Back to Stories

Part 2

by Betty Dahl

Return to India: Middle Years

Mama and Dad returned to their work in India in 1938. We traveled to Mt. Lake to say our goodbyes to our extended Jungas family, and then headed for Seattle to catch our ship. Traveling with six young children must have been quite an experience for our folks.

Saying goodbye to the Jungas Family

Life on the Japanese freighters

We sailed from Seattle on a Japanese freighter, the Hiye Maru, because Dad was taking along a black Chevrolet (1938 Plymouth?) van that had been remodeled for work in the mission. American freighters charged $100 to ship a car to Japan and another $100 to ship it from Japan to India. The Japanese port authority had to charge the $100 to have the van shipped from the U.S., but they only charged $2.00 to ship the van on to India if the family were passengers on the ship. Thus it was we sailed on a Japanese freighter that was carrying junk iron for smelting in Japan, iron that was soon to be used for weapons in World War II. What irony.

Returning to India

There were very few passengers, mostly crew members. If ships took more passengers, they were required to hire a doctor on board ship. With no organized activities or recreation directors, the family had access to virtually all areas of the ship. The captain even let the children into the captain's quarters to watch the crew steer the ship and calculate nautical miles and positions. It was a bit over my head, but it all seemed so exciting. In the evenings the crew navigated by the stars, and we watched how they calculated their position from this data. Try as I would, I failed to catch on to finding directions by the stars during this trip at sea, but the stars were beautiful. Dad would help us find the Big Dipper and Small Dipper, Orion, and other constellations and planets.

There was a small library of books, but this being a Japanese freighter, few books were in English and even fewer suitable for children. Thus the four older siblings (Phyllis, Grace, Paul and I) found ways to play amid the jumble of lifeboats, cables, and deck chairs. We spent many hours playing on deck, as the rooms were small and stuffy. We made up games and watched the sea for fish that would jump out of the water. We played deck tennis and shuffleboard. a young Japanese girl gave us squares of shiny colored paper and showed us how to fold them into birds or flowers--an art called origami. As the ship approached land, we spent many hours trying to be the first to sight land. Mother hated for us to get so close to the railings for fear one of us would fall in the ocean. She related horror stories about the difficulties of traveling by ship with so many little ones. One such incident was when Joanne, who was just learning to walk, climbed to the outside of the railing. Fearful that Joanne would get scared and fall off the outer ledge and into the ocean if called too suddenly or if someone made a quick movement toward her, Mother knelt down and quietly called her name, and she toddled back to safety.

Japanese food was served at all meals. The passengers and crew would sit down at circular tables that had a central pot with oil that was lit to cook our meal. Each of us was given a skewer with meat (usually fish freshly caught from the ocean) and vegetables to dip in soy sauce and place over this fire. In addition, rice was served at every meal. The children complained about the vegetables and fish, many of which they had never tried to eat before, as well as the lack of sweets. The dining room constantly smelled of fish, upsetting some already queasy stomachs.

In those days ships did not have radar to warn them of storms brewing on the ocean. Thus it was that our ship sailed into the path of a Level 5 typhoon off the coast of Japan. For three days food could not be served in the dining room, as the plates and food would slide off the table when the boat tipped with the waves, some of which measured over 60 feet high. Papa stayed on deck as long as he thought it was safe to film the storm. Passengers were ordered to their rooms, and crew members valiantly tried to get food to the passengers. Often the steward brought fruit and crackers to our room since the kitchen shut down during the intense part of the storm. We children sat on a blanket on the floor with dishes of food in the middle, until a steep tilt of the ship slid us into the corner--blanket, food and all. We played games on the floor until the force of the storm put too much pressure on the bars and ropes that held suitcases in place. The luggage came loose and began to slide with each wave, back and forth, back and forth. One child was standing between the bunks when a trunk headed right for her--at the last moment she jumped a mighty jump, and the trunk slid past her. The older children climbed into the upper bunks but fell out of bed, even though there were bedrails. Paul fell while asleep and reportedly got his feet caught in the rails, so he was hanging upside down. Most were seasick and grew weaker as the storm continued. Mama saw Papa kneeling on the floor and commended him for praying, as she was sure the ship would sink. She did not realize that he was throwing up.

The captain did not think the ship would survive, but it survived well enough to get back to be repaired in a Japanese port, where damages were assessed. Several cars had fallen into the ocean, but happily for our family, our car was on the down-wind side and did not suffer irreparable damage. A good part of the railing on the upper deck was torn off. The inch-thick glass plates on the bridge (approximately 4 stories above sea level) were pulverized. Cars on the windward side were dented and several cars broke through the railing and fell into the ocean. The large derricks were bent over. We were all so happy to get food again and were happy to be alive.

While in Japan, the passengers went ashore to do some shopping and were given a time and date when the ship Tango Maru would be ready to complete the trip to India. Mama held my hand tightly so as not to lose me in the throng of people crowding the narrow streets. The women in their kimonos were fascinating and the clacking sound of wooden clogs mesmerizing. In the heat of the day our hands got sweaty, and I disengaged them without Mama realizing it. Suddenly Mama realized she and I were separated. Panicked, she used sign language to enlist help finding me. Fortunately an English-speaking couple had noted that I was wandering by myself amid the crowd. They took me by the hand and began looking for Mama. They informed storeowners to be on the lookout for a frantic American woman asking about her child.

After a considerable amount of time had passed, our paths crossed, and I was reunited with my mother with just barely enough time to board the ship. I can vividly recall the kimonos as well as the tears on Mama's face as she held me close while we made our way to the ship. Everyone was relieved by my reappearance. My parents did not scold me, but rather said repeatedly that they were happy to find me safe in such a large, foreign city. I was somewhat traumatized by this experience.

Note: Recently, Phyllis informed me that I got lost the first day we were in Japan and that it was Dad who almost missed the ship because Mama wanted to exchange a kimono. All the street names were in Japanese, so it was difficult for Dad to find his way to transportation that went to the docks. Knowing Mama's penchant for exchanging goods after she had had a chance to think more about her purchases, I am inclined to believe that this second version may indeed be the more accurate one. However, Mama told the story to me and I had never heard this second scenario.

Nagarkurnool and Kalvakurti

The first mission station Mama and Daddy went to was Nagarkurnool, where they worked for two years. Grace and Phyllis were sent to boarding school while the younger of us were at home. I have very few memories of this station. I do recall large shade trees in front and a dispensary in back.

Folks at Nagarkurnool

Mama home-schooled Paul for two years so that he and I could go to school together. We were generally good playmates and best friends. Mama tutored Paul on the verandah during the cooler part of the day. Waiting for him to finish tried my patience. Often I would look over his shoulder and would provide the word if he even hesitated an instant. Mama ordered me to keep quiet and wait my turn. Thus I learned to read before going to Kodaikanal School.

Books were very scarce on the mission compound, but Dad subscribed to the Reader's Digest. My favorite activity was doing the vocabulary test. I carefully learned all 20 words and made up sentences with each word. Words intrigued me, and I delighted in trying out these new words on anyone in hearing distance. The older kids were amused at times, particularly when I used the word wrong, and aggravated at other times, but I didn't care. I knew I was destined to be a great scholar! Few books sold in the village marketplace were in English, so I would read and reread the Reader's Digest. This activity no doubt helped me to score exceptionally high in the language tests at college and graduate school. So interested was I in words that I imagined myself becoming the head of a dictionary company or becoming a great writer. Later I read most of Dickens', Hardy's and Steinbeck's books, those I could get my hands on. These authors had an unusual ability to create settings in a reader's mind. In a notebook I listed all the interesting words they used to describe people, places and activities. My love of reading led me later to take five years of Latin, even though I greatly feared the instructor.

A favorite activity of mine was to seek the company of Indian friends in their homes. Besides, I could count on getting a sweet or two. I soon found that my friends all had major jobs at home: tending younger children and infants, getting water, sorting grain, tending the buffalo, etc. Indian girls especially had many hard jobs that required lifting, walking in the heat, carrying and tending to the baby of the household, cooking over hot fires and running errands. If I wanted to help, I was often told to go home for fear of getting hurt and their home being blamed for the injury. Once in a while they gave me a meal or showed me how to draw the images in front of the door that were to entangle evil spirits and prevent them from entering the home. These designs showed how much of their early religion influenced their practice of Christianity. They seemed to intertwine both Hinduism and Christianity without seeing any incongruity.

Often during the mission high school boys' soccer games, I would run back and forth along the sidelines, pretending that I was playing soccer (called football in India). Oh, how I enjoyed running and jumping. Later in life when I watched my own daughter put down her school bag, turn cartwheels over the lawn to the house and run to retrieve her bag, I would think back to my own joy in physical activity. I liked the feel of grass underfoot, wind in my face, and a sense of riding high into the air on a swing.

My imagination was often a problem. I had a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction. Grace had her imaginary family as well and had us convinced that her imaginary family was on the way to our house for dinner. We believed her and set a table for these visitors. Grace went to the door and saw no one so she said, "I guess they couldn't come today." Were we ever disappointed!

On one occasion I came in late after watching a soccer game. Mama asked me where I had been, as I had not answered the dinner bell. I told her I had stopped to pick a big strawberry--oh, such a big one that it was as wide as my arms could stretch and equally as tall (I don't know why I reported seeing a strawberry rather than a more common Indian fruit like mangoes or guavas). Mama did not scold me but rather took my hand as she exclaimed that this strawberry must surely be a sight to be observed, so we walked up and down the lines of the soccer field, trying to find it. Unhappily there was no strawberry, and my feet were too tired to look further. Mama took me by the hand and we walked sadly home without the strawberry. Mama turned to me and said, "Some things we think about are only in our heads." It hit me very vividly that there is a real world and another world, a private one inside of me, and I knew then that I needed to make this distinction. That event ended my make-believe world and never again did I enter it in the same way I did as a naive young child. I think back on it as a "Eureka" experience.

A custom attributed to the British was the serving of "high tea" about four or five o'clock in the afternoon. British tea was simply tea with evaporated milk and sugar or sweetened condensed milk, accompanied by a tea biscuit or scone (only moderately sweet and hard enough to stay together when dipped in the tea). I especially liked it when scones were served with whipping cream. Tea-time was a tradition in most of India, a time to meet and talk and sip tea slowly, much as the French take time to chat over a glass of wine. Many families had collections of interesting and beautiful cups and saucers that made teatime very special and festive. We would try out English manners, which were quite rigid about how to hold a cup and sip slowly.

Family Activities

Early mornings were a good time to play outside. Many animals were out because by noon, the sun bears down with such intensity that it can get 110 degrees or more in the shade. To keep the brain from getting too heated, the British had developed a unique hat called a topee. It was fashioned like a helmet to surround the head and keep the brain cool.

Wearing topees

Life came to a standstill at noon. Shops closed for two to four hours. Banks were closed. Only hospitals, emergency crew, etc., worked, and when they did, it was very slowly. This practice is common in many warm countries. We would lie down on the floor to read, play games, and do quiet things as it was too hot to walk or play active games.

Mama would encourage activities with words and often had a word for the day that we had to spell and use in a sentence. Papa asked us at dinner what we had learned that day. If we couldn't think of anything, he felt we had a wasted day, so we often asked each other what there was to report and would warn each other, "You had better learn something fast." We kept a dictionary on hand and often sought a word to learn in case we had nothing else to report. I learned, for example, that lizards (my nickname) include geckos, chameleons, and salamanders. I would then retort when called "lizard," "I'm a lizard. I am a chameleon. I can change colors; can you?" I made up other less printable responses to use when I got really mad.

Dad felt the evening meal was an integral part of the family life, a time for family sharing, and he expected us to be at meals unless there was an awfully good reason not to be. In the evenings he also had devotions or prayer. Each time he called on one of the children to present a recent piano piece, we sang a song (at least two verses), and Papa read a passage from the Bible and expounded on it a little while. Then we all kneeled by our chairs and went around the room, each one saying a prayer in turn. Some nights we got the giggles as we looked around to see if our siblings were in the proper mode for prayers. Papa would sternly say, "Girls!" On some occasions we just couldn't control our giggles so we were sent to our room. This bedtime ritual took considerable time and often we wanted to skip prayers to do our homework, practice for a recital or just loaf. If someone prayed too long and we were kneeling close to that person, we would kick him or her to tell him or her to get on with the show. However, it was clear to all that this family ritual was important to Papa, and no one dared to question it. Later it gave me a feeling that the family rituals helped glue us together as a unit.

When we were younger, many stations were without electricity. Papa would hang up a Petromax (gaslight) for those who wanted a few more hours of activity. These gaslights ran on kerosene. One had to have menthol, a lighting fluid, to pour into a little holder at the base of the gas line going up to the top of the light. Light and heat vaporized the kerosene. Once it got running, it was hot enough to keep going for quite a while, but when it started running down, Dad had to increase the pressure with a little pump in the side of the base. A Petromax made great light for reading compared to the simple kerosene lantern we used to find our way around at night. Usually because we had just the one gaslight, we listened to Papa tell stories. Papa was a good storyteller or reader so we enjoyed this time. It certainly was an economy of time since it would have been hard to read to all the younger ones one by one as I observe many parents do today. Some of the stories he read were The Three Musketeers and The Hoosier Schoolmaster.

Kalvakurti Mission Station


The main language of the Mahabubnagar district and most of the mission stations was Telegu, one of over four hundred languages and dialects spoken in India. At that time there was no common language as there is now. Hindi was declared the national language in 1949. Urdu was also spoken by the Mohammedan population, which constituted about 9% of the population of the district. Literacy in this part of the land was extremely low and remains low even today: about 30% overall but lower for females (18% compared to males 40.80%). This may be due to the fact that the lower castes inhabited the plains and also to the rural nature of the district. This group of people was less likely to have schools to attend, so generation after generation went unschooled.


Like children everywhere, the concept of death was faced with the finding of each dead bird or bug. These poor creatures were delivered from an anonymous death to one of elaborate burial. One of the pressing questions was whether dead insects or animals went to heaven. To answer this weighty question, Gwen, Joanne and I would locate dead bugs and hold elaborate burials, including processions similar to those used by the villagers. One of us played the role of professional mourner and we would sing, wail and wave our hands imitating the professional mourners in the funeral processions we had observed. Another of us would be the drummer that led the ceremonial parade through the village. I recall nights when the beating of the drums went on way into the night. A third child was needed to carry the dead. The bug was wrapped in paper, placed in any available container (though these were rare as no bags were given by merchants), or wrapped in leaves. The make-do casket then was placed in the ground and covered. The site was marked so it could be located the next day. The next morning the three of us girls would check if the bug had gone to heaven or stayed in the earth. To my great happiness, all bugs went to bug heaven since they were never found the next day, not even in the early morning. The hypothesis of eternal life for bugs was tested and confirmed and it made our parents' beliefs credible.

Death was very much a part of life in India. Our friends got married by age 12 (often marriage agreements were made soon after birth) and had babies soon after. These babies tended to be very small, often three pounds or less, and premature. The baby hardly had a chance at life. Burials were performed within a day of the death and so we often provided a shoebox or nailed thin lumber together to make a coffin. We lined the box with scraps of cloth and picked flowers. We sang and prayed over the little one and with a sigh, the family of the girl would bury the infant. We watched burial rituals of adults as well but were more saddened by the death of an infant who had not even had a chance at life. Perhaps the funeral pyre, on which wives were burned along with a dead husband, was the most chilling. Though illegal, the remote villages still practiced this barbaric tradition.

Girls were married at a young age, and often their tiny babies died

Another form of dramatic play that reflected the Indian culture was playing "shopkeeper." Paul would be the shopkeeper, selling bits of material (remnants from Mama's cloth scraps or paper cloth that we made by coloring patterns on paper) and an odd assortment of bangles, hair clips, etc. The girls were the shoppers. Usually the cloth or patterned paper was "purchased" for clothes for paper dolls, a favorite activity of the girls. The cloth was glued to a piece of paper and flattened and dried. Then a pattern was used to make the dresses the right size for the paper dolls.

In every location I lived as a child, Dad built a rather large sandbox for the children. It was definitely a favorite activity for most of us, and we literally spent hours in the sandbox. We built roads, tunnels, and castles. We baked sand cakes, cookies and pastry and decorated them with the fine powder obtained specially from the hubs of the tires (often taking a little lick of it in between and no doubt acquiring a lifetime of immunities to disease). We played games in the sand. One game I recall involved hiding a stick in a mound of sand while the other players hid their view by closing their eyes. They opened their eyes on command and in turn each marked off an area (by cupping hands) in which he or she felt the stick was hidden. One gained a point if indeed the stick was in the selected area.

I do not recall owning a doll in India, nor playing dolls with other girls. We were more apt to be playing games, jumping rope, playing jacks, making and walking on stilts, or playing outdoor games.

Christmas in India

Money, or should I say, the lack of money influenced the family in many ways, in part because the family was large (8 living children) and in part because of the chosen vocation of missionary. Thus we were definitely poor in worldly goods, though rich in family relationships and travel. (Who else could boast about having traveled two and a half times around the world before graduating from high school?) We were aware that we could not have long wish lists at Christmas or birthdays, and that we'd have to work for money to buy clothes and to go to college. Mama was self-conscious about this and kept saying that we might be poor but we could be smart, or we might be poor but we could be clean. All her life she fought the image of being poor.

Christmas came about the time of Divali, the Indian festival of lights. Christmas in India was quite different because there were none of the traditional pine trees to decorate and the weather was still very hot. We would find a branch two to three feet long that had some smaller side branches to decorate, and we made all the ornaments out of paper, sticks, or odds and ends available to us. I recall an ornament made from a mango seed and one from a tin can. Colored paper strips were pasted into oval shapes and connected to form a chain. The church Christmas festival was always quite a production with Indian drums and a variety of handmade musical instruments, Indian sweets and fruit, elaborate dramas enacted by children and adults. The church was decorated with so many garlands and flowers that one might mistake it for a celebration other than Christmas.

The size of our family made providing a gift for all the others too costly and unmanageable, so we drew names and made a gift for that one person. The stress was on creativity and secrecy. In addition, we each made Mama a gift and pooled our meager earnings to buy Dad a magazine subscription to Time magazine or a book. We complained that all he wanted was something to read, read, read. I can see now that books and magazines were bought only when money was left over (which it simply never was), and so a gift of books was really special to him. I embroidered table runners, pillowcases or napkins for Mama, though she probably didn't need them.

Santa even visited homes in India, or least so we believed as young children. I remember the day I realized Santa was not a physical human being. I thought I must be dumb to have believed in the myth as long as I had, but it was hard to let go of the fun that surrounded believing in Santa. It was fun to watch each child come to terms with this myth. Mama said there would always be a Santa at Christmas because Santa represents sharing with all children of the world, no matter what race or creed. Our parents had us put a plate out on a chair labeled with our names. On Christmas morning the plate was filled with fruit, candy, and nuts. This tradition came from their German heritage, in which families were encouraged to leave food out for the poor and for the animals. Sometimes we had our celebration in the evening and at other times in the morning when we woke up, depending on when Dad had to preach or when the church held their Christmas services. When it was held in the morning, we had a hard time getting to sleep as we were excited about what we would get for our presents. If we held it Christmas Eve, we held it late, after the Christmas Eve program given by the various Sunday School classes. The service was followed by a distribution of oranges or apples and nuts to all in attendance. Mama tried hard to sew a new outfit for each child at Christmas and Easter--a lot of work with so many children.

(To be continued)