Review of David Howard Day's Memoir of India

ruffling-peacocks-feathers-140Ruffling the Peacock’s Feathers
by David Howard Day (Kenya 1965–1966, India 1967–68)
September 2010
402 pages
Paperback $23.99, ebook $9.99

Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)

RUFFLING THE PEACOCK’S FEATHERS, anthropologist David Howard Day’s memoir of his two years living in Saratpur, a north Indian village “on the broad Gangetic plain” during the late 1960s as a Peace Corps Volunteer, is a hefty tome, and touches on all the familiar experiences encountered by Vols in the field. Day recalls the heat and rigors of daily life, what it’s like to be under the microscope of a foreign culture little exposed to Westerners, the difficulties of dealing with cooks, rickshaw drivers, minor bureaucrats, and nosy neighbors, while at the same time making lasting friendships with a few select individuals who are often poorer and less educated than the upper class strivers who would impose themselves on him for prestige and personal gain.

Having close ties to India, I can attest to Day’s offering a vivid and honest account of village life in Uttar Pradesh as it was, and marches onward to the future. He opens his book with Paul Theroux’s now ubiquitous quote about the benefits of volunteer service in foreign lands: “The only mistake is in thinking that you will make an important difference in the lives of the people you’re among. The profound difference will be in you.”

What I found refreshing in these pages — which would have benefitted from an editor’s eye for trimming, as well as for typos — was how familiar Day’s experiences felt to my own service in West Africa almost forty years later. Having read quite a number of these memoirs spanning the breadth of Peace Corps history, there is a noticeable and yawn-inducing bias toward “measurable achievement” by those earliest, bushy-tailed Volunteers who descended to the tarmacs of their new homes like spacemen. They tend to quantify “students taught,” “wells built,” “chickens raised,” and “diseases eradicated,” like Mormon missionaries returning to Salt Lake City with the mailing addresses of people they accosted in Tonga. How dull!

Day, thankfully, seems ahead of his time in this memoir from Peace Corps’ early years, focuses his writing less on development conquests, and more on the lives of the people around him. There is a strong, and sadly unrequited, sexual current underlying most of his dealings with the young men and women he befriends, and a resounding joy at his immersion in the seasonal cycles of the rural, agrarian world. His writing takes off wherever he approaches the boundaries of taboo, such as when he finds himself alone with his friend’s attractive sister:

Sunita and I got lost wandering through the verdant bananas one day, bumping into the towering, rubbery fronds. I never tired of seeing them bend and sway in the wind, listening to the dull knocks as their spines collided. It was quite dark and steamy in the Lilliputian jungle . . .. I realized I was alone with a young Indian woman, something I had been careful to avoid in deference to rural norms . . .. We eventually groped our way to a certain tree, a kind I had never seen anywhere else in the village and from which she plucked some green fruits . . .. [S]he swung around, and to my utter delight, slipped [one] slowly between my lips. Our faces met and I could taste her sweet fingers as her warm breath mingled with mine.

Or this passage, where Day secretly meets a handsome friend:

“In two days’ time,” Rajendra said, “I’ll meet you when the sun is highest at the abandoned well behind your house . . . we will have a chance to talk again.” . . . Midweek, just before noon . . . I slipped on a light cotton shirt, loose-fitting pants and swathed my head and shoulders in a long, white cotton wrap . . .. Outside, hot noontime winds and the hollow rattling of bamboo followed me . . .. I was the first to reach the old well . . .. Feeling strangely lightheaded, I slipped off my shirt . . . [Rajendra] appeared through the gauzy haze . . .. He, too, was shirtless . . . swathed like a desert nomad . . .. Soon, he was close enough to sense my discomfort. “In this season, my friend, you must oil your body against the dryness,” he advised . . .. Rajendra produced a small vial of greenish liniment . . . ordered me to move into the scant shadow of the dilapidated machan near the well, unfurling his head cloth for me to lie on . . .. Rajendra’s touch was strong and firm . . .. I was suddenly self-conscious, astonished that I was lying there in the middle of a scorching north Indian field being touched in a way that was wholly new to me, yet overwhelmingly pleasant.

Other notable passages starkly recount the torn bodies of a shepherd and his flock massacred by a train; a young man locking the unruly women of his household in a shed in the blistering heat; a filthy wandering mendicant who — turned away by a landowner — burns the man’s fields; an impoverished girl’s rape; beekeeping, and Day’s discovering the place on the nearby river where his neighbors abandon their stillborn babies.

Invariably, RPCV memoirs such as this divulge the author’s true feelings about his service; there is a certain sport for a reviewer in reading between the lines to figure out just what those feelings are. For example, in memoirs where the authors write more about wild nights spent in the city, it’s simple to conclude that they hated village life. In memoirs that recount struggles to cook “American” food, the reviewer catches a whiff of distaste for the culture.

What comes across in Ruffling the Peacock’s Feathers is Day’s unabashed passion for India. He loved his village, found the people interesting and attractive, saw beauty in the landscape, and respected the way of life. My favorite of his memories is his skewering analysis of a nearby Scandinavian missionary, at whose home he took his holiday meals:

Lydia’s specialty was her cakes. More than chatting with faithful readers in the Reading Room, more than selecting hymns for the monthly church services, more, in fact, than almost anything else she did, Lydia enjoyed baking cakes . . .. Lydia brought along one of her remarkably proportioned chocolate cakes and again succeeded in wolfing down most of it herself . . .. As it turned out, there were only thirteen people in [her] entire congregation . . .. Lydia’s hauteur, however, was only a veneer. In all her years in India, she had returned to Sweden only once. “I am a prisoner here,” she confided to me in a particularly dark moment during yet another holiday get-together at Mission House.

The quietly miserable missionary serves as a perfect closing contrast to the author, whose sojourn in India liberated him. He writes of his departure, “I was taking away so much more than what I was able to give . . .. I would learn to look back on this place as an explorer recalls a Lost City, one that can be entered and left only by crossing high mountains dense with jungle, awash in mists, waiting to be rediscovered.”

Tony D’Souza’s  new novel Mule, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.

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