Friday, 31 May 2013

Delhi May 2013, life, death and the ending of links to a past age.

On this visit to India (May 2103) I experienced life and death through theatre, a service in a monastery and the passing of an old friend.

The celebrations of life started with the colourful exuberance of the Chamanlal theatre awards ceremony which I attended with Kris and Joy Michael. Joy has been a stalwart of the theatre in Delhi for decades, nurturing and promoting it. She instigated these awards for lighting and costumes so that people other than the actors would be acknowledged and was the recipient herself a few years ago. The presentation was in the modern Siri Fort theatre which has a wooden clean lined interior. People were delighted to see Joy, bowing deeply to her and ushering her to a front row seat, to her irritation. After the awards there was a Bollywood extravaganza of music, dance and film with dancers in yellow and orange costumes and loud music. The theme was “searching for meaning in life” with songs about love and loss, including Sufi songs and film clips of pilgrims at Mecca. Laser beams shone out illuminating solid blocks of blue around the audience. Indian contemporary and ancient culture was celebrated with modern tools. It was glitzy and fun.

Two nights later I joined them again to celebrate Ascension Communion at a closed monastery on in old Delhi. It had been a hot day and it was pleasant to stand on the grass in the monastery gardens and observe the monks leading the service. About 100 people there, Delhi’s Anglican congregation and the service was lead by a corpulent priest.  The monastery is a simple two storey structure with a central library filled with religious and historical books. The monk’s cells are simple rooms as is the chapel which had no decorations. The garden was glorious filled with summer flowers and surrounded by large trees. Two monks had died recently, father Amos renown for his simplicity and absence of possessions, one of his Muslim friends said ”he who filled us died empty” and thousands of people attended his funeral. The other was Ian Weathrall who had grown up in India and served with the Indian Army (1942-7). He then became a monk in a closed order in Delhi (1953). He had been an active priest doing social work with the poor and people with leprosy as well as serving on the board of St Stephens hospital and college, two premier institutions in Delhi. Mark Tully wrote in his obituary that he enjoyed a good party. After the service we ate rice standing on the lawns.  I really I was connecting with a older thread of Delhi life, there were still strong links between the church and London, the monks had the Church Times and The Spectator for reading so I wondered what their impression of life in the UK is. But the order has few new monks, there are now only seven and I wonder how long this institution can last.

I often stay with Jasjit and Mataji Mansingh, mother and daughter when I am in Delhi. Mataji was 107 and on this visit she was close to death. She had an infection and had stopped eating and drinking. Her daughter Jasjit who has looked after her for the last decade wanted to keep her at home but her son scooped his mother up and took her in hospital saying that he wanted everything done for her. When I visited she was barely conscious with drips attached and a monitor beeping her heart rate. It seemed sad to depart this life in hospital, especially for someone so religious. She had sat quietly in the garden so often. I said goodbye to her as I was departing and she died two weeks later in hospital. Over the last year Jasjit has been researching Mataji’s life and uncovered a rich history. Se was born in Lahore and after college in Delhi had gone to London on a scholarship for girls that rotated between the different religious groups and in 1926 was allocated to the Sikhs. She had studied psychology at University College London and been awarded a Ph D in 1932. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like being a female Indian student in London In the 1920’s, was it exciting but daunting, was she lonely? Was she linked to the campaign for Indian independence movement was in full spate then and did she active for women’s emancipation. Her PhD was on “Attention span during short periods of work” even now this is topical as we acknowledge the disruptive effect of browsing on the Internet.  During her last decade she retreated into religious observation and I only ever saw her reading religious texts and I never knew about her London studentship until Jasjit unrolled her Ph D certificate last year. She rose at dawn to watch the TV broadcast from Amritsar and wore huge headphones which contrasted incongruously with her white widow’s salwar kameez.  She rested in the garden a last time for an hour on her way from the hospital to the crematorium. Jasjit aged 76 has done a magnificent job looking after her mother and I hope that she will be able to travel and enjoy her freedom from domestic responsibility.

I was in Delhi for a meeting of the Leprosy Mission (TLM) international scientific committee and to also finish the analysis on the azathioprine trial that we did to try and improve the treatment of leprosy reactions. The trial has taken up many years with the planning, execution and now analysis and write up. Colleagues from other Indian labs working on leprosy came to the meeting. It was good to see the enthusiasm there, because the elimination campaign has also frightened people away from doing leprosy research. This has created a gap in skills and knowledge, the headship of JALMA, the national Indian leprosy research institute has been taken by someone with a background in HIV and he is busy learning about leprosy. The headship of the TLM research lab in Delhi is also empty and has been filled by Sen Gupta who retired from running one of the other labs 10 years ago. Whilst it was nice to see Sen Gupta’s enthusiasm it illustrates the gap in leprosy research leadership. So there are still lots of challenges ahead.

Although it was the hot weather in Delhi with temperatures up to 40 C the trees were in full leaf still. In New Delhi so many of the streets are tree lined that the whole city feels green. 

On this visit to Delhi I experienced links with history, Mataji and Ian Wethrall were links to a recent but two very different worlds.  In the present there are the continuing challenges of leprosy work.

London June 2013

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