BEHALA REVISITED and a BANGLADESH FIRST
The UK Committee felt that one of its members should attend the Annual General Meeting of the Oxford Mission Trust Association (which manages the Behala compound) on 14 September; and so I found myself selected for this task. I had previously been to Behala twice, the first time in 1966/7 and again in 1994; but I had never been to Barisal or Jobarpar, so it was a good opportunity to put that right. I was delighted that Mary Marsh volunteered to come too, not least because that meant being able to rely on her excellent organisational skills and local knowledge, which made the strenuous journey much easier.
We went via Kolkata (meeting Arijeet Roy briefly in transit) to Dhaka where we spent a night, followed by a half day sightseeing before taking the local plane to Barisal. Bangladesh seen from the air shows just how low-lying and wet the country is - it seemed to be at least 75% under water! There we were met by Mother Susila and several others from the Mission and set off on the long drive to Jobarpar, through the beautiful countryside and along the bumpy dirt road.
Once there we were made to feel like royalty by the tremendous and noisy welcome from the girls of the Hostel, but soon were enjoying the peaceful atmosphere and home cooking of the Sisters. It was getting dark, but this did not conceal the beauty of the place, nor how well it is looked after with all the available space being used to good advantage. I was able to look round it and the surrounding village in more detail over the next two days, and this confirmed the first impressions and showed again how much water is a part of life. It was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between ponds and paddy fields - and even the cows have mosquito nets!
After three nights we set off back along the road to Barisal, enjoying the bustle of the town before turning into the vast and peaceful compound. Here there was much of the atmosphere which I remembered from Behala 40 years ago, with life centred round the regular Offices said in the magnificent Chapel, and the Brethren and Sisters much involved in the working life of the hostels and schools. The compound is quite private and secure, and although there is a great deal of activity it is not used by the general public (or by cows) as Behala used to be. We were conducted round both schools, the Hostels and the Medical Centre, being plied with bouquets and presents everywhere we went.
The accommodation too, at least in the Brethrens house, was very reminiscent of Behala of forty years ago, except that the guest room has a shower - otherwise the non-flushing toilet and cold water and bedroom open to the outside were unchanged.
There were plenty of mosquitoes, but also plenty of rain - which fortunately kept the temperature down to tolerable levels. A venture into the town for shopping reminded me how crowded a place Bangladesh is. Barisal is quite a small city with a population in the central area of only about 15,000, but most of them were on the streets and a large proportion either riding in, or driving, rickshaws!
Two days later we set off again for Dhaka and Kolkata, where we were again met by Arijeet but this time to be whisked off through the city to Behala. The drive was very different from 1966, when much of the journey was through countryside and fields. It was also different from 1994, because in the last few years many flyovers have been built to relieve the traffic congestion, and perhaps sadly, the tram network is no longer as extensive as it was. I saw very few cows or beggars on the streets - at least comparatively speaking.
The compound seemed smaller. In fact it is, because land was sold for the road widening, but also because of the enclosing boundary wall, the higher buildings both inside and outside, and the growth of the large and magnificent trees. The main tank has a retaining wall all round, and a proper diving-board. There are more made-up paths around the sports fields, and the grass was long and wet (although it must have been at the same season in 1966!). Cows are no longer permitted, and there are fewer old men in dhotis taking the air and more young men in sports gear taking exercise.
Security is much more of an issue than it was. As well as the perimeter wall the boys quarters are fenced off. Facilities are much better, with a proper shower and toilet block replacing the tank for bathing and the throne room for the other!
Everybody seemed happy and healthy, and everywhere businesslike and well organised. The main change in life on the compound is due to the absence of a religious community attending regular Offices in the Chapel, and the twice-daily processions from the boys quarters for Mattins and Evensong (held in their quarters because of the wet conditions).
In the new Mission House the guest room was unrecognisable compared with my quarters 40 years ago - a flushing toilet, a shower, hot water, mosquito-proof windows so no nets, and a mattress!
One thing has not changed - there were 300 applications for the 12 places for next years intake to the boys Hostel.
17 September, 2005
WANTED - A CHALICE
We should be most grateful for the gift of a chalice for Communion services in the Chapel at Jobarpar, Bangladesh. The Christa Sevika Sangha (Hand Maids of Christ) is growing steadily: the chalice would have to be large enough for fourteen Sisters under their Superior, Mother Susila. Perhaps a retired priest, or one of the parishes who support us, would have one to spare? If so, please get in touch with the General Secretary (address p. 2) and she will arrange to send it out.