPCV, and an enjoyable labor well worth the investment at that.
Reviewer Richard M. Grimsrud was stationed in Bihar, India as a health-transport and later a drought-relief Volunteer from 1965 to 1967. After serving a year as a VISTA Volunteer for the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Newark, New Jersey, he secured a JD degree from Harvard in 1971, and then principally practiced employment law and taught Native American Law and Government at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. In 2005, he was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Fiction) there, and has since written the Norzona Quartet of novels about that region as well as a novel about Bihar entitled Mata Naveena published by the Peace Corps Writers Imprint in 2015.
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