Revisiting Bangladesh after 23 years
Margaret How is a member of the UK Committee of the Oxford Mission. She was a nurse in Bangladesh between 1974 and 1982, in Sylhet and at both OM Barisal and Jobarpar She loves the country, speaks the language fluently, and now works in Salisbury Diocese supporting Bengali children in school.
When we landed at Dhaka International Airport on that February morning in 2006 I didnt quite kiss the tarmac, but I was very excited as I felt the familiar warm humid air greet me. At first I actually found it hard to recognise much in Dhaka. There are many more cars and fewer rickshaws, and it is much more polluted than it was. There is lots of building going on, and sadly a lot of the old houses with trees surrounding them have been knocked down to make way for tall blocks of flats. There are even some theme parks on the outskirts, and fast food chains, though I didnt actually see a McDonalds!
But I saw people out and about in wheelchairs for the first time, and even some wheelchairs with hand-cycles, which was encouraging. And there are many pretty little flower shops which there never used to be, the flowers all arranged so beautifully with jasmine, lilies, gladioli, roses, and garlands of marigolds piled high.
I was quite relieved though that Old Dhaka seemed very much the same. It is still full of rickshaws and narrow streets with fascinating little shops. Its so crowded now that it takes a very long time to get through by car. We were there because I had set my heart on going to Barisal on the old Rocket paddle steamer for old times sake. It is a shame that it only goes at night now. But it was still romantic sitting out on deck under the stars with the water hyacinth glistening on the river in the light of the boat. The amazing thing was that the steward and I immediately recognised each other after all this time! There was still delicious caramel custard on offer on the Rocket, and we were given a very lavish English dinner (though I would actually have preferred the chicken curry which was served up later on for everyone else!).
We got off the steamer at 5 a.m. No rickshaws to organise! We were met by a car hired by Mother Susila for the occasion, and drove to the Barisal compound to be met by three of the Sisters. After a delicious breakfast we went on to Jobarpar in the car. It was wonderful to be able to travel all the way without having to stop at ferries. There are now two very smart bridges and you just pay a toll.
Jobarpar, my village home, was looking as beautiful as ever. Lots of people were arriving for the Boro Sobha, and as soon as I got out of the car there was my God-daughter Elizabeth to greet me. When we got further into the compound there were Sisters Ruth and Jharna, and by the time I got to Mother Susila to give her a hug I was in floods of tears! It was just so wonderful to be there and to see everyone again.
We had elevenses in the lovely long dining-room, with one long table and photos of the Sisters and Fathers all around; such beautiful flowers in the garden and the house, the lovely clean pukurs (water tanks), the cows, ducks and hens calling, and such a peaceful haven after Dhaka. Then we were whisked off to the Boro Sobha (Revival Meeting), which was all happening outside the compound in a big field with a huge coloured awning like a marquee but with open sides. We were invited to go on the platform with all the boro loch (important people) , and were officially welcomed and our photos taken. There were some lovely dances and singing from the Jobarpar schoolchildren and the Barisal Hostel boys, and speeches of welcome including one from Mother Susila.
During the meetings we had lunch in the Boys Hostel dining-room, and for our evening meal we all sat round the long table with Bishops Baroi and Mondal, Mrs. Baroi, Mrs. Das from Chittagong, Mother Susila, and sometimes other visitors as well so it was very interesting. We didnt eat with the Sisters till Monday because they were so busy looking after us all.
Sunday 5 February
The great day of the Centenary dawned at last! The service started at 8 a.m. and there were a lovely lot of people. It actually lasted for a couple of hours although it seemed to go very quickly. The new chalice, kindly donated to the Sisters by Canon Anthony Johnson, was used for the first time, and Bishop Michael arranged that we should sing one of my favourite Bengali hymns - Christ Rajah Tomare Pronam Kori (We worship you, Christ the King).
After breakfast we returned for the next part of the proceedings. While a song was being sung the little children, organised by the Sisters, came in carrying candles and flowers. They processed down the middle aisle, and the 100 candles were put into holders at the front of the stage to represent the hundred years of the Church in Jobarpar. Flowers were given to all the special guests, including us. The great excitement was that once the first welcome had been given, the local MP (BNP) came in with a great flurry and made a speech. The television cameras were there and everyone was taking photos. There was more beautiful singing and dancing, with girls coming down the aisle and on to the stage dancing to the song Amakay purno koro with flower offerings in their hands.
Then there were lots more speeches, including two from local Chairmen, all about living together in harmony. Then Denis was called upon to speak which he did very well, and Mother made a very good speech right at the end. Mr. Malaker gave a lovely speech of thanks, and said that Mother Susila was everyones Ma and still a prodip (light) of the Oxford Mission. It was nearly 3 p.m. before the meeting finished and we were able to go and sit down at the feast: there was goats meat, chicken, fish and dhal and of course rice, followed by pyosh and a mishti (Bengali cooked sweetmeats) from the Chairman. It was a real privilege to have been part of it all.
There was Evensong in the Chapel which was lovely. Up till then prayers had been in the Church, bit I specially liked joining in with the Sisters.
Monday 6 February
In the afternoon I went to Kathira to visit friends, and got back in time for evening prayers when I was invited to pray in Bengali. After supper I was called to Mothers little tent and had to choose a sari - there was one for Diane and Liz too, and a shirt for Denis which he wore the next day.
Tuesday 7 February
We set off for Barisal after I had been over to the Girls Hostel again and given them a chocolate each or a balloon. They were so pleased with their little presents. It was sad leaving Jobarpar and Mother Susila and the Sisters. But Denis and I had a very good journey, and were greeted by the three kind Sisters in Barisal who had returned on Monday morning. The compound is still very beautiful with trees and flowers everywhere. The three trees planted by the Sisters of the Epiphany before they left for England are wonderfully tall and straight. I met up with many old friends in Barisal. I had lunch with my God-daughters family out at Khashipur, and we visited St. Agnes Hostel later on where my God-daughter is a house-mother and is also doing her teachers training.
Wednesday 8 February
After going to the town cemetery with Denis, Dipti Babu and Lucy Holt, I went to visit St. Annes Medical Centre where I used to work. It seemed so quiet compared with 23 years ago. There is no Feeding Centre now, and there used to be hundreds of patients all pressing to get in, but now there are only 15-30 patients a day as the Government is providing many more hospitals and clinics in the town. There is a visiting doctor on Fridays but other clinics in the area have a doctor every day. I hope it may be possible for St. Annes to have a doctor more often, or maybe more outreach clinics. It was the Antenatal Clinic that day. There is still a little pharmacy, and there is a delightful Assistant Nursing Sister from Bollobhpur who will take over from Usha Di when she retires. I had tiffin with them (puffed rice), and it was like old times!
Denis and I had lunch with Pushpo Di, and her daughter Florence Sarkar who is doing very good work with the Womens Self-Help Project. At 5 p.m. we had an appointment with Mr. Byapari, the Manager of the compound, and discussed Mission matters. We also met Mrs. Byapari who teaches in the kindergarten. After Evensong there was Usha Di waiting to take us to her house for supper.
Thursday 9 February
After Communion, at which Monoroma Di celebrated, we had breakfast and went round St. Marys Home (for orphaned or abandoned girls). It was amazing to see Joy Di again, and also Onita who cant hear or speak who used to clean my room when I was living upstairs. She sweetly gave me two hankies embroidered by herself. I was very pleased to see the little children who are now in St. Marys sitting doing their homework. The garden there is lovely, as are the gardens all over the compound. I was so pleased to see a vegetable garden at St. Marys as well.
Two former employees of the Oxford Mission now living out at Khashipur came to visit me after that, and I just met Father Francis before we left for Barisal airport.
I then had one night in Dhaka visiting my dear Bengali aunt Suniti Mashi who had adopted Leah, my other Bengali God-daughter. Leah had been abandoned on the doorstep of St. Annes when I was working there, and we couldnt find a place in an orphanage anywhere. So in the end Suniti Mashi very kindly adopted her, although she already had five children of her own. Suniti also used to be an employee of the Oxford Mission.
Some things have changed in Bangladesh but many are still the same, such as the Sisters faithfulness in prayer, their quiet loving service and their wonderful sense of humour too. I very soon felt that Id hardly been away. The community spirit of the people of Bangladesh, and their warm kindness and hospitality, are as strong as ever.
Bangladesh, where extraordinary kindnesses are ordinary occurrences -Lonely Planet Guide. It was true 23 years ago and its as true today.
Kolkata, Tuesday 14 February
Mr. Arijeet Roy kindly met me at the airport and took me back to Behala. In the past I have always stayed on the Sisters side, but this time I was ushered past the library and upstairs to a lovely room with a verandah and a beautiful view of trees and a tank. After meeting Denis again and hearing about some of his adventures, Arijeet and I had a delicious lunch, and in the evening Denis and I were invited to dinner with Arijeet and Kanchan. I just loved their house, and I was so impressed that Arijeet is related to Rabindranath Tagore.
Wednesday 15 February
I managed to get to Prime at 6.15 a.m. The Chaplain, a dear retired priest called Ranjit Banerjee, asked if I would say a few words to the boys. Luckily I had managed to understand the last part of the Bible reading about St. Stephen, so I was able to say something about him in Bengali. I dont normally preach in English, let alone in Bengali! After breakfast I went over to the Band Room for 8.15 a.m. practice, to find the boys already assembled with their violins and cellos. They played a lovely selection of Western music. One of the Year Ten boys took me round the rest of the compound, and I had some interesting chats with everyone as I went round. When I got to St. Josephs Primary School they were just having Assembly, so I was asked to stand on the platform and speak to the children in Bengali. So I gave a little speech. I then had a very good chat with the Headmistress. It seems a lovely school with very caring, dedicated teachers. Also children of all religions attend the school, and they all receive Christian teaching.
Arijeet then took me over to meet and have lunch with the elderly people at Santi Nivash across the road. I had such a lovely visit with these wonderful grandmothers and grandfathers. They took me upstairs to see their dormitory, and we even sang a Bengali song together! They all seem so very happy there.
In the evening I went to evening prayer, and then to the Boys Hostel to have supper with them. Before Grace one of the boys read a piece from the newspaper, and guess what it was about - cricket, of course!
Thursday 16 February
After Prime I had breakfast with the boys, including delicious ginger tea! Then I joined the boys in the Band Room again for a feast of Bengali music. I had lots of requests for them. They all sing so well in addition to playing well. The Year Ten boys invited me to visit them in their Study Room and have a chat, because theyll be moving on soon. They would like to be able to stay on in the Epiphany Hostel, but apparently that is not for boys who are doing further study but for boys who are working. I just love the way people are able to come into the compound in the morning and evening to enjoy the compound and to exercise. I can see from peoples faces that they really enjoy being there, and its just fascinating to watch! Although there is not a secondary school of any kind on the compound now, the Hostel, the Christian teaching and the music teaching provided for the boys are very worthwhile.
I would like to thank the Committee for allowing me this wonderful opportunity to revisit the work of the Oxford Mission in Bangladesh and India.