Half Yearly paper Nov 2003

Travelling to Bengal

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The journey

I was in Dacca (now Dhaka) from 1958-64, Calcutta (Kolkata) 1965-68, and in Bombay (Mumbai) 1968-73. I made return trips over the New Year 1987-88, and 1.990-91. So I was an old hand at the journey. This time I went by Royal Jordanian, a very good airline with plenty of leg-room, and considerably cheaper than British Airways. (I had assumed it to be 'dry', but all it lacked was a liqueur to follow the meal.)

A violent storm had delayed arrivals and departures at Heathrow, but my plane was only half an hour late in reaching Kolkata. Arijeet Roy was there to meet me, and we began the journey to Behala and my re-introduction after twelve years to Kolkata traffic. More than thirty-five years ago I used to drive in both Dhaka and Kolkata without batting an eyelid, though my passengers batted plenty. All the vehicles had good brakes otherwise they would not survive.

We duly arrived at the Oxford Mission, and after lunch and a sleep I went to see Sister Florence, which I did every day around this time. I had come to represent the Oxford Mission Committee at her 100lh birthday on 28 June.

Sister Florence

Sister liked to talk, and she was particularly glad to have someone from what she still regards as home, to listen. She talked about her childhood, which became unhappy when her parents' marriage fell apart. She began her training as a nurse at a hospital in Ilford in 1926, and was there when the King opened the extension, renaming it the George V Hospital. He gave her a prolonged handshake, and she remembered Queen Mary's piercing eyes, and her umbrella which looked as if it had varicose veins.

She was a faithful member of the Guild of St. Barnabas for Nurses, and in 1945 heard Father Whitcombe B.E. preach and began to wonder if she was called to the Sisterhood. She considered herself too old: but the London office of the O.M. sent a letter to Barisal, and a cable arrived back saying 'SEND HER AT ONCE'!

She sailed in March, 1946, and on reaching Barisal found herself helping to cope with a smallpox epidemic with next to no facilities. Later there was a cholera outbreak. I knew that in 1948 she nursed Father James Blair B.E. (later the first Bishop of Dacca) through typhoid, but I did not know that while he was so ill a ginger beard grew, and he became the object of veneration for local Muslims as a descendant of the Prophet.

Eventually Sister came to Behala. She talked of her work at the Leprosy Dispensary: 1 helped in a small way when I was a Novice in 1965-68, and 1 remember her very forthright way of tackling problems. She talked of the Fathers, of some of whom she was afraid. In those days Sisters were to do what the Fathers said without asking why. She was particularly attached to Father Mathieson, as they came out at about the same time and she worked very happily with him. She still preserves the formalities of the 1940s, with none of this modern first-name chumminess.

My abiding memory of our many talks is of her overwhelming gratitude, first of all to God, then to the many people who had been so kind to her. The Committee put mosquito screening on her room which allows her to dispense with a net, so making getting in and out of bed easy in the night. She is grateful for her independence and being able to retain her dignity. She appreciates many little things given her, which we might take for granted but which add to her comfort - which by our standards seems no comfort at all. She values people who write to her and tell her all about their families, in whom she takes a great interest and doubtless remembers them in her prayers.


On Tuesday, Arijeet and I had dinner at the Cathedral with Father Victor Yardi, who was at one time in the Brotherhood of the Epiphany. I had heard before I arrived about the exceptional heat being felt in India but was confident I would survive: had I not lived for two summers in Calcutta without a fan in my bedroom? But the next morning I woke up with a rash and a swollen left foot - prickly heat; so I determined to rest as much as possible. I donned my lunghi (a strip of cloth about 1m x 2m sewn up to make a loose skirt, which is bunched up and tied at the waist). My only concession to dress was to wear pyjama (literally clothing for the leg) and kurda, a loose white collarless shirt, for my evening visit to Sister Florence.

On Friday I flew to Dhaka, after a delay of six hours at the airport. We arrived early Saturday, where Daniel from the Diocesan Office was waiting with a car and I reached St. Thomas's Church about 2 a.m. After a good night's sleep I met Samuel, who was designated to be my minder as it was considered dangerous for a foreigner to be unescorted. We went to a shop to buy new kurdas: owing to my increase in weight those I had did not fit. They are made longer in Bangladesh than m India, and the result was a cross between a nightshirt and a short cassock.

The next morning, Sunday, I went to Church having been told that it was a Eucharist. It was a lay-led service, and at no notice I was called upon to say a few words in Bengali. I did my best, and remembered my first attempt in that very Church and the mirth which the congregation made little attempt to hide. I anticipated that I might be asked to give the blessing, and managed to remember it.

After Church we boarded a bus for Mymensingh, reaching the outskirts of the town in about 2 1A hours. After quick refreshments in a hut with a mud floor we crossed the town by cycle-rickshaw, and took another cruder bus which crossed the river by a fairly new bridge on our way to Haluaghat. Forty years ago I crossed by ferry and cycled the 27km, arriving with every stitch on me soaked with sweat. The road then was two strips of concrete: today it has tarmac and is in good repair.

We arrived mid-afternoon at St. Andrew's Mission. Around the early years of the last century a Brahmin who became a Christian and was ordained. In 1912 he came to Haluaghat, which was even more isolated then than it is today and was largely inhabited by Garos, who are tribal people with Mongolian features and their own language. They were neither Muslim nor Hindu and were far more receptive to the Gospel message: the majority has become Christian. Their worship is in Bengali, though they use some Garo hymns and the Scriptures have been translated into Garo.

Father Chakravorty, as he is always known and who died in 1950, founded the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, and when 1 knew it in the early '60s there were four priests and a lay Brother, Even then two were elderly and died, and the other two have subsequently died. The lay Brother Nripen, a gentle and lovable man, was killed in the fighting of 1971. The Sisterhood of St. Mary was also founded, and in the early'60s there were Sister Chela from South India, Sister Usha from Calcutta, and Sister Charu who is a Garo. I knew her quite well and was delighted to find her still alive, but rather feeble and very shrunken. She is 87 and was always barefoot until recently. Sixty years ago most people were barefoot, whereas today it is only a small minority so the Sisterhood now wears sandals.

Newly-ordained Deacons Romeo, Martin, Immanuel and Shashi with Bishops Mondal, Baroi and Sarkar

Brother Martin's Profession - First Vows (Father Francis on left)

The parish priest came to see me and we had quite a chat. He had been previously in Jobarpar, and made the observation that here the Sisters worked mainly in the parish, but there almost entirely within the compound. As he had a commitment in another parish the evening service was taken by young people, and I was impressed by how well it was conducted. Supper arrived, and so to bed. In the night jackals howled from time to time. I was assured they were not dangerous, but they would have made a good background noise for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

In the morning I celebrated the Eucharist for the Sisters in English, but managed to remember the Sursum Corda and blessing in Bengali. Their chapel is very small, and they sat on the wall opposite the altar with visitors to the wall on their right. For everything except Morning and Evening Prayer they used the translation made by Father Chakravorty many years before. For the Eucharist they were dependent on what the Parish Priest could do for them. As well as Sister Charu there are Meera, the senior, Anita, Breegita and a Novice, Mala.

On the very extensive property there is some uplift work under the direction of a Credit Supervisor, who makes loans to about a thousand people at 12%. There are women's development work, health education, family planning and teaching ecology. There is a boys' hostel of about 80, and a girls' hostel of 95, for those in remote areas; also a boys' school of nearly a thousand, and a girls' school which is a bit smaller. Also on the land is a Government school, and the Mission is represented on the Management Committee.

About 40 years ago local Garos were intimidated by Bengalis and something like two-thirds of them moved over the frontier into India, which is very close; the parish has never really recovered from it. There was a rumour that the Mission itself would be attacked, so Bishop Blair arranged for a series of foreigners, including me, to stay there, each for a few days, and the threat passed. At Morning Prayer on Tuesday with the hostel children the parish priest recounted this piece of what is now history, presenting me as a hero who had helped preserve the community.

On Tuesday we returned to Mymensingh, where I wanted to see again the little Church which dates probably from the middle of the nineteenth century and had been used by the British; I had taken services there 40 years ago. When we arrived I saw two neatly-dressed Europeans. Samuel greeted them warmly, addressing them as "Dada" (elder brother): they were Taize Brothers. We had a brief chat and then saw the Church, which was stripped of everything I knew and had a mini-altar at the sanctuary step. I was entranced and thrilled to learn that these men were saying the Office there in Bengali, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

On arriving back in Dhaka Daniel greeted me with the news that all internal flights had been cancelled owing to the arrival of Colin Powell. I decided to go by launch to Barisal and Jobarpar, despite the fact that 14 years ago when making the journey I woke in the night to find a large rat at the end of my bed, and cried out like a damsel in a Victorian melodrama. The Bishop was not in Dhaka but as soon as his wife heard of my plans she forbade it, saying that this time of year launches were prone to sink. Prudence and the fear of disobeying such a command resulted in the despatch of the ever-willing Samuel to get me a bus ticket to Gournadi. The delay to the next morning meant I was able to accept the kind invitation for supper with the Bishop's wife, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, which was a very pleasant occasion.

Early in the morning Samuel and I set off for the bus station. On arrival I was greeted by the Revd. Birbal Haider, now retired. He had been a student at Bishop's College, Calcutta, and was an exact contemporary of Bishop Dwijen: I used to go to the Indian Deputy High Commission to try to expedite their visas for India. Fourteen years ago he told me that I was known as Pagal Fadar (Mad Father). We talked furiously, and I was glad the bus was late in leaving.

We arrived at Gournadi in about five hours, and it happened that there was a car going to Jobarpar so we set off on the 12km journey over the very worst road I have ever experienced. Three Sisters were travelling to Jobarpar together with Brother Martin, whom I met for the first time. He is still under 30 and completed his B.D. at Bangalore three years ago. To my surprise it included four years of Hebrew, and I wonder how many C. of E. clergy have done that. He is self-assured without being assertive, with a pleasant manner and a very good command of English. He is full of enthusiasm and hope.

We arrived in Jobarpar and I settled in to the guest room: I went only once beyond the Chapel and dining-room; that was to attend the parish Church for a Eucharist on Friday morning. On the wall of the Church was a list of priests who had served there, and I knew nearly all of them, from the time of Father Prior B.E. to Father Philemon, the present priest of Haluaghat.

The Sisterhood of the Epiphany had been founded in 1902 to work closely with the Brothers, and to end their days in the country. By 1970 the political situation was such that it could not be certain if foreigners could live indefinitely here. So it was decided that Sister Susila, the only member not from abroad, should form an Order more suited to women of the country. So the Christa Sevika Sangha was founded, and has flourished for over 30 years. On this my third visit I was again most impressed by the way the Divine Office, Opus Dei, God's work, was offered. The diction was clear and all was unhurried, so with my English Bible I was able to follow easily. I celebrated the Eucharist in Bengali here for the first time this trip. Mother Susila is far from well and is in constant pain with arthritis. She has to inject insulin twice a day. There seems no obvious successor at present.

On Friday evening we set out for Barisal by car, arriving just in time for Evensong. The next morning I celebrated in Bengali, and being a Saturday I noted that the Brotherhood of the Epiphany's custom of a requiem was followed. After Sext on Sunday all the departed were remembered: the Brethren first, with surname and Christian name, and then the Sisters with just their community name, ending with Rosamund, which I found very moving. They are indeed the inheritors of over a century of tradition in this place.

It was very good to meet Father Francis again; after 12 years he had a few more grey hairs but had not changed a great deal. He seemed quite ascetic, eating very little and sleeping with just a rush mat on his wooden bed. I heard he abstained even from liquids for quite some time on Fridays. I was relieved to glimpse the feet of clay in his occasional cigarette. I made a passing remark about the problems he had faced, and he commented that he had been through two wars so it was nothing. As most people know, his part in the War of Independence has been recognised, and the respect it commands in the community at large is considerable.

We had almost a formal discussion about the Brotherhood of St. Paul. They have their Constitution, which includes a daily Eucharist, a seven-fold Office (Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Evensong and Compline) as well as a Rule of private prayer and study, with chapter of faults on Wednesday. It seems that they are carrying on very much as their European forebears did. I pointed out that most English Communities had gone on to a four-fold Office; in fact I felt very strongly on the matter when a Novice. Francis replied that Muslims respected regular times of prayer during the day - which put this Western know-all in his place.

There has been mention of two Novices, but these are technically Postulants and not clothed. One has just completed his B.Com. and was deciding whether to come back as a Novice. The other, Joel, was 19 and doing his Higher School Certificate, after which he will leave for a period of reflection to see if he too will return as a Novice.

Saturday evening I was invited to supper in the Boys' Hostel, which was very pleasant. They sang songs and recited poetry, and in reply I said three lines from Tagore in English, then rendered them in the original. Throughout the night it poured with rain, the electricity went off and I had to walk through 25cm of water to the Church - fortunately on a concrete path, which is an improvement for which I was very thankful. It was inconvenient, but I was glad to see the Church as I had first known it, by candle-light. I was told to introduce myself and speak in Bengali for no more than five minutes, as Sunday is a working day and the children had to get to school. The Creed and Gloria were omitted, and I was sorry to miss the lovely settings for them. Flooding in heavy rain is a recent phenomenon, as there has been so much building all round which has blocked the drainage channels. Apart from the inconvenience, if it hangs around for more than a few days it kills the grass and the vegetables. There is a Government scheme to rectify it all, but just when nobody knows.

I went back to Dhaka by launch Sunday night, left in the early afternoon for the airport, and at Dum Dum (Kolkata) was glad to see Arijeet waiting for me. This was Monday evening: I had been here a fortnight. The drop in humidity and temperature with the corning of the rains resulted in my prickly heat almost vanishing.

Martin with Father George Golding in 1990: he received his vocation to join the Brotherhood on the day Father died (7 July, 1993)


The next few days were of frenetic activity for the great party on Saturday 28 June. I was glad to watch from the sidelines. Three local papers interviewed Sister Florence and published articles with pictures. A television station interviewed her, and transmitted it several times.

The boys had returned to school, and there were now prayers each morning at 6 a.m. On Thursday evening Mother Susila and five Sisters arrived, having made the journey by road. Mother crossed the border in her wheelchair, and another car was there to meet them. I showed them the doll dressed as a nun which I had brought for Sister Florence, and they were a little shocked when I lifted up her skirts but entranced when they realised it was to wind up the musical box within. From now on I celebrated the Eucharist in Bengali for the Sisters after prayers.

Things began to take shape. Those at the British High Commission heaved a sigh of relief when the Royal birthday-card turned up just in time. There were meetings to finalise the Order of Service. There always seemed to be something which needed attention.

I was running short of currency, so went out of the Mission and 200m along the road to the U.T.I. Bank, where putting my U.K. card into the A.T.M. I received rupees in seconds. I was amazed to find this facility in an unsophisticated shopping area quite a way from the city centre.

The Great Day dawned, and Sister Florence's close friends came to see her in the morning. By about 4 p.m. she had gone to what had been the Sisters' house, which had an awning outside where many of the boys sat. Friends and well-wishers carne to greet her in the midst of a milling crowd with videos and cameras, as well as TV men. The Queen Mother's Award for Outstanding Service in the Nursing Profession was on display. The Bishop of Kolkata arrived, then the Acting British Deputy High Commissioner bearing the Royal card, which was duly presented and the service got under way. A boy of 11 read beautifully from Psalm 103 in Bengali, the Bishop preached, and others had a small part. Sister replied, expressing her thanks to God and to others for giving her the privilege of serving India. The cake was cut, and then the Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, Sri Sourav Ganguly, arrived to present flowers. He began his cricket at the Barisha Cricket Club, which uses the Oxford Mission field for their games.

The excitement and commotion of it all left Sister unfazed, and after nearly three hours she went back to her room in her wheelchair. Her friends then gave an excellent dinner for all the helpers, which the cooks in the Boys' Hostel prepared.

Sunday 29 June was St. Peter's Day, and the local Church is dedicated to him. A few days before I had met the Parish Priest, who asked me to preach for the Patronal Festival. I decided to do it in Bengali; as soon as I began my preparation I regretted my folly. The day dawned, and I had to leave the boys' service early to get there on time where I delivered the message with great labour. Afterwards people were very kind, and I had the impression that they considered it could have been worse. The Bishop came in the evening and preached at much greater length by translation, and with the distribution of prizes the whole show lasted two hours and ten minutes.

Monday I went to say goodbye to Sister Florence, and she was amused as well as delighted to receive this communication, with red roses: "BIMAN BASU, Member, Polit Bureau, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Chairman, Left Front Committee, West Bengal: Respected Sister Florence, Wishing you good health and many many returns, With regards, signed Biman Basu".

The great success of all the celebrations was due in no small measure to the hard work and relentless energy of Arijeet Roy. In the evening he and his wife accompanied me to the International Airport: Royal Jordanian were on time and up to expectations. I had an eight-hour stopover in Amman, and did not look forward to hanging around a lounge. However I was taken to a hotel and given an en-suite room and breakfast. We landed on time at Heathrow at 3.35 p.m. On arrival in Bristol at 7.35 p.m. I got wetter in five minutes waiting for my friends than I did in the monsoon.

It was 1 July: the days had flown by. There was much for which to be thankful and a very great deal to give me hope.


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Half Yearly paper Nov 2003