John Gwaltney

My friend Wendell Mott sent me the following account of an unusual man both of us had met at different times. He writes:

The rule is: "three strikes and you're out," but not for John Gwaltney. He had three strikes against him and he was still swinging. One strike was his poverty. Another was his blindness. A third, he was black and bore scars of discrimination from childhood.

I don't know how he afforded classes at Columbia University. Perhaps he had a scholarship. If so, it didn't help with his transportation problem.

The rest of us lived on campus, a few steps from class. Not John. He lived in New Jersey. His itinerary every day included a bus ride from his home to the terminal on the Jersey side of the Hudson. Transfer to the train under the Hudson River to the Port Authority Terminal on the Manhattan side. Find his way through the labyrinth of this massive terminal to the subway station. Take the express train on the IRT line to 96th Street. Cross the platform to the local train to 116th Street. This put him just outside the gate to the Columbia campus. Cross the campus and up the steps near Low Library, across another plaza to Schermerhorn Hall. Then down several floors to our classroom in the basement.

John did this in utter darkness, without the benefit of eyesight. Going home, he reversed the sequence.

We sat next to each other in Professor Bowles class on the anthropology of India. Occasionally, John would be late.

"I fell off the subway platform at 96th Street," he explained one morning.

Once he had scratch marks on his arms and face. He laughed. "You know how the campus is almost completely paved over. Well, I found one of the few places where it wasn't, a bed of roses!" In climbing the stairs near Low he went too far and fell six feet over the side of the stairs into a flowerbed.

Once, we were talking about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

"You know, Wendell, I've got to tell you a story about his wife, Eleanor. I was a small kid. It was the 1930s and the middle of the Depression. My mom wanted something or other from Social Services and she got the run-around."

"You know what my mom did? She whipped off a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt. And do you know what happened? She got a letter back! And what's more, Social Services called up and said to come in and pick up the thing my mom wanted!"

Maybe that's where John got his moxie. Not once did he ever imply that he was a victim. Not even with three strikes against him. He was a doer and a mover.

Our paths went separate directions after Columbia. However, I heard that Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist at Columbia, took him under her wing. She may have given him a boost. But he did the rest.

Like his mother, whatever John did, he did under his own power.

The last I heard, John was a full professor at an Ivy League school, Cornell.

I did not meet him during my six years (1960-66) at Cornell. He would have come there after my time. But what a coincidence, we had met in 1961 in New York City. Both of us were attending the American Anthropological Association annual meetings held at a city hotel.

I vividly remember our meeting. With a couple of friends I entered a big hall where the inaugural lecture of the conference was to be delivered by the president of the Association. We found a good area and sat down. A friend came over and said, “Come I will introduce you to a remarkable man you will remember for the rest of your life.” It was John Gwaltney. We chatted for half a minute. The meeting was to begin. John invited us to a get-together at his apartment soon after the meeting. Both my friend and I accepted the invitation.

It was a tiny dwelling on the fifth floor of an old brick building. John had bought some food. He served it most gracefully with help from one of his guests. Everything was done elegant and snacks were simple yet delicious. We talked trivia as in most such parties.

I remember two things to this day. One person asked John if he remembered where each person sat in the room. He said, “Yes, of course. If you call a name I can put my hand on the person’s head straight out without fumbling. Every single one of you in the room I can shoot if I had a gun and wanted to kill.”

Another person asked, “This is an old building prone to fire. Do you know what to do if it happens?”

“Yes,” said John “There is a fire escape at one end. It is a bit rickety, but still usable if everyone didn’t get on it at the same time. I have checked it out by going down on it once. This is more than what most residents have done. I know my way very well and would be the first to use it in an emergency. This is a poor area don’t forget. Here only a few buildings have fire escapes. We have it, but I must admit, repair and maintenance is not as it should be.”

Fifty years have passed but I still remember John Gwaltney and our little party. ‘What a man!’ I said then and I say the same now.

Partap Aggarwal
March 6, 2010

Thanks Wendell for the wonderful rich reply. I vividly remember visiting with John Gwaltney. We were both at an Anthropological meeting in NYC. He said many memorable things. One of them was: you know I can place you so well that if I had a gun and wanted to shoot, I could get every one of you. This was when someone asked if he could find his way down the fire escape from fifth floor. I am glad Cornell hired him. For it I give my alma mater a high grade.

Dattatreya and the Ocean

In the past different sages took different spiritual paths to find the Truth. Of course, even though they followed different paths outwardly, the same human values, the same inner wisdom, dawned in all of them. Take the example sage Dattatreya. He was unique in that he did not have a human being as a spiritual master or guide. For him the whole universe was his master: the five elements and all the forces in nature. They guided him and taught him the crucial lessons of life. Here is one of these lessons.

One evening, deep in meditation, Dattatreya was walking along the sands near the ocean. His mind was so calm and quiet; he could perceive everything around him with clarity and insight. He watched the waves and saw how they reached the shore and spread out on the sand before silently going back into the ocean. He also noticed that the waves brought some small pieces of wood to the shore and left them back on the sand.

“How selfish is this ocean”, Dattatreya thought to himself. “It won’t keep even a few pieces of wood in its fold. Out they go onto the shore”

Just then, Dattatreya heard a voice! It was the ocean, speaking to him!

“Why do you think I am selfish, Dattatreya?” asked the ocean. “Just because I am not letting even a few pieces of wood to defile me? O wise man, can’t you see that if I let even the smallest speck of dirt to stay in me I will no longer be pure and clean? If I allow even the smallest pieces of dirt to stay in me more will surely follow them. It will soon become impossible for me to get rid of them. So I am always vigilant, and I make sure that in every moment of my life, I don’t keep anything impure inside me.”

In a flash Dattatreya realized his wrong thinking and understood the importance of ocean’s action.

“But of course!” he thought. “If I let even a single negative thought stay in my mind, I have lost my purity/. I will become weak, and then more and more negative thoughts will come and stay in my mind. So I must follow the example of the ocean. Always be vigilant and never let negative thoughts stay in me. Only then can I be pure. When my thoughts are pure my words and actions too will be pure. And only when all three are pure, will I always be content, happy, stable and unchanging like the ocean.”

Dattatreya was so thankful for this lesson that he fell on his knees and bowed down before the ocean, in gratitude for such a valuable lesson.


Mullah in Search of a Wife

(My friend Babak Kardan sent this story to me. He is an excellent teacher. Probably he wrote it for a class. I am sure you will like it.)
You may think this is just an amusing story, but there is more to it… think about it!
Mullah was a man who lived a long time ago in Arabia. He had many experiences in his life, which we can learn from, even today! Listen to this one…

One evening, when the Mullah was old, he was sitting around with his friends, talking. All of a sudden, one of his friends asked,

“Dear Mullah, you have been so kind to all of us for so many years. We have often wondered why you never got married and had a family. Please tell us the reason why.”

“Well,” said the Mullah, “it’s a long story, but I will tell you.”

“When I was young, of course, I wanted to get married. Once I had finished my studies, I started to think about marriage. What type of person would I like? What should she be like? Where should she be from? You know….. All sorts of ideas.

“So I thought about this. Hmmm, well, she should definitely be slim, and tall too. And with dark, beautiful eyes that shine like stars. She must be very fair-skinned, of course, with long black hair. And educated too, and be able to play musical instruments, so that she can play music for me in the evenings. She should also be a good cook, of a noble family background, not too serious, and have excellent behaviour in front of elders. But her nose shouldn’t be very big, and she should have a mind of her own too, not be so docile after all….

“So I set off on my horse to travel to different cities across the country and find my true love, my perfect wife. After all, she must be out there somewhere, waiting for me too.”

“The first city I stopped at, I met this wonderful lady, with dark, shining eyes, tall and fair too. Ah, she was very attractive, and from a noble family background.”

“Well?” asked the Mullah’s friends, “so, what did you do?”

“Oh, that,” replied the Mullah, “Oh no! She was not for me….. she didn’t know how to play any musical instruments, and actually, her nose was a little big……”

“So then I traveled to another city, where my friends introduced me to a very good family with a lovely daughter. She was so proper, so decent and well-behaved, she was a gifted musician, and above all, she was an excellent cook, her parents assured me!”

“That’s wonderful!” Exclaimed the Mullah’s friends. “So what happened?”

“Well, actually, she was a little plump” said the Mullah, “and kind of short.”

“Oh my!” said the Mullah’s friends. “Then what?”

“Ah then!” said the Mullah, “I went to my native town, and there, my relatives introduced me to a most precious young lady. I cannot even describe her personality, so bright, just the right balance of mind, tall and fair, a keen music layer, educated and everything I had wanted in a wife. Finally, I had met the perfect wife!”

The Mullah then fell silent. Everyone looked at him, but he didn’t say anything.

Finally his friends asked him, “please tell us, what happened then?”

“Oh that,” said the Mullah, in a quiet tone, “you see, she, too, was looking for the perfect man…”

Feb 13, 2010


If you were to join a group of peace or social justice activists in England or America you would find that many of its members are either Quaker or have strong Quaker influence.

‘Quaker’ is just a nickname. Real name of Quakers is Friends: collectively, members of the Society of Friends. George Fox founded this movement in1650 in England. He experienced enlightenment after persistent quiet contemplation and taught his followers that they did not need organized church or priests between them and God for He was within all of us. Quakers meet on Sundays for silent worship in what they call the Meeting House, or in homes of members.

After Fox’s example a huge number, nearly a third of the population of Britain experienced spiritual awakening in some degree and became Friends. As this was a powerful direct experience they felt gripped by its fervor and often trembled in courts or other places where they were tried and forced to prove themselves. Hence they began derisively to be called ‘Quakers.”

‘That of God in every man’ is one of the central pillars of Quaker beliefs. So they treat all people with respect and refuse to kill or knowingly hurt anyone. Similarly, they take all their beliefs seriously and try to live by them. I must add that all Quakers are not saints but they do still have a strong ethical-moral streak inherited from their past.

I first came to know them in 1949 in Punjab. My association grew over the years and continues to this day. For long and short spells I worked in Quaker projects in India and America. In 1966 I formally joined the Society of Friends in Hamilton NY and became a Hindu Quaker. I find great similarity in the two traditions and feel comfortable in both.

I think a good brief way to tell about Quakers would be to tell a story. For a true story as an example of Quaker behavior will tell more about them than a lecture on their belief system.

The story below dates back 200 years but it is believed to be true. Undoubtedly with innumerable telling it must have changed. I read it in a book Friendly Story Caravan published by Pendle Hill. I have made small changes here and there.

The Silver Tankard
Daniel Gordon backed horse Jerry into the buggy shafts and rapidly buckled the harness. It was Sunday morning and he and his wife were getting late for the meeting. Their two boys had left a half-hour ago on their horse Dobbin. Their nine-year-old daughter Hetty was to stay home.

As they were about to leave, a neighbor John Perkins arrived with disturbing news. “I don’t think it’s safe for you all to go to Meeting today,” he said.

Daniel told him that the boys had already gone and he and his wife were in a hurry to leave. Hetty would stay home.

“The girl mustn’t stay home alone. Bandit Tom Smith has been seen with two men. They know of your silver Tankard and plates and Tom is reported to have sworn to relieve you of them before the summer is over. You know what it means.”

Daniel knew well of Tom and his gang of desperate men who robbed lonely farmhouses in the area. There was no effective police force in Maine those days, and escape from law was easy. Everyone knew of his silver valuables and pirates like Tom could pounce on them any time. Daniel stood in deep thought. He believed with his whole soul that God would take care of those who did their duty and put their trust absolutely in Him. He had all his life lived in this faith. Here was a severe test. Nothing might happen but the risk in leaving Hetty alone at home was real. Yet he would do it: For to take his daughter in this situation would mean to teach her fear. He would leave her in God’s hands.

As Daniel bent to kiss his daughter he said to her, “Hetty, if any strangers come while we are gone, treat them well. We can spare of our abundance to feed the poor. What is gold and silver compared to God’s words of love.” The girl was puzzled to read anxiety on her father’s face for she had never seen him so troubled.

After making the kitchen tidy Hetty sat down by the window with a book. It was quiet and she felt a little lonely. Only an hour had passed and the family would be away for a long time yet. She looked out the window and was overjoyed to see 3 men walking rapidly up the road toward the house. Her father might have been expecting them she thought. This was why he told her to treat them well. She ran down the path to meet them.

“Won’t you please come in? Father will be so sorry not to see you, but he bade me serve you in any way I could.”

“Are you alone here?” asked the youngest man, who was Tom Smith.

“Oh, yes I am quite alone. If mother were here she would do more for you, but I’ll do all I can.” The men stared at each other in silence, and entered the neat comfortable kitchen. The silver jug and plates sat visible in the cupboard.

“Please be seated and allow me to prepare a meal for you?” said Hetty, in a panic lest her guests would not feel at home and leave her alone again all too soon.

Smith propped into a chair as though his knees had suddenly given way under him and said, “Yes we will, thank you, my child, for we are all hungry.”

For several minutes Hetty flitted in and out, while the men watched in silence. She dragged forward the table that stood against the wall, and Smith sprang forward to help her. While he was doing this she asked him to kindly lift down the silver jug and three of the best silver plates. She had brought cold cider from the cellar and filled the jug with it to the brim. She had also brought home made butter from the springhouse, and a huge loaf of bread. She paused a moment, her little forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. “Would you prefer to have some cold roast meat or wait while I cook chickens?”

“We cannot wait. Give us what you have,” said one of the older men. Soon all was ready and Hetty the hostess invited them to be seated. She was amazed the way they ate; picking up the meat with their fingers, gulping it down as if they had not eaten for many days. They finished several helpings of food and drank up three jugs of cider. Hetty kept offering more until they said they were full

When the meal was over Tom got up and told his companions to leave with him. One protested, “What, leave empty handed with all this silver here?” and he tried to grab the jug. Hetty felt chill of fear. “Oh, please,” she cried, “It is my father’s.”

Smith leaned across and clutched the man roughly by the arm. “Put that down, he shouted. “I’ll shoot the man who takes a single thing from this house.” Hetty looked in terror from one to the other as they glared across the table. Then she ran to Smith’s side and pressed close against his arm. The men turned and walked sullenly out of the house muttering. Smith looked down at Hetty’s trusting upturned face and a strange softness came into his eyes. He turned abruptly after the others, and Hetty, very much puzzled, watched the three men stalk down the road and out of sight.

When Daniel and his wife drove in that afternoon an hour earlier than usual, Hetty greeted them with: “Your strangers came, Father, and I treated them well, but they forgot to thank me.”

Partap Aggarwal
February 13, 2010

Boy Advises His Infant Brother

(This is a true narrative shared with me by the boy’s aunt who heard it directly as she was sitting behind the nearby wall with the boy’s mother.)

This story relates to a six-year-old boy whose name I do not know. He was admitted in a school in a Kerala town less than a year ago. One morning he is dressed up in his smart school uniform. His heavy satchel is on his back. As he is about to go out of the house he hears his 6-month old infant brother crying loudly. The boy turns around, goes to the baby’s bed and bends over him. He is curious. Why is this baby crying? On touching the baby’s clothes he finds him dry. He sees nothing wrong and begins to talk to his little brother.

‘Brother, what is wrong? Why are you crying? You are neither dirty nor wet. You might have tummy ache, but not likely. I do not see the reason for your crying so loudly.” The baby only wanted attention. So he smiles sweetly to indicate that he is happy to see his brother.

“Listen to me little brother. You can ‘poo’ in your pants and pee in your pajamas. Nobody will scold you. Mother will quickly wipe, wash and powder your bottom. She will also hug and kiss you as if you have done a grand act!”

“You just have to whimper and mother will set you to her bosom and feed you the most delicious milk made specially for you. Your bedding is soft and clean. Mother loves you like none else in the world can. You sleep snug and warm at night next to mother.”

“For all this you just lie, babble, sleep, and smile. You have no worries whatsoever for no burden of responsibility is on you. Your life is better than a king’s. Enjoy yourself. Do not cry. You know what? With your kind of luck you have no right to cry and complain. So be quiet and enjoy!”

Boy’s mother and aunt heard everything. They called him and asked, “Is your life not good like the baby’s?”

“No,” said the boy. “I have to go to school and sit in a room full of kids. We can neither chat nor play all day. Then there is this boring learning ‘A B C’ and other stuff. On top of it you do not let me play even when I come home. You make me do the homework first. Looking at you grown-ups does not make me very optimistic either. For all of you work all day, worry a lot, and complain about the worsening conditions.”

The two women were struck dumb. This was a great eye opening experience.

Partap Aggarwal
February 6, 2010

Million Frogs

A farmer came into town and asked the owner of a restaurant if he could use a million frog legs. The restaurant owner was exhilarated. “But where can I get so many frog legs?” he asked. The farmer replied, “There is a pond near my house. It is full of frogs. There must be millions of them. They croak all night long. I am about to go crazy!”

So the restaurant owner and the farmer made an agreement that the latter would deliver five hundred frogs every week.

Following week, the farmer returned to the restaurant looking sheepish. He had only two scrawny frogs. The restaurant owner asked, “Well... where are all the frogs?” The farmer said, “I was mistaken. There were only these two frogs in the pond. But they were making so much noise I though there must be at least a million of them!'

Next time you hear somebody criticizing or making fun of you, remember, it's probably just a couple of noisy frogs. Problems always seem bigger in the dark. Have you ever lain in your bed at night worrying about things, which seem almost overwhelming like a million frogs croaking? Chances are when the morning comes, and you take a closer look, you'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

Rajeev Gupta


(This is a true story. About two years ago a dear friend narrated this personal experience. It touched my heart. I saved it. Now I share it with you. I am sure it will touch your heart as it did mine.)

I was about 14 and growing up on a farm in Iowa. Father and I were putting up hay. My job was to take the tractor out to the alfalfa field, pick up a load of hay and bring it back to the barn. There, Father would set the grapple hook, and with the aid of Dick, our horse, lift the hay into the barn.

Our tractor was a Farmall with a huge rake sticking out in front. This placed the weight of the hay on the small front wheels.

The alfalfa field to the southwest of the barn had small gullies, perhaps two feet wide and two feet deep. Father made a special point that I should go around these gullies.
Under no circumstances was I to try to cross them.

But I was young and impatient. Sometimes father had seemed overly cautious. So I tried to cross one of the gullies. However, the small front wheels did not come out of the gully as I expected. I shifted into reverse. Again, the front wheels were stuck in the gully.

Then, before my eyes, the tractor pulled apart! The front wheels were stuck, while the tractor backed up. The side-rails, part of the very frame of the tractor, sheered off their bolts and let loose. The front twisted to the side and dropped. I was sitting on a tractor that seemed to be going down a very steep hill. The fan belt squealed as the fan chewed into the radiator. The engine died, and I sat in near-silence as steam hissed from the broken radiator.

I left the wreckage and began the longest walk of my life. I can still see the puffs of dust raised by my work-shoes. Each step carried me closer to a terrible reckoning. As I came around the barn, Father said, “Where’s the tractor?”

“It’s still in the alfalfa field,” I said, not wanting to say that it was actually “piled” in the alfalfa field. I had to
Explain. Then I waited for the judgment in my case.

In fact, I had no case. I had done the very thing I had been told specifically NOT to do. So there was no doubt about my guilt. It was complete.

Moreover, this was not just a misdemeanor. It was a major felony. We could not afford even minor repairs. This was going to be terribly costly.

Therefore, it was in fear and trembling that I stood before my Father and waited for his judgment.

He was quiet for a while, thinking. Then he looked at his watch and said quietly, “I wonder if we can get into town before the implement dealer closes?”

My case was closed. Judgment had been rendered.

To the very end of his life, this is ALL Father ever said about my terrible crime. He never mentioned it again.

I recounted this story at Father’s funeral, standing before his casket.

Somehow the story wasn’t complete.

I paused, waiting for something I felt was missing. After a pause, it came to me: “And now Father faces his time of reckoning. I pray that he will be judged with the same compassion as he judged me.

Wendell Mott
January 23, 2010