I am missing my mother. I don’t understand why but for the first time since she stopped following me around the Himalayas I find myself wanting to talk to her, tell her things, show her what my house is like. The clue is maybe the word house. We have put our house on the market for all kinds of logical and sensible reasons – the most pertinent of which is probably that we cannot afford to stay in it any longer. Last night on the telly there was a super-lively and orangey woman introducing a programme about amazing houses around the world. At the end I stretched back in my chair and looked up. The ceiling of the room I was sitting in seemed as amazing as some of the intricate and carefully architected corners and reaches of these amazing millionaire-type houses. Two huge beams, still retaining their woody exterior and trunk-like quality, support shaved lengths of old oak. Between, the plaster of the ceiling is faintly creamy in the firelight. It is a bit like living in a novel. It’s the kind of place I have always dreamed of living in. There is a complete silence when you step outside in the night under a cold sprinkling of remote stars or early morning as the light starts to appear behind the line of oaks down Phillipe’s field, faint in the mist, creamy and pink against the black.
My house fits me – like a glove we say – a glove that is imperceptible in its closeness and the way it allows me sensitively to touch and feel the intricacies of the space around me. It is a space I can spread out into, where I can be absolutely myself.
So why this yearning feeling for my mother and even, this morning, a sense of my sister, dead now for many years, whose face appeared to me so real and human? Maybe I have been too busy in my life. When both my other and my sister died I was away – in the Himalayas and in Eritrea.
When my daughter’s baby Ishbel died at birth I saw her for a moment, dancing in the sky with ribbons, as I sat under a palm tree in a garden in Southern India. A garden which eventually became the garden of the Ishbel Christina Memorial Home where her memory was celebrated by the children that passed through its doors, supported and cared for by Charles and Jyothy my lovely Christian Indian friends. It was a very simple place where the children slept on mats on the floor (there were usually twelve of them) and ate simple food and chanted their homework from their dog eared textbooks.
The children in Ishbel Christina Memorial home taking dinner
Charles had been part of the team that piloted the primary textbooks from our Andrha Pradesh education project.
Sometimes, when my legs won’t work properly and my head is muzzy I try to make a tally of things that have been worthwhile in my life. There have been so many things that were happy, good, friendly, wonderful, but worthwhile? I think the primary school textbooks that were developed by the British Council in Andrha have to count as being that. They were printed in their millions, with pictures and rhymes and games and stories, and across the state, which was then one of the poorest in India, teachers became enthusiastic about teaching and learning.
We developed the books in a wonderful place. Rishi Valley school is the place founded by Krishnamerti, where he spent the last part of his life in rooms, a place that still has his books in the library with its long windows opening under the neem trees and where I walked with a white umbrella – the same as he had in the photographs, thinking that maybe he had walked under it too. There is an acre of land for every child in the school. It is semi desert country, arid hills and sparse vegetation, yellow earth underfoot and with plenty of snakes. The huge banyan tree that Krishnamerti sat under as a young man and had his revelation of how his life would be – not the ‘saviour’ of the world predicated by Annie Besant, but as a teacher and spiritual guide to anyone ready to stop still and listen to his common sense talks. His spirit resonates throughout the school where children are listened to, learn to preserve and care for the natural world, learn to care for each other.
The grounds have an area where dhobi red clay huts, simple and with no ‘frills’ are available to visitors, people like myself who came to use the facilities in the holidays, other teachers and eminent visitors. We all had the same plain furniture, simple surroundings, vegetarian meals with butter milk to drink, woke in the night to the sound of the chokidars beating the vegetation and whistling to keep the snakes and wild animals away. Outside the house, around the edge of the campus, people placed saucers of milk and turmeric patterns on the ground for the appeasement of the cobras. I only saw a cobra once, sliding into the bushes, no child had ever been bitten by a snake in spite of their prolific presence.
It was here, in these amazing surroundings, that I worked with a wonderful team of Indian teachers and teacher educators, on the basic outline of the Class One textbook. In the morning I walked the umber sandy path to the rocks to sit and watch the light rising behind Rishi Kunda, the sacred mountain. Years later I wrote a novel where this place was a pivotal place for the romantic heroine, where she met her lost father before I kind of lost the plot. The friends that I made there have been with me, in my heart and imagination, ever since. The Ishbel Christina Home closed down and became an ordinary house again when I and Charles and Jyothi retired. Now I hope it resounds with the echo of their grandchildren and that some of the orphans bring their own children to play their too.
The funding for the orphanage came partly from the daily allowance I received as a member of the project. The first time I went to India I was briefed on the project in Delhi where I stayed for about a week before I went off into the middle of Andrha where we were starting the project team-building and planning. The British Council, in their wisdom, wanting to keep their workers fit and well, had marker hotels that we were expected to stay in. That time it was the friendly but to me very grand Ambassador Hotel. I received my daily allowance in hundred rupee notes, tied together with elastic bands, in a plastic carrier bag.
Children outside Jaladaniki wait for the puffed rice Charles in Jaladanki at Christmas
The second time I went to India I was more savvy. I bought my shalwar kameez in the street market and stayed in the YMCA for 70 rupees a night. The rest of the rupees went to help re-build Charles’s house that had been destroyed in the cyclone. They formed the basis of his dream to help the orphaned and neglected Christian children that his wife taught in school or who attended the tiny church that Jyothi’s father had built deep in the bush. In this way our textbook project helped educate children who would not otherwise have been in school, or perhaps even still alive.Every time I went to work in India I would leave Hyderabad on the overnight train for a long weekend in deep Nellore district, picnic at the seaside with the orphans, my and their seaside treat, eat and play with them, and become a part-time preacher. This last, unexpected development. was due to the leadership of Charles in the local church and to Jyothi’s father’s church Jaladanki in the jungle.
Whenever I worked in Pakistan, India or Sri Lanka I was seen as a ‘Christian’. Both unexpected and yet very touching was the faith that the small Christian communities placed in a white woman – who therefore must be a pillion of Christian faith. As a somewhat shambolic Quaker, whose faith involves silent sitting in a circle waiting for gathering in the light, I was often put on the spot. A young man cleaning toilets in an education centre in Lahore takes my hands in his and asks me to pray for him, a teacher talks to me at length about the Bible and living a life of faith, the train inspector interrogates me on a biblical text. Charles is more pro-active. Before I arrive, thankfully giving time for reading up on the twenty hour train journey, he sends me the text that I will be required to preach on at Sunday church. Sometimes this is in the local church where there are pews and a raised platform, a ragged orchestra of boys playing the hymns and rows of women, old women who were once bible women who travelled around the villages and who, in their old age, have no family to support them, are destitute and supported by the church. Someone presents a squawking hen to the minister which we later eat for lunch I suspect.
Sometimes we travelled out early in a hired Ambassador car to the jungle church. We were greeted at the stopping place by small boys with whistles and drums. We carry a big hessian sack of puffed rice for distribution after the service. The track is small and winding to the small rectangular building. There are no seats, the floor is jam packed with women, children, some men sitting on chairs around the edges. Charles and I are pushed forward to the front where the service is conducted noisily and enthusiastically, hymns, lengthy prayers, and then the ‘Word’. Charles translates, not always exactly I suspect, putting his own slant on things and I try to become the Quaker channel for the light that is the experience of ministry in the meeting. I try to talk of love, light, endurance and joy – for these are people so poor that I cannot imagine their lives. They live in the hinter-land of a country where social security is not even a concept and where medical treatment is a matter of payment. Afterwards the rice sack is opened and the children whoop and jump around, the women cluster around me, touching, holding my hand – their hands are tough and hard – the heat and the smell make my head spin. At last we detach ourselves and move back along the path, wave goodbye and slowly head back home to the quiet of eating a shared meal with the children who have returned from their church nearby.
Once I was met at the station, unusually in the day rather than the middle of the night, by Charles who whisks me off to the local hospital. We have to ransom an old lady he says. One of the bible women, who Jyothi feeds and clothes, has been in hospital with an infection in her leg. Charles has persuaded the doctor to operate rather than amputate – she is already stone deaf how can she also be leg-less he explains to me. So we pay the ransom that Charles has promised the doctor would be forthcoming on my arrival.
Now why my mother? Why these dreams, day dreams, thoughts of her? Why do I so much want to be able to tell her things? I can only think that she has become my listener, my confidante as she used to be. And now I am reflecting a lot of the time. Gathering up fronds and threads, looking back on things in my life, wanting actually to nail them down, make them visible. There are things I want to make a witness to. When my mother died I was in the Himalayas, I had said my goodbyes to her before I went – she opened her eyes for the first time in days and gave me a lovely smile as I stumbled away from the hospital ward.
When she died I was travelling and I heard her so clearly, on my shoulder as it were, going through the journey with me. I shared with her all the people, places that were so important to me. We sat together under the apricot trees with the women, ate curry with friends, drove over precipitous roads under the bluffs of mountainside. She was full of wonder at the places I had been, the people I knew. We travelled together until her funeral when she went into the stars, rather as Ishbel Christina had danced across the sky.
This is the poem I wrote about her:
Today they bury you and I am far away
up to Phundar in the night,
rocky edges pressing the road.
I know because I read it
we are climbing high
but the dark refuses a horizon.
On a wide corner the jeep slows
I hear water spilling down the mountainside.
I know it is blue (see above)
extraordinary tropic blue.
Blueness splashing from rock to rock.
They have gone
the sad procession of the dead
who no longer wake to the bite
of morning mountains
remaining only a drift of ash turning in the wind.
This long journey, dust sealing up the eyes,
ends on a sudden lip of land.
A light hangs in the dark,
not a night beacon but a shower of brightness;
a small lake and a surround of peaks.
Over all, a bowl of stars
crowding the sky,
bringing it down
spiral by spiral
to the rope of land.
Printed in A Speaking Silence: Quaker poets of today, edited by R.V.Bailey and Stevie Krayer. Indigo Dreams.2013
I think my mother has allowed me to access these memories and made it possible for me to write about them without getting tied up in anxieties about colonialism, the politics of aid or missionaries. She has helped me to lift the edges a bit and allow the underlying context of people and things to come through a bit. None of it was neat or well-arranged or even probably ‘sensible’ at the time, but it was my reality and somehow, now, I need to share that – as if I was just talking to her.