While being in the presence of Indigenous people in Canada I was reminded of the importance of a personal story that fits within the collective story of a family and a people. It is what is being lost and is a means of erasing a culture. My culture is rapidly passing away, and while there is a good deal of literature about the colonial and missions era floating around, very few of my generation actually have recorded what we went through and what it meant to us to grow up the way we did. I am reminded of the time I was in Darjeeling, India, and a senior pastor of a local church there asked me to please write my story. He said, “We have the stories of our people and the stories of your parents’ generation, but not yours-the children of the missionaries.”
I wonder if the anti-colonial, anti-missionary bent of the present time muzzles us. We have spent a lifetime wearing hair shirts and wondering if we should be doing some kind of penance. When we do speak or write it is with an apologetic approach that leads us to feel our lives were something to apologize for; to correct our parents’ insensitive approaches to other cultures and peoples. Were there atrocities done in the name of colonial powers? Absolutely! Were there atrocities done in the name of missions? Absolutely! Humans, of any ilk, religion and culture have the capacity to be atrocious and do atrocious things. Every human being ever born has the capacity to do horrendous things, but to also do transcendent and compassionate things. Listening to the older pastor of Darjeeling, as he asked my sister and me to write our stories, and as he thanked me on behalf of the many of us who were raised in the blend of cultures and people so that his people had the option of changing and transcending, I realized I needed to record my story. I can only record my story. I remember much of my parents’ stories and those of the people who populated my life; but this is simply my perspective, my rendition. And in the telling I record and I honor those who came before me and were willing to risk all because they had a Story that was worth telling and sharing.
I am so blessed to be who I am, not because of any effort on my part; but because I have, and continue to have, an amazing life. It has been a tough life in some ways. I can even say with dramatic flair that it has been fraught with dangers of many kinds. Those characteristics do make for a good story, but the blessings and wonderment that is interwoven throughout my life is dramatic and humbling. I can never say that I am just an ordinary person who had an ordinary little life. I am not extraordinary, but the life I have lived is anything but ordinary. I spent a good many years trying to pretend that it was just ordinary and trying to erase what has made me what I am today. When I was ten I used to lay on my bed in boarding school and wish that I was from Anyplace, USA, and had my own little room (not a full suite like I had at home in the mission bungalow), and a chenille bedspread from Sears. I had seen an advertisement for one in a catalogue sent out to India for some unknown-to-me reason. I spent years denying that I was different and desperately wanting to just be from somewhere normal, on either side of the ocean, and fit in with everybody else who lived there. It took a long while to understand what an amazing life I had been given.
I was born in Glendale, California and I know that because I have seen my birth certificate which states that fact and I am in possession of one of the copies. My sister was born in India and does not have a birth certificate that states that fact. During one of the times I was back in India as an adult, my sister had asked me to see if I could get a copy of her birth certificate. When I looked into it I found out that the little mission hospital where she had been born had burned down and all the records with it. She had a valid passport so there was a registry of that birth somewhere at some time, but the last existing one we knew of had been left in Bombay, India when my father was the last in the family to pack up and leave the country. He accidentally left all of the important family documents on the closet shelf when he walked out the door for the last time. By the time he remembered this, months later, the documents could not be found.
I have recounted this story because many of the “facts” or occurrences of my life have their basis in family memories with missing pieces and oddities. There are some occurrences that are similar to many of those raised like I was and some appear to be almost identical. Most of the people involved are now dead and verification would be difficult because of this fact, and the fact that we are all story tellers. Our narratives overlap and intertwine. This has been one of the difficulties in writing anything down. What if the “Truth” is not exactly like this? What if someone else remembers this in a different way? It becomes a muzzling effect that stultifies the Flow of writing our narratives and our stories. So the following is a rendition of my memories, narratives and stories.
I will begin at my earliest memories which start in Murtazapur in what is now Maharashtra state in India. We lived on the mission compound behind a lovely wall with a wrought iron gate in it. There were also hedges and fences to delineate the compound boundaries. We lived in the bungalow and there were many other houses and buildings on the compound. There was also a whitewashed church at the front of the compound, right across the driveway from the main bungalow where we lived. As a reader, writer, and literature person in my adult life, I have often pondered the significance of this as it is repeated on many compounds around the world. Walls, iron gates, whitewashed buildings where the building was large or of significance, like the bungalows, the churches and the classrooms. The other buildings and dwellings were usually not whitewashed. I was enculturated, intentionally or not, I don’t know, to draw conclusions about the white and the brown buildings as I got older. Certain people lived in the white buildings and behind the white gates; others lived in the brown ones. The brown ones were where the real living took place and the white ones were where the sahibs and memsahibs lived and worked and taught. There was one bit of confusion; and that was that my parents lived, worked and taught in those white buildings, but I knew I wasn’t white. So how could they be my parents? I spent many years trying to figure out how this happened.
When I first was introduced to Oliver Twist while in boarding school, I knew what must have happened. I had been dropped off at the compound and I wasn’t really my parents’ child. I had been adopted! I think my long term clinging to this belief offended and pained my mother. I was very close to my ayah, a wonderful round Indian woman who did not functionally read and write, but contained a world of wisdom, be it in a brown or a white world. This closeness to Clarabhai, and my long held belief that I was not really my mother’s child, created a wedge in our relationship which lasted throughout my mother’s lifetime.
I obviously do not remember the journey on the ship over to India the first time I made the trip. In fact, I have no one left who can verify how old I was when taken to India. I know it was a return for the rest of my family and a glorious home coming for my father. He would never have left India if he had had his way. And my mother would never have returned. I have some very clear memories of my very early years in Murtazapur. I remember a hot, still night in a white, iron barred crib on the veranda. I had my head on a white cotton sheet and was sucking on my finger that was in the slot where my tooth had been and was now missing, so I had to be older than 11 months. My sister was at home on holiday from boarding school. I remember a very pleasing sound emanating from me as I drowsily sucked my index finger and rubbed my other fingers on the sheet. All of the sudden a rude interruption erupted from my sister, who I had gotten used to not having around, as she demanded I stop the noise. She claimed I sounded like a large rat squeaking in the gutter. I must have persisted in my noise making because I don’t remember my sister sharing a room willingly with me after this time in our lives.
As the two spoiled daughters of our parents, we rarely had a lack of space or rooms, much to my chagrin. I hated having a room of my own and was sure either a cobra would get me, or a tiger would burst through the veranda screen and eat me. If my sister had only been in the room they would have gotten her since she was always preferable to me and would have tasted better. She was golden haired, plump and white, where as I was relatively hairless, scrawny and speckled. I would often sneak into her room and her bed. I would have slept on the floor but I knew a scorpion, or something equally as nasty, would get me so I would risk her wrath and lay still as a mouse on the foot of her bed. I longed to be one of Clarabhai’s children because they got to live in the servants’ quarters, nice and snug and communally sleeping all together in their two rooms. They never had to go back at dark time and be in a huge bed all by themselves in a huge room, in a huge house where a tiger could eat them completely up before anyone would hear their cries for help. They lived in one of the brown houses where there were lots of people and things were shared and they were safe.
My finger sucking habit comes with a uniquely me story. My jaw had been broken when I was 11 months old. The part of the story that I remember is what my mother told me, as she told many others. It is part of our family narrative of the grace of God in the lives of His peculiar people who chose to live according to His leading, even when that means packing up everything and going off to live in the uttermost parts of the world. There aren’t many uttermost parts left in the world so this phrase has lost some of its deeper meaning for today’s generation. However, in my day we still lived in the uttermost parts of the world, which is where the truly blessed people lived.
The broken jaw story is that we were traveling on the dusty bumpy roads of Maharashtra going between villages. My father was driving the jeep, which was one of those olive green ones that had the three little gear shift knobs on the floor between the driver’s seat and the front passenger seat. There was a little pull down seat in the middle of those two seats and I was on this one. Of course, in those days, in that place, there were no such things as child restraints, infant car seats, or seat belts. As we bumped along, a cow herder who had never seen a vehicle was startled at the sight of this contraption and, in turn, startled his herd of cows and water buffalo into the road. The jeep hit the buffalo, I flew into the gear shifts with my face, my mother was thrown into the by this time broken gear shift, which pierced her temple. My top jaw was broken and my right front tooth was knocked out. My mother, in her confusion, hopped out and began looking in the dust for my missing tooth and could not find it. At this part in her story I always thought how terribly noble and maternal this was. Bleeding from the temple, in serious threat to her own life and limb, she was out in the dust looking for her child’s missing tooth. How deliciously dramatic this part of the story was, to me, as I grew up hearing it over and over on Mother’s speaking tours.
The result of this episode, none of which I remember but was told, was that we took a trip to Bombay where I first met Dr. Chund, who was to be my dentist all my growing up years in India. He was a wonderful dentist, trained in the West, which was very important to Mother, and had a very modern office. Due to a lack of things like Novocain, many procedures were done by strapping the victim to the dental chair and forging ahead with great encouragement and comforting words, and promises of going to Quality Restaurant afterwards. I developed a healthy phobia of trips to Bombay and dentists, and found comfort in sucking my finger in the slot left open by the missing tooth. I had a slightly crooked, gap-toothed grin after that and a way to drive my big sister crazy.