“From Faux Pas To Total Forgiveness” — Marc Van Hala (India)
by Marc Van Hala (India 1965-68)
When my decision to join the Peace Corps started to become reality, I had the feeling of
swimming in a river, then suddenly being swept out to sea. Everything happened so quickly, even three months of training stateside, followed by a two-month delay brought about by a threat of war with a neighboring country, and I found myself struggling to keep my head above water. The Peace Corps recruited me to join a project called “Poultry / Rural Community Action.” They said I would be teaching farmers in India how to raise chickens and learn to build an income based on the sale of eggs. My project would not be the first, but the 16th to work in the country, and all 15 previous projects had shown great success.
Purely by chance, the site I was assigned to had been developed as a thriving Peace Corps Project by two volunteers from India VIII, Jim and Bob. Wherever my partner and I went, we found ourselves in the shadow of the great Jim and Bob. We even inherited their first-class bungalow next to a park with a playground. Far from the mud-hut we had anticipated.
Shortly after arrival, I was introduced to a lawyer and his wife who were new members of the Cooperative Society for poultry breeders. While my partner answered the husband’s questions, I had the honor of explaining the idea of the Peace Corps to his wife.
They were both highly educated and spoke excellent English, so it came as a surprise when she asked if I was married. I answered that both my partner, George, and I were unmarried and that most of the 93 volunteers in our project were unmarried. (There were four married couples in our project.) Then she offered this advice. “If you want to truly reach the people of India with your sincerity, you should plan your weddings here in our country. Then we will know you will never forget us.”
I filed that advice away for later reference, but it immediately affected my correspondence with my fiancée, a girl from Ohio who joined the Peace Corps when I did. She agreed to be my “Steady” the night before we arrived in India, and her assigned site was 2,000 miles away. Our romance was officially on the back burner until the completion of our service, but I did ask how she would feel about moving the date forward.
Three months later we were all called together for a 4-day seminar to see how everyone was doing. That’s when Ruth and I decided to officially become engaged to be married and to inform our parents at home. She put in a request to be transferred to my site which took about a month to effect.
It was about this time that George and I moved our residence to live in brand-new government quarters, a two-story apartment house with a flat roof, ideal for building our own demonstration poultry house. We occupied an apartment on the first floor, and Ruth was able to have her own apartment on the 2nd floor.
As the time for the wedding approached, I found myself invited to a birthday party that turned out to be the biggest “faux pas” a Peace Corps Volunteer can make. We were to celebrate the birthday of His Royal Highness, the Maharana of Udaipur, who happens to be elevated one notch higher than all the Maharajas of India. He is also one of the 20 richest men on planet earth. There must have been at least 75 people in the room when I interrupted the festivities by offering to lead in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
“What is this Happy Birthday?” Someone shouted.
“It’s a very popular song in America. I will teach it to you,” I answered. So we started singing and I led in the conducting.
“Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you…” (Everyone was joining in.) “Happy Birthday, Maharana Bhopal Singh….” Everyone stopped singing.
In the silence that followed all I heard was muffled voices making excuses in two languages. “Look at the time. We must be going, . . . ” etc. Within three minutes the room was empty, except for the host, who was clearly embarrassed, and me. Then one other person entered the room.
She was the young wife of the Maharana’s son. She was Irish and a former ballerina. Since she had to wait for her transportation back to the Royal Palace, she came in and introduced herself.
“What just happened?” I asked.
“It’s an ancient custom here. We never say the name of the Maharana so that the gods will not be tempted to take him from us.”
I did my best to apologize and make conversation. Finally, she asked about my activities in Udaipur. That’s when I told her about our upcoming wedding. Then I said, “As tragic as this day is, it gives me an opportunity to ask a special favor. My future wife and I would like to know if we may rent Maharana’s Royal Elephant for the wedding.
“We can only afford about 500 Rupees. Is that enough?”
She asked all the right questions: What would the elephant have to do? Where would it go? When is the occasion? What time does it start? Then she said, “I’ll send a letter and let you know.”
A week later the letter arrived at the veterinary hospital where we worked. The note said that the Royal Elephant would arrive at the appointed time, and it concluded with “There will be no charge.”
It is now almost 55 years later, and the memory of that moment and the wedding lives brightly in my memory. Our parents all flew halfway around the world to be a part of the wedding as well as 5 of our fellow volunteers, and they weren’t disappointed. We, of course, will never forget it.
Following Peace Corps Service Marc and Ruth settled in Michigan. Ruth began a career of teaching school at all levels K – 12, and Marc began a 40-year career in public service starting as an Assistant to Mayor of Detroit, Roman S. Gribbs. Through further education at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, Ruth achieved her Master’s Degree in Teaching Reading, and Marc completed his studies in neurosciences and South Asia Studies. His work as a counselor in the mental health field led him to a life-long pursuit of Stereognosis (his term): the measure of balanced cognitive development to cope with mental disorders. Recently they relocated to California.
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Wonderful story—-a faux pas converted to one of the most unique weddings in Peace Corp’s much storied history!!! Please add a photo of the bridal entrance on that elephant!! Super congratulations on your magnificent wedding and your subsequent fifty years of wonderful public and human service . As a fellow India RPCV (India 3-‘63’65 in Mysore State), I am proud of you both