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The Day the World Stood Still


         Saturday morning, November 23, 1963, Calingapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India.  “Rossgaru, Rossgaru, Mrs. Kennedy shot! Mrs. Kennedy shot!”  Ramamurthy had scrambled what he heard over the all-India 8 a.m. news broadcast.  Several other teachers and I squatted by the short-wave radio in the high school library, with many students peering in the windows, in dead silence, to hear the even more shocking news.  The headmaster K. Krishnarao suggested canceling the half-day of school, in memory of President Kennedy. We settled on having several minutes of silence at the flag-raising that morning.

         All that weekend many people, including some strangers, came up to me to offer their condolences. Sunday evening one of the ten boys who studied on my bungalow porch, because of its electric light, suggested that we stand and have a minute of silence for Kennedy.

         Most students didn’t really know who JFK was, but I think that most teachers at least knew that he was President of the United States. And in general there was intense interest in anything and everything American. Rightly or wrongly, we were the role model for the world. In those pre-television, pre-Internet days in India perceptions of America were wildly unrealistic, being based on movies and, among the literate minority, newspapers or old novels. For example, the most educated teachers at my high school, including the headmaster, knew of our civil rights problems in the South, but their understanding was so shallow that they saw no comparison with India’s caste system, which was more entrenched, and worse.

         Saturday afternoon I bicycled the flat 18 miles to Srikakulam, to meet with three other Peace Corps Volunteers and share our grief.  JFK was not just our President; he had promoted the idea of a “peace corps” early in his 1960 Presidential campaign, and he instituted it by an executive order the following year.  Moreover, Kennedy truly inspired hope among the poor and disadvantaged of the world. They felt that he, and America, cared. 

         In those days phone calls to other PCVs were not feasible. Sometimes it took the better part of an hour at the village post office/telegraph office just to get through to Srikakulam, and it was expensive. In fact, during my two years in India I could never afford to talk with my family in Wisconsin, halfway around the world.

         The four of us met at Tom’s bungalow in Srikakulam, spending the weekend moping around, listening to the radio, and wondering if the United States had gone mad. However, it was very therapeutic to be with other Americans, especially PCVs who understood what Kennedy meant to our country, to the Peace Corps, and to us personally. Fortunately we returned to our locations Sunday afternoon, before hearing of the bizarre shooting of  Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, that was even seen live on TV in the states. As a humorous aside, I was sure America had gone mad the next summer, when I heard a tape brought to India of a rising young musician named Bob Dylan, whose shrill, off-key singing overshadowed his poetry!

         Except during summertime, the 18-mile bike ride between Srikakulam and Calingapatnam was usually pleasant and not strenuous, even on my sturdy one-speed Indian bicycle. But the first time I rode the bus on that road I nearly had a heart attack. There was a tiny Hindu temple at the edge of Calingapatnam, at one of the few bends in the road. As we approached the bend the bus driver, without warning, took both hands off the steering wheel in order to acknowledge the god of the temple with clasped hands and a slight bow. I was absolutely certain that we would run off of the road and crash. But a split-second before doing so the driver grabbed the wheel, and of course I’m alive today to write of  this memory.

         Some months after Kennedy’s assassination, I had another memorable bike ride on the same road. Although Calingapatnam was a large village, with about 4,500 people, I was its only native English speaker, and no meat was available there. So once or twice a month I would bike to Srikakulam, to speak normal-paced English with Tom and to enjoy his cook’s “burgers”, that were actually made of water-buffalo meat. One Saturday I gave another teacher a ride there on the rack above my rear wheel, as he wanted to save on the bus fare. The 18 mile ride was almost fun, as we conversed the whole way and he answered my questions about the countryside and the small villages we passed through. When I picked him up the next afternoon in Srikakulam at the town square, we came upon our young school clerk Vasulu. Vasulu, who was a bit scatter-brained, had come to town to see cinemas all day long and had just missed the last bus to Calingapatnam, so he was going to sleep on the sidewalk overnight and catch the first bus in the morning. Feeling compassionate and also a bit macho (or whatever we called it in those days), I offered him a ride on my handle-bars. I recall much laughter among the three of us on the ride, and fortunately no one fell off nor were we gored when passing a water buffalo’s horns. Water buffalos were called “brake-testers” by car drivers, as while they were gentle they occasionally turned their heads unexpectedly to look at something. Several times during our 18-mile ride, the teacher offered to swap places with me and pedal for a while. But I declined, as I was sure I could do it myself, and I was also concerned about our crashing due to the tricky balancing act with three bodies on a single bicycle. Needless to say, all of my students and perhaps most of Calingapatnam knew of our expedition by the next day!

         One Indian bike-riding custom was a bit unnerving, that of riding next to someone else on another bicycle and holding his (same gender of course) hand as we rode. Most of us PCVs got used to the limp handshakes that some sophisticated Indians used in greetings, while holding hands with someone while walking took more getting used to. But I never felt comfortable in doing this while biking, even at a slow speed and on a deserted road. It just seemed like a recipe for disaster; however, I’ll confess that I never witnessed nor even heard of a crash because of it.

         The Calingapatnam—Srikakulam road was the starting point for another memorable weekend for me. My headmaster Krishnarao invited me to join him, and several other teachers and a few older boys, in walking to his “native village” 15 miles away, after Saturday morning  classes. We walked 8 miles on the road, then took off perpendicular to it, traveling the last 7 miles through rice paddy fields, where we walked on the built-up dirt separating ridges with our bare feet. At one point Krishnarao smiled, when he told me that a woman working ankle-deep in water had asked him if the British had taken over the country again! (I never got used to be called a “European,” and despite my correcting it dozens or maybe even hundreds of times, the designation never completely disappeared.) I also recall that during that trip several people, who had obviously never seen a white person, gently pinched my skin to see if it was real.

         The headmaster’s small native village had no electricity or running water, and probably looked much the same as it had centuries earlier. I heard not long ago that 300,000 of India’s half-million villages are still not electrified. Krishnarao and two other Brahmin teachers did all the cooking of the evening meal, so that everyone, of all castes, could eat the food.

         When we returned to Calingapatnam the next afternoon I hired the village barber, for the first and only time, to come and cut my hair on my bungalow’s porch. Although it cost only the equivalent of about 7 cents, he used a very dull hand clipper, and a knowledgeable Indian later told me that rural barbers “don’t cut, they pluck!”

         One weekend when fellow Volunteer Brent Cromley was visiting me a bizarre incident happened on the porch. As Brent was about to leave, a cobra dropped from the porch roof onto my cook’s head, about ten feet from us. It fell to the floor without biting him, then took off across the yard towards some bushes that contained dirt mounds with snake holes in them. We all backed away at first, since we were wearing sandals, but then Brent and I got three shots at the cobra with heavy rocks, all missing.

         That evening Krishnarao dropped by to see if I wanted to hire the leading Brahmin priest to walk around my bungalow, chanting a protective prayer. My cook, who was an untouchable, said he felt no need for it, so I politely declined. I later found out that the custom of saying a mantra in such a situation was not based purely on superstition. Cobras typically live in pairs in their holes, so if one were killed or badly wounded its mate would come out looking for it, making that a dangerous time for humans to be about. A month after the cobra incident there was a religious festival where villagers poured milk down the snake holes, since one local Hindu god was a snake. Needless to say, I decided not to participate!

         My bungalow porch was used most evenings and some mornings as a “study center,” one of several set up by the headmaster with my help. When I first arrived in Calingapatnam Krishnarao and I would brainstorm each day after classes at tiffin (sort of an afternoon tea, with some sweets). Once he mentioned that many students couldn’t study at night as they had no light, especially those whose fathers were fishermen and went to sleep at dusk in their huts. I casually suggested that maybe some of the few places with electric light, like my porch, might be used for studying at night. I was somewhat shocked the next day at school when it was announced that a bunch of such study centers were to be set up, and Krishnarao and I spent the next week setting them up in elementary schools or large houses in the different hamlets, each occupied by a single caste, that constituted Calingapatnam.

         At my own study center during the first week, I discovered how little geography my high school students knew. When I happened to bring out a map of India one night, they couldn’t find the capital New Delhi on it, nor show about where Calingapatnam was! After that I rarely had a free period at school. During the first or second period the headmaster would send a boy with a chit to me, saying that Subramanyan, say, had taken casual leave that day, and would I take over his fifth period class? I kept my world and India maps at school and would spend such “free” periods simultaneously teaching geography and conversational English. Both geography and world history had been sadly neglected, perhaps in reaction to the pre-Independence system of teaching too much British history and European geography.

         These spontaneous geography classes were much easier to teach than my math or physics classes. When I first started teaching physics, the students did not know how to use simple rulers, since science and math involved only rote-memorization of blackboard work or text material. And my math texts were all in Telugu, as Calingapatnam’s “Higher Secondary High School” had just started the conversion from an ordinary high school, so the English medium for math was being phased in only a year at a time. While our India 4 project was to teach math and science in English, no Peace Corps or Indian official involved with it had ever visited Calingapatnam and discovered the discrepancy, as it lay where the road from Srikakulam dead-ended in the Bay of Bengal. Needless to say, the Peace Corps training dictum to be flexible rang especially true for me that year!

         One important question was overlooked in our three months of Peace Corps training in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that of when to greet others with a namaskaram, the south Indian equivalent of a namaste. Indians, at least those in rural Andhra, never did so with servants or students, for example. But my egalitarian spirit led me to decide right away to namaskaram everyone, regardless of age, status, or caste. In my first few weeks children would go out of their way to greet me, breaking into spasms of laughter when I responded. I sometimes even encouraged this by adding the honorific suffix –andi, which usually was used only with superiors. But after some time the amusement died down, and I had made the right decision.

         Six months after Kennedy’s assassination Prime Minister Jawaharial Nehru, Gandhi’s disciple, died. The country didn’t appear to go into shock as it had when JFK died, probably because Nehru was 74 and had died of natural causes. Almost two years after JFK’s death I was again reminded of his importance to the world while I was traveling home overland from India, with several other former India PCVs. When we stopped to eat at a small café in an Iranian village on the Caspian Sea, there were only two portraits on the bare mud walls—a mandatory one of the Shah, and a larger one of President Kennedy.

         Of course, JFK was far from the saint portrayed by the media in the early 1960s.  But when I meet with former Peace Corps Volunteers from that era, we sometimes wonder what the world would have been like if Kennedy had lived.  And now every year when November 22 comes around I feel a certain sadness, for the loss of vision he gave and the optimism he aroused.

         I’ll conclude with a poignant anecdote involving President Kennedy’s visit to Berkeley, California, in March, 1962, the year before I joined the Peace Corps. Kennedy spoke in the football stadium at the University of California to about 100,000 people, the largest audience he ever spoke to. This speech, now available at http://www.jfklibrary.org/ , is still worth reading for its “long view” and its wisdom. Although he was speaking at the height of the Cold War, Kennedy proposed a joint exploration of space, including “a cooperative Soviet-American effort in space science and exploration.” He also rejected “over-simplified theories of international life,” among which was the idea that “the American mission is to remake the world in the American image.” Since I was a busy graduate student in mathematics at Berkeley, I skipped Kennedy’s speech, telling my friends that I’d “catch him the next time around.” Well, there was no next time.



         Six years later I was back in Berkeley, to finish my doctorate, when Senator Bobby Kennedy spoke there in his primary campaign for President. I told my fiends that this time I wouldn’t pass on hearing the speech, and I didn’t. But a few weeks later I saw Bobby Kennedy assassinated on live TV late at night, right after winning the primary.



About the Author
Peter Ross
Location: Stationed in India
Story: The Day the World Stood Still

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The Day the World Stood Still

Peter Ross


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