This Christmas message was written in 2002, but the issues remain, sadly, as relevant as ever in today’s world
I feel uncomfortable to be thinking so many negative, pessimistic thoughts at this time of the year. A time of love, giving, and compassion, of forgiveness, is filled with the sabre rattling of a seriously ill mental patient in Washington, and his equally sick lieutenant in London.
And with the world’s focus on Baghdad, the focus for many of us should be Bethlehem. Its name brings thoughts of the heavenly choirs, joy, and serenity that accompanied that birth. Today, Bethlehem continues to be a city in which Palestinian women come to give birth. But here, as in the whole of the West Bank, the trip to the city and the hospital has become extremely arduous, dangerous, and at times, even impossible.
Curfew is clamped on the Bethlehem area. Dead newborns, due to the delays at a nearby Israeli military checkpoint, are not unknown. I wonder if the angels weep over the city these days.
It is sad to realize -- how many of us do? -- that this Middle East situation is now much linked to Iraq, which was, in the post-war years up to the revolution in 1958, controlled by the US and Britain. It is clearly on record at that time that the extreme poverty then was simply because Iraq did not own its own oil reserves. Are the US and Britain so stupid to be trying to win it back?
And in India, I saw and sensed hate of a similar type and the hate against and fear of Muslims which has, of course, been fanned and magnified by Bush & co. The state of Gujarat, which has just had elections won easily by the Hindu fanatics, was going through a lot of soul-searching.
Having revisited my Gandhian roots in the Bodh Gaya ashram of Vinoba, I wondered how sad Gandhi, a Gujarati, must be looking down on it all. In the communal fighting at the time of Indian independence, Gandhi used to say that one of his eyes was Muslim and the other Hindu, and he appealed for a “union of hearts.” In the run-up to independence, a famous Urdu poet, Allama Iqbal, who had written many soul-searching anthems, wrote Nayashawala, the new shrine.
Through it he called upon Hindus and Muslims to erect a new temple of unity. I heard it sung again while I was in Kolkata and I searched for a translation.
Let us build a new temple of unity,
The grandest, whose spears will reach the sky;
Let the devotees drink the elixir of unity
And sing the song binding the bonds of harmony
For human liberation lies in love and compassion.
In the context of communal relations in South Asia, these words are moving. But Gandhi had such high ideals, Sarva Dharma Sambhava -- respect for all. And what is destroying it all is the mixing of religion and politics.
So, I took the opportunity to revisit old places well-known to me, in, it seemed, an earlier life -- to Mother Teresa’s “Missionaries of Charity.” I was asked by her successor what most I had learned from Mother Teresa.
I replied that she once lectured me in the Refugee Relief time (1971) that even if I felt strongly, I should not waste my time being judgmental. If I did, I would have no time to love people and help them.
Lots of memories came back to me and I must, in the very near future, be rigid with my time and write it all down.
I was reminded of Martin Luther King’s wife Coretta Scott King’s meeting with Vinoba. Mrs King was introduced as a great singer and friend by Jayaprakash Narayan and a friend suggested that she should sing for Vinoba.
Some of us in the congregation wondered if he knew what Negro spirituals were. It was a bit startling, when Vinoba, as if in answer, raised his ever-downcast eyes towards Coretta and intoned softly: “Were you there, were you there when they crucified my Lord?” When she sang that song, it seemed to have an added poignancy.
I think I will write separately about Bihar, Gaya, and Bodh Gaya. There is too much sadness, depression, and pessimism to put in and it should be consigned to a different missive. One moving episode was on the visit to the villages where I used to work (1968-71).
At one of them, Jayaprakash Nagar, a man in his late 40s (I guess) reminded me of the time when I came to the village in the early days and wanted to see just how poor each household was. At one small hut, hardly larger than a big size kennel, I heard noises from within and peered in.
An emaciated naked woman was sitting there. She had no clothes to wear and could not come out even to beg and so I managed to make sure she got a sari. The man recounting the story said that he was now the village leader (very low Bhuiyar caste) and none of them worked for the landlords anymore.
They worked on their own (Bhoodan) land.
When I first went there they had been bonded labourers. Gopi Manji told me proudly that the naked woman had been his mother and my photo had, for years, been on her “puja” altar.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.