Story by Clint Kelly
This past winter, Response writer Clint Kelly was one of five professionals chosen from the Seattle area to represent Rotary International in India. The Group Study Exchange team stayed in the homes of Indian Rotarians and saw firsthand the life-changing work Rotary clubs perform among the disadvantaged. Among Kelly's many vivid memories of the trip is this one from the first day:
At 3:15 in the morning, the Madras Airport in southern India smells of damp and must. Despite the hour, swells of East Indians, oddly hushed, jam the barricades for the first glimpse of new arrivals. Cars snarl the approach roads, madly honking in futility.
It is warm and humid and my first time on Indian soil. I am a large Caucasian curiosity in urgent need of a $10 retiring room with A/C. One is found, and I stretch out on a hard cot to watch pre-dawn Indian TV and to scan the Sunday edition of The New Indian Express in the irrational hope of devouring this exotic land in one read.
"Australian Missionary, Two Sons Burnt Alive" the lead headline screams. My heart sinks.
Welcome to the world's largest democracy, I think ruefully, a sensual and complex land rich in 5,000 years of history. India, burdened with 1,600 languages and dialects, teems with contradictions and is rife with what Mark Twain called "riddles at every turn."
I was to see these things for myself over the next month as I traveled India's two southernmost states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. For the time being, however, I remain glued to the horrific details of the news article: "Graham Stewart Staines, 58, ran a leprosy hospital ... was sleeping in his jeep with his two sons ... when a group of 100 people allegedly poured petrol and set the vehicle ablaze...."
For the second time in two months in Orissa state, Christians have died at the hands of suspected religious fanatics who believe Christianity is a holdover of the colonial era and has no place in a largely Hindu society. Persecution of Christians in India is said to be at its highest level in the 50 years since independence. The central government is in danger of collapse, in part, for its failure to protect religious minorities.
Over the next month, I came to know a different India than the one portrayed in the news report -- a religiously tolerant one, home to caring, decent people possessed of a remarkable hospitality where "the guest is god." Among these new friends are:
H.V.D. Prasad, a newspaper publisher who said the way to tell a Christian home in India is by equality at the dining table: men and women eating together instead of separated by Hindu custom.
Suresh Kumar, a Hindu dental surgeon who named his son Krishnan or "Lord Almighty."
D.V.M. Premkumar and his wife, Jayanthi, who own the Kamalin Tea Estate high in the Nilgiris Hills. Last year a man-eating leopard was killed near their home by government trackers.
The children of these families are cheerful and sweet-spirited: Deepak, Deepthi, Preethan, Vidhyanthi and John. Little five-year-old Gayathri told her mother she wished she knew more English so that she could speak to the "uncle" from America.
It was Indian school children like these who stayed home from classes one day to protest the killing of the Christians in Orissa.
Many rich memories remain of my visit to the Asian subcontinent: Anesha, the female elephant who stopped hauling logs at the local sawmill long enough to give me and my teammates a gentle ride; eating with our hands off banana leaves and chewing a fiery peppercorn straight from the vine; watching dolphins, snakes, monkeys, wild dogs and even a swift-footed mongoose on their appointed rounds.
But again, it is the images of people that linger most. The many artisans in gold and cloth who create some of the world's finest jewelry and textiles. The bright university students who quizzed us on love, marriage and nuclear proliferation. The Christians who knelt shoulder-to-shoulder at the communion rail of a large church in Coimbatore. Whether rich or poor, East or West, how very much alike we are when on our knees.
One in six people on the globe are East Indian and the country grows by the population of Australia each year. As for my maiden journey to India, it fills me with hope for the future of this enormous, chaotic nation. I have hope because I've met Indian people, slept under their roofs, prayed with them and laughed with their children.
For me, India now has a face and that face is the face of a friend. I want the best for my friend and with God's great help, the best will come. But on my first day in India, all such discoveries lay ahead....
I come to the end of the newspaper report, oblivious to the anachronistic episode of TV's "The Jetsons" filling my retiring room with spirited clatter.
Unsettled by the account of missionary murder, I fold the newspaper and set it aside. I'm grateful to be in the care of Rotarians who so dramatically improve the lives of their countrymen through a myriad of health, education and employment initiatives. My hunch is that in their company the only death I need fear is the death of my own ignorance.