Project Canterbury

India and Oxford
Fifty Years of the Oxford Mission to Calcutta

London: SPCK, [n.d., but 1933]

Chapter VI. Behala

As long ago as three years before the Mutiny--and that to the present dwellers in India is a date almost prehistoric--in the year 1854, there was founded in Calcutta by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel an industrial school for Christian boys. The lads were drawn from a district south of Calcutta known as the Sunderbans. The school changed its location more than once, and in 1887 it occupied a house and land which had been acquired for the purposes of the Oxford Mission. The boys, who numbered about fifty, were given a good elementary education and were taught useful trades such as carpentering and printing. The school did excellent and most necessary work, for in those early days no Indian Christian would be accepted as an apprentice by Hindu or Muslim tradesmen. The numbers grew, until in 1894 there were well over one hundred boys, and the erection of new buildings capable of accommodating one hundred and sixty, with a large chapel, was undertaken by the Oxford Mission, which from that date onwards took entire charge of the school. It became one of the enterprises of the Mission. It was in the workshop of the school, and in his unfailing friendship with and care for these lads, that the Lay-Brother Oswald Lloyd did such fine, patient, thorough work for so many years.

But time in the "unchanging East" works its changes, and among the changes in Calcutta was the improvement in the status and opportunities of the Christian skilled workman and mechanic. As boys grew up and passed out of the industrial school they found employment or set up workshops of their own, and, their reputation for sound work being well established, they were able not only to make their own way but also to train Christian apprentices. The need of an industrial school for Christians became less and less, until it became manifest that in a city like Calcutta the days of its real usefulness were numbered. [This must not be taken to imply that the need of Christian industrial schools has passed away throughout India. This is by no means the case. Indeed, there are still well over one hundred such schools being run by Missionary Societies.]

The question of what should take its place occupied for some time the close attention of the Brotherhood. The experience of the happy success of a Christian settlement at Barisal, with the story of which Chapter III is occupied, directed the minds of the Brethren to the idea of establishing a somewhat similar settlement as near Calcutta as possible, not, as some had anticipated, as a pale imitation of Barisal, but with an individuality of its own. The self-denying ordinance by which, in consideration of the nearness to the Mother House in Cornwallis Street of a small C.M.S. church, the Oxford Mission Fathers had bound themselves not to build a church in the north of Calcutta, has been, as we have seen, a grave hindrance to their work among the educated. A really fine church in a prominent site in that crowded city in the midst of the colleges and schools thronged by Hindu and Muslim students would have been a powerful witness to Christ which none could have mistaken. How often have the Fathers working in Calcutta thought: "Oh, if only we had the church at Barisal in the neighbourhood of Cornwallis Street or College Square!" Sites were anxiously explored, and it was soon discovered that the great city, contracted into narrowness by the salt lakes on the east and the broad river on the west, was bound to overflow sooner or later southwards into what was at that time jungle-land, rather dreaded as the supposed haunt of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. This anticipation has been abundantly verified. Calcutta has spread southwards, and the last quarter of a century has seen a vast extension of the city, not yet, indeed, completed, precisely in the direction which the Fathers foresaw. Eight miles south of Government House, near a small township of Behala, but actually situated in a village called Barisa, a splendid site was acquired, and gradually extended so as to provide for accommodation for a branch house of the Sisterhood on the other side of the road. The purchase-money came from the sale of the site and buildings of the industrial school, which, however, were not alienated from Christian work, as they were secured for the use of a college for training Christian teachers.

A Father was withdrawn from Barisal to take charge of the new settlement when it should be established, and lived for a time in a hired house at Behala, overseeing the work of clearing and building. On the Eve of the Annunciation, 1909, he took up his residence on the site, and in June the school was reopened under the new conditions--no longer an industrial school, but a place where, in addition to the boys who were being educated, Christian apprentices and young workmen could make their home. By August the church was ready, and on St. Bartholomew's Day the first Eucharist was celebrated in Bengali by Father Brown, the then Superior of the Brotherhood.

The jungle had all been cleared by this time, leaving a wide-spreading sward of grass, dotted in places with a few trees, chiefly coconut and shupari palms. On the edge of the road there were three or four large trees, but as years passed and distinguished visitors came others, planted by their hands, were added as mementoes of their visit. One, indeed, was planted on the day of the return of the presiding Father, at home once again after service in the Great War. About forty feet from the road is a large tank or lake, on the edge of which, close to the road, is that same Father's cell, open on all sides to every breeze that blows; for it is wall-less, being, indeed, a thatched roof held up by four iron props, with a plinth of beaten mud a few inches in height from the ground. Of the other buildings, the first is the church, with its east end close to the road along which many hundreds of people pass day by day. There is an air of welcome about the place, for there is no gate, only a broad open gap in the low hedge, flanked on either side by ancient trees whose branches meet, under the arch of which all and sundry may pass freely by day or night. Passers-by, hearing the singing in church, are tempted to come in and listen, some squatting outside and some venturing into the narthex, which, separated from the rest of the church by a low wooden screen, is the place for the unbaptized, and has within it the big font for immersion. The church is sixty-five feet long, with an apse, and has two chapels on the north and south. At the east end there is a campanile, topped by a cross. The sanctuary is paved with white marble, and the altar is from the chapel of the old industrial school. A beautiful reredos has lately been presented by St. Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta. A visitor, giving the impressions of a first visit, wrote: "This church, then, what is it like? Well, certainly unlike anything ever seen in England. The pillars and arches are of red brick, as also are the walls, such walls as there are, for the aisles of the church are open arches, closed (when the weather makes it necessary) by screens of matting. The roof is rather low-pitched, and thatched with beautiful palm-leaves hanging over the eaves in a most delightful, picturesque way. Inside the church is beyond description. It is simple and beautiful, with the beauty that reverent love can produce from simple materials. But to know how beautiful it is you must come over the dewy grass in the first flush of early dawn, while the stars are still shining overhead, and then you will find this little sanctuary of the Most High God all aglow with lights. And kneeling there you will presently hear the soft shuffle of hundreds of little bare brown feet, and soon the nave will be filled with little white figures, a dash of brilliant colour here and there in some gay coat or 'chadar.' [Coloured shawl.] Then from the vestry at the west end comes the procession--the cross, the lights and incense, the boys' band which leads the singing, the Madrasi deacon and the English priest. Follows then the stately ceremonial of the Mass. The music consists of beautiful Bengali melodies, which lend themselves extraordinarily well to the holy purposes to which they have been adapted. And here into this temple, prepared for Him by years of patient love, comes Love Himself, as of old into the lowly cave at Bethlehem, here as there to be worshipped and adored by the humble and simple as by the wise and holy."

It had been decided that all the buildings should be of the simplest character, in keeping with the standards of a Bengali village rather than those of an Indian city, and so the school and dormitories, dining-room and guest-house, dispensary and hospital are all on raised mud plinths with roofs of thatch and walls of plaited cane. In the women's compound across the road, which, like the men's, is a verdant meadow dotted with fine trees and has a tank or lake near the road, the Sisters' common-room, in which they receive their guests and have their library, has walls of mud instead of cane. And so the settlement came into being, and later on the first branch house of the Sisterhood was established.

It was explained to supporters at home, who might have been apprehensive that the Brotherhood was making yet one more departure from the main objective of its missionary endeavour as laid down in the Constitution, that the plan of establishing a Christian centre was in the unanimous opinion of the Chapter the most effective means that could be devised for extending the Kingdom of Christ among the educated people of the country. Their experience had taught them that such a manifestation of the life of Christ in a body of their own people as was contemplated, appealed to all that was best in the educated Bengalis, and attracted them to Christianity as nothing else could do. The new work would be in close contact and entire harmony with all that the Mission was doing or might hereafter do among students both inside and outside its hostels.

This expectation was soon fulfilled, for within a very few years after the opening of the new settlement the Father in charge of the Calcutta Hostel reported: "The whole work of the hostel seems to have changed since I have had the compound and church at Behala to which to take the students from time to time. I do not take many at once, but two or three together. They always want to go back again, and the sight of Christian worship with Indians taking part in it as Indians greatly impresses them. I believe that the change which has taken place among the hostel students in their attitude to Christianity is due in part to our settlement at Behala."

The new settlement was confronted at the outset with a serious peril. Some of the Fathers had visited Yerendawna, near Poona, where the Cowley Fathers, in association with the Wantage Sisters, had a somewhat similar settlement, with a beautiful church designed by Comper, and they knew what had happened there. Malaria of a virulent type had devastated the place and caused it to be practically deserted. Was a like fate going to overtake Behala? The year after the settlement was opened every boy in the school but two succumbed to fever during the rains, and most of them many times. There were no women then on the other side of the road. For three or four years the fever persisted, and, remembering Yerendawna, hearts began to fail. But in the fifth year the plague was stayed; the fever got less, until in 1918 there comes the report that there was "wonderful freedom from any serious illness, not even one case of influenza." It will be remembered how India was devastated by influenza and many millions perished. In the following year the report is the same: "Again and again during the worst season, when fever was raging in the village, our hospital was empty."

And so it has continued until to-day. Bengal is not the healthiest of lands, but a health comparison with any other district of Bengal would probably be not to the detriment of Behala.

Mr. Gandhi has been pleading that the right way of doing Mission work is not to preach or to invite, but in the sight of India to live the Christian life and offer the Christian worship, and if it attracts it will attract; and if not, it must be left at that. His favourite simile is that of the rose bush; those who are attracted by the sweet scent of the roses will approach the bush. The statement in which the Brotherhood set forth their aims, which has been summarized above, may seem to have something in common with Mr. Gandhi's view. Worship has been offered and service has been given in this settlement on the edge of Calcutta for nearly a quarter of a century, and there has been little, if any, preaching outside, though a great deal inside. "Ye shall be witnesses," said our Lord, and one method of witnessing, though by no means the only one, is unquestionably the beauty of worship and the outpouring of service. Has the witness proved attractive?

Someone has written of Behala: "Soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, gentleman, apothecary, and--yes, the thief, has not been unknown--they all come! Globe-trotter, lady-doctor and man-doctor, civil servant and mem-sahib, [English lady] teacher and student and shop-boy--they all come! And they all of them say the same words as they come in from the dusty high-road that runs between the lines of clipped hedge, and they all say them with the same air of surprise, as of one who has made a new and unexpected and wonderful discovery: 'Quiet!' 'Peace!'" The writer might have added, "Viceroy and Governor, Her Excellency and her Ladyship--they come too." Behala has proved an attraction. There is no doubt of that. One of the unexpected results has been a commingling of Indians and Englishmen, of rich and poor, on a scale probably never achieved before in Bengal, possibly in all India. For India is a very exclusive land, and, alas! the Englishman in India is often just as exclusive as the Brahman, not merely in respect of Indians, but in respect of social distinction between him and his fellow-countryman. But in the Sisters' common-room at Behala there may be seen drinking tea together a British Tommy and an Indian student, the Governor of Bengal and a babu from a Government office, the wife of a Member of Council and a sailor from a tramp steamer--and possibly all together at the same time; for Behala knows no social or race distinctions.

No doubt the attraction has not been wholly spiritual; it is a pleasant change after a day in office or in barracks to drive out to a green and pleasant abode where religion has certainly been made picturesque, and Behala is just far enough away from a great city, and yet not too far. But the magnet of the spiritual is there: many a broken life of Sahib [Englishman] as well as Indian has been mended and renewed in that sanctuary of peace.

Volunteers and Scouts and all sorts of organizations have held their camps there; for the place is gracious as well as spacious. Muslim waifs are brought here by Toc H to have an afternoon's romp. Hindu students love to come and try conclusions at football and hockey with the Christian boys, and have swimming races in the great deep pool. Armenian Scouts have their rallies there, and the Armenian tongue in prayer has resounded through the church. Sunday by Sunday parties of sailors from the ships in port come and bathe, and they have spread the name of Behala to the very ends of the earth. It has been perhaps their first glimpse of Christian Mission work in action, and their eyes have been opened.

Some, indeed, of these sailors have themselves been baptized in the great font, and afterwards confirmed. There was, indeed, an ordination to the diaconate in the church when an ex-Governor of a province received the grace of Holy Orders. His Excellency became his Reverence.

The gathering on Christmas Day is an epitome of all the others during the year, and incarnates the very spirit of Behala. The Sisters serve tea and cakes to detachment after detachment of visitors. There is the multifarious crowd gathered round the conjurer on the green, where English merchants rub shoulders with Bengali villagers, and soldiers and sailors and Indian students and English mem-sahibs crane necks together to see what the wizard will be up to next. Then comes the Evensong in the church, packed tight with white and brown, with great and small; the Bishop pontificates; the familiar Christmas hymns are sung in two languages at the least, and at the same time; clouds of incense sweep through the church, and the most Protestant of the worshippers thinks that this is just as it should be, for after all the East is the East, and the Wise Men did give incense to the Infant King at Christmas-time. Then the congregation pours out and swarms into the long thatched hall, with its floor of beaten mud, to watch once again the Nativity Play performed with such zest and reverence by Bengali Christian lads. Finally the boys and the women to their rice and curry, and the Sahibs to their grand dinner parties and the silence of the bright starry night reigns once more over the broad expanse of grass and tree and thatch.

Far away from Bengal the writer was addressing a parade service of the officers and crew of a British war-ship. Into the vestry afterwards came the Commander of the cruiser. "I heard that you were Oxford Mission," said he, "and I wanted to shake hands, for the very happiest Christmas I ever spent in my life was at Behala."

But what about the great Hindu and Muslim world which surges round, and daily passes along the road which goes southward towards the sea? Has the settlement helped to their conversion? That is a harder question to answer. It became evident, indeed, not long after the opening of the settlement, that the simplicity of life and closeness of intercourse with the Hindus living around was proving very attractive. There were several candidates for baptism in the year following the opening, and there have been baptisms all through the years; once, indeed, there was what was described as "a galaxy of baptisms." But the baptisms of Bengalis have been strangely few. Garos have been baptized, and Lushais, but they come from far away, and Burmese from farther still. There have been baptisms of people of good position, one the brother of a very well-known lady who has been President of the National Congress, and of Englishmen; but these have been baptized at Behala because it was the most suitable place. Muslims, one or two, have also there entered the laver of regeneration--a member of the Governor's bodyguard, for instance, but he was from one of the fighting races of the Punjab. The Bengalis have been very few. Yet there are many who have carried away from the administration of the Sacrament in that church at Behala an ineffaceable impression of something at least of what it means to be translated from the realm of darkness or, at the best, twilight, into His glorious light. One visitor, writing home, tells her friends of her first visit, which coincided with some baptisms. "It is some little way out," she writes, "in a jungly part, not a bit European. The Sisters live on one side of the road, and the church and the Fathers' part are on the other. They all live in mud huts with thatched roofs and mud floors. It was like lots of the villages we had seen from the train, with the exception that, while entirely Indian, it was orderly and dignified. It was lovely; there were huge tanks in the compound and a wide stretch of grass and coconut palms. It was so peaceful, too, after all the turmoil of Calcutta. I was ever so glad to be there. The church is of thatch and brick, and very beautiful and simple. At the west end is a part railed off (it is called the narthex, I think) where the unbaptized people stay. This is separated from the rest by a font, which is a large tank let into the floor, and baptism is by immersion.

"On each side of the high altar are chapels, one for the women and one for the boys. The high altar was lit up with lots of candles, and seven hanging lamps were in front. The Father and the deacons and acolytes stood in the narthex facing the congregation, and the candidates stood in dark cloaks at one side. Of course, the service was all in Bengali. There were several people who had come out from Calcutta and lots of Christians in the body of the church. Of the candidates, two were men and three boys, one being only eight. They had very intent, serious faces, like little children when their whole mind is bent on something that is of great importance. After they were baptized they went and changed into their baptismal things, the white vests most Indians seem to wear and white loincloths, and then they took their candles, and the priest and the acolytes and the newly baptized went towards the altar, and the candidates were signed with the cross and shown to us. It had the same family sense as when the babies at a baptism are taken and shown to us by the priest. There was a band and they had hymns. They all sang and joined in the responses. People who like colour would have loved the red cassocks and the lighted candles and the dark faces, and those who do not like such things would have been patient, I think, because it was all so real and fitting and everything there was beautiful; there was no tawdriness and everyone was natural. There were no chairs or anything, just matting on the floor, and everyone takes their shoes off. And to 'confess Christ crucified' out here is not a conventional thing. It does mean leaving parents and sisters and brothers; or means a separation often which we at home cannot imagine, and it may quite well mean much more danger. It made me understand the accounts of the civilization of Europe.

"When we had been here just a day or two we met a nephew of Tagore's, a very attractive man, and he started telling us of the Oxford Mission work at Behala. He was a non-Christian, but he was very moving as he told us how the Sisters gave up all the alleviations of European life in India and lived there in poverty and service--of how one fought a cholera epidemic in a village single-handed, and of how they were showing all the people more what life could be. When one gets depressed about Christians and modern life and all that, one can always fall back on such memories. Whatever we fail in, God is working still."

There are baptisms of Bengalis, but they are very few. One Bengali, indeed, was actually baptized in the presence of his father, a Hindu doctor, who looked on with approval. Still, we cannot help wondering sometimes why Christ's Kingdom is spreading so rapidly in parts of India, and among caste people too in some cases, and so slowly in Bengal. But there is another side to the shield, as the following picture shows:

"The holidays were over; the boys were back and the term was in full swing. The ground had dried up after the rains; the spear grass had disappeared; the air was fresh and cool; and from all four grounds came cries of 'Pass!' 'Centre!' 'Shoot!' There was no slackness, no quarrelling. Yet two old Padres, who ought to have known better, walked up and down and groused: 'What's wrong?' they asked each other. 'Why doesn't the Kingdom come in Bengal?' 'Why are there so few conversions?' 'And the Christians, why are they so helpless after all these years--no readers worthy of the name, no initiative, no life?'

"So they groused, those silly old men, and then went and made their confession, which was the best thing they could do.

"And that night, after Compline, there was the sudden glare, the crackling and the snapping that tells of a fire close by.

"'It's just down the road,' they said, 'only two or three hundred yards away.'

"'All big fellows to go; the rest not to leave the compound.' We found, of course, the usual crowd of men and women, hundreds of them, just standing, jabbering, issuing contradictory orders, all of them quite useless. The poor old woman whose house it was lay out in the jungle, moaning, crying, almost demented. It's a ghastly sight, a village fire, with bamboo posts and walls, and a straw roof for fuel.

"Evidently, if anything was to be done, it must be done at once, and at the back of the house.

"But already those big fellows 'with no initiative,' 'no life,' had organized themselves into a band, had seized earthen pots and pans and jars, anything they could lay their hands on and they were handing water all down the line from the tank beyond, for all the world like a well-drilled brigade. Already they had saturated and saved the huts on either side, literally fighting the flames; already they had snatched the precious cooking vessels from the burning mass. Only one other out of all the crowd was helping them, a young man from the village, one of their class friends in the Hindu school.

"In less than thirty minutes it was all over; they came back to bathe and bed, with never a thought of gratitude due to them, with no suspicion that they had done well.

"But a Sister said: 'Those boys were splendid; they do things so quietly and simply, and I've never seen such beautiful manners anywhere.'"

In Dr. Kirk's great book, The Vision of God, there is an interesting discussion on the spiritual peril of service without worship. "Apart from an atmosphere of worship, every act of service avails only to inflate the agent's sense of patronage. He is the doctor, humanity is his patient: he is the Samaritan, his neighbour the crippled wayfarer." And yet it was better for the man who fell among thieves to be patronized than to bleed to death.

In one year the Sisters attended to over five thousand women and children, but it was not patronage save in the sense of protection. They do not "patronize" the little waifs and strays picked up in the streets, left in railway carriages, and sometimes rescued from the dust-bins of Calcutta; they protect them. They do not "patronize" the poor women whose poisoned lives they strive to heal. The boys, big and small, are taught that they are to be ever ready to serve, and the harder the service the greater the love. They are not taught that attention to a man lying exhausted or dying by the roadside--so sadly common a sight in India--is just a kind of preaching to others, for that would be only showing-off, but that it is to be done for love's sake, because their hands and feet are Christ's, and that is how He uses them. Maybe they sometimes feel a bit important--we all feel that at times, and perhaps not least when, say, we are carrying a cholera patient to shelter and succour--but the remedy for that, for the boys and Sisters and Fathers and all of us, is not to sit still and do nothing, for fear we should be patronizing, but, as Dr. Kirk points out, is Worship. The whole life of Behala is set to the accompaniment of adoration, and "in worship the worshipper puts himself into an attitude of dependence. Looking towards God, who is All in All, he sees himself to be nothing. The most he can hope for is that God will deign to use him for His designs."

And that, indeed, is the most that the Oxford Mission hopes for in any of its work.

Project Canterbury