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For retired anthropologist David Howard Day, India still casts a mesmerizing spell, 40 years after his sojourn there as a Peace Corps volunteer. Even as snow blankets his home in Rochester, N.Y., the well-traveled professor thinks back to the magical “cow-dust hour” – the calm that descends on the blazing Indian countryside at sunset as cattle amble home from arid fields. He warmly reminisces about the camaraderie he enjoyed with villagers gathered around his transistor radio, their spirited games of volleyball, their glee at seeing him perform the Hokey Pokey, and the hospitality of their family feasts.
But his two years as an agricultural adviser in a caste-dominated culture left him with disturbing memories as well – episodes of gang violence, arson, rape, infanticide and suicide. In his newly published memoir “Ruffling the Peacock’s Feathers,” (XLibris) Day has produced a haunting account of both the beautiful and brutal elements of traditional Indian village life.
Day went to India in 1967 as an idealistic and energetic college graduate. He had already completed one tour of Peace Corps duty as a rural development worker in Kenya and now was ready to try his hand in northern India. After crash courses in Indian culture and language, the Peace Corps sent him out to Uttar Pradesh, Indian’s most populous state, for work in the rural Pratapgarh district, about 30 miles from the ancient city of Allahabad. Many villages at that time still lacked electricity, paved roads and telephones. Television was unknown.
It was the period when India was just starting to embark on the “Green Revolution,” using new seed hybrids, fertilizers, pesticides and mechanized irrigation to boost grain production. Day and hundreds of other American volunteers were to be the front-line agents of change, demonstrating the innovations to barely literate farmers. But in this book, Day puts aside community development doctrine to focus instead on the day-to-day personal struggles of his neighbors. In a collection of 15 slightly fictionalized short stories, based on his daily journal and letters sent to his family, he tells touching anecdotes about several lower-caste young men struggling to make a living in a rigid society. While he also profiles an older lawyer, a haughty district magistrate, an aged spiritual guru and even Stalin’s daughter in his cast of characters, it’s the younger villagers who are sketched most vividly.
In his introduction, Day announces his intent to keep himself in the background and let the Indians be the principal characters. But as the chapters unfold, the reader finds the author and his subjects intertwined in each drama. For me personally, this interaction was the captivating element, since I have counted David as a close friend since graduate school and spent 1969 in India myself as a student intern for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Recounting his experiences in a first-person narrative, often with bemused irony, Day reveals himself as an American who doggedly perseveres in his modernizing mission yet remains respectful of Hindu and Muslim customs. He writes in a moving way about solitude – i.e., the lack of intimacy even as he is surrounded by crowds of the curious -- and his isolation from American culture and current events. Repeatedly, he mentions his hunger for headlines about the Vietnam War. Working mostly alone with only occasional visits by a Peace Corp partner stationed many miles away, Day establishes various degrees of friendship with young Indian men in his village. Some of the friendships are described with flashes of homoerotic imagery, and at one point he confesses he has become infatuated with both a young blacksmith and the youth’s beautiful sister. But Day remains chaste, even as he admits wondering how his long-term celibacy might affect his future sex life.
He also acknowledges some doubt about what exactly he accomplished by immersing himself in an obscure settlement for two years. He tells himself that he did succeed in introducing a few new agricultural practices and helped some students learn English. He also noted he had given villagers an inkling of American values. “They had never seen a European or an American sit down with a low-caste sweeper or corpse carrier,” Day concludes. “I was satisfied, yes, that most of these were, in some small way, a measurable legacy.” In sum, he had succeeded in “ruffling the feathers” of one tiny village in a huge subcontinent. But, he added, “I was taking away so much more than what I was able to give…”
Day’s book can be savored one story at a time, making it perfect for bedtime reading. But as I progressed, I found myself picking up the momentum, taking in three or four stories at a sitting. For readers unfamiliar with India, the author’s frequent use of Hindi and Urdu words may be a stumbling block. A glossary or footnotes might be helpful for any future edition. I would also like to see photographs or line drawings added to the text.
In the file drawers and cabinets of his museum-like house, Day’s experiences in Kenya remain fallow. I hope success with this volume will become the catalyst that produces the prequel on village life in East Africa.
(Disclaimer: The author of the review is a personal friend of David Day and also spent time in India during the 1960s.)


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