Even the Smallest Crab Has Teeth brings together stories from Volunteers who served in countries swept together for millennia by dreams of silk, spices, conquest, and transcendence. Societies here endlessly absorb pieces of what arrives on trade routes and trade winds. Then they make it their own. Since 1961, communities in this vast region have greeted Volunteers with both unconditional hospitality and paradox: vexing, humbling, and delicious.
These stories describe moments of unexpected danger and unintended hilarity. In Asia and the Pacific, Volunteers have chased down smallpox, taught by lantern light, built spillways in the jungle, and witnessed local rituals celebrating life and death. They have struggled to grasp one of the myriad local languages so they could listen clearly. For it is only after learning to hear that it feels exactly right to speak and say “I was there.”
This sweeping collection of stories—the last in a series of four—shares with readers the extraordinary power of America’s grassroots peace offering.
And the light in their eyes
JANUARY 1995: NARWANA
The village remains, but its boundaries have exploded. Dozens of shops bustle down the road toward the school. A model town grows to the north. Motorcycles shoulder through the streets, and television antennas leap from every other rooftop.
But . . .
In the older part of town, the lanes still wander quietly, then disappear. Women sit comfortably outdoors on charpois, surrounded by their children. Solitary pigs snort past them toward unseen destinations. Cows pick their way across broken cobblestones. Occasional students race homeward.
As the day wanes, the sky reaches down, all reds and golds and orange, inches above my head. Chants from the temple drift across the rooftops, and spices scent the air from hundreds of kitchens. Families gather, and a warm glow slips over my memories.
I lived here for two years. I came of age here. From 1968 to 1970 I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English as a Second Language to sixth and seventh grade boys. I was the first Caucasian to live in the village since the bloody massacres of Hindus and Muslims that birthed the nations of India and Pakistan in 1947. Me. A naïve, 23-year-old kid from suburban Minneapolis.
AUGUST 1968: NARWANA
The Peace Corps jeep dropped me in Narwana shortly after noon one stifling August day, off-loaded my sea trunk, and disappeared in a swirl of sand and heat. One hundred miles northwest of Delhi, halfway to the border of West Pakistan.
And then, emerging from the shade trees on the school grounds, came a slight, middle-aged man—Baldev—who would become my friend and mentor. A teacher and community elder, a Brahmin. He offered me chai, then offered me his home. And the adventure of a lifetime began.
The next morning, as I walked with Baldev toward the school where I’d be teaching, hundreds of townspeople fell in behind me. For days, whenever I started to speak, everybody leaned forward to hear what I’d say. School ended in early afternoon because of the triple-digit heat, and one morning a traveling yogi asked me to feel his wrist and verify for a school assembly that he could stop his heartbeat, then serenely allowed groups of husky students to strain at opposite ends of a bulky rope wrapped around his neck.
And the boys . . .
They were 11, then, and 12, learning English for the first time. I taught them on dirt plots, in sheds without walls, in my home. Scruffy little kids with brown uniforms, sparkling eyes and ear-splitting grins.
I chattered with them in broken Hindi and broken English, sent them scurrying on errands, brought them books. They called me “Mr. Bosch,” and one of them, the smallpox freckled son of an untouchable, teased me unmercifully about “Many-apples,” Minnesota.
I quickly fell in love with them, and yearned to unveil the world beyond their village. I wanted to give them hope . . . because hope, in village India, in the 1960s, scarcely existed. Young men entering their teens would inevitably realize that the poverty bearing down on their parents would have no mercy on the next generation: And the light in their eyes would begin to die.
So I opened a library in my home, pinned huge maps to the walls, filled my lesson plans with stories about the greater world, took more than 50 of the boys on a three-day trip to Delhi. They’d never been out of the village before.
I coaxed an optometrist from a nearby city to visit the school and do eye exams for more than 400 students, then raised money from my father’s Lion’s Club in Minnesota to buy glasses for more than 100—and watched all but three discard them within months because glasses were a sign of weakness.
And then, near the end of my tour, I chose ten boys to join me on a month-long trip through southern and western India, and I asked my friend Surya for help. I needed to visit the parents, to ask their permission, and I wanted Surya to be my interpreter because I didn’t have the language skills I needed to tell them what I hoped for their sons, why I wanted to take them so far from their families.
I can still see those one-room homes, none of them lit by more than a kerosene lamp. Dirt floors and hardly any furniture, yet always the offer of food and drink. I can still see the hopeful eyes of the parents, the boys sitting quietly nearby. And I can still feel the mother gripping my arm as I prepared to leave, whispering words I will never forget: “He is your son now, Mr. Bosch.”
We rented a train car and lived in it for a month: Fifty-three students, five Peace Corps Volunteers, five Indian teachers, three cooks and a thousand pounds of flour. The first leg of the journey went from Delhi to Madras, 48 hours straight south, with coal dust billowing through the open windows, cooks leaping onto the platform at each stop to boil tea and cook chapattis, vendors poking their heads through the windows crying “Chai-chai-chai! Coffee-coffee-coffee! Soda-soda-soda!”
We took the boys into the ocean at Madras, into the tropical forests of Kerala, into the Bombay metropolis, into the desert caves of Rajasthan, and into the Taj Mahal, the soul of India.
We took them home.
And then we left.
JANUARY 1995: NARWANA
For 25 years, I dreamed of returning. Literally, at least once a month. Sometimes in color, sometimes in black and white, sometimes with my parents, sometimes my children.
Finally, my oldest daughter, Sarah, turned 21, and I turned 50. So we decided to take three weeks together, just the two of us. A week in Nepal, a week in Thailand, and a week in India.
I’d lost track of the boys, but hoped to find a few of them again. I needed to know what happened after I left. I needed to know if I’d made any difference in their lives. I needed to know if they’d purchased glasses for their children.
On New Year’s Day 1995, Sarah and I arrived in the village, and Surya took us immediately to his home for a welcoming party. When I first met him in 1968, he was 23, my age, finishing college and dreaming about graduate school. Along with Baldev, he became my lifeline. A year later I wrote about him to my father. I knew Dad had a close friend and business associate who’d been born in India and had become a successful businessman in Arizona. Dad and Mr. Ohri decided to pay for Surya’s graduate school tuition, room and board. When I embraced him again in 1995, Surya had become Dr. S. P. Gupta, a college professor with an educated, professionally employed wife and two college-bound children.
More than 30 members of Surya’s extended family had gathered to greet us. The chai and cakes were ready, in abundance, and the memories started to flow. Time disappeared.
Suddenly, two of my former students were at the door!
We hugged and started talking excitedly, trying to cover 25 years in half an hour. And before long we found ourselves walking toward the school at the other end of town, moving slowly through the heart of the village, discovering the motorcycles and the television antennas along the way. Crowds began to follow, just as they had during my earliest days so long ago, and another former student roared up to us on a Kawasaki. My daughter walked quietly beside me, taking it all in.
As we neared the village center, I looked to the right, expecting to see the school across an open field, but shops and homes had filled the horizon. More people joined us, and when we reached the edge of town I quickened my step. The school began to appear. First the grounds, then the outlines of the buildings themselves. With each step, my past came rushing toward me -- and then I stopped.
They were waiting for me at the front gate, garlands ready . . .
My former students . . .
Twenty-eight of them . . .
I blinked, then blinked again. I couldn’t see. My companions urged me onward, and I stumbled to life, kept walking, Sarah beside me. The “boys” were lined up to greet me, one at a time. As I approached the first man, he slipped a floral garland over my head and another over Sarah’s, then looked at me with hands raised and palms together.
“Namaste,” he said. “Welcome.”
Each of the 28 men did the same, and as they greeted me and told me their names, I could see their youthful faces peering at me through weathered skin and memory.
For years I’d wondered: Did my two years make a difference? Kaku Ram, unbidden, told me they did. Molar Ram appeared in the morning mist the next day, with his children. Dharm Pal took me to his father. And Baldev smiled and told me they’d been telling stories about me for 25 years.
That evening, at a celebratory dinner, the “boys” gave me an engraved sculpture. It sits on the mantelpiece in my living room.
Ashok Kumar committed suicide . . .
But ten are shopkeepers, two are teachers, three are bankers . . .
And Krishan Dev, the untouchable’s son, outranks them all. He’s the district magistrate.
In 2003, Jerr Boschee and Chris Klose founded Peace Corps Encore! (now known as Encore! Service Corps International) to send former Peace Corps Volunteers back into service on short-term assignments (one to six months) that match their professional expertise with specific social needs. Jerr has been an advisor to social entrepreneurs in the United States and elsewhere for more than 30 years, delivering lectures in more than 40 states and a dozen countries, and has long been recognized as one of the founders of the social enterprise movement worldwide. He’s also been a senior executive for a Fortune 100 company; managing editor for a chain of regional newspapers; a guest lecturer at Oxford, Cambridge, Duke, Stanford and other universities; an award-winning author; and an advisor to the British government. He is currently Professor of the Practice of Social Enterprise at Carnegie Mellon University and Board chair for an international NGO that encourages teenage social entrepreneurs in more than 20 countries.