Margaret Brent leaned back in her ‘easy chair.’ It was a cross between an arm chair and a hammock peculiar to these parts. Just a length of tough canvas spread between two ends of a wooden frame with arm rests. Yet what relief it offered to her aching back.
This was the time of day when she relaxed on the verandah of her bungalow, with the cool evening breeze lingering on her aged face, bringing back to life memories of the yester years. Some happy, some sad; frustrations, illness, deprivations, but blessings too! The greatest blessing of all was her daughter Ameesha – now a healthy young lady with the courage of a tiger and the patience of a saint. Petite, soft spoken, a halo of curls encircled her lovely guileless face! In a culture where fair skin was at a premium, Amy’s dusky complexion had a beauty all of its own. She had come back from England to shoulder the responsibility of running the hospital. It wasn’t an easy job and Margaret wondered how Amy would cope after she was gone.
Margaret closed her eyes for a moment, wishing away such dismal thoughts. She was a prayerful woman, and she knew that her strength came from God alone. Now she whispered, “Lord, I have such a tired heart tonight. I need the comfort of your love. I worry about Amy and her future. She’s been through more than her share of pain all through her life. Give her a faith that is firm, and a robust spirit to continue this work. And give me the assurance that you will enfold her in your love and protection.”
As Margaret opened her eyes and looked toward the sky, what she saw was an answer to her prayer. There against golden, orange tinges of the setting sun hovered a common kestrel, its wings defying the forces of gravity, as it cleverly manoeuvred its feathers to maintain its balance. Margaret realised that Amy was like that bird. She would soar over the forces that tried to pull her down.
“My darling daughter,” she thought, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”
Margaret had come to India in 1944, after the war had ended. The Basel Mission had advertised for a British lady doctor, to join their medical team on the south west coast of India. There was nothing to hold her back in England. The war had wiped out her entire family of father, mother and brother. Even their house had been razed to the ground.
“I must escape,” Margaret thought, “Life has played its worst trick on me. I’m so alone.”
She felt incapable of rebuilding her life again amidst the rubble of war, and the many privations that confronted her at every step. She was not alone in her calamity. The whole country seemed to groan painfully, as it tried to recover from the devastation of war.
“I don’t think I can bear much more without going to pieces. Let me go away for a couple of years, and immerse myself in service to others. Perhaps it will help me overcome the emptiness inside me.”
Little did she realise what trials and hardships working in India would entail. The hospital too had passed through difficult times during the war. They were always short of funds to purchase medicines or even pay the paltry salaries they gave the local staff. The missionary staff (one doctor and three nurses) were overworked and underfed and received a salary of six rupees, which had to cover their personal toiletries and postage for the occasional letters they sent home.
The long voyage from England to Bombay had depleted Margaret of all her strength. Confined for a major part of the voyage to her cabin, sometimes due to sea sickness, and sometimes due to inclement weather, she was a bundle of nerves when she disembarked. Her discomfiture only increased when she saw the lady who had come to receive her. She was a middle aged woman clad in a shapeless, loose dress, with a skirt that reached up to her ankles, and a khaki solar topee that hid most of her face.
“Welcome to India dear,” she said, clasping Margaret in a tight embrace.
It took all of Margaret’s will power to keep from bursting into tears.
“Am I expected to dress in this saintly attire?” she wondered.She had heard that the missionaries were strictly puritanical in dress and manners.
“But to look like a shapeless laundry bag is not my idea of service or saintliness,” she thought. “Oh no! I’m not one of them. I’m here to work as a doctor. I’m no missionary. What have I let myself into?”
The woman seemed to read her thoughts.“You’ve come under the missionary banner my dear. We follow a strict code of conduct. This is country which is very complicated and confusing. We need to be good role models.”
Margaret was relieved to know that the lady was not working at the hospital. She was merely taking her there. Driving along the coast, with acres and acres of green paddy fields on either side and tall palm trees swaying in the breeze, Margaret’s spirits lifted. Rivulets criss crossed the landscape. Women working in the fields waved out as they recognized the vehicle belonging to the hospital. Men leisurely driving their bullock carts, moved to the side to let them pass. News had already spread that another doctor would be joining the hospital.
The scenery cast a spell on Margaret. This was so different from war ravaged England. Here was an unimaginable tranquility, and she knew without a doubt that she would enjoy her stay in this rural area.
“I will be happy here,” she thought, “How can anyone stay sad in such a beautiful environment?”
Years ago, when the medical team had arrived in the village, they had started with a 6-bedded cottage hospital in a dilapidated old bungalow. Much work was of a domiciliary nature, with the doctor using a bullock cart as a means of transport. The powerful Brahmin lobby had at first opposed the missionaries. There was much harassment, and sometimes violence. Attempts were even made to poison their drinking water. The orthodoxy of the Brahmins on one side and the superstition and demon worshipping lower castes on the other, made life very difficult for the hospital staff.
But perseverance and a lot of prayer had paid off. Margaret was glad that she had come at a time when the hospital had established itself and had earned a good reputation right through the district. It had twenty beds primarily for women and children, an operating theatre, and requisite facilities to deal with common medical problems. For company, Margaret had a German doctor and three Swiss nurses. The rest of the workers were locally trained as practical nurses, and came from the orphanages run by the Mission.
The caste divide was a perpetual problem which bothered the missionaries. On the fringes of the village lived a group of ‘Harijans.’ They were ‘untouchable,’ and banished heartlessly to their ghettos. Except for brief excursions into the village to do their menial jobs, they lived in filth and squalor, complacent in their isolation. The huts were ill ventilated and vermin infested. Men squandered their money on cheap arrack, and often beat up their wives and children.
The missionaries extended their outreach work to these unfortunate people. There was much resistance to begin with. But they persisted, teaching them about hygiene, nutrition and even family planning. They attended the sick and even admitted to hospital, those who required hospitalization. The compassion that was shown to these people dispelled all fears of the foreigners. The stronger ones were employed as sweepers in the hospital. Earning a regular wage boosted their self esteem
This did not go well with the upper castes, who threatened to boycott the hospital. But the missionaries could not be threatened. They were confident that the hospital had brought health and healing to many in the district, as there were no medical facilities of the kind in the area. They insisted that their operational policies and strategies were biased in favour of the poor and down trodden, but programmes for healthy living, relief of suffering and prevention of disease included all strata of society.
It was a strenuous life. But Margaret took her work as a challenge. The labour ward was like a factory that never shut down. Irrespective of whether they could support a large family, women bred like rabbits. The operation theatre too was always busy. The hospital was a veritable bee hive of activity. Margaret preferred to spend time in the hospital rather than in the bungalow where the foreign staff lived. She was the odd one out, as she was neither a missionary nor could she speak German. The fact that she was very popular with the patients created a lot of jealousy.
“She is too familiar with the patients as well as the local staff,” they grumbled.
What Margaret liked to do whenever she had time, was to get on her bicycle and cycle down to different parts of the village. She was eager to know how the villagers lived, and learn about their customs. They differed from caste to caste. The Brahmin ladies would never invite her into their homes. In a way, she too was an untouchable. They would stand in their courtyards and wave to her. But there were other homes where the women would call her indoors to look at a sick baby, or offer advice to a lying-in mother.
“Twelve years……twelve long years! How time had flown! My life was intricately bound to these people. I admired their fortitude in poverty and their quiet resignation in the face of caste discrimination. But most of all was the vicarious sense of fulfillment I experienced. What joy it was to place a normal living child in the hands of an anxious mother! I knew I would never experience the joys of motherhood. Time was running out for me. Each time I went home on furlough, the sense of alienation from my roots became more glaring. I couldn’t wait to get back to India.”
Then out of the blue, news arrived that the Mission was winding up its activities in India. They would hand over all their institutions to the local church. Times were rapidly changing. With Independence, the animosity felt towards foreigners was no more subtle. It was overt and sometimes hurtful. In such a situation, Africa’s crying need for help beckoned.