This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at email@example.com.
The Impact of India on a Westerner in 1964-1965
Emma Janis Speel
In 1964-1965 my husband, our younger daughter, Clara Beth, and I were in warm, sunny Bangalore, South India, caught up in the life and work of United Theological College, the largest Protestant Seminary in all Southeast Asia, where Charles taught Church History and Islamics, giving a year of service to the Presbyterian Church.
We left Boston, Massachusetts, on a Pan Am jet by way of London, Frankfurt, Geneva, Cairo, and Bombay. In London we landed in traditional fog, and, because the airport is at least an hour's ride from the city of London and we had only three hours to wait for the Air India jet, we could not leave the airport. We were hungry, but we did not want to cash a traveler's check and have six or seven English pounds left to take with us to India. But the world is small, you know and in our perusal of the airport we met an Indian from, of all places, Bangalore, South India. Upon learning that we were going to Bangalore and why, he scurried around, talked to the "right" people, and came back with a "chit," a word which we were to hear and use many times in India. You, perhaps, remember Kipling's use of the word. The chit entitled us to a free lunch at a very inviting stall full of English goodies. We had yet a long way to travel and would not be out of our clothes for two and a half days so we settled for a modest snack, catering to our soon-to-be-tried stomachs. Then we were welcomed aboard Air India by beautiful Sari-clad Indian hostesses, heard the handsome young steward greet Clara Beth as "Baby," nibbled from the trays of hard candy, and listened to the Indian music filling the cabin. The young steward returned often with a gift each time for C.B. We were soon airborne after the fastest swerving takeoff that I ever hope to experience.
The plane set down in Frankfurt, Germany, and we had a four course lunch, part of the airline service. But who could eat? Then up in the air again and down in Geneva, Switzerland, for one-half hour to marvel at the majestic Alps which were all around us at the airport. Up again and down in Cairo, Egypt. As we left the plane, the sultry desert breeze blowing across our path, the stately palms bending to the wind, the beige sand surrounding us, made our being there unreal. The short, tantalizing glimpses of these places did not bother us as they might have, had we not planned to stay a while at all these places and many more places on our return trip home to the U.S. Into the plane for the last long haul across the Middle East, land of enchantment, magic carpets, Tales of the Arabian Nights, lands of Biblical History, and finally there was Bombay beneath us, gateway to India, land of Kipling, spices, silks, mystery.
In the Bombay Airport we were enveloped by the crowds of people, all ages, some in filthy rags, some in clean starched white shirts and trousers, women in gorgeous saris, every color of the rainbow, and all the shades and hues in between, men all but naked, policemen with their yard-wide khaki shorts and top-heavy red turbans, ragged porters all looking alike, men in the traditional dhoti--that long skirt-like affair which with a few pulls becomes a diaper--all coming and going. We were through customs fairly easily, having only one suitcase each, and one handbag each. It took only about four hours in the steaming heat from five a.m. to nine a.m. After having paid the wrong porter who disappeared like a genie in this part Moslem land, we were gathered together into an old car driven by Mr. Mathai from the Inter-Mission Business Office who took us to Mr. Farmer's apartment. The Farmers were in charge of the Inter-Mission Business Office in Bombay. Breakfast was served and it was all that we could do to eat it. We were seated in full view of the Bombay Harbor where the Indian Ocean cooled the air and the sea winds blew over us in welcome refreshment. All looked peaceful from the upper story living room until rest time when a jabbering old woman on the opposite balcony seemingly berated me as I lay on the bed in full view of the opposite apartment. Many windows had no glass and the shutters were thrown open to capture every breath of sea air. But sleep cared not for the noisy old woman and I fell into a short nap. Soon it was time to board the bus for the airport and the last lap of our journey. The bus route through the streets of Bombay brought us face to face with the sprawling millions of homeless existing in abject poverty and the culture shock hit us with a mighty force. The filth, the gaunt faces, the crowds in motion, the hundreds squatting idly in the dirt, the open sewage drains, the thousands of makeshift shacks leaning against each other in the stinking mud of the ocean flats, the dirty sacred cows, the mangy monkeys, jukta carts, rickshaws, ancient autos, shorn of any antique value, bullock carts, three-wheeled taxis, buses, and pedestrians introduced us to that side of India which is so hard for westerners to take. But one must not shudder at this surface scene. There is much more to India than these scenes. The westerner must have a reason for going to India other than just sightseeing, he must stay long enough to see the beauty, feel the ancient philosophy, delve into the mysticism and religion, render a service, and leave before he sees people as a faceless mass without individuality, and before he gives up in hopelessness at the enormity of India's problems. Then he must return again to render a service.
Indian airlines took us from Bombay to Bangalore in 100 degree heat. It took forever for the cabin air to cool and I began to wonder if suffocation would end our lives. Over the flat dry dusty plains of India we rode until the sight of the Bangalore Airport signaled the end of our journey for a while. Mr. Kurien, acting principal of U.T.C, his wife and Dr. Lee Rouner, visiting American Prof. met us, and Mrs. Kurien held out a few pink roses to us in a touching Indian greeting of flowers. I shall never forget that ride from the airport to U.T.C.--a twisting, swerving, snakelike crawl, with the driver constantly tooting the horn to warn the endless streams of people, cows, buffalos, monkeys, and all sorts of ancient conveyances to get out of the way, which they did by moving one-sixteenth of an inch from the fenders as we inched our way for ten miles to the college. No one hurries in India, even to keep from being killed.
Into the gates of the compound we rode and entered a big granite stone house that was to be our home for months. Emily, our servant or aya, ran back and forth carrying hot water to the rusty tin portable tub, pitifully anxious to make a good impression on her new employers, so to keep her job at two rupees a day (42¢), excellent pay for servants. If her employer were an Indian she might make 1 rupee per day. We also paid to keep her two girls in a mission boarding school. Conditions were rugged and primitive but our home came to be a haven and a solace after we saw the thousands of humans sleeping on the streets, lucky to have a few mouthfuls of rice a day. (This year in Kerala State near where we lived a million people will die of starvation.)
Through the path at night, past poinsettia bushes twelve feet high, we picked our way to Mr. Kurien's home where we were to have dinner. Mrs. Kurien served us and according to custom would not sit and eat with her husband following Hindu custom deeply ingrained in them though they are Christian. A big black bug crawled from the greens on Clara Beth's plate, that with a long black hair in her food, plus being very tired, very strange, and very far from western civilization brought tears close to the surface and we could not imagine then that when the time came for our departure from this land tears would run again in sadness at leaving this, our home, in a strange land.
Back by flashlight to our house led through the darkness by Mr. Kurien, we dropped into our beds and to sleep. I shall never forget my first awakening in that place of abode, 10,000 miles from home half way around the world, when into our window came the sound of organ and voices singing that soul stirring hymn, "Immortal Invisible God Only Wise." I shall remember it as long as I live. I did not know till then that a chapel wide open to the air was only sixty feet from our window. Our first day in the college compound started at six and ended at ten. Charles was plunged into the work of the college before he caught his breath and I was plunged into the business of learning to shop and cook in an alien world. Early in the morning Mr. Kurien took me to the market to shop for sheets and blankets. I bought material, borrowed a sewing machine and transformer and made sheets and pillow cases, bought towels and washcloths, teapot, cutlery for three, and thereafter asked our guests to bring their own cutlery when dining in our home, bought dishtoweling and made dishtowels to replace the more than tattle-tale gray ones that Emily aya had been using. Going to market never ceased to be somewhat of an ordeal for me. I learned to go myself and to bargain for fruits and vegetables but I never could be unaware of the filth, stench and beggars. My first day in market is most vivid. I looked down and saw a beggar woman crawling along on her hands dragging her useless legs along the stone floor through rotten debris and spittle. Her face still stares at me in all its beauty. A lovely face in a broken body doomed to spend its days at the feet of crowds awaiting mercy among multitudes. Unless one is able to look above and beyond the sheer desolations of millions and look into the individual faces, meet and know them as people one cannot take India. One must look above the filth and into the lives and hearts of human beings. India is not all dirt and starvation. There is wealth and beauty and fun and hope if one looks for it above and beyond the terrible.
One such place of beauty was the United Theological College where seventy five earnest young Christian Indians study for their advanced degrees, and will eventually go into their native villages, for, perhaps, sixty rupees a month, on fire with zeal to preach the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Herein lies, I feel, one big hope for India in its struggle to solve the overwhelming problems of industrial, economic and social progress. The young men were so happy, so friendly, and so full of pep, so lacking in what we know as the world's goods, material things--and so eager to share their little with others.
At six a.m. a student beat on a gong to wake the others and at 6:45 chapel started with a hymn. After chapel I heard "one, two, three, four," and peeping through the curtains saw Charles Speel with students and other professors in a big circle doing exercises outside--hard at it in spite of a topsy-turvy stomach that plagues new arrivals. There is no gym or fancy equipment. Most all year the weather permits outdoor activity. The sun shone from early morn till sundown day after day, week after week, month after month except during the monsoon season.
Because there was but one telephone in the compound, all messages were sent by runners and there were endless knocks on the door with messages to be read and signed. All day, also, there was a steady stream of callers, legitimate and otherwise. The dhobi, the tailor, the barber, the breadboy, the milk lady, the sweeper, the knife sharpener, men from Kashmir with furs and wools, people for donations for this and that, and, of course, the beggars, who stood on the steps crying "Amah, Amah, Bakshis, Bakshis" (Mother, mother, gift, gift). After a while I learned that my rupees would never last if I continued to hand them out at random. I had to tell Emily that I would take care of her and her family (which increased in number daily) and the people within the college community, the malis (gardeners), students and so forth, but that I could not take care of all the people who came from the outside, and that she would have to answer the door and send them away if they were not within our domain. This she did very well.
There was no money for sports. Every day at 4:30 the whole college community participated in games, Throw Ball, Tennis, Quoits, Ping Pong, and Races. Everyone was put on a team including me without consultation. I was literally dragged out of the house by a girl from Nagaland (whose father, incidentally, was chief of Nagaland). So I gallantly played Throw Ball, took my turn serving, and was wounded in battle for dear old U.T.C. when I caught the ball on the end of my finger and broke a blood vessel in it. But what matters a sore finger for India? I did hold out, though, when they tried to enter me in relay races. I felt I had gone beyond the age for racing. These teams played each other for weeks, the points were tallied and the winning team had a big party at the home of one of the professers, Dr. Samartha, who was teaching that year at Park College in Missouri. And guess what? I was on the winning team. My team won in spite of me!
We ate dinner at the college hostel several times and these were wonderful times with the students. The students were somewhat like young men anywhere, earnest yet full of fun. We ate with our fingers, ate the very hot spicy rice and curry trying not to choke too loudly and then joined in the singing and dancing in the common room afterwards.
At Christmas time we wore our saris, ate with our fingers from a banana leaf placed on the floor as a dish, went to parties, gave teas and I had charge of decorating the new hall for Christmas. Charles Ransome Hall had the office, classrooms and the first auditorium. It was finished while we were there. It was paid for by money from the World Council of Churches. My job was to decorate the hall for the first Christmas program to be held there in the new all purpose room. I decided to combine East and West, using evergreens for the West and Palm branches, poinsettias and Hindu oil lamps used at the Hindu feast of Divali. Pink and red poinsettias grew all about the compound and were ours for picking. Masses of these were used as a background. Lockaba, head gardener, ran barefoot up the coconut palm tree, fifty feet high, with a large curved knife stuck in his shorts and cut several palm branches which were fourteen feet high. Two hundred divali oil lamps outlined the stage and window sills, great bunches of evergreens with red crepe paper bows enlivened each window and a bamboo creche graced the center of the stage. The service was beautiful with several students reading portions of the scripture in their native tongues and then translating. Burma, Germany, England, Denmark, Nagaland, Ceylon, Malayasia, Palestine, Persia, Africa, and every part of India were represented. As Mr. Kurien was reading from the Bible, the uncertain electricity failed, but the little oil lamps cast enough illumination so that Mr. Kurien was able to continue his reading of the Christian Scripture by the Hindu Divali lamps--truly an ecumenical gathering.
Our own Christmas there was makeshift but memorable. We tied evergreen branches onto a tall dead stalk in a clay pot, made paper ornaments from the red border of Time Magazine, I plan to write Time Magazine and tell them how happy we were that the magazine cover was bordered in red--taught Emily how to make donuts, and chicken croquettes. The only way we could chew the meat was to cook it for half a day and then grind it. We cut Christmas cookie shapes and showed Emily's children how to do this. How their eyes sparkled!
We attended midnight service at St. Mark's, a beautiful church with large shuttered openings that brought the out-of-doors inside. Everything was geared to keeping cool, including hand-woven cane-backed pews. St. Mark's, formerly Anglican, is now Church of South India. The pastor was the Rev. Mr. Daniels, who was doing a wonderful work with the poor of his parish. Bouquets of marigolds, calla lilies, asters cut from the gardens that December day were tied to the end of each pew and gave a wedding-like atmosphere to the Christmas service--at least to my western eyes. The "Blessing of the Crib," a short religious service for the creche was new to us. Communion was served, as it was every Sunday, using the common cup. The service was beautiful, and we felt festive in our saris, but as we stepped from the church into the night, the beggars clutched at us, crying for alms, and we were brought quickly back to the sadness and ugliness of the world.
We had Christmas brunch at our home with the Stearmans, our dear British friends, whom we met in Bangalore. Dr. Stearman was in India, sent by the U.N. to show the Indians how to build a wind tunnel for their aircraft industry. We opened our gifts together and gave each other only Indian gifts purchased in Bangalore. As we tried to celebrate together we were constantly interrupted by a steady stream of beggars crying at our door. When I looked out and saw the police force of ten men marching single file through the compound, I shuddered, wondering what had happened. I learned that they were on their way to Mr. Kurien's home to collect their Christmas Bakshis. Then all of the college servants came, too, smiling, holding out their hands for Christmas Bakshis. We got rid of quite a few rupees that day.
The Stearmans served Christmas dinner in their home and had ordered a turkey weeks before from a young Indian boy who was supposed to have been fattening it up. What a poor scrawny turkey it turned out to be when shorn of its feathers. We enjoyed every minute of the day, though, in spite of the lack of affluence.
The servant problem was a confusing network. We had hired Emily and agreed to keep her two children in boarding school, and thought our obligation clearly defined and under control, until one day a short, rather plump woman, (fat people are rare in India) appeared beside me, smiling and greeting me, I found that she was Emily's daughter's mother-in-law and that she stayed with Emily, whose husband was dead. I knew then that we fed her, too. Shortly Emily's daughter and small son Georgie came on the scene. It seemed that our obligations were increasing since the daughter's husband had gone far away to work and we had two new additions. One morning I found a tall, pitifully thin woman doing dishes in the kitchen. Upon inquiry I learned that she was Emily's sister from the hill town of Ooty who had come for what turned out to be an extended visit. She could speak no English but she stayed with us for a long time. She was a coolie who carried grains on her head for about thirty-five cents a day. Emily used her to do odd chores around the house, and all the while I was very careful to say nothing about wages as I knew if I did that I would have another servant, and we were already supporting more people than we could afford. Almost daily Emily brought someone who needed a little money and wanted me to hire him. At last I heard Emily's sister was leaving and again being very careful to wait until she was practically on her way called to her and gave her some money, because I knew that she would have to get a job before she would eat again. She took the money and then her shoulders began to heave and then she broke into sobs and threw herself at my feet and tried to kiss my feet. Well, you know how I felt having been raised in a democracy and I thought how terrible, no human being should have to grovel to another human being. I tell you this to show how people live so close to starvation. We were entwined constantly with the servants and their problems until I felt as though an octopus were wrapping me in its tentacles and as I loosed one tentacle another gripped me. And so this great black octopus of poverty permeates all of India and we were squeezed in it. Emily was a dear and devoted servant and we miss her and her grandson, Georgie who would come into the kitchen and dance for me as I clapped my hands--then there was seven year old Sam who would push his face against the screen and say, "Bah Bah black sheep, Have you any wool" for me--all the English he knew. And Apoo--a fifteen year old orphan who in size was about ten years lived with one of the professors as baby tender and dishwasher. I tried to talk to him daily, and when he saw me no matter what time of day he would greet me, "GOOD OPTO Noon, Sir"--fifteen-years-old, no home, no school, no family, no future, multiply this by a few millions and you have an ugly problem.
Yes, truly I felt isolated in a sense, when all around me Hindus, Moslems, Jains,
Sikhs, Buddhist and Parsees lived their lives and practiced their religions forming a
great circle closing in, as it were, the little body of Christians who worked fervently to
preach the Christian gospel. India has roughly one million (1.6) six hundred thousand
Jains, one hundred thousand Parsis, six million, (6.2), two hundred thousand Sikhs, forty
two million Muslims, three hundred thousand Buddhists, four hundred million Hindus and
eight million, two hundred thousand Christians.1 Yet I was told that
Christianity is having an impact out of all proportion to its numbers. Two and one half
percent Christians, in a land of four hundred and seventy million people, and nearly every
hospital and school were founded by Christians, before 1947. This repudiates the statement
that I've heard so many young people say, "The church is irrelevant, it hasn't done
very much." Mr. Nehru, beloved Indian leader, was very frank in seeking help from
Christians and tried to put into practice Christian methods (in secular government) by
establishing hospitals, leprosariums, educational institutions, literacy programs, and
social welfare--all of which had been accomplished by the Christian outreach. But Hinduism
is a powerful force in India. It is a culture, a way of life in which every act is
religious. Christian nations must encounter and reckon with this mighty force as the
twentieth century brings us face to face with the peoples whose ways are not our ways,
whose thoughts are not our thoughts, whose religion is not our religion. When one hundred
and fifty thousand people live on the streets of Bangalore (a small number compared to 1.5
million who live on the streets in Calcutta) with nothing but a square of dirt to live and
die upon, whose most pressing thought is how to get a fistful of rice a day, who know
nothing of beds, sheets, blankets, bathrooms, kitchens, recliner chairs, T.V., telephones,
stoves, fireplaces, rugs, chocolate candy, ice cream sodas, warmth and fun, how does the
West reach them? I believe that Christianity in faith and in practice which has at its
heart the worth of the human being made in God's image, and the principle that we are our
brother's keeper is still the answer.
1. In 1995 the population in India may be twice the number that it was in 1964-65.
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