| Echoing silence
There is a church to the north of North Block known as the Cathedral of the Church of Redemption, built specially for the governor-general of the British raj, hence commonly known as the Viceroy’s Church. It was designed by Henry Medd and built in 1935. Not many people notice it as it is alongside a less-frequented road which takes off from Parliament House. Close by is Gurdwara Rakab Ganj, all in white marble, designed and built by one man, Harnam Singh Suri. It has all the elegance of Aurangzeb’s Moti Masjid in the Red Fort. By contrast, the Viceroy’s Church looks like a dowdy matron dressed in brick and beige sandstone. I had passed it many times without ever bothering to go inside. I was invited a few times by Uma Nair, who sings in the choir, to listen to carols during Christmas, but I was never able to make it.
Last week, Nirmala Mathan turned up from Bangalore. She had not been to Delhi for 30 years and wanted to see places she had frequented during her stay in the capital; her top priority was the Cathedral of the Church of Redemption. Her Sikh chauffeur had never heard of it. I asked him to drive us to Gurdwara Rakab Ganj and then turn on the road to the church.
It was afternoon. The main entrance gate was padlocked from either side. Nirmala was determined to go in. “The house of god has to remain open at all times,” she said impatiently. We drove round the side entrance leading to the bungalow of the chaplain and a nursery school. There was no one about. Nirmala saw a couple sitting on a bench across a lawn the size of a football ground. We went up to them. The lady, evidently a cleaning woman, recognized me as a non-Christian and said, “The church is closed.” Nirmala stood her ground. “Open it, I want to go in.” The lady asked, “Aap Issai hain (are you a Christian)'” Nirmala nodded her head and replied, “Both my children were baptized here. I used to sing regularly in the choir.” The door was opened and the lights switched on. We went through the vestry into the huge cavernous empty cathedral. The lady caretaker left us alone. We sat down on a pew facing the altar. “Do you mind if I say my prayers'” Nirmala asked me and went down on her knees with her head resting on the desk in front of her.
I saw this frail, little woman lost in prayer in the huge empty cathedral. The silence entered my soul and a strange feeling of being at peace with myself in a turbulent world overcame me. It was more the silence than somebody praying beside me that I found overpowering. Thomas Hood’s sonnet to silence stole back into my mind:
There is silence where hath been no sound/ There is silence where no sound may be,/ In the cold grave — under the deep, deep sea,/ Or in wide desert where no life is found/ Which hath been mute, and still must sleep profound;/ No voice is hush’d — no life treads silently,/ But clouds and cloudy shadows wander free,/ That never spoke, over the idle ground.
Hood continues to give other instances of silences that can be found in different places and ends with its true concept:
But in green ruins, in the desolate walls/ Of antique palaces, where Man hath been,/ Though the dun fox, or wild hyena calls,/ And owls, that flit continually between,/ Shriek to the echo, and the low winds moan,/ There the true Silence is, self-conscious and alone.
Hood’s words echoed in my mind as I sat in quietly in the vast cathedral which during religious services must have resounded with majestic notes of the organ and a thousand voices singing.
Final take on death
I have written on the subject of death more than once and have received more letters than I have on any other topic I have written about. So permit me to write one last piece on it. I promise not to bring it up again.
We have to be constantly reminded that it is not only other people who die. However much we try to put death out of our minds, other people’s deaths will remind us of its inevitability. Of all the gods of the pantheon, the one we cannot appease by prayer, bribery or flattery is Yama. Aeschylus wrote: “Alone of gods death has no love for gifts/ Libations help you not sacrifice/ He has no altar, and he hears no hymns/ From him alone persuasion stands apart.”
Unless you commit suicide or are hanged, you will not know when death will come to you. The prayer in the Psalms: “Lord let me know mine end, and the number of my days that I be certified how long I have to live” remains unheard. The older we grow, the more we realise that our end is nearing. To wit Kingsley Amis: “Death has got something to be said for it/ There’s no need to get out of bed for it,/ Wherever you may be/ They bring it to you, free.”
One way to overcome fear of death s to make fun of it. On his 75th birthday, Winston Churchill was asked what he thought about it. “I am ready to meet my maker. Whether my maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter,” he replied. Lord Palmerston on his deathbed told his physician, “Die my dear doctor' That is the last thing I shall do.”
The long and the short of it
One day in Calcutta, I was waiting for a taxi when a man about 90 years old looked at my suitcase and asked, “Where are you going'”
“On a short trip,” I replied. The old man said, “I’ll be going on a long trip soon.” Touched, I said, “Well, we all have to take that long trip one day. If I’m fortunate and live to be your age, I’ll be very happy about it.”
His look changed from that of attentive listening to one of impatience. “Young man,” he retorted, “I’m going to my grandson in London!”
Packing in a lot of punch
Though the eggs sent by train from a poultry farm in Andhra Pradesh to Calcutta were packed in wooden boxes and labelled “Handle with Care”, many of them were found broken on arrival. One of the poultry farm employees then suggested that the eggs be packed in earthen pots.
Though the suggestion was greeted with considerable scepticism, a trial consignment was sent by the unorthodox method. It turned out that very few eggs were than broken in transit — for the railway handling staff, afraid of breaking the earthen pots, handled them with special care.
(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)