Tom Purcell joined Peace Corps at age 23. It was the summer of 1965 and his first assignment was to go work in Bassi, a small village in North India, about 20 miles east of Jaipur. The villagers, none of whom spoke English, took him for a British when they saw him the first time. Sensing a faint resentment that had built for him, the headmaster of the local school explained it to people that he was from “umreeka”, a different country that was also a British colony once. A lot of people then didn’t know about the US and then he would make a reference to Hiroshima. I personally find it amusing how those people knew about Japan when they didn’t know the US but that’s a separate discussion altogether.
Many years later, in the 1990s, I spent my early teenage years in Bassi. It was then I came to know about Tom Purcell. I also came to know that my father who was a college student back then often played the role of his translator. He was in fact 1 of the 2 college students in the whole village who spoke some English and thus being given the responsibility was inevitable. Tom lived in the village for about 2 years and worked tirelessly during his stint. People, who knew him, remembered him fondly – he’d helped start scholarship program at the local school, helped set up first public lavatories in the village, and most importantly, he was master at consensus building for solving problems compared to the other “foreigners” before him who came to rule, always used force and often guns.