Last Sunday evening I had one of the more remarkable telephone conversations of my life. At first I simply heard a man’s cultured voice, with a smooth and soft foreign accent, very politely say, “Father Gelson?” “Yes.” “Father, do you remember a scouting trip to Dimmar Lake?” “No.” Politely but firmly the voice pressed on: “Father, I was much into scouting, and you were the leader of Loyola School’s Scout Trip. You took us to Dimmar Lake for a three-day outing.”
Like the sun coming over the horizon, it was dawning on me that the man on the phone had been a student at Loyola School in Jamshedpur, India, when I began teaching there in 1954. With some horror I was recalling a scouting trip on which about 20 young fellows came down with malignant malaria, to the point where some became critically ill. I was never enthusiastic about scouting, then or now, especially not after that disaster.
“Father, do you remember that you were the first person to teach me ‘Gunga Din,’ and then more of Kipling?” Slowly the boys of the sixth standard of a Cambridge school, (10 years of schooling before college, not 12), were coming into focus. Almost all of them were Hindus, who we would probably say today were of lower- to middle-class economic status. Their families did have a few rupees for tuition at the private school, but most still lived in small dwellings of two or three rooms.
As he spoke, I was quickly recalling the math and English literature I had taught them. They were the best students I ever knew. About 12 years old, with none of the distractions of the modern world, certainly no television, and no leisure activities to speak of. They enjoyed coming to school. When holidays came, they were visibly upset.
Homework they gobbled up. One Friday I was a bit angry with them. I told them all to memorize Gray’s “An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Monday. Alone, over the weekend, I realized I had put a severe burden on them. I had given them 28 stanzas, 112 lines of poetry to memorize! How could I get out of this without losing face? Easy. On Monday they all rattled off all 28 stanzas of the poem.
The voice on the phone continued: “Father, I am Arrow Sinha Roy. You knew me as Arrobinda, but Father Joseph Kennedy said Arrobinda was too long a name so we shortened it to Arrow.” “Where are you calling from, Arrow?” “I live in Bombay, Father, but I came on a visit to Edison, N.J., where my son has married—(here I heard a soft polite chuckle)—a Roman Catholic girl.” The world was turning upside down! In the mind-set of India 1954, the affluent white Christian class was not inclined to matrimony with the Indian Hindu folk
I had left India with severe tropical diseases, to which Arrow, gently and with understatement, perhaps protecting his country from embarrassment, now referred: “Father, all we heard when school next began was that you had departed with some stomach sickness.”
After 50 years of separation and silence, this conversation with Arrow had my head whirling. I asked him: “Arrow, how did you make a living in this world?” “Father, after taking my Cambridge exams, I went to college to study economics. First I wanted to get into teaching, but soon I was in business. Eventually I became director of advertising for Rupert Murdoch’s Star Communications.”
The little boy from the edge of the jungle had gone on to prominence in business, and became a very wealthy man.
He continued: “Father, a few years ago I told my wife: ‘We have done very well. Time to give something back.’ So I quit business and began foundations throughout India that take babies of commercial sex workers and house them, feed them, educate them and take care of all their needs—the girls until they are 20, the boys until they are 18. We have also opened up medical clinics where we give free medical attention and prosthetics to the poor who have lost an arm or a leg. Now we are buying modern machines at $16,000 apiece for cataract surgery. This way the wage earner who cannot afford to take three or four days off for such surgery and recuperation can have the whole process accomplished in just a few hours.”
At this point in the conversation I was rather overwhelmed. I was growing more silent, even speechless. I could not digest it all. I felt as if I never knew before how marvelously God works, and Arrow was teaching me. “Arrow, you have done marvelously well in life.” His response was the killer. “Father, I want you to know that 90 percent of who I am today and what I have become, I owe to you.” I had to take that to mean the education he received from the Jesuits. He was so humble about it, so clear, so refined, so much a grand and ageing gentleman. God’s grace was as clear as his voice.
I thought about Arrow this past week and of how in God’s plan we came to know one another. Young white men, Christians from the affluent West, were sent to teach and preach to Indians of a different religious persuasion in a poor country, some sorely indigent, yet proudly trying to flex the muscles of their newly gained independence. Plenty of goodwill here, but arrogance, too. The white missionaries changed Arrobinda’s name! Given a certain amount of encouragement, genuine concern and friendship, with the growth of self-esteem and with the tools of education, the little lad who grew up not far from where tigers and wild elephants still roamed seemed to me last Sunday night to be as fine a specimen of our race, the human race, as I will ever know.
Why do you think he has remembered for 50 years, and so quickly reminded me, “Father, you were the first person to teach me ‘Gunga Din’!”? Do you remember Gunga Din? He was an employee of the British Army, hired to bring water to the troops in time of battle. Too often he was beaten and abused by his white lords and masters, yet the only one, in the end, to bring his wounded master, tortured by thirst, the relief of a few drops of water. “Though I belted you and flayed you,/ by the living God that made you,/ you’re a better man than I am,/ Gunga Din!”
. . .
In the Gospel story, the scribe, wishing to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
There is no comfortable answer to that question, not until the last man stops bleeding. Arrobinda Sinha Roy is my neighbor. More, he’s my brother. He let me know my life was worth living.
He said he would call again. I know what I’ll say the next time. “By the living God that made you,/ you’re a better man than I am,/ Gunga Din!”