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The Old Man

by Anna Hiebert

The old Plymouth panel truck edged its way carefully through an opening in the thorn hedge and came to a halt near a large banyan tree.

"Well, here we are, children," my husband said cheerfully, getting out and tipping his seat forward. "Now you can all get out."

"Hey, look," shouted Grace, our 11-year-old tomboy. "Swings!" She pointed excitedly to the low-hanging banyan roots. As if by magic, the car emptied itself of children as, pushing and scrambling, they burst through the door and raced for the tree. Like monkeys, I thought.

The three oldest had just recently come home from the American boarding school in Kodaikanal, a village situated high in the mountains of South India. Their two-month holiday coincided with our cool season, the ideal time for touring and preaching in the villages. Though it involved much extra effort, we all looked forward to these days at camp.

Fun times out on tour!

What a lovely spot for a camp, I mused, surveying the surrounding countryside. The noonday heat had abated somewhat, and a light breeze blowing across the flooded paddy fields felt refreshingly cool after the long, cross-country trip in our old Plymouth over deeply rutted oxcart trails. The South Indian sun was moving slowly towards the western horizon, and in another two hours would be sinking in crimson splendor. Fortunately the oxcarts carrying our tent, luggage and supplies had arrived earlier in the day, giving my husband and the preachers time to put up the rather clumsy three-room tent before dark.

The pastor of the nearby village Kaukuntla had chosen our campsite well. Less than half a furlong away there was a large well where every morning before dawn a farmer would be drawing up water, backing his oxen slowly up the incline to the very edge of the well, and, when the leather bucket lowered into the well had filled, urging them down again until the bucket with its load reached the top, tilted, and the water emptied through the large spout into a trough; from there it found its way to the paddy fields by way of numerous shallow ditches. On the opposite side a much-used path zigzagged down into the well. Our water supply was assured. True, villagers and also the men with us would be swimming and bathing in this well, but then we did boil all our drinking water, and there was, after all, no other water to be had.

Knowing that shade was very important, the pastor had arranged for our tent to be pitched under a large banyan tree, where even now my husband and his helpers were busily driving in stakes and tightening ropes. The village could just be discerned in the near distance, the drab grey of the mud huts blending with the grey of the dust-covered foliage of the trees and bushes lining the cart road leading to it. There had been no rain for weeks, and the cattle plodding homeward after a day of foraging for food kicked up a cloud of dust like a smokescreen.

Clumps of tall palm trees dotted the landscape, and closer in there was a mango orchard. Except for the flooded paddy fields, the ground was dry and hard, abounding in prickly cactus and low stunted bushes. Here and there piles of large rocks rose up from the ground, and everywhere smaller rocks and stones were strewn about as if by the hand of some capricious giant.

Not too far from our camp I spied some huts that blended so well with their background that they had at first escaped my notice. Who could be living in those huts, so far from the village? Could they be families of the stonebreakers' caste, camping near their worksite? Were they perhaps Lombardies, those colorful, gypsy-like folk that wander about the country? I looked again at the sun. Perhaps, if I hurried with giving out the supper supplies to the cook and making up the camp cots, the children and I could walk over to the huts and meet the people who lived in them.

I turned back to the camp. Saul, the cook, was squatting before the camp stove he had expertly fashioned out of three stones picked up in the nearby field, feeding the smoky fire with twigs. A dekshi of well water, perched rather precariously on the stones, was boiling in preparation for the evening meal. A large earthen pot of water stood within easy reach. Assorted cooking utensils, containers with onions, coarse salt, curry spices, and rice had been arranged on an old mat spread on the ground close at hand. Food on tour was of necessity simple. Saul looked up. "Ammah, don't worry. I have taken what I need for supper. I'll see to everything," he assured me in Telugu.

Inside the tent the cots had already been set up and our large bedrolls lay ready to be unpacked. Carefully my husband and I spread the bedding and tucked in the mosquito nets so as not to leave an opening for mosquitoes or inquisitive snakes.

"John, let's go for a short walk when we have finished," I suggested.

"I'd like to go, but the preachers are waiting to plan the meetings with me," he replied. "But you could take the children. They'd love to go."

I found the older children swinging on the low-hanging roots of the banyan tree, laughing and shouting with excitement and glee, while Gwen and Joanne, the youngest two, were absorbed in digging and building in the sandy soil of a dry stream bed a short distance beyond, under the watchful eye of their ayah. The suggestion of a walk offered new excitement. In a few minutes we were following a narrow footpath in the direction of the huts. Grace, our second daughter, impulsive, eager, always ready for adventure, led the way, followed by Paul and Betty, the inseparables, the three of them darting here and there upturning stones and peering into the crevices of rockpiles. "Be careful!" I cried after them. "There may be scorpions and snakes among those stones." Phyllis, our oldest, as always calm and sedate, feeling the responsibility of her twelve years, remained behind with me, keeping protective watch over the youngest. The ayah, graceful in her soft sari, followed behind, her cheppuls slap-slapping as she walked.

As we neared the huts a man, dressed only in a dhoti and turban, stepped from the nearest hut, followed by a young woman with a baby on her hip. In silence they stood staring at us. The hut, upon closer view, proved to be flimsily constructed and small. The walls and roof were of twigs and leaves interlaced and attached to a framework of stout branches.

"Salaamandi!" I raised my right hand to my forehead in the customary Indian greeting.

Still staring, they returned my greeting. The man drew a cigarette from the folds of his turban, lighted it and stood smoking leisurely, waiting for me to speak. The baby began to cry and the woman shifted it from her hip to her shoulder, hushing it.

"We have come to visit you, please," I ventured in Telugu, smiling at the woman, glancing back to the man for his permission.

"You may see," he replied. They both continued to stare.

A glance into the open doorway near me revealed the form of an old emaciated man lying on a rough wooden bed covered with a dirty ragged blanket. "Who is he?" I turned to ask of the man outside.

"Our grandfather," he answered.

"May I go in?"

"You may go in."

The grandfather's sunken eyes were closed as in sleep. His bones pushed against the shrunken skin of his wasted body. Then I saw his fingers. The fingertips were bloody and raw. Leprosy? I shuddered involuntarily. A soft moan interrupted my thought. The old man had awakened and was trying to tell me something. Bending lower, I tried to distinguish the words. One word stood out more clearly from the many mumbled sounds--the word "mandu."

Turning back to the man of the house, I questioned him about the old man's condition, especially the pitiful condition of his fingers and his apparent request for medicine. Was it leprosy?

"No, it is not the bad sickness. It is only that the old man is too weak to fend off the rats that live in the walls. At night when he is asleep they come out and gnaw at his fingers. Now he wants you to give him medicine so he can die."

Horrified, and realizing that I would be delayed, I sent the children back to the camp in the care of Phyllis and the ayah. I went back to the old man who, seeing me again by his bedside, repeated again and again his plea for medicine. Speaking slowly and distinctly, hoping he would be able to understand my Telugu, I said, "Grandfather, I do not have medicine with me. And it is not a good thing to take medicine to die. But--I will tell you about someone who will help you. God can help you. Do you know God?"

He muttered the names of some of the gods he used to pray to in better days--Brahma, Ghanesh, Hanama turdu, Siva, Ram, Pullama, Poshama--ending with a pathetic request for medicine to die.

"Ayya, there is only one God, the One who made heaven and earth. He loves us and sent his Son to earth to help us. The name of his Son is Yaysu Kristu. Yaysu Kristu died for us to pay for our sin. Yaysu Kristu loves you, old man. If you will believe in him and ask him, he will forgive your sin and take you to paralokamu. Yaysu Kristu, Yaysu Kristu--can you say that name?" Feebly he murmured "Yaysu Kristu."

Hoping that the meaning of what I was trying to tell him would penetrate the fog of his suffering, I repeated the simple truths of the Christian faith again and again, emphasizing the name of Jesus and the need to believe in him. He seemed to understand and repeated after me a prayer for forgiveness and a request that God would take him to paralokamu--heaven.

"I must go now," I said finally. "Remember the name Yaysu Kristu." I heard him mumble "Yaysu Kristu" as I rose to leave. Dusk was falling as, sick at heart, praying God would help the old man, I hurried to the camp. The children had arrived back safely, my husband lying back in his deck chair, and Saul had supper ready to serve.

Early the next morning the sounds of wailing and chanting came to us where we lay sleeping under our mosquito nets. Slipping into my clothes, I went out to where Saul was squatting before the campfire, warming himself. "What has happened?" I asked.

"Someone has died in the huts," he answered, but did not know who.

Was that someone the old grandfather? Hesitating to intrude on the family grief, yet feeling strangely as if I belonged to the family, almost as if the old man were my grandfather too, I made my way again to the huts.

A group of men, relatives, had gathered in the area in front of the huts. A few women and children stood huddled near the hut. "Where have you gone, grandfather?" The wail of sorrow burst from the lips of a strong man standing near--a frenzied call to someone who had gone never to return. At this cry the woman whom I recognized from the day before broke into sobs and tearful cries, pulling the free end of her sari over her head in her grief, the baby at her hip as before.

There was no need to ask who it was that had died. Just within the open doorway he lay on his bed, as I had seen him the day before; only now his tortured body was relaxed, the face calm and at peace, and the mutilated fingers rested on his breast.

"How did he die?" I asked of the man nearest me.

"Your God took him," he replied in awe. "Yesterday the old man prayed to your God and in the night God took him."

Shaken, not only at the old man's death, but at the family's firm belief that the Christian God had heard the feeble prayer of the sick man and had come for him in the night, I could do nothing but stand by and breathe a silent prayer. Once more I looked on the silent figure on the bed, in sorrow, in wonder, but with a dawning hope.

Later that morning I followed at a little distance to where the family was burying the old man in a shallow grave beside the dry streambed. Did they too feel, as I did, that it was Christian they were laying to rest? Would any of them remember Yaysu Kristu, the Christian God? A strong sense of personal loss remained with me as I left, and a sense of wonder and awe. Had the old man, uneducated, old and sick, glimpsed the truth of God in those few moments, the truth which many of us search for a whole lifetime, and some of us never find?

If so--then I shall see you again, grandfather.