Rachman finds his father’s grave and also a rich experience of brotherhood ‘beneath the skin’…
It is nineteen years ago and I am on a night train from Chennai to Salem where my father lies buried. I am with Ravi, who has done so much to arrange this journey, and as the wheels of the train rumble and rock rhythmically under us, I ask him why he had joined the spiritual way of Subud. “To be able to face the difficulties in my life,” he says.
Ravi who is a high caste Brahmin, works as a petrol station attendant. He, his wife, his mother, brother and sister in law all live in a house the size of my sitting room. The floor is of mud polished with cow dung. I ask about the principles and practice of Hinduism. We share our ideas and experiences of life. His deep brown eyes radiate warmth, kindness, and caring and for the second time in my life I feel I have found another brother, yes another brown brother. In fact his letters to me are addressed Dear Brother Rachman.
My father died in April 1947 in India, four months before Independence. I was twelve, and I silently grieved for many years until I had an Inner Experience that healed me ten years later -see the story in the last Subud Voice.
In the mid 1970’s the wish arose in me to search for his grave. I had no idea where he was buried. All I had was a photo. I asked the Embassy in Jakarta where I worked, to make enquiries. A month later I had a letter from the British High Commission in India enclosing a letter from Mr Chandra Chetty, Head of the Forestry Department of the Republic of India. He said that he had been the assistant to my father when he died and that he was buried in Salem in Tamil Nadu and that I had a warm invitation to meet him should I come.
A map of the cemetery was enclosed. The following day an Indian visitor came to my clinic with a note from his doctor to give him an in injection of B12. As I was withdrawing the needle from his buttock, I asked him where Salem was. “That’s strange. That is my home town,” he said” Come and stay with me and I will take you to your father’s grave”.
At the Cemetery
Time and circumstance caught up with me and it was not possible to follow up on this generous offer. It was not until 1989 that I met Ravi, Ashwin and Mansur Sultan in Sydney at a Subud Congress. They immediately said that they would arrange the visit.
So back to my train journey to Salem. We arrive as a red dawn is breaking. The sound of the crows and the minah birds are echoing in our ears. I feel as if I am back to 42 years ago although I have never been here before. The Forestry Office smells of camphor and I learn that my father had written a small treatise on that particular timber, which is still used.
Mr Chetty is waiting for us, with breakfast ready at the visitor’s bungalow. He has been brought all the way from Bangalore by another set of Indian friends. He is a tall Karnataka man with a military bearing. He is now retired but is Chair of the Wild Life Fund for India. He looks me in the eye and says he can see my father in me.
He describes how my father had prepared him for his forestry exams and taken the exams and passed him. “ Not really tough enough on me “ he says.
I do not realise that my father had reached the top of his profession as a Conservator of Forests with an area the size of Wales to look after and that he had been invited to stay on by the Indian Government in waiting.
After breakfast we make our way to the cemetery, entering between two little wooden kiosks beside the road past some pigs rooting in the ground. This cemetery is where the British from 200 years of the Raj have been laid to rest, some with enormous blocks of stone to commemorate their lives. The words of grief and sadness engraved on these stones of those who have died far from their homeland are now only witnessed by the sun, the wind, the rain and the long unkempt grass.
That is, all except my father’s grave, which is now newly whitewashed, with garlands of flowers around the granite headstone, clean as if new with the words Commander JEM Mitchell beloved husband of May (my stepmother). He had not wanted to live to an old age and his wish had been granted to him.
Two forest officers stand at attention by the side of the grave and I almost expect them to salute. I am not sure why I am choking with emotion. The grief has long gone but I am aware that this is a ceremony to honour both my father and the forestry service, in which he served It is now part of the Government of the Republic India and no longer part of the British Empire. The honour that has been bestowed on my father and for me is also to be a witness to this fact and to the change.
Where my Father Lived
We go on to see the house where my father lived. It is now a girl’s school with fifty desks in each room. The upper veranda looks out over the Nilgri hills in the distance. There is a white wall around the eight acre grounds.
I view the stairs where he fell, and the red tiles, where his head hit before he died. He had got up in the early hours of the morning after a party when he heard a noise from downstairs. I know now the how, and the where of his death. The why of course alludes me. But I know for certain that he was and is a happy soul. He lived by his values of honour, service and love and respect for his fellow human beings even through the hubris of Empire. The people around respected and loved him enough to ask him to stay on after independence.
The whole episode is written up in the local office files. I am not too insistent on reading them and Mr Chetty is glad that I don’t press him. I know that a surfeit of whisky may have been a contributing cause. He was a bon viveur and enjoyed life to the full.
Mr Chetty explains that the house is so run down now. It used to have polished teak wood everywhere and he later lived in it as well.
We wander around town, drink some coconut juice and have a meal.
Later in the evening Ravi and I go back together to the grave and as I stand in front of it I am overcome with gratitude for the healing of the grief that I experienced as an adolescent and for the care and love of my friends , especially my Indian friends for bringing me here and for the bountiful Mercy of the Almighty. I am in awe of the extraordinary set of coincidences that have led to my being here.
Five years ago Ravi had a sudden headache and was taken to hospital where he died. Many mourned his death including myself. I helped to raise money for his widow who is a teacher and young son, who I have heard are doing well. I feel privileged to have known this man who showed such love and care for his fellow human beings.