"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well: CSM and the British Raj

My first job in “development” was distributing CSM – a Corn, Soy,and Milk meal product – to school children in Maharashtra State, India.   The theory was that these school children were hungry, would study better if they had a full stomach, drop-outs would be few and in fact enrollment would increase.  The food products were all agricultural surplus, and CSM was a big industry – the US Government purchased these products, thus increasing the revenue of politically influential farmers; the food travelled from railhead to the Great Lakes where it was shipped to Atlantic or Pacific ports, transshipped and sent to India, Africa, and wherever USAID had a program.  Money was made hand over fist and at every turn – paper bags, labeling tags, dunnage, logo design and imprint.  And this was just on the US side.  In India more money was made at the ports, by the railroads, by trucks, and finally by donkey-cart and rickshaw drivers.  It was a big business.

Now, most of this food went to waste, never got to where it was supposed to go, or never eaten when it got there.  My job was to find out why and to improve performance and efficiency.  I travelled all over the State even – and especially to the remotest villages. “But Sahib”, I was told by our Indian staff, understandably reluctant to bang about over rutted tracks in the 120F heat to get to some remote outpost, “there are many schools on main road”.  Of course there were, but we were first and foremost latter-day European explorers, the first white men that the natives had seen since the British, if that.  I have a photograph of me standing by the jeep, bush shirt open to the navel, Australian bush hat tilted at a rakish angle, surrounded by children of the village.

In these villages I was exposed to what I came to call rotund logic:

“Why are you not feeding today”, I asked.

“Cook is ill.”

“Yes, but certainly there are other women in the village who could cook today”

“Perhaps, but oil stock for frying has been depleted”.

“Couldn’t you borrow some from the villagers?”

“Stock out is generalized in village”.

Every question was answered elliptically, every attempt to ask just the right question which would send the teacher tripping over his own words, failed.  In Africa the Peace Corps Volunteers called this WAWA – West Africa Wins Again – meaning that no matter how you tried, the impenetrable logic, the intricate maze of half-truths, and deliberate diversions would always trump honesty.

Well, that was bullshit.  The answer was supply and demand: 1) the US Government had a political interest in buying surplus food from American farmers and a simple way of showing the world that we cared.  Whether the food actually was used for the purpose intended, who cared?; 2) the only children who were able to attend school were those from reasonably well-off families.  Most other children were carrying firewood or water or tending goats.  If the children missed the school meal, who cared? They would eat at home; 3) the teachers had zero interest in spending extra time administering the program, for they got no stipend, incentive, or reward.  In short, no one gave a shit whether or not the food ever got eaten and it rotted in warehouses, village depots, or the back room of the school.

So, after an hour of rotund logic, and because we were in India to be the intrepid explorers, not to pore over smudged and mildewed records, we said “Fuck it” and moved on to the next barely accessible village.

The point of all his, however, is that when we happened upon a school which actually had food and prepared it and were actually cooking it when we arrived, the stuff was delicious.  It was fried in oil with chilies, spices, and sugar, served on a palm frond, and resembled a Maharashtrian delicacy, uppama.

There was this great machine called an Impact Entolater.  All CSM after a certain relatively short time became infested, and bags into which insects had bored quickly became a seething, writhing nest of worms, larvae, and crawling bugs.  No problem said the US Government.  We will send you the Impact Entolater.  You simply pour the infested CSM down a chute where it hits a rapidly spinning blade, and all live things are blasted to smithereens into pieces so tiny that you would never know that the food had ever been infested.  Again, who gives a shit?  All protein anyway.  In fact more protein.

When we went on tour, we were careful to stay at Government Circuit Houses – these were at the top of the chain which included Government Rest Houses and Government Dak Bungalows.   The Circuit Houses were where the Governor of the Province or Collector of the District stayed when he went on tour.  In the old days of the Raj, going on tour was done in style – a retinue of hundreds, palanquins, even a caparisoned elephant and camel or two.  It was as if the Court of St. James had become mobile. In our day, twenty years after the demise of the Empire, the Circuit Houses were still there, and we could enjoy luxurious, although simple beds, long verandahs overlooking the fields, ceiling fans, teak and mahogany.  There was always a full complement of servants – cook, bearer, dhobi, and chowkidar.  The food was good and classic – English soup then fish and meat, followed by a full Indian curry meal.  Sumptuous and delicious.

The rest houses were smaller, less elegant, duties of the servants combined, e.g. cook/bearer, clothes sent out instead of resident dhobi and no chokidar to bang on the walls at night to let you know he was watching out for you.  

The dak bungalows were the simplest and basic.  The beds always had bedbugs, so without asking, we put our own bedrolls on top of dining room tables, slathered on bug spray, and made it fitfully through the hot, buggy night.

At the other end of the food/lodging spectrum were the great hotels and lodgings of the British Raj – The Taj Mahal in Bombay, the Grand in Calcutta, the officers’ quarters in the cantonments of Bangalore, Mysore, Hyderabad, and Trivandrum.  I have written about these before, but not about the Tallygunj Club in Calcutta. There was no more pukka British place in India.  It had sweeping, manicured lawns for croquet, verandahs with white cane furniture, ceiling fans, attractive, well-dressed members, all in white, the ladies in flowery hats and the gentlemen in linen suits.  There was one barefooted, meticulously dressed bearer for every four guests, and a vague wag of the finger brought gin and tonics, tea sandwiches, or sweets.  The building itself was old, white Victorian, not a rough spot on it; all wood polished to a shine; all brass brilliant and reflecting.  Going to the Tallygunj Club was wonderful.

The Bombay Gymkhana was a similar place, located right in the middle of the city but with an expansive green maidan and a race course.  People dressed up for the races like at Ascot.  It was a festive air.  You entered.  Bombay disappeared.  You were in a quiet, world of the past. 

These British places popped up all over the world.  I once travelled for hours from Yaounde, Cameroon to Bamenda, one of the English provinces of the country.  And there, likein  the many officers’ clubs in India, were mustachioed, spit and polish, medaled, crisply uniformed officers playing snooker or having a chota peg on the verandah.  There was one in Murree, Pakistan which I found after a grueling, snowy drive up the mountain to get there. 

I felt privileged to be on the cusp of cultural history.  Twenty years after the Raj wasn’t much, after all, and I could appreciate the remnants of British India, see what remained in the modernizing India, and see what had been left behind.  I felt the same sense of privilege when I travelled in Eastern and Central Europe just after the Fall of the Iron Curtain.  Places like Bucharest, Warsaw, Sofia were in between two worlds, and I was able to enjoy both.  Which is why the title of this series: DOING GOOD AND LIVING WELL.

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