Impressions of India

Published 4:45 pm Monday, July 20, 2009

Dressed for Thanksgiving services are from left, Rita Dutta, the Rev. David Truby of Wirksworth Team Ministry in Central England, Bishop Dutta, Jeff and Helen Byrd. The Rt. Rev. Probal Kanto Dutta suggested I visit Durgapur, India during an interview at Holy Cross last summer.

The Rev. Michael Doty of Holy Cross was among a group of visitors from around the world planning to attend the Diocese of Durgapur&squo;s annual Thanksgiving services, an annual event attended by well over a thousand Indians from across the diocese.

I decided to take the bishop up on his offer. When I told my wife, Helen, I was headed to India with Michael Doty, she said, &dquo;Not without me, you&squo;re not.&dquo;

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Michael wound up changing his sabbatical plans. But Helen and I were far from alone when we got to Durgapur. The Rev. Brian Cole of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville was there, as was an old friend, the Rev. Deacon Ann Fritschner of Hendersonville.

There were a couple of Episcopal youth ministers from Black Mountain, a missionary from Blowing Rock in residence there, a contingent of British clergy and their wives, and another contingent of Bangladeshi clergymen and nuns.

All familiar faces become fast friends in such circumstances.

It took nearly 24 hours of travel and connections from Tryon to find our beds in Durgapur. It is a far piece. The pilot of our return flight announced we were halfway home as we flew over St. Petersburg, Russia.

After resting a day at the Bishop&squo;s compound in Durgapur, the Rt. Rev. Dutta provided Tata sedans and land rovers, drivers and guides, and shipped most of the Americans off to see the various works of the diocese before returning to join in the Thanksgiving services.

What quickly became clear was that everywhere we went they were expecting us. The Indian people ‐ who wore scarves, hats and sweaters for the 70-degree Indian &dquo;winter&dquo; ‐ were over-the-top welcoming Helen and I everywhere with flowers, presents, ceremonies, dance demonstrations and invitations afterwards to their homes.

In perhaps the most memorable display, after breakfast with the Bankura Christian College president in his residence one morning, we were dusted with flower petals at the campus gate by students and then marched to the chapel ahead of the student body by a contingent of uniformed students in what was apparently the Indian version of ROTC.

My notebook was quickly filled with sights and sounds, but little understanding.

&dquo;India absorbs everything,&dquo; says Khagendra Das, our guide into the Santal tribal lands. &dquo;It moves. Things get done.&dquo;

Khagendra sounded like the Beatles talking loopily to the British press after their return from Rashikesh in 1968 (where dear Prudence hid in her room). But even Khagendra and the Bishop do not claim to understand India.

It is a vast land, home to 29 primary languages.

The dominant Hindu tradition is seen everywhere in colors and portrayals of gods and goddesses. Monkeys sitting on posts on the outskirts of town and stories of elephants harassing the tribal villagers complete the exotic picture.

West Bengal is packed, the most densely populated state in densely populated India. Drivers make their way through endless tangles of people, people walking, people on bikes, bikes pulling carts, motorcycles, tractors pulling wagons, water buffalo pulling wagons piled with sticks or bales, goats, dogs, cows, vendors with wares stretching into your path, women throwing their wheat into the road for cars to thrash, buses with people riding on the roof, belching black smoke. Really, this list is too long to complete here.

You enter into a main street, look ahead, and cannot imagine that your vehicle will ever get through, and yet the driver plows ahead apace, honking and honking and honking. Apparently, they all navigate with their ears.

Headed through the country, on our way to the tribal lands, each village it seemed was in the midst of its particular annual festival. A half dozen times, little boys had blocked the road with logs. They would come up to the driver&squo;s window and the yapping would begin.

&dquo;They want a donation for the gods of their festival,&dquo; Das explained. The driver never paid a rupee, instead pointing them to &dquo;the bishop&squo;s signboard,&dquo; the front license plate on &dquo;our important car.&dquo;

&dquo;They can&squo;t read it,&dquo; Das said, but were impressed enough to forgo their fundraising.

Our route was altered after we got word that certain roads were closed due to one of the regular strikes, &dquo;bunds,&dquo; the one which diverted us due this day to a dispute about &dquo;a broken bathroom.&dquo;

Before entering other areas, we stopped so the driver could tie a bandana over the bishop&squo;s &dquo;signboard.&dquo; We learned from the Bishop later that it could be dangerous if Maoists in the tribal lands were to mistake a car for an official state vehicle, or worse, one from the Central Reserve Police Force.

The communist government of West Bengal was described at best as worthless, at worst as corrupt, by all those with whom we talked. Apparently, in the tribal lands, this frustration has turned violent.

The Christians we met in Shyamadi, of course, were waiting to greet us.

The community center there was to have been Michael Doty&squo;s temporary home, as his sabbatical plan had been to serve as a videographer documenting the work of the diocese&squo;s Shyamadi Community Development Project.

As day-trippers, Helen and I looked around at what would have been Michael&squo;s quarters ‐ clean, but in so remote a place ‐ and thought, &dquo;Now that would have been interesting!&dquo;

Das told us witch doctors are still active in the villages, and dead relatives are felt to be active participants in family life. Drums can be heard inviting others to eat and dance.

Yet, Anamika Murmu, one of the leaders of the Shyamadi project had a cellphone handy to be in touch with her brother who works for the railroad in Kolkata.

The young children we met in Shyamadi, Durgapur, Bankura and Purulia were as beautiful as any children we have ever seen.

Older youths, like the bishop&squo;s niece, and Khagendra&squo;s daughter, Basundara, were our favorites, being so like our own children, and such good English speakers. Graduates of private Christian prep schools in Calcutta, they are now among the fortunate of India attending college.

As adopted &dquo;uncle and aunt,&dquo; we will return for Basundara&squo;s wedding one day.

The youth who have come from all over India to attend Bankura Christian College were surprisingly, sincerely respectful and polite. Obviously dedicated students, speakers of multiple languages, they exhibited habits of character not seen in the U.S. since the 1940s, about the time the Wesleyan-founded Bankura college facilities and library were last updated.

The college faculty desperately asked Helen and I to pledge we would help them make academic connections with American universities.

One India moment that sticks in my mind was our leave-taking from an assembly hall in Purulia. Muslim, Hindu and Christian students had performed &dquo;The Prodigal Son&dquo; and we were exiting, shaking all the reaching hands on the way out. Many of the older hands ‐ the center houses the outcast families along with the children ‐ were missing fingers lost to leprosy.

The Rev. Cole said in a sermon at All Souls after returning home he felt he had finally found India when a student in a college classroom asked him, &dquo;What do you think of us?&dquo;

We often got the same question.

&dquo;Now that is India, and Oklahoma and Nebraska and the River Jordan,&dquo; Cole said, &dquo;and every leper who ever stood before Jesus… God has told us in as many ways as God can imagine what He thinks of us. God believes we are one people and one land and that there is no need to go in search of the Promised Land because God has promised to be with us in every land.&dquo;

A small world

In the &dquo;small world&dquo; category, we should not fail to mention the response of the bishop to the news that Eric Gass, apparently of the well-known Gass family in India, lives in Columbus.

Bishop Dutta very much wanted to meet Eric.

Eric Gass&squo; grandfather, it turns out, went to Raipur as a missionary from Switzerland. The Gass Memorial Center, named after that grandfather, continues in Raipur as a &dquo;kind of YMCA,&dquo; according to Eric.

Eric&squo;s parents also served in India, his father as a doctor and professor of dermatology and leprology at the Christian Medical College in Vellore.

Eric and Pat Gass began work in the Raipur area in 1960, helping with youth programs, publishing and managing Christian book shops. Pat raised their children and assisted with nursing education in the area.

The Gasses moved to Mumbai in 1969, where Eric was liaison to the Congregational Church mission board in the U.S.

The family later moved to New York where Eric served until 2000 as Area Executive for South and Southeast Asia, overseeing mission partnerships with churches such as the Church of North India.