They set out on the long journey back to Calcutta, to take up their first assignment at a Technical School for waifs on the outskirts of the city.
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The trip down from the hills, to the hot and dusty plains, was harrowing .Cosseted and cocooned as they had been for so many years in such exquisitely cool climes, they had quite forgotten how hot the plains could get. Right through the long train ride , the heat came in -wave after wave- searing and blistering everything within the compartment. Totally sapped of all vitality, they lay crumpled and inert in their berths - lacking even the will to sip water. …Their train clattered on through the murderous heat, with all three lying in a stupor…
Suddenly, they became conscious of much hubbub and commotion within the compartment- the sounds of people shouting and jostling . Their train seemed to have come to a complete stop . They’d arrived at their destination, at long last . Hanging on to their beat –up tin trunks ,they plunged into the melee ,fighting their way out of the compartment, and pushing through the crowds milling about on the station platform .
They emerged from the station into brilliant sunshine, and were immediately were engulfed by a swarm of touts who descended on them – each swearing and screaming at the others , and tugging and pulling them in different directions. Thoroughly irritated and angered by this most uncalled-for fracas , all the three flailed at the touts with their fists ,knocking over a few in the bargain. Taken by surprise, the swarm of touts fell back , muttering darkly and glaring sullenly at them . Striding up to one of the waiting cycle rickshaws, parked at one end of the station yard ,they climbed in and told the driver where they wished to be taken.
As their cycle rickshaw sped out of the station yard onto the main road ,a couple of stones flew past them . All three whirled around instinctively, and saw the touts , clearly disgruntled , shaking their fists and mouthing imprecations . Half rising from their seats ,they thumbed their noses at the pack , then settled back , chuckling with glee.
Their rickshaw barreled on up the road . Pinioned by the harsh glare of the sun, blazing relentlessly overhead, they sat slumped in their seats , utterly exhausted and drained out. Their young driver , the sweat pouring off him ,furiously pumped the pedals - all the while keeping up a steady stream of chatter. In his sing –song voice he was cheerfully cursing everything ….the rascality of the touts…the venality of the police… the rapacity of the Kabuli moneylender -who’ d descend on him, when least expected - and menace him with his huge wooden staff ,for repayment of his loan . …
All on a sudden ,he paused in mid-sentence , turned around, and pointed out the school building just up the road, shimmering in the heat-haze. Set in the middle of a very large compound , it was a long , low structure , that seemed much in need of a coat of paint .
Seconds later , they whizzed past the gates , through the sun –baked courtyard , before finally coming to a stop under the portico of the building . Wilting under the savage heat , parched with thirst, and weary to the bone , they got out ,slowly and gingerly . Staggering under the weight of their tin trunks , they tottered towards the entrance .
A shout was heard from inside the building . An instant later, a huge crowd swarmed out of the building and ran towards them cheering wildly and ecstatically . Before they knew it , they were surrounded by a horde of young lads , faces shining with excitement ,all jostling and clamouring for their attention. Dozens of hands frenziedly clutched at them. They felt their little tin trunks being plucked out of their hands and carried away . And borne along on a tide of eager little ones ,they were swept into the building.
They were taken straight to meet the other priests , who bade them welcome and showed them up to their rooms. After a wash -to get the grime , the soot and the dust off their bodies- and some refreshments , they began to feel quite human once more.
In the evening they were taken around the school . It proved quite an eye-opener : the machine shops and the carpentry workshops hummed with activity; the classrooms were full of bright eyed youngsters, eagerly listening to their teachers in pin –drop silence, and feverishly scribbling away in their little notebooks . Outside on the field ,a football match was in progress . For a while ,they stood avidly watching the game– taken quite by surprise at the dexterity , the expertise and indeed, the sheer artistry displayed by a few of the players .
That very evening , after prayers, they met with the Rector to learn what their very first assignment was to be .He told them that they were to take over the running of a little printing press that had recently been started by their Order . This press, located in an industrial suburb a few miles away, had been started in the hope of generating the funds their Order so desperately needed , and to provide jobs for some of the Technical school graduates. However, the going thus far, had been extremely difficult, and the venture seemed in real danger of foundering .
To the three young men , this was like manna from heaven . They were thrilled ,and beside themselves at the prospect of taking on such a challenge.
The months and the years that followed were terribly hard : full of back breaking , heart rending toil, and often fruitless endeavour . However ,by a strange twist of destiny, this period would turn out to be the most fulfilling and rewarding phase of their lives - the culmination of all they had struggled for, and endured through the years .
A new set of nightmares began for them once they took over the reins at the press .It felt as if they had been thrown into the deep end and were on the verge of drowning . They had to contend with a whole host of daunting problems : very few orders for work , antiquated machinery that broke down frequently , elusive debtors , creditors hounding them for money , and a thoroughly demoralized workforce - terrified at the thought of soon being without a job .The very lives of so many , hinged inexorably on whether they would succeed or fail …
All three threw themselves ,heart and soul, into the Herculean tasks that lay ahead . Days and nights ceased to have any meaning. They kept on at it - working flat out , round the clock - permitting themselves only the briefest of respites for sorely needed rest and recreation.
The perfect understanding they had achieved amongst themselves , the way their disparate temperaments meshed harmoniously –forged by a lifetime of shared experiences and ideals - began to carry the day. In the crucible of this struggling venture, their innate God-given talents were honed and perfected . G developed his legendary charisma and his ability to motivate all to achieve near-impossible deadlines … P , his dare-devilry , his derring-do and his wizardry at conjuring up money and other vitally needed resources …. while A held it all together , radiating the near-saintly calm and serenity that all looked up to, and drew solace from..
In those early days ,they all lived from hand to mouth. Getting through each day was a miracle ,in itself. The times were difficult for everyone, and there were hardly any business prospects. Absolutely undaunted , P hit the road . Daily , from dawn to dusk he’d comb the city , often traversing its entire length and breadth several times , drumming up orders , wheedling reprieves from bankers , suppliers and government agencies.
Very often ,the orders he returned with, were the ones no other printer would touch . These were invariably complex , paid very little and stipulated preposterous delivery schedules . Without a murmur , G and A would rally the work force ; all would roll up their sleeves and get down to work. Thereafter , for days and weeks on end , from dawn to dusk ,the press would be a beehive of activity…machines whirring, going full tilt … workmen and priests alike, scurrying about – often getting in each others’ way …. Yet never once did they miss a deadline.
Gradually ,over the months and years ,by dint of their efforts , the business - that had started out as a mere trickle - began to build up. Eventually, the venture stabilized : the press hummed merrily along, and actually began making some money. All could now take a well deserved breather.
A net was rigged up in the little courtyard behind the press . Many a delightful evening was spent ,with everyone enthusiastically joining in games like badminton and volleyball. These were the times when the normally quiet and serene A would be in his element : rushing about the court , smashing , volleying and hitting like one possessed –bursting into the most colourful Italian ,whenever he missed a point.
Now that the press was on an even keel, all began looking ahead . The Order’s resources were still woefully inadequate ,and much more would be required if they were to realize their Order’s dream of establishing another school in the city . Despite much agonizing and soul –searching, there seemed no solution in sight .
Then one day , quite .out of the blue , P had a brainwave : they would organize and conduct raffles , with very attractive prizes , in order to raise money. Once he had obtained the Order’s approval for this scheme , he launched straight into the task of getting it all together . Living the next few months at white heat, he single-handedly set up all the arrangements : schools were roped in to distribute tickets through their students … measures were put in place for handling the collections….….the way the winners were to be selected …..everything was seen to -right down to the very last niggling little detail .
The very first raffle they conducted was a runaway success .Nothing on this scale had been ever attempted before ,and people were thrilled at the prospect of such large windfalls coming their way. The popularity of their raffles soared. More and more money began to flow into the coffers of the Order . The school that had once been a very distant dream of everyone’s, no longer seemed so far-fetched.
The winner of one of the raffles had been duly notified on the telephone . He turned out to be a local businessman , clearly elated at hearing the news. He told P he’d come by the very next day to collect his prize.
The next evening, P was sitting at his desk , waiting for the man to arrive. He looked up ,as a large, gleaming American limousine pulled up, just outside his window . It was monstrous – so large , that it filled the entire window , blotting out everything else. He heard the sound of car doors slamming .
A little later, the door opened and two men sidled in - bowing ,scraping and simpering away to glory . Then, an enormously bulky man waddled in , dressed in a coat that threatened to burst at the seams , his white sarong trailing behind him. One of the lackeys instantly rushed forward with a chair . Wheezing heavily, he sank into it , pulled out a handkerchief and started mopping his brow . Thereupon, the other lackey - a fan appearing in his hands as if by magic- slid into position behind , and began frantically fanning him . The big man’s jaws, that had been busily working right through , ceased their chomping for a brief instant. Then , in the twinkling of an eye, a thick red stream of betel juice jetted past the man’s barely open lips-and sailed with unerring accuracy out of the window. Heaving a sigh of utter contentment , the big man settled back in his chair and attempted a weak smile , the red liquid still dribbling down his lips.
P who had been watching this little drama unfold ,in utter fascination ,took a second or two to recover; he then handed over the winner his cheque. The man pounced , ,seizing it gleefully. His eyes raked the instrument -lighting up when they saw the amount. His face positively glowing with cupidity ,the man heaved himself up . The lackeys slipped into position, moving with perfectly choreographed precision . Suddenly the man stopped . A frisson seemed to pass through his immense bulk ,and a brief spark of humanity glimmered in his eyes . His hand darted into his coat pocket and pulled out a little piece of paper . Without saying a word, he handed it to Pompilio. A brief instant later, his eyes had darkened once again . Turning round he waddled out of the room , the lackeys trailing in his wake.
Without giving it even a second glance , P opened his bottom drawer ,threw the chit of paper in and promptly forgot all about it.
Months later, a telegram addressed to him arrived, strangely enough, from Dublin, of all the places . Quite puzzled and intrigued, he opened it .His eyes passed over the telegram – his mind barely registering what it contained . The very next instant, its full import dawned on him: “….You have won the Irish Sweepstakes and the prize money is Pounds 50,000 ….Please arrange to have this collected”…..
The events of the next few months could only be described as miraculous . In very short order, everything began to fall in place.
A large ,abandoned piece of property was located, right opposite a huge park. Completely covered with shrubs and undergrowth , it had, for many years, been the haunt of wild animals , thieves and smugglers. Rumour even had it that anyone straying into it ,had never been seen alive again . Brushing all these fears and apprehensions aside ,the Order went ahead and purchased this property. The land was cleared ,and work on the building commenced ,proceeding apace. Within the year the entire building was ready .
Towering over the wide open spaces surrounding it , the building gleamed in the sunlight. The entire effect within was marvelous : light –flooded interiors, bright and airy classrooms, wide corridors- open to the skies , highly polished floors , sparkling white walls…
In a sheltered , out-of-the-way portion of the building stood little chapel , of exquisite , breath –taking beauty : intricately wrought lamps hanging from its walls ; its marble floors veined with delicate tracery ; superbly crafted altar railings ; a marble altar ,draped with the finest lace, a resplendent tabernacle at the very centre of it and flanked by ornate candle stands holding candles that never ceased to shine … It seemed the very epitome of all that one held dear and sacred .The moment one entered it , one instinctively knew that one stood on hallowed ground -with the Divine Presence never far away.
The lobby next to the entrance had its walls covered with fabulous pictures - each carefully chosen .
One was a spectacular photograph of Reggio di Calabria – a dazzling vista of soaring limestone crags ,flecked with greenery, dropping all the way down to an impossibly blue Mediterranean.
Another was of St. John Bosco, a halo around his head, his entire face transfigured ,a beatific smile on his lips ,and holding his arms wide open .
The most wondrous ,was a reproduction of a painting by Correggio - showing the risen Christ , bending tenderly over to comfort a sorrowing Mary Magdalene …. her face has been captured at the very instant of her anguish turning to sublime wonderment……she leans forward to touch Him ….but , ever so gently , He restrains her ….whispering the immortal words: ‘Noli Me Tangere ‘…..an almost preternatural radiance suffuses the entire scene.
At the very centre of the lobby ,on a pedestal, stood an exquisitely sculpted marble statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary : her expression divinely serene and tranquil, one hand over her heart and the other delicately draped by her side, palms open - as if to welcome all who would be passing through the school’s portals ,in the years to come …
And thus did the curtains come down ,finally, on an odyssey that ,sweeping across space and time , culminated a glorious achievement that was to shape the hearts and minds, and touch the lives of millions.
'God work in mysterious ways , His miracles to perfom’.