Was it scary? (Rewa)
By James E. McEldowney

Do you think one has to be brave to be a missionary? When I talk to children they often ask me, "Wasn't it scary to live in a strange land like India? or "was your life ever threatened?"

Only once did I ever feel afraid because a person threatened me. But there were times when I realized there must have been a guiding hand that spared me from harm.

Such a time was an afternoon when I was on vacation high up in the Himalayas at Almora. From there we could look out on the unbroken skyline of the highest mountains of the world. Early morning they were lost in haze and a blue seemed to float down over the highest peaks. At sunset the rays of the sun made them almost brilliant pink and in between they were crystal clear white.

We were staying in a bungalow along the top of a ridge. One afternoon we were invited down into the village for tea at the Methodist Girl's School. We had just finished tea and were about to start back to our bungalow when an earthquake began. It shook the building. Great cracks appeared in the walls and we rushed outside.

We returned to our bungalow. We had brought our cook, Victor, from Jabalpur. We saw him come out of the bungalow with a load of clothes and put them in a pile on the grass. We asked him why he was doing it. He replied, "It was good the earthquake came while you were away. Your room is full of dust. The great logs from the roof have fallen right across your beds and the ceiling almost fills the room." He was making a brave effort to crawl under the mess and bring out what things he could. Had the earthquake come during the night we would have been crushed. That could have happened any place in the world but it did happen while we were missionaries.

Then there was the time when Dr. Gerald Downey and his family came to visit us. He had been a missionary in China and was forced out because the Japanese invaded China.

At breakfast the first morning, when Chaitu, the cook, brought food to the table, Gerald said to me. I would like to talk with your cook after the meal. I had no idea why he wanted to see him, but very soon he called me and said, "Chaitu has leprosy." Can you imagine what a shock that was?

We took Chaitu to a doctor and sure enough he was in an advanced stage of leprosy. Gerald assured us that we had little to worry about because he had observed that Chaitu was a very clean and efficient cook. We had to dismiss Chaitu immediately but we promised that we would continue to pay him during his treatment. We wanted him to go to a sanitarium but neither he nor his wife wanted it. She took care of him at home and he lived for only a few months.

That could be called life-threatening and we probably would not have been exposed to leprosy had we not gone to India.

The greatest constant danger that we faced was from some of the common diseases of India. The Indian people build up what is called immunity. Through the years they are sick so often with certain diseases their bodies become able to throw off the infection. Still many of them also suffer from malaria, amoebic dysentery or bacillary dysentery.

My duties took me out across India where I was not always able to get proper food or water. My body had not built up the same protection Indians had, so I would get sick. Many times I lay in hospital beds wondering whether I would ever see my family again. I suppose that was one of the things that made me most afraid while I was in India.

You might think it would be somewhat scary to find myself the only white person in a crowd of many thousand Indian people. I can say that those people were always very friendly and went out of their way to be kind. They were interested in what I was trying to do.

On only one occasion did I ever feel threatened. It happened just after the war ended. I had been in Calcutta helping the American government sell and dispose of the great mass of material they had sent to India to help in the war effort. Our college had been without any transportation so we had applied for a motor vehicle. The only one I could get was a small truck, a Dodge weapons-carrier. Then I had found typewriters, barbed wire, canned food, reams of paper and some medicines for the college. I put all these things in the truck and started for home.

Well, I had almost started, but then I had to apply for a supply of gasoline to take me 700 miles to Jabalpur. The gas I put in a large barrel or drum located right behind the driver in the truck and in a place where I could siphon gas out of the drum into the tank of the truck.

Do you know what a siphon is? I put one end of a long hose down into the barrel and sucked on the other end until the gas started to fill my mouth. I was careful to hold that end of the hose lower than the gas in the drum. Then I would put that end of the hose into the place where I always filled gas into the truck. The gas would flow until I lifted the hose higher than the drum and then it would stop. That is the way a siphon works and in that is how I was able to get gas from the drum into the truck. During that 700 miles I had to syphon gas many times.

There were many other exciting moments during the trip such as the time I was crossing the Ganges river in Benares. It was summer time. The temperature was well over 100 degrees. The place where I was crossing the river was on a pontoon bridge - a road built over the top of many, many boats tied together.

About half way across the river I saw a Hindu holy man - he was carrying a small bucket, as they often did, and I stopped and asked him if he would give me a bucket of Ganges holy water - for they think the water is sacred. He reached down, got a bucket full of water and handed it to me. I had on only shorts, no shirt, and open shoes, so I poured the water so it would cool my whole body. The Holy man was almost furious because I dared use that holy water to cool me. But I thanked him and drove on.

It was just after dark that night I had a threatening experience. The road I had to travel went through what was known as a native state, Rewa. It was ruled over by a Raja or prince. You might have read about the Raja of Rewa because he was the only one in India who had some tigers in captivity whose stripes were white instead of yellow. There was an article in the National Geographic some years ago about those tigers. I didn't go into Rewa to see those tigers but I had to go through that state.

At the entrance into the state there was what was called an octroi post. The officers there expected me to stop, give a list of the goods I was carrying, and pay a tax. Then at the place the road left Rewa state there would be another octroi post and if I had not sold any of the goods or had left them in Rewa, the tax would be refunded. But that would take a couple of days.

I know that I would not be stopping in Rewa to sell anything so I decided I would rush by the octroi post and avoid that delay. I did that. Then I came down into the town of Rewa. It was time to syphon some gas so I selected a place along the road where there was a street light and began to fill my truck with gas.

Almost always when anything unusual happens in India a crowd of people shows up and the crowd grew larger until there must have been a hundred men surging around the truck. One of their number who claimed to be an off-duty policeman, asked me what I was doing. I told him. Gas was rationed and difficult to get so he accused me of doing something illegal. I had papers to show I was permitted to have that gasoline but he would not look at them. Then while my hose was still in the drum and the air was so hot there were gas fumes all around, that fellow lit a cigarette. I quickly pulled out the hose and closed the drum. I do not know to this day why that lighted match did not blow up the truck and me with it.

I had to get rid of that fellow before I could get away from the crowd that was not too friendly, so I promised him I would return and talk with him. Then I drove as quickly as I could a couple of miles out into the country, filled my truck with gas, and returned to Rewa as I had promised. He saw me coming and ran toward me and jumped on the running board of the truck before I could stop. Unfortunately I had tied two large rolls of barbed wire on the running board and he found himself stuck in them. Was he ever angry!

About that time two uniformed police officers came up to find out what the fuss was all about. They did not know the fellow who said he was a policeman. I showed the police my papers and they agreed that what I was doing was proper but they told me to leave as fast as I could, and I did. I breathed a prayer of thanks that my life had been spared.

There is a postscript. I had driven about two hours when I came up over the top of a hill and found a bus stopped. It was in a jungle area far from nowhere. The bus had run out of gas. Four or five women in the bus were almost frantic. They were so afraid of what the large number of men might do to them if they were left stranded on the road in the middle of the night. They begged me for some gas. I wasn't sure whether I could spare much but I drove my truck close to the bus and siphoned three or four gallons into the bus. I never before had experienced such gratitude as those women gave me. I think every one of them came, stooped before me and put her head on my feet - a way of showing extreme gratitude.

I made it to Jabalpur safely just as the sun was coming up on a new day. Once at home I had a shower and then threw myself on my bed under the fan. We had no air conditioning but after having been on the road three days and the last 30 hours without sleep I was exhausted. I slept around the clock and the next day paid the city octroi (tax) for the things I had brought into the city and then left for a few weeks with my family in Landour.

Probably during those years I was safer in India than I would have been battling highway traffic and withstanding years of high- pressure living in America. At least I am alive to tell the story. [by James E. McEldowney, Spring 1997]

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