During my teens, I had developed extra admiration for two heroic world figures. What was common to them was their determined resistance to insolent might. Signor Benito Mussolini and Herr Adolf Hitler personified that Fascist might they both resisted. The two heroic resistors were Emperor Haile Sellassie of Ethiopia and Pastor Martin Niemoeller of Germany. In fact I wrote feature articles about both the resistors during the days of my teen-age journalism. By a strange coincidence, I came to know both of them rather intimately and personally in later life.
Winston Churchill also resisted Hitler, but he was no hero for me. For me as a youngster, the British Prime Minister represented great pluck and courage, but more bluff and rhetoric, and not much concern for justice or equity. After all, Churchill did declare that he had not become Prime Minister of England to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire over which the sun never set. I was one among millions who sincerely and passionately desired the liquidation of that empire, so that my people could be free from the imperial yoke.
I will keep the Niemoeller story for a subsequent section. The Haile Sellassie story is a longer one, but let me narrate a few of the events leading up to my double Ethiopian sojourn, which began in 1947, the very year of our national independence in India.
Getting Away from Home
In 1940, when I was 18, someone Kindly offered me a job, and I accepted, mostly to get away from the miseries of home. It was in Mattancheri, Cochin, some 12 Kilometers away from home. I became a clerk in a small Shipping and Transport firm, the Cochin Transport Company. There were two other office staff, besides the managing Dirtector and me. The salary was about Rs.15 a month. I could sleep in the office, and eat in a nearby restaurant. Two simple meals a day for a whole month cost only about Rs.6.00 (US $ 1.30) those days.
Two or three simple memories stand out from those days. Everybody in the office belonged to the same Syrian Christian community, and life was fairly congenial. But there were two of my neighbors who did not. One was a youngster, Balakrishna pillai, a Hindu, a couple of years senior to me. He worked (and lived) in the offices next to ours, in the same building. His philosophy of life was that youth was there to be enjoyed. He was so enthusiastic about it that he could not understand my homebred reluctance to seek forbidden pleasures like wine and women, both easily accessible in the city. It was half courtesy and half curiosity that let me go out with him one night into some of the more lurid quarters of that city. That was enough. It left some painful memories, which have kept me from that kind of pleasure-seeking ever after.
The Man Who lived for Money
The other neighbor, who also lived and worked next door to us in the same building, was a Satta trader, one who bought and sold shares by telephone. I was told he was very rich, but he lived and worked in one room, with a chair, a narrow bed, a telephone, and a large safe in which he kept his documents and money. I never got to know him, because he was always at his telephone, morning till night. He could think and talk only about stocks and shares and about money. He seemed to have no family, no social life, no friends. He lived for money.
One morning we were in for a surprise. We were told that he had died during the night. It was a heart attack. He had gotten up from his bed, gone to his safe, and had collapsed with his hand still on the handle of the safe. The scene made a deep impression on me. We talked about it a lot in the office, but alone, I pondered about the meaning of the event. I suppose these small events do shape one’s outlook on life. Perhaps not through conscious cogitations and rational conclusions, but through insights of an impressionable age, lingering long, hidden in the sub-conscious.
Appearing for a Competitive Examination
I worked in the Cochin Transport Company for about a year and a half or two. During this period, in 1941, when I was nineteen, I decided to appear for a competitive examination for recruitment to the clerical cadre of the Indian posts and Telegraphs Department. There were some 300 candidates competing for a total of a dozen vacancies in the states of Cochin and Travancore. Eighty percent of the competing candidates, I understood, were university graduates, while I had only a high school education.
I had hardly hoped to be selected. I remember that I had answered some of the questions in the examination with an air of breeziness. Asked to write short notes on the Seven pagodas, I could not for the life of me remember anything I had heard or read about pagodas. Neither did I know what they were. Yet I gave the answer: “The Seven pagodas could hardly be in America, in Europe or in Australia . Nor do they sound African. So they must be in Asia’’.
Asked for similar short notes on the Atlantic Charter, which had been signed a few months before the competitive examination in 1941, (between Roosevelt and Churchill, before America had joined the war, signed during a conference aboard war-ships in the North Atlantic), I had insolently written: “ The Atlantic Charter deserves to be submerged where it arose, i.e., in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean”.
Not that I understood the Atlantic Charter and its purpose at that time. What I wrote was the result of intuition rather than insight. Today I know that it was a compromise on Churchill’s part intended to draw the Americans into the War effort, which the Allies were on the brink of losing, Roosevelt was resisting, for he thought that the British and the French were simply waging war to protect their own empires against the Germans and the Japanese. Until Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Roosevelt still thought that America’s economic interest was best served by profiting from the manufacture and sale of arms to the Allies while staying away from any direct participation in the war. The weapons industry in America had boomed and was boosting the American economy in an unprecedented manner.
Britain and the USA signed the Atlantic Charter on August 14, 1941, Roosevelt had made Churchill reluctantly acquiesce in the lofty but empty statements in the charter about the right of people to choose their own government and all that. In India, Mahatma Gandhi had opposed the war as in principle wrong, and had been arrested by our British masters. We thought the weaker the British, the greater the chance of their letting us go free. With America joining up with the British, our chances would be fewer, we reckoned. Besides, the rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter was merely a revival of Woodrow Wilson’s First World War ideology of justifying the war in the name of defending freedom and democracy. Self-determination for all peoples, yes, but not for the British Colonies. I saw only part of that hypocrisy at that time.
Anyway, I qualified in the competitive examination despite my insolence. I joined the Post and Telegraph department of our colonial government. My salary suddenly rose from Rs. 15 to Rs. 39 (less than US $ 9.00) per month! After an intial period of working at the Head Post Office in Cochin, I was sent to Madras for training in Morse telegraphic signalling. Our institute was in Kodambakkam, a district of Madras city, and I lived with other trainees in a nearby lodge. This was my first contact with Tamil and Telugu and Kannada friends, all rather bright youngsters. They were good company.
Besides learning Telegraphy, on my own I also acquired a reading and writing knowledge of Tamil, the local language of Madras with the help of some of my obliging friends. Tamil and Malayalam were kindred languages of the so called Dravidian family, except that Malayalam was more sanskritized than Tamil.
Many of the Tamil ways were interesting to me. I even learned to like Tamil food, without any difficulty, particularly since I had not been spoiled in my eating habits at home. I especially delighted in the idea of the milkman bringing his cow to our home, and milking it directly into our vessel, so that we could drink it with its natural, warmth. Madras was a much bigger city than Cochin, but beyond a few sightseeing trips with friends, I made no adventurous sorties into the city life.
The Quit India Movement
One lasting memory is of the Quit India Movement in 1942. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and there was constant danger that India would be attacked too. Indian loyalty to the British, in the event of such Japanese invasion, could not be taken for granted. Churchill sent us his special envoy, Sir Stafford Cripps, a Socialist and a friend of Nehru and others, with the appeasing offer of “Full Dominion Status” for India within the British Empire. We in India, on the other hand, were pledged to “Poorna Swaraj” or total independence. Cripps was not authorized to negotiate, but only to make a pre-determined offer of promotion from colony to dominion. The offer was turned down.
One of the British arguments was that it would be perilous for India to seek to be independent so long as the Japanese threat was there, and that we should stay within the British umbrella of protection. Through Mahatma Gandhi, India replied in effect “You, John Bull, just quit India. We will deal with the Japanese as Independent India, using our own non-violent means. Your presence on our soil is a provocation to the Japanese”. John Bull refused to quit, and went on to put some 60,000 Indians in prison. They even strafed some of our cities by using bombers to intimidate our people and suppress the revolt.
We were right about the Atlantic charter. The Americans, joining the Allied war effort in 1942, gave the British the breathing space in which to handle the revolt in India. And they handled it quite brutally and efficiently.
American warplanes were taking off from Bombay and Calcutta for strikes against the Japanese, while the British were shooting down rebel Indians.
As the Quit India Movement erupted, I was in Madras. My patriotism was properly kindled and I joined groups of protesting University students in Madras to shout with gusto: “John Bull, Quit India, Inquilab Sindabad” (Urdu for Long Live the Revolution). I even joined college students who were pulling down alarm chains on local trains in order to disrupt traffic. Of course, I did not myself pull the chains, but identifying oneself with those who did was enough. It was exhilarating, but doubly dangerous, because we were supposed to be “most obedient servants” of the British government.
I heard later that the Japanese did drop a token bomb near Madras, not in the city, but in the open countryside. Maybe their intention was only to show the British that they could bomb India if they chose to do so. Anyway I hazily remember reading in one of our newspapers that there was a bomb that fell and that it killed one chicken, but no humans! May be it was a trick of a British bomber; who knows?
Subhash Chandra Bose - Only a demi-Hero
This was the time when one of our heroic and gifted national leaders, Subhas Chandra Bose (President of the Indian National Congress in 1938), who had in 1940 broken with Gandhi and Nehru, started organizing the Indian National Army, with the support of the Japanese and the Germans, to invade India and to liberate it from the British. This volunteer army was composed of Indians caught by the war in Germany, British Indian prisoners of war released, precisely for this purpose, by the Japanese, Indian volunteers from Malaysia, Singapore and Burma and so on. It was an army of some 50,000, trained by Bose, equipped with Japanese and German help.
Bose proclaimed an Independent Indian Government in Exile in October 1943, and invaded India in the North- East (around Imphal), from Burma (Myanmar). Bereft of promised Japanese air support, the Indian National Army was quickly defeated and put to rout by the British Indian Army. Bose simply disappeared, and has not been seen since. They say he died after an air crash in a Japanese hospital in Taiwan.
That was fifty years ago. My own feelings towards this whole phenomenon were quite ambivalent. Mahatma Gandhi called Bose “a patriot of patriots”, and for me, he well deserved that title. He was self-denying, brave and forthright in defying the British might, and this I admired. He had qualified in Cambridge for the prestigious Indian Civil Service Examination, but he had torn up the certificate in public, to demonstrate his contempt for the Imperial system. This too thrilled me. But two things I could not approve -- his compromise of principle in seeking the support of Nazi Germany for the liberation of India, and his foolhardiness in the invasion of India foredoomed to failure. Bose had the power, if only he were a better strategist, to create a different kind of independent India, with a little more dignity and self-respect than we now seem to have.
On the other hand, Mahatma Gandhi was a spiritually much more attractive figure, truly Indian and truly universal, the best specimen of humanity our world has produced in the last couple of centuries. Bose, like Nehru, was a Cambridge trained Western Liberal, only more radical in his revolutionary methods. Gandhi embodied uncompromising integrity with genuine love and compassion for all. He was closer to the poor and suffering masses of India, identified with them in utter simplicity, deeply religious, and politically astute all the same.
The other Indian I admired was Rabindranath Tagore. His Gitanjali, Post Office, Fruit-gathering and other poems touched my heart deeply. Tagore had a feeling for the mystery of life; he was no Western Liberal; he was a poet of the Unseen, a bard of true Beauty and a hierophant of the Holy. My post office colleague and friend Varghese Mathew, whom we affectionately called Chinthan (Thinker), not only frequently read Tagore to me, but even recited long Tagore passages from memory. Tagore, though ardent in this own way for India’s freedom, kept some distance from both Gandhi and Nehru, and did not occupy the center of India’s freedom struggle. I have often thought that Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru together constituted the triptych icon of independent India as it emerged in 1947.
Trade Union Secretary
I was soon elected Associate Secretary of the Indian post and Telegraph Union for the states of Travancore and Cochin. It thus fell to me to help organize the first nation-wide post and Telegraph workers’ strike against the British within the limits of our two states. Many of our more reasonable demands were met by the colonial authorities, and the strike was called off at the last moment to avoid inconvenience to the general public.
When I resigned my post office job in 1947 and left for Ethiopia, the Indian Trade Union Journal published my picture and an encomium.
In 1947, I was working in Ernakulam. I could even afford to rent a house and engage a servant. My youngest brother, Abraham, was staying with me and going to College, doing his B.com. My eldest brother, Paulose, was in the British Indian Navy, stationed in Bombay. His young and childless wife was also staying with us in Ernakulam, since the situation at our home in Tripunithura was still intolerably bad.
I was popular and moderately happy, but basically dissatisfied with the kind of life I was living. I went to church regularly and without fail. The conversation with God continued through these years. I was always making excuses to God for the way I was living, a life not outrageously evil or sinful, but nonetheless fairly pointless: trivial pursuits, trackless wandering, unpurposive living. And no romance worth talking about. No one had come around to catch my fancy that much.
Death of a Friend - A Major Turning Point
One day I had the news about the sudden death of a middle aged neighbor and friend, Dr. Puthooran. He was a successful ophthalmologist, in apparently good health and a vigorous sports man. He had died of heart failure, at the entrance gate of his tennis club, with racket in hand. I was both sad and shocked, pensive about the fleeting character of life. I had a long conversation with God that night in the solitude of my bedroom.
“Yes, my Lord, I know that I can also die like that. I should change my life and make it bear better fruit. You know I want to. But you also know my friends. They will laugh at me if I become overly pious overnight. I cannot stand that. So long as I live in this society, I dare not repent or change . But I promise you, put me in a brand new environment, and I shall be a different person, totally committed to your obedience, totally dedicated. I promise”.
I knew deep down inside me that the promise was only half serious. And I was half sure that God would not take me up on my promise. There was an off chance though that He might, since I was half serious. He was soon to show me that He would.
The next day was Puthooran’s funeral. It was a simple traditional Orthodox funeral ceremony, begun early in the day and finished by 10 a.m. I was on telegraph duty on the 2 pm to 9 pm shift. After the funeral I was sitting in the radio store of Mr. Mathew Choolakkal, a common friend to Dr. Puthooran and me. We reminisced a lot about our late friend. Suddenly Mathew said, “I have a quick trip to make to Alwaye (a town 12 miles away). I am driving. Do you care to come along? I will bring you back in time for the afternoon shift”. I was glad to have a diversion after the funeral, and readily agreed.
At that point a white man walked into the shop, accompanied by a white-uniformed staff person from the neighboring Indian Airlines Office. The latter introduced the foreigner to us, and said: “He wants to go to Alwaye. Can you help him find the right bus to get there?” “We were just at the point of driving there,” my friend responded; “You can come along, if you do not mind the small car”.
He had been introduced as Dr. Robert N. Thompson, a Canadian, coming from Ethiopia. I was keen to find out more about Ethiopia and about Emperor Haile Sellassie. We chatted for a while, and then started on the half-hour car journey. I continued to prod him with all kinds of questions about Ethiopia.
In ten minutes we had crossed the border between Cochin and Travancore. Alwaye was in Travancore. Suddenly we stopped. There had been a road accident. A Travancore military truck had nearly collided with a bullock cart at the entrance to a bridge. In dodging the bullock cart, the truck had fallen off the road into a field some twenty feet below. Several of the soldiers standing in the truck had been thrown off the vehicle and were lying scattered on the field. One was bleeding profusely from a head wound. A small crowd had gathered, but no one was helping them.
“Why is no one doing anything? That man will die if he does not get first aid,” said Thompson.
“Nobody wants to get involved with the Travancore militia or police,” replied Mathew.
“I am jumping down to see what I can do,” Said Thompson.
“I am coming with you,” I responded, and we both jumped out. We got some of the bystanders to get some water and rags, and we washed and bound up the wounds. Only later, I found out that Thompson had been a Chiropractor. Meanwhile Mathew had gone ahead in his car and soon brought an ambulance from the nearest hospital. The whole thing took only fifteen or twenty minutes, but a bond had formed between Thompson and me.
We proceeded on our journey. Thompson told us that his real destination was Kottayam, and that he was going to Alwaye only to catch a bus to kottayam, to see Bishop C K Jacob of the Anglican Church. We took Thompson to the Bus station in Alwaye. Mathew asked me to stay with Thompson to help him with the ticket and all that, while he went and did his business in Alwaye. He came back very shortly, and I got in to the car to get back to Ernakulam for my work in the Telegraph office. Thompson said good-bye to Mathew at the wheel, and came around to say good- bye to me.
I was already seated in the car. He held my hand and said, “I have been impressed by you. I have come to India to recruit teachers for Ethiopian schools. The advertisement will be in the papers this week, and if any of your friends apply with a recommendation from you, I shall give them special consideration”.
Many things must have gone through my mind in a flash, including my half-hearted promise to God, only the previous night, to begin a new life if given a new setting. There was not much time for slow reflection, but the words jumped out of my mouth: “I do not know about any friends I can commend to you, but I am willing to come myself and teach in Ethiopia”.
“Stop kidding and get back to your work without getting late,” said Thompson.
“I am not kidding,” I responded, “I mean what I said”.
“Prove it by coming out of the car,” said Thompson.
I promptly got out with a look at Mathew, asking him to wait. There was no place in the bus station where we could conveniently sit and talk. We sat together on a bench in the ticket office.
“I see that you speak good English. Can you also read and write?” he asked, taking out his newspaper and handing me his pen. “Write your name and address on it,” he said to me. When I had done that, he asked me to write some other sentence in English on the same newspaper! I felt slightly humiliated, wondering why he did not give me a harder test.
“I will give you an application form. Fill it up and send it to this address in Madras. We may call you for an interview. I have an Ethiopian colleague, waiting for me in Madras. I cannot decide anything on my own.”
So we parted. Everything went according to schedule. I did not consult anyone, but applied, went to Madras for the interview and got selected. I was told that I did not have the required qualifications to be a teacher, that I did not even have a university degree, and yet that I was being taken as a special case. We signed contracts, and only then I came and told my father at home. He said I was crazy to leave a secure job in the government, venturing into unknown Africa. There was no need to argue with my father. I had already asserted my independence ten years ago when he told me in 1937 that he had no money to send me to college. I just told goodbye to him, to my mother, and to my brothers.
Off to Ethiopia
It was a memorable journey. We were a group of 20 or so teachers, most of them experienced and all except me qualified, mostly from Kerala and Tamilnadu, a good majority of us Christians. The Ethiopian Ministry of Education had sent us a DC-3 Dakota, usually used for carrying freight. It had two metal benches along the side, with no cushions, but plenty of blankets. None of the comforts of air travel today, and not even the comforts of a normal passenger plane in 1947. We boarded the plane in Bombay and made several short and bumpy hops along the coast of India and Arabia, to Massirah Island, Aden, Dire Dawa, and finally to Addis Ababa. It took us some 18 hours, whereas today the direct flight, Bombay-Addis Ababa, takes only 3 ½ hours.
We were worn out by the time we got to Addis Ababa. Some of the teachers had brought young children along. An unpleasant surprise awaited us at the Airport. After a long wait before going through immigration, we were finally told that we could not land because our inoculation papers for Yellow Fever and Cholera were not in order. There had been an outbreak of cholera in India, and we were to go directly into quarantine, in an isolation ward in a hospital in town. We had to stay in the isolation ward for several days, if I remember right.
On about the third day, Emperor Haile Sellassie came to visit us in the hospital, to welcome us and to apologize for the inconvenience. We gathered together around the locked gate of the hospital, inside, while the Emperor stood outside the gate and talked to us through the gate by an interpreter. We should have been impressed, but we were all too worn out to feel anything but sheer fatigue and boredom. But we had seen the great man, and that was something.
Teaching in Nazareth
After a week or more of confinement in the isolation ward, we were released and taken to the Itegue Hotel, the only western style hotel in Addis Ababa those days. After a week in the hotel, we were given our various assignments. I was, along with two other Tamil Christians, to go to a new school, some 100 kilometers East of Addis Ababa, in the plains. The place, originally called Hadama, had been renamed Nazareth. We moved into a new house, with three bedrooms. One of my colleagues, Mr. Daniel, several years senior to me, was to be the headmaster. He, with his wife, occupied the master bedroom, while the two of us bachelors occupied the smaller bedrooms.
I was 25, and ready for all kinds of new experiences. But I had conveniently forgotten my promise to God about repenting and beginning a new life and all that. I taught during the week, and then played bridge incessantly with fellow teachers, sometimes starting Friday evening and stopping only late Sunday night. There was nothing else to do in Nazareth.
I taught in the third and fifth grades, teaching practically all subjects. The children were good, playful, but also highly respectful to teachers. I was quite surprised to find girls who would touch my feet as a mark of respect. I thought that it was a uniquely Indian practice. Ethiopia was Sub-Sahara Africa’s only literate ancient culture, and the difference was clearly visible. I enjoyed teaching and I enjoyed the children, who were polite and refined. I soon came to identify myself with the culture, and felt irritated when some of my Indian or Sudanese colleagues kept on pouring contempt on the Ethiopians in order to feel superior.
Amharic was the official language of Ethiopia, and our Amharic teacher in the school, Ato Telahun Damte, was a bright young man, and was only slightly older than I. (Ato is the Ethiopian equivalent of Mr.) I began taking Amharic lessons from him in private, and made some progress.
The only social contact outside the school circle for me was the local hospital run by Mennonite missionaries from America. I remember especially Dr. Paul and Nancy Conrad, Dorsa and Mary Mishler, Dan Sensenning with wife and daughter.
They were all very good to me. These were my first sustained social contacts with white westerners, and it took me a while to learn some of their ways. I went occasionally to their Sunday worship services, usually in one of the homes. I went to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church once, but found the liturgy totally beyond my comprehension, both in language and form. The American prayer meetings at the hospital were totally devoid of symbol or ritual, but at least I understood the language and felt the reality of prayer. And they seemed to like “Mr. George” as they called me, since I had told them that Verghese was the Indian equivalent of George.
A Divine Jolt Wakes me Up
One day one of my fifth grade boys came to me and complained that he was not feeling well. I felt his forehead with my fingers to see if he was running a temperature. He was. A blister had already formed on his forehead. I asked him what that was. He did not know. I advised him to go home and rest, and then go to the hospital and see the doctor. He was in bed with Chicken Pox and did not come to class for several days.
On the fifteenth day after I had felt his forehead, I was myself down with Chicken Pox. This is normally a child disease, and once you get a mild attack in childhood, you are supposed to be immune for life. I never had it in childhood and was therefore not immune.
The attack, in my 25th year, was far from mild. The blisters were cherry-sized, and I had them all over my body. They were excruciatingly painful; new ones kept coming up every day on my head, on my back, on my face, on my chest, on my seat. I could not sit or lie down because of the blisters. I was shut up in my room, and my fellow residents of the house, Mr. Daniel and Mr. Rathinaswami, asked me to lock my door and not go out of my room, for fear of giving it to others in the house. No one came to see me, and some food was occasionally slipped in under the door, as if I were a convict or a prisoner.
The pain was sharp and intense; the loneliness was unbearable. Students Wanted to visit me, but they were forbidden to do so, understandably. If I was thirsty there was no way of asking for a hot drink. I could not wash myself, or even clean my mouth and teeth. Unable to sit or lie down, I paced my room up and down. I felt this was not quite fair on the part of God to put me through all this pain. Like Job, I wanted to ask God for an explanation.
That is what I finally did. At the height of my pain, about the fourth day, I went and sat fiercely on my chair at my desk. The seat hurt, but I grit my teeth. Across the desk, on the wall, there was a color portrait of Christ (Salman’s Head of Christ, a not too artistic American product) facing me. I started the dialogue or debate or whatever it was. I accused God of being cruel and unfair, devoid of compassion, and letting people suffer more than they deserved. I was talking quite aloud, in the anguish of my pain and the loneliness of my room, and threw a stream of abuse at the portrait of Christ. As the torrent of words rose in crescendo, I was carried away by the rhetoric of my own petulance.
Finally, and not without hesitation, I blurted out what I knew were
insolent words: “Was your suffering on the cross anything comparable to
what I am going through now?” That put a stopper to the flow of my own
sulky abuse. I felt I had said more than what I had a right to say. There
was a calm. The experience that followed is so poignant that I have no
words in which to describe it with some sense of adequacy.
“Yes, my son, it was”
That was all it said. But it brought about a total transformation in my condition. My pain was gone, though the blisters were still there. I was wafted up to a higher plane of happiness where pain cannot penetrate. I felt an incredible lightness of body, as if I was being effortlessly lifted up on wings of joy.
I bowed my head in humble adoration. I surrendered myself without reservation, into the loving hands of God in Christ. And I said, with deep contrition: “To Thee, I bow my head, Lord, to Thee I surrender myself. I am Thine. Pardon me my folly, pardon me my insolence. Take me, do with me as it pleases Thee. Break me if need be, but give me grace and wisdom and strength to walk in Thy ways. I love Thee and I bless Thee with all my heart”.
The blisters were there, as before. No miraculous healing had taken place. The pain started slowly coming back, but I was a stronger person now and could easily and joyfully take it. The chicken pox took its normal time to heal, but I came out of that sickness radically transformed. I could not share my experience with too many people, but I renewed my commitment many a time those days.
Nazareth to Jimma
I was in Nazareth only for a few months, from November 1947 to June 1948. By the time the next academic year came around, I was on my way, in a government truck, to take charge of a new post in Jimma, in the wild coffee jungles of Kaffa, some 300 kilometers south-west of Addis Ababa.
Jimma had the UNRRA School of Practical Arts, established in 1947 with the assistance of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association, with a view to giving both school education and arts and crafts training to young men who had become orphans during Mussolini’s Italian Occupation (1935-41) and had grown up on the streets. It was part of the UN’s post-war relief and rehabilitation operations in formerly Fascist-occupied territories. Nine Canadian families ran the project during the first year. The extensive campus with the school and family quarters for the teachers was well guarded with high walls and barbed wire fences. The sixty or so Ethiopian boys were sometimes prone to violence, and some had criminal tendencies.
Of the nine Canadian families, seven had quit during the first year itself because of student violence. A south Indian teacher, Mr. Sharma was in charge of the classroom work (five grades) while the Canadians had tried to look after the training in Agriculture and practical arts. I was posted to take over from Mr. Sharma. In overall charge was Mr. Howard Thompson, brother of the Dr. R. N. Thompson who had recruited me in India. Howard had formerly been in the Canadian Mounted Police, but had nevertheless dismally failed in trying to enforce discipline in the school.
Dramatic indeed was the scene which encountered me when I entered the school compound after a wearying eight-hour journey from Addis Ababa on very rugged roads in a pick-up truck. On the first floor balcony of the director’s two-story house stood Mr. Thompson, with his wife by his side, and the students, gathered together on the ground in front of his house, were addressing him through their leader: “If you have the guts, just come down from that balcony, and we will kill you”. That was the gist of what they were saying to their Director. They were menacing in their looks, but I was wondering if they meant what they said.
A middle-aged Ethiopian gentleman, accompanied by half a dozen others, came out of an office next door and approached the students, with a sense of authority. He was Ato Kirubel, an Ethiopian Roman Catholic who had once studied to be a Jesuit and had also served in the Army, well- dressed in European clothes, with a white shawl over his jacket. He sported a well-trimmed goatee. He was the Director of Provincial Education and had over-all responsibility for all the schools in Kaffa province. He lived on that campus, and also had his office there. In fact he had occupied one of the houses left by the Canadians.
“Go back to your hostel now, or I will call the police,” he ordered, in Amharic. They were arguing back with him, but I could not follow the argument. In any case they soon dispersed, grumbling, and went back to their hostel. I got off from my pick-up with my things and entered the house of Mr. Sharma, which I was to take over from him.
Sharma gave me some background. He was delighted to see me, a fellow Indian. “All this violence is directed against the White teachers. I have no problem with them,” said Sharma. “And you will have no problem with them, either,” he sought to reassure me. Sharma was Brahmin and a good cook, and he cooked some good vegetarian meals for us when we stayed together in that house for two days.
After Sharma left, I began to settle down in that roomy house left by the Canadians. I engaged a cook, which Mr. Sharma obviously had not needed. I went to the school and talked to my students. They were respectful, attentive and interested. No sign of violence or defiance. Some of them were older than me, for I was only 26. I invited them for tea in my house that day at 4 p. m. Most of them came, and we had a good afternoon together, sitting and drinking tea, chatting together. Around 6 p. m., they began to disperse, for their free time was over. After they had gone out, three of their spokesmen came back to my house.
“We have something to say to you, Sir”, their leader said, politely, and with almost diffidence. “What happened to us today has deeply touched us. This is the very first time that any of our teachers invited us into their home. And you treated us like human beings, not like as if we were thieves and criminals. It makes all the difference to us. We feel like human beings again.”
I was moved to tears. It was all said with such simplicity and dignity. But it is spoke volumes to my young and sensitive soul.
“Come every afternoon at four,” I blurted out, not thinking very much about what I was saying. “We will have tea everyday here in my home. Besides, we will also use the time to reflect about God and study the Bible together.”
So began a program of daily Bible studies, entirely voluntary, friendly and informal, in my home. More than half the students came regularly. And I put my whole energy into living and working with the youngsters. They were in the age range of about 16 to 27, not mere schoolboys. They had grown up on the streets and had taken to petty pilfering, mild drinking, and quick quarrelling. Both among my colleagues and in the town, they had a bad reputation. The authorities tried to use the police to restrain them, but the result was mainly that they had to share their booty and the alcohol with the police. They were not normally allowed to go into town unless accompanied by a teacher; they were virtual prisoners in our barbed wire enclosed compound, with guards at the gate.
Grappling with a Hyena
One day I took them out for a long walk into the countryside. They were about 50, walking double file, very docile and very disciplined. Suddenly I saw them breaking formation and running to a field on the side. I was quite confident by this time, that they would not run away like that without a good reason. They were fully loyal and devoted to me within a month of my being in Jimma. I had been ahead of the procession, and could not make out what was happening. I turned and ran after them, but could not keep up with them. As we got to that field, they had formed a circle, some of them with large stones in their hands, and there was a big wild hyena, standing in the middle, uncharacteristically furious and charging. Hyenas normally attack only sleeping people and domestic animals. When attacked they can be wild and snarling. I saw one of my boys charging the hyena with a sharp stone, and he had managed to break its lower jaw. The boys soon became as wild as the hyena, and the poor hyena had no chance. They soon overpowered it, got a rope from somewhere and tied it up, and in fifteen minutes, four of the boys had it, still living, on a pole carried on their shoulders. They made a triumphal procession through the streets of Jimma, singing patriotic songs of triumph adapted to the occasion. There was a song which Ethiopian patriotic soldiers sang often in the fight with the Italians, which began: Arbanha Merzanha nov, (The patriot is poison to the Italian enemy). They changed it to: Tamari Merzanha nov (The Student is poison....). We took the hyena home and tied it to the tree in my yard. We wanted to heal it and keep it. But someone came and without my permission, shot it dead. Only Ato Kirubel had a rifle there. The hide of the hyena was in my house till I left Jimma.
Conflict with Kirubel
Quite often in the previous year, my boys used to filch some of the high quality woolen blankets with which the UNRRA had liberally supplied them. The sale proceeds of two blankets were enough for a good drinking party for half a dozen. The process had gone on for some time, and where they had two blankets each and some to spare earlier, they had only one each in many cases, some none.
Soon after I came, the filching stopped altogether. The authorities were surprised. They knew that my influence had something to do with it. But Ato Kirubel would not acknowledge the fact. He called me into his office one day and gave me a lecture about discipline. He said he had been trained in the army, and he had learned that only the fear of strong punishment could enforce strict discipline in the school. He told me it was unwise on my part to be too friendly with the students, and hinted that I was ruining the discipline of the school by my lenience. “The stick”, he said, “is the only language that they properly understood.” I politely said that I should be allowed to try my own methods, and that I believed more in loving persuasion than in the power of the stick. We parted friends, disagreeing. At least so I thought.
Then one day it happened. Months after I came to Jimma, for the first time, two blankets had been stolen. Ato Kirubel said he was going to catch the culprits and take strong action. But he could not identify the thieves by his methods. He wanted to punish the whole school. I told him that I would try to find out who the thieves were, and hand them to him. I begged to let me deal with the punishment, since I was in charge of the classes. He said he was the overall chief of the province and he would deal with the culprits in his own way. I pleaded with him to show mercy and not to be too harsh. He replied that he would know what to do with them.
The school had only 56 students, if I remember right. I called them together for an assembly, and talked to them about stealing and all that, in a moral as well as a religious context. They seemed to be moved.
“You know who amongst you has done this. I do not know. I request the two
who did it to come forward and confess to the whole community what they
I produced a small box and 56 bits of paper. Giving each student a bit of paper, I asked them to write down the names of two people they suspected of having stolen and sold the blankets. They did not have to sign. They all promptly wrote two names and dropped the bits of paper inside the box. I took them out and classified them. Strangely enough, 54 of the 56 sheets had the same two names! Only two of them, obviously dropped by the two stealers themselves, had two different names. I quietly went to the two thus unanimously identified, and asked them to come and see me at home before lunch.
They came, very promptly. They were in tears.
“Why did you do it?”, I queried, with affection. I had no need to ask: “Did you do it?”. They were trying to be honest in their reply:
“Why? Sir, we do not know. The compulsion to steal comes over us and we are helpless. We are driven to steal.”
I felt great pity for them. These habits acquired in childhood become soon compulsive when repeated often. I had no heart to punish them. I felt like embracing them. I stiffened myself with an effort, told them that what they had done was wrong, that they had not only wronged the school and their fellow students, but also themselves. I prayed with them, and asked for God’s forgiveness.
“I have to punish you for the sake of the others. You decide what should be the punishment.” I offered.
“Sir, you can punish us any way you want to. We will gladly take it. But, please, please, do not hand us over to Ato Kirubel”.
“I have to. He has told me that it is his right to punish you, though I am your teacher. I do not understand, but I have to take you to him. I shall ask him for mercy, but I make no promise”.
When I went to Kirubel, he was quite curt. “Just hand them to me, and I know what to so. It is none of your business”.
He knew his business. When I saw what he did, I was chagrined and disconcerted, but there was nothing I could do.
There were two sentry boxes in the compound, each 6 feet high and 3 feet square, with a two-foot high gable roof. Each of the offending students was put inside one of these boxes and the door locked from outside. They were told that they would stand there until Ato Kirubel decided to release them. It was an inhuman kind of imprisonment by any standards. There was no facility for them even to fulfill their toilet needs, or to sit or lie down. I remember they stood there like that for two days. I was furiously angry, but there was nothing I could do. The student body was identified with me. The Canadian Director, Mr. Thompson, had quit long before, and had been replaced by a Norwegian gentleman, friendly and sympathetic.
The teachers in the school were also with me. The teatime Bible classes in my home went on as usual. I suspected something when Mrs. Kirubel asked permission one afternoon to sit in.
A few days after that, I received a memo from the Ministry of Education in Addis Ababa to the effect that students in our school were not thenceforth to go to the homes of any of the teachers for any purpose. The memo also said that I had no right to have such meetings in my home or to teach religion to the students. Ato Kirubel also went to the student body without me, and told them that they were not to come to my house.
I did not know this until the students told me. The day he had spoken to them, a group of students came to my home as usual. We had our tea and our Bible study. Then they told me that they had been forbidden to come, but that they would go on disobeying the orders, but that I would find out from the authorities what was going on. I went the next day to Ato Kirubel’s office, and I was surprised to hear his clerical staff openly insulting me.
“You have come from India and grown fat at our expense” and words to that effect. These Ethiopian staff persons were previously quite friendly and respectful to me. I was surprised at the change. I wanted to talk to Ato Kirubel, but I was told that he had gone to Addis Ababa.
I came home and typed off a rather stiff reply to the memo from the Ministry of Education. Some excerpts are given below:
A Time of Testing and a Time of Prayer
Soon I found out that the whole atmosphere in the town of Jimma had changed. Every Ethiopian was hostile to me, even outside the compound. As I walked along the streets of Jimma, people would point their finger at me and say things to each other. I was being derided and mocked, I felt. Even among my own students, the old camaraderie was gone. A veil of gloom had fallen over the community; some students often seemed to avoid me. Some of the senior students, however, kept very close to me, and told me that someone had spread stories about me over the whole town. They would not tell me what the stories were. Only months later I was to find out.
Wherever I went out of my house, I had the feeling that I was being watched and followed, day or night. One day some of the senior boys said to me: “We are forbidden to come to your home. But there is no prohibition against going out for a walk on campus. Let us go out to the bushes on that hill and sit there and pray”. It was a moonlit night, not too cold. We went out and sat in an open space among the trees. As we talked, I thought I saw some movement in one of the bushes. I looked more carefully, and I thought I saw parts of a white coat. I said to the half dozen students who had accompanied me: “I thought you Ethiopians were pretty smart. I did not think that one of you would wear a white coat if you wanted to spy on someone on a moonlit night.” I said it in Amharic, loud enough to be heard by whoever was in the bush. Suddenly the bush began moving furiously, and I saw a student in a white coat dashing away to escape being recognized by us. We laughed, but the feeling of being watched grew on me as time went on. I felt a battery of persecution had been turned on me. It hurts me when people refuse to talk to me, and I know that they hate me or have contempt for me.
Those few weeks before I left Jimma were again hell, like the hell I suffered at home in India when my mother went sick. But there was a difference. Spiritually, this was the most enriching experience of my life. For, in the midst of persecution, I could rejoice inwardly. The words of Jesus made fresh sense to me: “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely, on account of me. Rejoice and exult, for great indeed is your reward in the heavenly realms” (Matt. 5:11-12).
I understood that Jesus was not talking about any future reward in life after death. The reward or wages can be enjoyed here and now. I was happy inside, and could pray for hours at a time, praising God for being counted worthy of thus experiencing the mystery of rejoicing in the midst of suffering. It was a spontaneous, exhilarating, life-giving joy. It was an experience as constitutive of my spiritual life as the episode in my room in Nazareth, only a few months before. But I wonder if the joy of Jimma would have been possible without the nightmare of Nazareth and the catharsis of encounter with Jesus. In any case, I can testify that during those weeks I experienced simultaneously the depth of suffering produced by mockery, persecution and ostracism on the one hand, and great gushes of spiritual joy welling up within me right amidst all that suffering, especially when engaged in prayer.
The response to my rude letter of protest sent to the Ministry of Education in Addis Ababa was slow in coming. When it did come, it was in the form of a curt telegram which said simply: “PACK UP YOUR THINGS AND COME TO ADDIS ABABA”. A week later, I was in Addis Ababa, with my things packed up, ready to go home to India.
In Addis Ababa I went to the Ministry of Education and reported to the office of the chief, Ato Akaleworq Habtewold, Director General. I showed the telegram I had received, to his private secretary, who was a Goan from India. The man said that he was surprised that he had no idea who sent this telegram, that he himself had not sent it, but that he would enquire.
For more than thirty days, I went daily to the Ministry of education and waited in the visitor’s room. Every attempt to find out why I had been called to Addis Ababa came to nothing. One day, Ato Efraim Boru, the Deputy Director General, went through all my files and saw the injustice. He was already in tension with his chief, but one day, he dragged me into the Director General’s office and asked: “Can you tell me why this man is called here? He has been hanging around for more than three weeks, and he still does not know.” Ato Akaleworq, without so much as getting up from his chair, said to Ato Efrem.” I do not want to see the man’s face. Take him away.” That was meant as a personal insult to me. Ato Efrem took me back to his own office, tore his hair in disgust, and said: “I do not want to stay in this rotten place. I want to resign.” And then more calmly. “Don’t give up. Appeal to the Emperor”.
Meanwhile the Indian Association of Ethiopia decided to take up my case with the authorities. They convened a special meeting for the purpose, and invited me to speak. I politely thanked my fellow countrymen for the interest they were taking in my case. I told them the bare facts of the case and told them that I was suffering on account of Christ, and did not want them to go to any trouble on my behalf.
Appeal to the Emperor was the only option left. I went to Dr. R N Thompson, the Canadian Advisor to the Ministry of Education, who was in full sympathy with me. He was very influential, and found out what the charges against me were; but he did not tell me. Only much later I was to find out that the charges were three: (1) I had insulted Ethiopia and its Emperor; (2) I was using my position as teacher to engage in religious propaganda and to proselytize the students, which was against my contract with the Ethiopian government; (3) the real reason for my inviting the students to my home was for homosexual purposes.
Thompson told me that I was to be expatriated to India as “an undesirable Alien”, and that the government of Ethiopia had already written to the government of India to that effect. My air ticket to Bombay and already been bought and I may be packed off any day now.
Thompson not only helped me prepare a memorandum of appeal to Emperor Haile Sellassie, and very kindly delivered it himself to the Emperor’s Minister of The Pen and Private Secretary, Ato Teferra Worq, a close friend of Ato Akale Worq, the Director General of Education. I was not sure that the appeal would get to the Emperor at all, and was getting ready to go back to India.
The next day there was a dramatic turn of events. Ato Akaleworq’s Goan secretary came and told me that the Director General wanted to see me immediately. I went into his office, ready to be fired. There was an interpreter present, since Akaleworq did not speak English.
“Who are you?” he asked rudely.
I was supposed to reply in English, but I decided to speak in my faulty Amharic.
“I am Paul Verghese, a humble Indian teacher employed by your ministry, working till now in Jimma. I have come to Addis Ababa, in response to this telegram which you sent me. I have been here for 35 days now, and I have not been able to find out why I have been called here and so badly mistreated. I have discharged my duties responsibly, and would like to know why you treat me with such contempt.”
I said all this in fairly fluent and literary Amharic, and he was quite surprised. The interpreter, who had no chance to translate, also registered signs of being impressed. The DG opened his desk drawer and took out a piece of paper, which I instantly recognized as the letter of protest I had sent him months ago.
“Would you write such an insolent letter to your government in your country?” he asked, waving the letter in front of me.
“Sir, in my country, if a government officer wrote to me the kind of insulting letter you wrote to me, to which this was my response, I would probably have taken him to court”. Obviously I was bluffing. But I continued, in the same spirit of bluff and bravado: “Sir, I love the Ethiopian people. In the one year that I have been privileged to serve Ethiopia, I think I have served the people well. I will go back to my country as a friend of the Ethiopian people. Please do not worry about my being able to get another job in India. For many years I was a journalist. My livelihood is assured, if I just write a few stories in the newspapers about my experience in Ethiopia, and about this ministry of Education. Thank you, good bye”.
The bluff seemed to work, more than I could expect.
I know now that it was the hand of God that worked. The DG smiled. I was still standing.
“Sit down, Mr. Verghese, we do not want you to go. I am impressed by your personality and by your mastery of my language. I must have been misinformed about you. That I will find out. We had decided to send you back to India, but now I must reverse my decision. I want you to work as a teacher, in some other school, in some other province. For that, I need a letter of apology from you. Just for the file”.
“Sir, I do not know what to apologize for. My conscience is clear and I have nothing to confess. As for continuing to work in this country as a teacher, I will finish the present contract, which runs till 1950. I will not work a day longer in this country”.
My faith in God and my dignity therefore, were fully intact. I was smiling, quite politely. He smiled too, in a friendly manner.
“Do not be in a hurry to decide how long you will work with us. We will decide that later. And it does not matter what you write in the letter of apology. I need a letter from you for my life. Write anything you like.”
“Well, Sir, would you mind if I stated in my letter that I was giving the apology at your request?’’
“I don’t care. Give it to my secretary, today if possible”. He said it with a wave of his hand, and stood up. That was the end of the interview. The text of the letter of apology I gave is given below:
Ref: Yr letter 4820/2263 dated 17-5-41.
With reference to your above letter and in continuation of our personal interview at 10. A. M today in your office, I wish to express my regret in understanding that you feel offended at my letter dated 21st Tahsas 1941 addressed to Ato Kirubel Basha, Director of Schools, Kaffa Province.
Though I feel perfectly justified in all my actions hitherto, since my letter referred to earlier seems improper to you, it is a pleasure for me to comply with your request to apologise.
I wish to make use of this opportunity to express my gratitude to you for having allowed me to explain things in person.
Awaiting your further orders, and wishing to remain,
T. P. Verghese
In a few days I got a fresh order from the government, posting me as teacher of English and Mathematics, at the Agricultural College, Ambo, a prestigious institution less than a hundred kilometers from Addis Ababa.
Thus ended a period of tough testing for me. The Jimma experience and its postlude in Addis Ababa turned out to be also a school of prayer for me. I spent hours in prayer, with happiness in my heart and a clear and joyous sense of the presence of God. A little suffering for the sake of God had begun to cleanse me and purify me. I was aglow with the Spirit of God. The glow in my heart was a touch of heaven.
My suffering was beginning to turn the key to the mystery of life. The first important lesson I learned was that to suffer for the sake of truth was not the same as just going through any suffering, for example, the kind of suffering that fell to my lot in my earlier youth in India, or even in Nazareth. To suffer unjustly in the cause of truth, and to be mocked and reviled for the good things you had done, became a most sublimating experience. Of course, faith had to be there to undergird the experience. Equally important was a clear conscience, and not holding a trace of bitterness while one suffered.
And the experience of rejoicing in the midst of suffering puts the seal to one’s faith in a loving Lord. All doubts vanish, and faith strikes new and deeper roots. To have tasted God’s joy-creating love in the midst of pain-creating suffering makes one’s faith strong and secure. One finds it easier then to take risks for the sake of obeying God, without anxiety. But one always has to move on.