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An Indian tale of parallel worlds

Tony Herbert |  14 August 2017


It’s Monday, 24 September. The equinox passed a few days ago; the last of the monsoon showers seems to have gone. After Mass on my pre-breakfast walk, I notice the difference: the air fresh without the monsoon humidity, the lush green paddy crops, the dappled green and yellow of the early morning sun on the Sal trees. Out beyond the back of the parish is an unsurfaced road, good for stretching out. I first pass the houses of some of our Catholics, pukka, brick and cement, the fruit of their hard work and years of government employment.

xxxxxA further kilometre on I pass the new, freshly painted health sub-centre, an effort by the government to bring health to the village people. It has had no staff since it was built, but it does give hope. Two hundred metres further on I hear a sound of wailing – the keening of women. Somebody has died. Around the bend is a group of women huddled together in their sorrow on the roadside. I ask for details: 'a boy, about fifteen', they say. Let me go and see.

A short path leads through full-grown maize stalks to a house and a small cleared space. Outside the house a man squats, head in hand, a picture of despair, broken. They take me inside. In the far corner lies the body of a youth, covered with a blanket: the man’s eldest son, Bimal Bhuiyan.

They tell me the story. He died during the night … he had had a wound on his neck, it was terribly infected ... they had gone to the government hospital, had been given some medicine, and told he would be all right. “We live by selling wood and could not afford a private doctor or medicine.” Others contradict that, saying they had spent thousands of rupees, that treatment had been going on for years … that it was cancer ... that it was tetanus – a confused diagnosis. What matter now?

I take a quick glance around. It’s a one-room mud house, smaller than the room I live in at the moment. The boy had been sleeping on the floor, no furniture, no stored rice, a mud stove in the corner, a few pots and pans. There were the remnants of last night’s meal, maize grains soaking in water. Here live the boy’s parents and two younger brothers. His sisters are married and have gone to their husbands’ village.

We come outside the house, and just stand there in silence for some time. There is nothing to say.

A small boy of about six years was there all the time, hugging to himself the family rooster, which seemed remarkably docile. Who is consoling whom?

Back on the road, we chat a bit. I probe for some background. This is Bari Tetar hamlet. 'We are fifteen families here. No, we don’t own this land: this is GM, government land, and we have never had it registered in our names.


"So which world am I supposed to live in?"


'We used to live where the Church is now, but had to move when they walled the compound. We came here and cleared the undergrowth and built our houses. Now Pradeep Rana has started a legal case against us; he says it is his land, we have to go.'

I feel this is enough for one morning’s walk, so I head back, past the keening women, past the fresh, sparkling, utterly irrelevant health sub-centre, past the house of our Catholics, strong in their faith and economic security, back to the parish for breakfast.

The others are already there; the TV is on, all are engrossed, the commentator’s voice, shrill and excited: India has just beaten England in the T20 cricket match. 'Come and have some breakfast.'

So which world am I supposed to live in?


Tony HerbertThis is an excerpt from the newly-published Disturbing the Dust, by Fr Tony Herbert SJ, an Australian Jesuit who has spent more than five decades working with marginalised communities in India. The book can be ordered from Jesuit Mission at jesuitmission.org.au 


Tony Herbert


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Submitted comments

I don't want to sound mawkish but what a very valuable part you play in your world.

Pam 15 August 2017

A poignant damnation of Indian governments over so many years. Where the hell is their God?

john frawley 16 August 2017

This excellent little vignette neatly sums up the paradox that is the Eternal India. Except for the contemporary location it could be any time under the Raj or earlier. Only long term action by Indians themselves may really change things. I say 'may' because, after the Buddha; after Asoka; after Sher Shah; after Gandhi; after Ambedkar; after Nehru the injustices are still there. Yet there is something wonderful about ordinary Indian men and women. I think you understand that.

Edward Fido 16 August 2017

I felt that father's pain in your beautifully written story, Tony.

Maggie Quigley 18 August 2017

Fr Tony. I watched Mass on Demand today- And I was very happy you were the celebrant, and to hear your Homily. Yes, the Canaanite woman and her daughter are offered the same Mercy and Love as His Apostles. Not really that surprising- if we reflect on the Beatitudes. The Canaanite woman is indeed ''Blessed,'' as she asks for a few crumbs. Immediately and unexpectedly we see through Jesus eyes when He says, ''yes''. The same eyes His Father looked at Him through, and declared Him : ''His Beloved Son'': "The Beloved". We, as He looks at her, also see her and her daughter ''as the least of His brethren''. Matthew 25:40. And remember He later declares we must show preference to such as these ''little ones'', the ''children": Because He Is declared : "The Beloved of God." - so they are: "The Beloved Children of God". As they place their Hope and Trust in Him. Please remind this Truth to all you encounter, all who struggle daily in India. Please tell them they are: ''The Beloved children of God". Knowing this Truth may give them more comfort than the grief they experience. Fr Henry Nouwen spoke wonderfully about this Truth. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8U4V4aaNWk

AO 20 August 2017

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