Visit to Bangladesh and India
Denis Doble is a member of the UK Committee of the oxford mission, and a former Deputy high Commissioner in Kolkata.
Margaret How and I, accompanied by Liz Crocker , arrived in Dhaka on 2 February and had a welcome lunch at Diane Jennings house in Banani. Then we drove through the congested streets of Old Dhaka to the port area, where we had cabins on the legendary Rocket; fans of Michael Palin will recall that he finished his Himalayan journey on this very boat. After a good four-course dinner, with fish and chips as the second course, Margaret and I shared an Oxford Mission cabin just short of the paddle of the steamer, and near the boarding-point. We managed a few hours sleep, but at 4 a.m. found the ship marooned in heavy mist. We arrived at Barisal at 6.30 a.m. to be taxied to the Mission compound for breakfast just before proceeding south to JOBARPAR. Diane and Liz were with us too.
The compound there looked splendid, initially an oasis of calm before the three-day celebration of 100 years of the Church in Jobarpar began. The main events took place in a huge shamiyana (tent), and consisted of speeches and exhortations, punctuated by Bengali music and singing. There were plays and concerts in the evenings which continued till midnight and beyond (I was sleeping nearby!).
On Sunday, 5 February the hundred-year anniversary celebrations began in earnest. First, a two-and-a-half-hour Eucharist, attended by some 3,000 people, including a sermon on the history of Jobarpar. Then came the Centenary ceremony, with some 12 speeches, and excellent dancing and singing by Bengali groups. There were contributions from Bishops Baroi and Mondol and a keynote speech from Mr. Zahir Uddin-Swapon, the local Bangladesh National Party MP.
All speeches were in Bangla, but the MP kindly translated some of his speech for me afterwards. He said that all religions had virtues in them, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc., but trouble only arose when one of them pushed its views too far. This seemed to be a critique of fundamentalism, very suitable for Bangladesh. I was told it was very unusual for a Moslem MP to attend a Christian celebration of this kind. Various Local Government officials also appeared and spoke.
My own contribution came up after about two hours. I summarised the more lengthy speech I had prepared, as it needed to be translated into Bangla in short sharp bursts! The full text follows, containing rather more of the history of the Mission, much of the ground having been covered by previous speakers. I was fortunate in having as a translator James Das, an impressive young Professor of Economics from Dhaka University, who also spoke. Mother Susila, speaking from her wheelchair, rounded off the proceedings. The vote of thanks itself lasted some 25 minutes, when Bishop Baroi finally called a halt after 3 ½ hours in total. About one hour earlier there had been an announcement that food was ready, at which point over half the 3,000-strong audience moved away: this left the platform party unperturbed; indeed the speeches continued with even greater zeal.
We then headed for the banquet area ourselves -to the standard rice and chipattis was added chicken soup, goats meat, fish from the Missions own tanks, mixed vegetables, dhal etc. Pudding took the form of pyosh, a pleasing mixture of rice and cinnamon. Coconut water was the beverage. After that, some of us had a nap before the final concert and play in the evening. The play was rather novel, in that none of the actors seemed to have learned their words, but repeated them after they had been read out by the very busy prompter!
Men and women sat separately
On Monday 6th, I was able to see more of the Missions activities which had been disrupted in the previous three days. I saw the parish church, with its plaque to Father Conway and Father Cooke of the Brotherhood of the Epiphany, the founders of Jobarpar in 1906; the School, coping with more than 100 boys and girls, and the dormitory facilities for them; the Medical Centre; the six large tanks stocked with fish to eat and sell; the stables for the cows and calves; and the Development Office of the Church of Bangladesh, which runs programmes of education for children and adults.
Mother Susila CSS and her thirteen Sisters were kindness itself, providing excellent nourishment, willing guidance, and ubiquitous and welcome tea and biscuits! Bishop Baroi and Bishop Mondal too were very friendly and helpful. I was struck by the use they all made of the mobile phone, very unexpected, but useful and not too expensive, given the inadequacies of the local telephone service. I was very honoured to see some Bangladeshi and Indian television on Mother Susilas precious set. Frequent evening power cuts were dealt with by the generators.
The compound was in pristine condition for the great events. Sadly my own efforts to lose weight during a healthy alcohol-free five days were thwarted by the excellent fare available. I was immediately labelled Uncle and therefore spoilt. It was a moving experience to be with the Sisters at their prayers in their delightful chapel.
PS. I was fortunate enough to be able to call on the British High Commissioner in Dhaka, H. E. Mr. Anwar Chowdhury, a British Bangladeshi who has been in post about two years. He was aware of our schools in Barisal, though not in Jobarpar, and said he would look in if he was travelling in that direction. He added that he might be able to help in a small way from his Small Grants Scheme, if he was sent a suitable project.
On Tuesday, February 7th, we drove up to Barisal, where we stayed in the Sisters quarters and were again well looked after. It was impressive being with the Sisters at prayer again - in the big Church, a marvellous statement of Christian witness in a difficult area. We toured the compound, meeting Mr. Sircar, Acting Headmaster of the Senior School, and Mrs. Mary Roy, Headmistress of the Primary School. The students seemed bright and keen, divided into two separate classes for religious instruction. They obviously learn English, but it was put to me that more English teaching would improve the standing of the Senior School.
We saw the famous three trees planted by the last members of the Sisterhood of the Epiphany to leave Barisal, and talked to Lucy Holt, a former Novice, about the history of the Sisterhood. We were fortunate to be entertained in three Bengali houses, the first belonging to the Revd.Dipti Kirtonia, the Vicar of St. Peters in the town. The second was that of Florence Sarkar and her mother, and during our stay Florence explained the Womens Self-Development Project. The third was that of the Nursing Superintendent Usha, in the north-east corner of the compound. Presents for me included a splendid kurti-pyjama, a white tennis-shirt, and a striped green shirt.
But it is clear there are many problems on this extensive compound. Security is an increasing problem, because of the invasions of the bad boys! Mr. Byapari, the Manager, is struggling with a difficult job. Empty buildings may attract envious eyes from the town, but it is difficult to develop the sites when they are within the compound. The Brotherhood of St. Paul is in abeyance, Father Martin having been sent by the Bishop to Haluaghat, and Joel and John on study leave.
I took photos of the well-kept cemetery on the compound for the records of BACSA (British Association of Cemeteries for South Asia), and also looked at Barisal churchyard in the town. Here the need for a southern wall was the main point of interest, and the renovation of the churchyard, which dates from about 1830. I am very optimistic that BACSA will provide some funding for this, as I told Bishop Michael Baroi in Dhaka when I saw his Cathedral, St. Thomass. We also talked about possible supplies from the High Commission for the schools -the Senior School would like hockey and volleyball equipment, and perhaps computers, and the Primary School musical instruments, globes, atlases etc. I have put this to the High Commissioner for his views.
The plane from Barisal to Dhaka was 1 1/4 hours late (a 25-minute flight), which nearly spoilt my tour of Old Dhaka by rickshaw. But in 2 ½ hours I was able to see most of the main sights, and included a call on the British Council in the University City. It was late, but I met Mr. Abu Al Kharram, the head of Customer Services, and we were able to discuss what the Oxford Mission is doing with its various schools. Then I spent a comfortable night at the Viator Hotel, without the whistles, mosquitoes, dogs and durwans at Barisal disturbing my sleep!
After the flight on Bangladesh Biman to Kolkata, I was looked after by Arijeet Roy, whose attention to detail (especially with the morning walkers, the traffic noise and the mosquitoes - again!) and welcoming attitude was admirable. We toured the compound, saw the graves of the old Fathers and Sisters, and much enjoyed a concert the next morning from the boys, who entertained a large group of girls from nearby homes -this was good public relations from the Missions point of view. The girls enjoyed their lunch, and cricket too.
Arijeet agreed with me that more English teaching in the schools the boys attend would open the way to many more avenues. We visited the Sisterhood area across the main road, which we are considering developing. Arijeet took me to the prize-giving ceremony of the well-known St. Johns Diocesan School, where I was felicitated and given a bouquet of flowers, thanks to Bishop Sam Raju, whom I knew when he was at the Cathedral in the 1980s. The guest of honour was Sharma Omar Sen, an ex-Governor and ex-Chief Justice of West Bengal. He was made aware of the Oxford Missions activities, so was the present Governor, Gopal Gandhi (the Mahatmas grandson), whom I met at a wedding reception at the Taj Bengal Hotel. Swaraj Paul (Lord Paul) was passing through.
Next morning was the Cathedral service, at which Father Ian Weathrall from Delhi assisted. Then to the Lower Circular Road cemetery, where a bust of C. F. Andrews, a close associate of Gandhi, was unveiled by the Governor, whose initiative it was. Father Ian Weathrall spoke eloquently about Tagore, and about Andrews, who was from St. Stephens, Delhi.
Next morning, on Monday 12th February, we called on the British Council. Sujata Sen, the Director, said she would visit Behala; maybe she can give us some advice on the large library there, full of now unused books which have been a problem to us for some time. Then to the British Deputy High Commissioner, Dr. Andrew Hall, who is shortly leaving for Nepal. Arijeet will follow up with his successor, Simon Wilson, to brief him on the Missions work.
Next day I visited CYSEC, the Self-Employment organisation in the corner of the compound, whose lease was falling in next June and is not likely to be renewed. Hazel Platts from the Cathedral and Mrs. K. K. Dutt had suggested I visit CYSEC, which was assisted by the British High Commission with computers in the 1990s.
I travelled with Father Ian to Howrah station, where I first arrived in Kolkata in the 1980s. I was grateful for his lively conversation and wise counsel. Finally, Margaret and I had a splendid evening at Arijeets house, meeting his family and enjoying some excellent food. Then home on the packed BA flight, where even most of the crew rest seats were occupied by passengers!
Liz Crocker was formerly at Ratanpur, and Diane Jennings at OM Barisal, and with UNICEF at Dhaka.