Vague ,indistinct memories were all that remained of the journey back .Years later ,they could recall just the barest traces of it …the tramp back over the same forest trails all the way to the railhead…getting into the waiting train….the all-too-well-remembered squalor within the carriages …. the miserable train ride to Calcutta .At long last however ,their journey ,that had seemed to drag on forever ,drew to a close ,with their train pulling into Calcutta station, onto an empty and deserted platform..
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They staggered out a dirty , bedraggled and desperately tired lot . Moving along like run down automatons, all filed towards the exit gate. Suddenly Guido felt a light tap on his shoulder. Instinctively , his head whipped around and he froze in his tracks … A split second later, sensing that something was afoot ,his two comrades walking alongside him ,also stopped and stared ,equally surprised - at the man who stood next to them , smiling as if he had known them all their lives.
Gaunt and frail , with sunken cheeks , and graying at the temples ,he was dressed in a rather worn cassock . But it was his face that transfixed them .. .. so tantalizingly familiar - one that they had seen many times in the past …..yet ,putting a name to that face was proving so elusive ….
Suddenly ,it struck them , with the force of a thunderclap–he was none other than their favourite school master : the only one who had regarded their youthful escapades, indulgently and with much amusement. Sadly ,the poor man had aged so much since they’d last seen him .It was so hard to believe that the person they were looking at , had once been young , fresh-faced and brimming over with joie de vivre.
And who could ever have imagined that they would be running into him – so many years later ,on a railway platform of a strange city , in a distant land ? Surely, this had to be much more than merely a chance encounter….
Their reunion ,was brief and restrained : just a quick clasping of his hands and a hurried exchange of embraces -no extravagant ,theatrical gesturing or effusive exclamations of delight. They then carried on , all together ,towards the station exit.
On the short walk to the exit gate ,he briefly narrated all that had happened since they’d last met. Shortly after they’d left school ,he had joined the Salesian Order in Italy and become a priest. In the early thirties, he had been sent to India as a missionary and had remained in the country , through the war years. He was now attached to their mission, in a nearby village . Through old friends in Italy, he had been told about their being in a POW camp in India . About a week back he’d heard the news of the repatriation of POWs, and had been coming to the station every day , meeting every POW train that arrived , searching for them..
Europe ,he told them ,was in a shambles .Germany and Italy currently lay in ruins. For millions, survival had become such a desperate , heart –breaking struggle : there was no work to be had ,and most were starving . In the circumstances, there seemed little point in their going back right away. He said he could arrange for them to stay on , and offered them shelter at his mission. Without even a moment’s hesitation , all the three eagerly accepted his offer .
By then , they had reached the station’s POW embarkation counter . Their friend ,quite clearly ,had connections ,for he was able to obtain the necessary permissions without a problem. Clutching these precious pieces of paper , sacks containing their pitifully few belongings slung over their shoulders , they walked out of the station- into the city of Calcutta.
They had heard so much about the place -the second city of the British Empire…the centre of British power in India …renowned for its luxurious hotels, restaurants ,theatres and clubs –where the elite of the Empire disported in such fabulous style. ….However, their first taste of the city, came as quite a shock.
They were, quite simply, plunged into a melee: cars , buses and trams whizzing past….men , women and children in their thousands bustling about …. a few Britishers striding by, a train of luggage -laden porters and retainers, struggling along in their wake ….. troops marching smartly in and out of the station… urchins and street children hanging around , wistful expressions on their unwashed faces ,smiling endearingly at passers-by in the hope of gaining a copper or two…
Bathed in the golden glow of a late winter afternoon , the entire scene before them seemed, oddly enough , so very alive and vital - evoking poignant memories of the homeland they had left behind ,so many years ago.
Their priest friend guided them unerringly through this absolute bedlam , and hustled them all into a bus , a rickety old contraption, which was empty- but just for the moment. They all managed to get seats on the hard wooden benches inside. Almost immediately thereafter, people began swarming in -pushing and kicking their way through .Within minutes the entire bus had filled up . People were even hanging onto its sides, clutching at the window bars . The conductor blew the whistle and the driver began cranking up the engine. Several anxious minutes passed , with the engine simply refusing to start. Finally, almost reluctantly, it juddered into life. The bus trundled forward, clouds of smoke billowing from its exhausts .
With his horn going full blast, their driver steered through the swarming crowds. People , carts and animals scurried out of their way. From time to time , their driver would lean out of his window ,swearing and gesticulating wildly at the traffic in front . They carried on like this through the station yard ,and drove onto the main road running alongside a broad river.
The river was immensely wide, and had ships , motor boats , dinghies ,and little country boats passing up and down it ,or moored to its banks ,A massive steel bridge spanned the width of the river ,towering hundreds of feet over it . Traffic flowed over this bridge in a thick , continuous stream. On the other side, stretching away down - river, as far as the eye could see ,was a thick unbroken line of absolutely monstrous-looking buildings.
Their bus careened down the road towards their destination . At one point along the way ,where their bus had stopped briefly , they saw a scene that would remain forever etched in their memories: a string of funeral pyres blazing away on the river bank , a crowd of people dancing frenziedly around the pyres; while on the earthen embankment nearby – completely oblivious to the cacophony swirling around him - sat a thin ,emaciated man ,dressed in threadbare garments, doing exquisite-looking calligraphy in a little book .
It was late in the evening when they finally reached their destination. They got off the bus and walked the last stretch to the mission . They rounded the last bend and there , just ahead - standing on the river bank, silhouetted against the setting sun - stood the mission building . It looked exactly like an old Spanish fortress , completely surrounded by thick walls. A huge banyan tree loomed over it.
Their friend explained that the building was over three hundred years old, and had once been a fortress, built by the Portuguese, to protect the little colony they had established in Bengal. Years later, when the Portuguese left , it had been taken over by missionaries and been a church ever since.
They all walked up to the main entrance, a massive teak door. Their friend tugged at a bell rope beside it. From somewhere deep within, they heard the muffled ring of a bell. The door opened . Another priest stood on the threshold. Smiling warmly, he welcomed them .
By the light of lanterns placed within the niches in the walls ,they could make out cavernous , high-ceilinged rooms and lengthy corridors stretching away into the darkness. They were taken to the chapel ,at the very heart of the building .Simply furnished and devoid of any ostentation , it seemed a haven of peace and tranquility.
The next few days were like nothing they had ever experienced before. Twice a day, at noon and in the evening, the mission courtyard would be filled with hundreds of poor folk , many dressed in rags , wandering in from miles around . They would be taken in batches into the refectory and fed. The three young men cheerfully joined in ,throwing themselves heart and soul into this effort. They spent long hours each day helping to prepare and serve the food. The joy and happiness lighting up the faces of these poor half-starved people , when a few handfuls of rice and vegetables were placed before them , seemed reward enough for all their labour and toil.
Each day spent at the mission only reinforced their resolve to become priests. Eventually all their doubts and uncertainties were dispelled and ceased to trouble them .The Will of God now stood revealed ,clearer than ever before.
They apprised their friend of their intention to join the Salesians and become priests. He was thrilled and promised to make all the arrangements for them to travel to the seminary in Darjeeling ,to train for the priesthood.
Days later, they traveled back to the station ,and began the first leg of the long journey to Darjeeling. All day long ,their train steamed through the plains of North Bengal, moving along on an arrow-straight track. .By evening they’d arrived at the last station on the line , on the banks of an enormous river. All the passengers got out of the train and into a huge ancient-looking paddle steamer moored to the river bank ..
The crossing took more than an hour . Most of the passengers stood on the deck taking in the scenery : the river stretching nearly all the way to the horizon….. ..the faint , barely discernible outline of the bank on the other side……spumes of foam rising around the boat ,as the huge paddles churned, furiously battling the swiftly flowing current…. the sun setting beyond the farther bank of the river…At length , they reached the other side and got into the waiting train.
Early next morning ,they arrived at a station at the base of the foothills . Here they changed trains once more .The train they got into ,was the one that would take them all the way up to Darjeeling. It seemed miniscule in comparison to the others : a few tiny coaches drawn by an antiquated little engine . The whistle blew and the train started off , chugging steadily uphill. The track ran alongside the road, winding and twisting up the hillsides . It became perceptibly more chill as the train kept climbing higher and higher into the hills. The vegetation changed : the tropical giving way to the temperate . The lower slopes of the hills around them were covered by a thick unbroken mantle of green , while high up on the crests, perched little groves of pine , wisps of cloud swirling about them. An exquisite fragrance of tea blossoms filled the air wafting through their carriage.
There were a few other European priests and nuns traveling in the same carriage , some looking quietly out at the scenery . They turned ,to strike up a conversation with the two sitting next to them-an elderly nun and a young priest.
The nun sat , perfectly still and unmoving, wrapped in a deep reverie .But ,hearing the sound of their voices ,she turned. It was then that they saw her face for the first time : a face seared with anguish and despair – of a kind and an intensity they had never encountered before. Acutely embarrassed , the normally ebullient G and P looked away , quite at a loss for words . It was A ,however, who leaned forward and began talking to her ,ever so gently and quietly .
Perhaps it was his innate sensitivity and his heartfelt concern that touched a chord deep within her : she began to speak, slowly and haltingly , her voice barely rising above a whisper . All the three leaned forward in their seats , straining to catch every word she uttered .
What emerged was a horrendous ,barely credible tale of human tragedy on an unimaginable scale :of millions, in a cruel twist of fate , having perished of starvation - in a land where the harvest had been bountiful and the granaries packed to overflowing. A whole region of Bengal, she said , had been ravaged by a famine that had raged for over a year ; entire villages had been abandoned ,with not a living soul in sight anywhere ; fields ,that had once been lush , green and laden with crops , had been reduced to little more than dry , blasted earth ,stripped bare of vegetation; enormous swathes of ground ,next to the rivers and streams that criss-crossed the land ,were littered with millions of rotting corpses and skeletons of dead men ,women and children ; the skies overhead were thick with massive flocks of vultures wheeling around , alighting to gorge on the gargantuan feasts of carrion spread out below ; jackals, curs and rodents without number ,prowled among the corpses ,feeding on scraps that remained and crunching through the bones ; the unbearable stench of millions of rotting corpses pervaded the air ,blanketing the entire land , for miles around ,in an monstrous pall of death.
It had been like battling a raging tempest , that swept all before it: there had been little ,she or the other missionaries could do ,except give surcease to the dying . The utter futility of their efforts still haunted her and her faith had been shaken to its very foundations . How could an infinitely loving and all-merciful God have let a such a terrible calamity come to pass , and done nothing to avert it , she wondered plaintively , in a voice haggard with grief ….
Overcome by emotion , she slumped forward in her seat , and covering her face with her hands, remained mute and unmoving . Minutes later ,heaving a deep sigh ,she leaned back in her seat , completely spent and drained .
Deeply troubled and shaken by what they had just heard ,the three sat for quite a while in stunned silence. A little later, they turned to the priest sitting next to them.
The priest , a thin , boyish-looking Jesuit , appeared quite disinclined to talk at first -darting tentative ,fleeting smiles at them, but not saying a word . However , little by little, they wore down his reticence and got him to open up . It transpired that ,he too had been in the North African Desert, with the Free French Forces ,commanding a squadron of tanks. In the beginning he confessed , the battles had been so exhilarating –and victory even more so. But ,as the years wore on ,the glories of war had palled : he saw nothing but the sheer carnage and brutality of it all ,and the trail of death and destruction war left in its wake. So many of his comrades had been cut down before his eyes -some in the most horrific manner possible - while he had come through it all ,with barely a scratch . At the end of the war, he , the survivor , racked by unbearable guilt ,and haunted by a desperate desire to atone for all those tragic and pointless deaths, had renounced all he possessed , joined the Jesuits, and come out to India as a missionary. His face lit up as he spoke about the short but wonderful time he had spent in India . His life’s work was here , he declared –very quietly but fervently - and he could never bear the thought of ever having to leave this land .
And so the conversation continued : everyone deeply engrossed in sharing all that they had experienced , and all that had been revealed to them, thus far. The hours that remained,just flew by- and before they knew it, they had arrived at their destination. Bidding farewell to their traveling companions, the three shouldered their knapsacks and walked the last stretch of the way .
It was only a short walk ,but one that would linger on in their memories. …. spectacular vistas of the hills and valleys surrounding them ….the snow capped Himalayas towering in the distance…banks of cloud rising from the valley below ,blanketing them for brief , enchanting moments , in thick palls of fog…..Then, quite suddenly , the mists cleared, and there ,just ahead , bestride a plateau , stood the seminary building , bathed in brilliant sunshine.
Even from where they were, the building appeared immense and gigantic, straddling the entire plateau on which it stood. They passed through its high arched portals , certain that they had just entered the newest , and most fulfilling, phase of their lives.
Nothing that they had been through thus far, could have prepared them for the long and grueling road to priesthood . For the first few months, the relentless , punishing regimen seemed little more than pure , unmitigated agony: being awakened every day, long before dawn..…shivering through cold water showers… ..spending the early morning hours in meditation, prayer and adoration….classes in Bengali ,Latin , Philosophy , and Theology throughout the day… an hour or two of football or basketball in the evenings….vespers and compline….followed by long hours of arduous study late into the night.
Several times during these first few months, they came very close to throwing in the towel and returning to Italy. But some imperative, far beyond the human ken , stayed their hand and steeled , nay ,inspired them to face up to all that lay ahead.
And so the weeks , the months and the years passed . They felt profoundly at peace with themselves , secure in the knowledge that each step along the way was bringing them closer to fulfilling God’s Mission for them.
The retreats served to heighten this feeling of spiritual ecstasy and wonderment :long hours spent on one’s knees in the chapel , in prayer and fasting - seeking communion with God….. pacing the courtyard of the seminary, rapt in contemplation of the Eternal Verities - totally oblivious to the passage of the hours or to the mists swirling about them…..
There were other moments of great exhilaration too -but of an entirely different kind…….racing down steep hillsides, the wind in their faces , spirits soaring - chasing after a football kicked all the way into the tea -bushes ,in the valley below…… the delicious ,almost sensual ,thrill of a bracing dip in an ice-cold mountain stream…….luxuriating in the exquisite ambience of Christmas-time lunches at Glenary’s , savouring its excellent cuisine , listening to the band playing , to the pianist rippling through the notes- and watching the couples twirl and swirl around the dance floor……. racing horses at break-neck speed around the Mall…….. gazing spellbound at the dazzling play of colours across the summit of Mount Kanchenjunga , soaring in the distance……
The long years of training for the priesthood ,culminated in the ritual of ordination , where the archbishop intoned the words that would change their lives irrevocably: ‘ …..Thou art a priest forever.”