The setting is the fictitious hill station of Anandur in the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu, South India, the Christian cemetery of the congregation of Saint Andrews.
I was young, brimming with enthusiasm for life,
eager for adventure.
When my uncle, the District Commissioner,
invited me to come out to Madras for a year
I embraced the chance.
I was enchanted at first
by so many exotic sights, sounds and smells –
comely women gliding by in elegant saris,
the scent of jasmine;
monsoon clouds churning in the infinite sky;
alluring chants echoing in ancient temples.
The mystery of India intoxicated me.
But within weeks I was laid low
by insidious maladies.
I lost the bloom of my youth,
I lost the will to live,
I wasted away.
They sent me to Anandur to recover, but I didn’t.
India, you seduced me –
And then you destroyed me!
So now I lie here, forgotten.
I never meant to spend my life in this exasperating country,
among heathens, where there is no order and no sense of propriety.
When I was named District Commissioner
I lived in the cantonment,
working tirelessly to make India worthy as
the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire.
But I was thwarted at every turn.
Finally, ready to retire,
eagerly anticipating my return to England,
I was run down and mangled by a run-away cart
at the crossroads in Peryakulum.
I expired on a filthy charpoy in that god-forsaken town.
Oh, the indignity of such an end!
And now, to be interred here in the soil of India,
I am mocked for all eternity.
Ahmed and Raymond
We were best friends, in school and out.
We studied, played sports and shared our lives.
On an overnight hike to Nandipurum
we got lost, stumbled through the brush,
then slipped down an embankment,
Landing on an outcropping.
We huddled together during the chill of the night.
Our calls went unheard,
nobody could find us.
We perished in each other’s arms,
A Christian and a Moslem.
Proclaim that from your pulpits –
We dare you!
The Reverend Kraus
The mission sent me to India, to Madras,
to minister to the community.
One day I visited the great temple in Madurai,
sacred to Shiva and Meenakshi, His consort.
I was smitten with what I saw:
incense, light, color, chanting, devotion –
Here was mystery! Here was magic!
I learned Tamil, I wore a dhoti,
I joined the religious processions,
I immersed myself in the sacred world
that had been revealed to me.
When I neglected my duties the mission let me go.
But I could not bear to leave India.
Even when my family returned to Germany I stayed on.
The hymn to Lord Shiva from the tenth century, the Tiruvacagam, obsessed me
and I felt called to translate it into my own language.
The divine task uplifted my soul.
“Victory to the foot of the King, who soothed my soul’s unrest and made me His!”
I died a Hindu, in a state of grace.
Om Namah Shivaya!
The mission insisted my ashes be interred here in the Christian cemetery.
I am a stranger here.
I was born in Bombay under the Raj and loved my life.
My father was a businessman.
We spent the hot season in the hill stations
where I spent my days in leisure
at the club playing tennis,
boating on the lake.
One day it all ended.
The British packed up and left, the Raj was finished.
And so was the joy I knew.
I could not go to England,
a place that was foreign to me.
I stayed on in Anandur, giving piano lessons
to the children of wealthy locals.
Everything and everyone I had known was gone.
I lived in an empty world, one filled with memories
of a life that had passed into nothingness.
Loneliness enveloped me like an old shawl.
I died a spinster.
‘Gentle Miss Watson’ they called me.
They could not read the bitterness in my heart.
I am Mabel Moores who spent my life quietly,
doing good for others, working tirelessly for the mission,
the orphanage and the food pantry.
Everyone thought I was the embodiment of Christian virtue.
And I was.
But few recognized that I had a heart
in need of sustenance, just like everyone else.
Sebastian Subramanian, the caretaker of St. Andrews, became my partner, my lover.
We met in secret for many years, hiding our love, our passion from Anundur.
But an Englishwoman does not consort with natives.
It is the unspoken rule that I flaunted.
But I lived well, I loved well –
better than any of you could ever imagine!
They brought me here when I was but eight years old.
How can that be?
My life had hardly begun.
Mummy told me never to swim alone, but I did,
in the lake of Anandur.
Ayah’s back was turned, I wanted to catch the duck…..
And when I was in too deep and couldn’t swim,
there was no one to hear my cries.
I was so afraid as the water swallowed me up
and I sank down, down, down,
to the muddy bottom.
Then there was darkness.
Now I rest quietly here as above me, every night,
the stars turn in the vast arc of heaven.
I was the beggar always positioned on the bund.
Citizens of Anandur, you didn’t know my name and didn’t want to.
For most of you I was invisible, a pitiable sight,
My legs wrapped in dirty bandages,
my teeth crooked or missing,
my mouth discolored by years of chewing pan.
The fine Anglo ladies and gentlemen
would stop to admire the view of the lake.
When they deigned to look at me
it was with disgust.
Yet some of you were kind to me
and helped me in my hard life,
giving me food or rupees.
For you I always offered fervent prayers to Lord Ram,
that he bless you and protect you.
Thus, I gave you more than you gave to me.
Rama Nama Satya Hai!