Indian Summer: A Love Letter to India and the Story of India 29
by Arthur J. Frankel (India 1966-68)
$29.95 (hardback),20.66 (paperback), $7.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
ARTHUR J. FRANKEL’S Indian Summer: A Love Letter to India and the Story of India 29 tells the tale of the Peace Corps experience during one of its earliest periods, when the agency was just figuring out how best to prepare Americans for two years abroad, as well as place them once in country. Frankel’s group, which served in India from 1966–1968, coincidentally included my mother, then Alice Neuendorf, age 27. Though she’s never mentioned in the book, her blurry picture appears in the black and white photo section, standing in a white dress with other Volunteers in front of a Bangalore guesthouse. She’s told me stories about that guesthouse all my life, a favorite spot of South India PCVs with its decent beds, cold drinks, and much needed privacy from the psychic and cultural fishbowl of Peace Corps India life.
“I remember this guy,” my mother told me when I showed her the book last week, snatching it from me and going on to consume it in two afternoons. “He was insane. He laid naked on the beach to get bit by mosquitos so he’d get sick and wouldn’t be drafted for Vietnam.”
My mother made a short list of everything she felt Frankel got wrong about their shared experience nearly a half century ago; Frankel writes that India 29 was wholly composed of people in their twenties — my mother remembers at least four women much older than that. She says he got some of the logistical things wrong and omitted some of the names. But, all in all, she said, it took her right back.
The Peace Corps has produced an ocean of RPCV memoirs; every time period and nearly every host country has been recorded; another few crash out onto the shore each month. They’re non-commercial spare-time labors, written by folks who are not primarily writers and edited by friends or spouses. They follow the same arc that Peace Corps service does: training and meeting the cohort, the shock of arriving in-country, descriptions of the strange food and especially latrines; then the poorly thought out projects, unexpected friendships with locals and one another, and finally, the sorrow of leaving, often at the very moment the Volunteer realizes how much he loved it all.
Frankel’s book is of that genre, feels like a diary; the first half is over-filled with mundane details (The latrines! Always the latrines in these books!) and reveals the usual self-published author’s inability to navigate what makes for a good story from notations — though important to the writer — that cause the eyes to glaze over. Airports are described in detail, cab rides, every step of the way from Vermont where the group had Kannada language training and built a thatched Indian hut, to Bangalore, where they first began to truly experience India. Locals mostly go unnamed as Frankel spends many pages chronicling his illnesses, bowels, and how he did or didn’t sleep. There is barely any dialogue and India feels like a distant thing.
But something remarkable happens in the second half of the book: Frankel, much as he did as a Volunteer, settles into his story and seems to suddenly realize that what a reader wants is not a precise recording of every event, but a focus on what made the best ones wonderful. India 29 served in what was then Mysore State, now known as Karnataka. I know it very well since my mother married a local — my late father — and I have traveled there many times, most recently five months ago. Back then, Peace Corps placed groups of four or five Volunteers in sites for short periods; Frankel’s group spent a few months in a village, two towns, and finally the coastal city of Mangalore, where my paternal family is from. Peace Corps no longer does this: Volunteers generally serve alone and at a single site for the duration. That these groupings and movements were early missteps is clear in how Frankel and his site mates struggled with each other’s personalities and only began to establish local relationships before they were uprooted again.
There’s a turning point moment in this book: the young Frankel, reserved and overly cautious, takes part in a government-sponsored mass-vasectomy and finds the courage to snip an Indian man’s reproductive tubes himself. The man is grateful and excited that an American was the one to sterilize him. Soon, Frankel begins to flap his wings. His remarkable language skills give him the confidence to explore and among the most engaging adventures he then has is his weekly music lesson with an Indian sitar teacher, Sri Patak.
I found these passages the most moving and passionate in the book; Frankel endured real extremes to have them. Sri Patak, the sitar master, lived in a town atop the Western Ghats mountains; to get there, every single week Frankel braved a many-hours’ long hellish bus ride of hairpin turns, cliff precipices, and near-certain vehicular death. I know the route he took, it’s terrifying to this day. But waiting for him at the end were small moments of real beauty. Frankel writes:
And so I began to travel to Sirsi for sitar lessons, sweating up the Ghats on one day, and sweating the four hours down the next. I got to be very familiar with the dense green rain forest on the Ghats. On one trip I actually saw a panther slowly crossing the road in front of the bus, seemingly oblivious to civilization . . .. Indian music is based on the classical raga, similar to what we would call a classical symphony . . .. Some are about feelings, others about relationships. There are ragas associated with the morning and evening; with religious holidays; with unrequited love, the monsoon rains and the hot season . . .. Budding sitarists learn by listening to the masters.
Listen Frankel does, and more than that, it’s through immersions like this that he falls in love with India. He develops a particular fondness for the city of Mangalore, rendering its mix of Hinduism and Catholicism, of Konkani and Tulu, with the eye of one who knows it well.
Ultimately, facing certain deployment to Vietnam — he had been drafted by his Missouri state board; Peace Corps spirited him to India just in time — Frankel does something very similar to the story my mother tells about him. Though he does not lay naked on the Mangalore beach, he does walk around the city’s most malarial areas at night in a deliberate attempt to contract mosquito-borne elephantitis, which he does. The non-life threatening bloodworm disease easily precludes him from fighting in Vietnam, but it also robs him of something else, his ability to remain in India, which he has come to love. That he’s been back many times as well is testament to just how moving his Peace Corps experience was to him, part of the same group of Americans whose stories I was raised on, and who are the reason I’m on this earth.
Arthur J. Frankel is a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-2002, Madagascar 2002-2003) is the Visiting McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College.
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