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Part 6

by Betty Dahl

School Break: Mission Stations

School was out during November and December as this was the time when the weather on the plains was the "coolest," which meant we might need a sheet or light blanket at night. School-age children went down to the mission stations to renew acquaintance with parents and younger siblings. Most oil company kids flew back to the USA for a portion of their vacation.

The mission stations were often made of cement, painted white, and resembled many of the British structures of their day. They had verandahs or porches all around the house and this made it possible to tricycle all the way around. Ceilings on the mission buildings were very high. Across the ceiling in the dining room in Shamshabad was a fan made of tapestry and operated by hand. A rope ran from the fan through a hole in the wall, and servants would pull the lines of the pulley from outside of the house to move the still air. It was considered polite to have these fans run when important government officers or other VIP's came to the house.

The mission compound had a tall wall that enclosed all the mission buildings. These typically included the main mission bungalows for the missionaries, a church, a school, sometimes a hospital, and simple homes for Indian pastors, doctors and nurses, teachers, students and servants. The wall around the compound made us feel so secure as children. The mission station seemed stately with guava trees, banana or plantain plants, a banyan tree with its roots hanging as if from a ceiling, its gnarled knees reaching up from the ground. There were tamarind trees (chintakaya trees) with long sour pods that we liked to chew on. Adding bright spots of color were bougainvillea with scarlet flowers and oleander trees with perfumed flowers. The latter reminded of us of funerals as oleander flowers were often used for garlands to grace the body of a dead person sitting on a chair in the funeral parade.

Because of the midday heat, the children wore sandals. Going barefoot was fine in the mornings, but in the afternoons we wore sandals as the dirt walkways and driveways, packed together from traffic, were too hot for bare feet. During the heat of the day we were required to wear a hat, usually a topee. It looked for all purposes like a helmet, but it insulated our heads from intense heat very effectively.

Servants did all the cooking and housework, so we children spent our time reading and playing. The servants became upset if we made the beds or cleaned. They needed to earn the money they were getting and did not want to risk their jobs. At times we would get out of bed early so the servant could make our bed, and then we'd climb back in very carefully so it wouldn't be hard to fix the sheets when we finally did decide to get up.

There was no running water for many of the years our family lived in India. We used to think it was funny to tell our friends that we did have running water: one of our servants ran when he brought the water up to our second-floor bathroom. Dad tried to set up a system for flushing toilets, but it was not too efficient. For the most part, toilets were a row of enamel pots in a wooden stand. A servant was hired to empty these twice a day. It was difficult to maintain sanitation with flies so abundant. To wash our hands, we poured water out of a small claypot or kunda. For baths, we used a large metal tub and filled it with warm water. Lucky was the person who got to bathe first, as we all bathed in the same tub of water unless someone was ill. Mom washed our hair by ladling water over our hair--no luxury of more than one scrubbing of the scalp. Mom would also check us for signs of body or head lice and would ask us about signs of parasites, a real plague in India. Tapeworms and pinworms were common, as were some parasites with strange names. Treatment for worms meant a period of time with awful-tasting medicine. We dreaded that.

Mosquitoes were common and malaria a constant threat. Thus we often applied mosquito repellant and used mosquito nets to cover our beds. There was something about these nets that closed one in and made us children feel safe when tightly tucked in. Getting to the bathroom at night was hard because it meant undoing the mosquito net, using a flashlight to find the toilet, checking the enamel pot since snakes and scorpions liked the cool feel of the enamel, getting back into bed and trying to reestablish the net so no mosquitoes would get in. Even so, several of us got malaria. I recall being very feverish and having Mama sitting beside me and cooling my body with a wet towel. She spoke quietly about a variety of activities I needed to fulfill, as if giving me the will to live. Finally the fever broke, but I was tired for some months later.

Early each morning the raucous crows demanded that the world wake up: this, of course, included our family. Occasionally monkeys would join the outcry with their incessant chattering. Sometimes the monkeys would swing into the house to check for a banana or something else to eat. If the family had chickens, they too would wake everyone up. It became very loud, like a real animal orchestra with each animal playing a different song. Life on the mission station was adjusted to being active during daylight hours since things slowed down once the sun set since there were only a few lanterns to go around.

Missionary Conference

Each year all of the Mennonite Brethren missionaries would get together at one of the mission stations to have a conference. It was here that problems were discussed and major decisions for the next year were made. It was also a time for much-needed socialization. For the hosting missionary family, it meant long hours of preparation.

We children loved getting together at conference times, and spent much time developing programs to put on for the adults. One strong memory I have is of Ruthie Wiebe organizing us all for skits she had written. For one of these, performed at a Christmas program with all missionaries present, we had to dance around a hall tree decorated with plastic cherries and chant earnestly:

"Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Yes, yes, yes.
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
No, no, no!"

For another, we ran after each other in a circle, hitting the child ahead with a stick as we sang:

"Ha, ha, I whipped you.
Ha, ha, I whipped you."

Mr. Wiebe put a quick stop to our solemn performance.

Mother told us later that the adults could hardly keep from laughing, and that many a laugh turned into a loud cough so we children wouldn't be offended.

Shopping in Hyderabad City

Trips to the big city, Hyderabad City, were memorable. There was always an air of excitement because one would see so many things. My assignment was to stay close to Mama while she haggled and negotiated a good price and to make sure Gwen and Joanne were in tow. I complained bitterly that Paul had more freedoms, that he and I were about the same age, so why didn't I get to shop by myself. I felt I would forever pay the price of being lost in Japan.

Bracelets, cloth, saris, lungas, and food of all sorts, vegetables, candy, and tea--all were available in a small space. Hyderabad City was especially known for its fine jewelry. There is no simple way to describe a city bazaar with all its sights and sounds. Nor can one adequately describe the congestion as animals, bicycles, jutkas, tongas, rickshaws, pedestrians, merchants, couriers and shoppers that filled the narrow passageways. The women delighted in wearing bright colored saris to market and plenty of bangles that clinked musically as they walked. The men usually had red and white turbans, loose pants called dhotis with or without a shirt, or sometimes western wear. The clothing fit the climate, made of cotton and loosely wrapped around the body.

Walking in Indian towns and cities is very different from walking in the U.S. The cows, goats, rickshaws, horses, buses, and cars all share a common road. One drives the best one can, slowly, carefully, so as not to hit people or animals. It is impossible to get anywhere fast in the city. It's just as easy to walk if your legs are not too tired and the distance not too great. Garbage is littered everywhere on the side of streets; cows and dogs have free passage down the roads, and the outmoded cars pollute the air. In Hyderabad City, we sometimes had the luxury of a rickshaw drawn by a man or by a man on a bicycle because the vehicle traffic was all blocked up and not moving. Often traveling by rickshaw was easier than by car because the rickshaw could fit into narrower spaces or take side streets. The rickshaw drivers would beg us for a chance to earn some money but we knew how hot it was and how hard it was on the men, so we had a moral dilemma--to use or not use a rickshaw drawn by humans. Horse-drawn carts didn't bother us.

Lunch was almost always at the Chinaman's shop for chop suey and chow mein noodles. Likewise the ice cream parlor was always on the list of things we liked best. While Mama shopped, Dad would sit and try to negotiate for a sack of white flour or a sack of sugar. Then it was on to the local mission station for an evening meal or late afternoon tea and then back home. Sometimes the government officer made Dad come back the next day because Dad had not paid his bribe. Each would test the patience of the other.

Conditions in the public toilets were deplorable. No western toilets were available; rather one had to squat over a hole, being careful where you put your feet as the area was filthy. Instead of toilet paper, a kooja of dirty water was available, though Mother made sure we had toilet paper or kleenex with us. We would wait until we just couldn't wait any longer before we'd use these facilities.

Public toilets

There is sensory overload in the city as one hears, smells, sees everything in excess, the incense, the food, the sweat, the loud raucous cry of the crows, the beggars' constant repetitive call for a small token, the flies buzzing around one's ears, the oppressive heat--all create a unique symphony or cacophony that assaults the senses. The food, the bright colors, the overwhelming number of people, the flowers tucked in ladies' hair, the smell of coconut hair oil and body oils, or of jasmine in bloom, the bright orange sunsets, the dreariness of the monsoon rains, the weevils in the flour: they all added up to India. How could one ever forget India?

Often thunderstorms and lightning colored the evening drives. An occasional sighting of a tiger, leopard, or panther as it slowly crossed the road, eying the car with some disdain, made the drive memorable. The evenings also silhouetted the bundis and oxen as they headed home during the sunset. The lightning never failed to put fear into our hearts as the forks zigzagged their way down to the ground. Paul kept reassuring us that we were safe in a car with rubber tires; I hoped we never would have to test this assertion. The travelers crowded into the shelter of the wagons or stopped to find shelter under trees. That was not a smart idea because the trees were often the highest target for lightning. We would judge the distance of the storm by counting seconds that passed between the time we saw the lightning and heard the thunder. Occasionally we saw people take a bath in the rain and giggled over their nudity. We liked counting the number of bundies in a group; sometimes over 100 farmers had banded together for protection while taking their produce to market.

Mama and Daddy made the journey home seem shorter by singing songs. The most fun were the rounds. With so many children, it was possible to have three groups starting the rounds in turn. It took a little learning to be able to stay on the assigned tune while listening to others sing something else and it was fun listening to the smaller children learn. Some of the rounds we sang were "Frere Jacque" and "Three Blind Mice." One of our favorite songs was "I'm Going Home on the Morning Train" (see Appendix). We'd all sing loudly, with Dad singing the loudest and enjoying the time immensely. We were a singing family, and we learned to sing in part (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), much like the Von Trappe family. Dad had an especially beautiful tenor voice.

Going on Tour

At the mission station all of us children were required to attend church services even though we did not know the language well enough to understand the Telegu songs or the sermon. However, there was so much else to occupy our attention. Dogs, cats, goats and chickens walked in without anyone paying attention to them unless the animal began offending someone. Mothers openly breastfed young children up to the age of two and even longer, even during church, which always embarrassed me. Sometimes a lactating mother also fed another infant or two when the mother was not doing well. Mama would nudge and say, "Don't stare; it's not polite." Sometimes Dad called us children to the front to sing a song in Telegu. The Indian audience always chuckled at our American version of Indian songs.

Dad took us on village tours during our vacation. He often used oxcarts to transport us and our luggage, tents and supplies. The trip was slow, but many of the roads were impassable by car or jeep. We could walk way ahead of the cart and sit down and wait for the oxcart. The distances between villages were not that great, and it was a cheap mode of transportation. Later Dad made a camping trailer and pulled it behind the car on trips where the roads were passable.

We brought food with us. One staple was a sack of roasted zwiebach, a German roll (see recipe in Appendix). We fixed a simple curry for lunch or dinner. Times when Mama could not go on tours, a cook was brought along. When Mama came, she gave some lessons on safe preparation and storage of food and liquids.

We put up our tents or climbed into our trailer for sleeping, for protection from mosquitoes, and to gain some privacy. Toileting was in the open bush country or in a designated town square. As the public toilets were anything but clean, we usually chose the outdoors, although we took a chance of finding snakes or scorpions in the bushes. We also had to get accustomed to being watched. It was something new to the Indian villagers to get glimpses of white bottoms.

Once several of us found a snake close by and ran for the tent. After this excursion, I waited to go with Mom. Another time Dad ran from a cobra, losing his sandals as he ran through thorn bushes. His feet were filled with thorns. Mom painstakingly took out each thorn; later when he became ill and developed a fever, she wiped him down with a wet cloth to reduce his temperature.

The trips into the heart of the country were always unique. Most villagers had not been any significant distance from their homes and certainly had not seen a blue-eyed, blond child, so they would grab my hair for a token or souvenir. Often we children sang songs or played our instruments to catch the attention of the crowd. Dad would set up his slide show with a projector lit by a lantern and a large canvas hung from trees. It was like a traveling show. Once Papa had a crowd around, he gave his sermon about Jesus and God. He used slides to illustrate his speech. The people listened, as they were eager to make sure they had acknowledged all the gods there were and seemed quite willing to accept another. The concept of the trinity (God in three forms) had long been a part of their religious beliefs. Moreover, our visits were a break in the monotony of their lives.

On tour

Paul had the job of keeping the chickens quiet because they roamed the open door forum and were disruptive. The Indian preachers taught Paul to hypnotize the chickens by drawing a line in the sand extending outward from the beak. For twenty minutes they were quiet and then they would get restless. Time to draw another line.

During the day, Dad taught people reading and writing. He felt education was essential to help them better their condition. He encouraged young people to come to the mission schools or high school graduates to return to their villages to teach.

It was on these trips that we children gained most of our knowledge of village life. We ate in homes of villagers and watched the villagers draw water from the wells, clean their houses, draw very complex and beautiful designs in front of the main door; these were to trip up the evil spirits so they could not find their way into the home. We would watch with distaste while the villagers would fashion cow manure into cowpies and place these on the roof and walls of their homes to dry. These would then be burned as fuel for warmth or fires for cooking. Children followed the cows to be sure to be the first to get the cow manure. We saw water drawn from wells for drinking and cooking, and knew that people and animals also had bathed in these wells. It was very clear to us why our parents insisted that all water for drinking needed to be boiled; even water for brushing teeth had to be purified. This was a major message of the medical people who came out to serve the villagers. Water was boiled and put in kundas to cool; chlorine tablets were also used.

Our water source

While out on tour we saw women working hard in the rice paddies. These paddies required much water, and all the rice was planted in wet fields by hand. The women had to bend from their waists to do this job. Their backs must have hurt from daily hours of bending over and rarely standing upright. I decided I did not want to live in a culture that made women do such hard work.

Women were also in charge of cooking. Men were served first, then children and finally the women. In the evenings we could see dozens of fires where people cooked food, as it was generally done outdoors on three stones. The women who did the cooking looked around for a stone that was just right for their "stove." It was amazing how great a variety of food could be cooked over a fire and three well-positioned stones. A favorite of our family was a cheap grain used by the poor. We called it "boarding boua." It was much like eating rice pudding when you could have homemade ice cream. Food had to be cooked daily as there were no refrigerators. The villagers used fresh milk from cows and water buffaloes, and fresh vegetables for vegetable curries. One could not use meat as often because it was not always fresh when sold, and it was often tough and stringy. Our cook would kill a chicken and use it right away to reduce the chance of spoilage. The Indians cooked the whole chicken: insides, bones and entrails. We shared many wild tales of what we had found in our curries. Our friends from Arabia would tell us stories of having to eat the eyeballs as guests of honor.

Village Life
Oil Painting by Anna Hiebert

(To be continued)