It was in June of 1964 when the “wall came tumbling down” during a sitdown dinner for 6 people.
The setting was in a private home in the town of Zaheerabad in Andhra Pradesh State. Four of us Peace Corps Volunteers had been temporarily assigned to develop and teach a pilot health/nutrition/gardening curriculum to be used in training village school teachers throughout Andhra State (population 36 million). This experimental course was conducted at the Zaheerabad Basic Training Institute (BTI), where some 160 future primary school teachers were undergoing training.
Amongst the faculty and students at the BTI there was considerable excitement to have Americans teaching at their school. In the 1960s America was mostly an admired country and there was much curiosity about the American people, their way of life and the work of these four American guest instructors. In fact, one of the faculty members very cautiously and humbly invited us to be guests of he and his wife for dinner at their home on the BTI campus.
When we accepted he appeared overjoyed and promised a fine South Indian meal that his wife and daughters would cook especially for us.
When the dinner date came we arrived at the home of Raja and Umala Rao, and were welcomed by their three daughters with garlands of marigold to drape around our necks. Water was poured to allow us to wash our hands and a place arranged for us to slip off our sandals and to enter their home which clearly had been cleaned and the walls freshly whitewashed for this special occasion. We entered and took our places, seated cross-legged on the floor on reed mats as was customary in Indian homes.
The house’s exterior granite stone walls were obviously quite sturdy, however, the interior partition walls were made of woven bamboo mats plastered over with dried mud and then whitewashed, a common construction technique in the homes of families of modest means.
As I sat down I noted the interior wall to my left was slightly bowed out towards where we sat, and over the next twenty minutes or so I noted two occasions when the wall seemed to sway slightly, probably caused by the children’s movements in the next room. Being a gracious guest I said nothing to our hosts because I did not want to cause them any embarrassment.
BIG MISTAKE! Very soon thereafter our hostess and her daughters set before us green banana leaves as plate settings and began bringing out the grand feast they obviously had been cooking for two or three days.
First we had rotis (baked flatbreads) which we tore into pieces, dipped into spicy sauces and ate as our first course. This was followed by mounds of white rice placed directly on our banana leaves and covered with a curried eggplant sauce and dabs of yogurt.
Just as our hostess finished proudly serving her husband and his guests this wonderful meal, the wall next to me creaked one more time, bulged out a bit more and immediately the whitewashed mud plaster slipped off its bamboo framing and collapsed into our dining area, much to the astonishment of all of us, and more importantly to the absolute horror of our hosts.
When the dust settled a bit we looked upon our rice dinners now covered with whitewash dust. One child began to wail in fright and shock, and Raj and Umala began profusely apologizing while offering to gather up our banana leaves and assuring us that there was plenty of food and Umma would still serve us a fine meal.
We four — Linda, Lois, Joyce and I — playing the role of good Peace Corps Volunteers, repeatedly assured Umala and Raja that it was no problem, that everything was fine, there was no need to apologize, we were accustomed to occasional mishaps happening even in America and we should not let this little “dust-up” ruin our fine evening together. In fact, Lois and Joyce, being our nutritionist experts, immediately began delicately scraping the top half inch of food from each banana leaf, thereby removing the whitewash dust and leaving (by Peace Corps standards) a perfectly edible, if slightly gritty, rice and eggplants sauce dish.
Lois then joined Umala in scooping additional dollops of sweetened yogurt onto the rice in each setting and the dinner went on to its final consumption.
Umala and Raja continued to be visibly embarrassed and periodically protested that Lois and Joyce’s rescue of the rice dinners was not adequate and repeatedly tried to apologize for their inadequacy as host for their wonderful American guests.
Conversation for the rest of the evening was a bit stilted, but the four of us kept reassuring our hosts that all was fine, we were well cared for and fed and that we were enjoying the whole “very memorable” evening.
As the repast ended we all somewhat carefully leaned back against the solid outside walls of the dining room, sipped a final cup of tea and casually savored a stomach-settling green leaf containing cardamom, betel nut and lime paste, ending the evening in comfort.
We departed saying repeated “good evenings” and even more repeatedly, assurances to Umala and Raja that we had very much enjoyed the evening and did not mind at all the minor mishap of the wall tumbling down upon our shared feast.
Our hosts walked us back to our quarters still repeating their apologies for the disastrous evening.
In good Peace Corps fashion, we had “sucked it up,” consumed the remaining food graciously and did our best to reassure our hosts that further apologies were not needed, and that to avoid further embarrassment for them we would never mention the event to any of their colleagues — and we honored that promise!!
For the four of us, like for Joshua at Jericho, the “Wall Came Tumbling Down” — and we had another amazing story for the annals of Peace Corps in India !!!
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John Chromy (India 1963–65) returned to India (1967-69) as an APCD. He was also a PC/Country Director in the Eastern Caribbean Islands from 1977-79, and in PC/Washington he was Associate Director for Volunteers.
From 1981-90 he was the U.S. National Director for Special Olympics, and from 1990 to 1995 he owned and managed a private sector retail food business. From 1996 until retirement in 2012 he was a Senior Manager and Vice-President for an international NGO currently known as Global Communities. John and his wife Nora reside in the Washington D.C. area.