My Dad served as the Vicar of Christ Church in Singapore for 33 years.
My Dad’s birthday was on New Year’s Day, the first of January. Every year after the watch-night service, the congregation would sing for him as he blew out the candles , to cut a cake that my Mum used to bake and decorate, to accompany the coffee and snacks that she served in the parish hall.
When he retired in 1972 , my Mum and Dad returned to India and settled down in Madras. They were strangers to Madras having left India so many years ago. He met Bishop Leslie Newbegin the incumbent Bishop of Madras and offered his honorary services to the CSI Diocese of Madras. They were posted to George Town, earlier known as Black Town, to serve at the CSI St. Mark’s Church.
The congregation had thinned, with most of its members migrating to Australia, leaving a rundown building in a dry and dusty compound hemmed in by crowded homes on all sides. There was scant funds for repairs and St. Mark’s Church was threatening to rapidly disappear as another lost landmark of Chennai aka Madras. It was not a popular posting among the local pastors and Bishop Newbegin was extremely relieved when My Mum and Dad agreed to look after St. Marks while their home was being built in St . Thomas Mount. During his tenure, my Dad raised the money and built a school by the side of the church that turned the fortunes of the rather impoverished church, restoring it to some of its past glory.
When their house construction was completed, my Mum and Dad moved to St. Thomas Mount and the St. Thomas Garrison Church. He was delighted to help out whenever and wherever he could, if the local priests needed him. Sunday would find him driving all over the city, taking services in churches in different corners of Madras. If they needed someone to do the odd baptism, wedding or funeral he would gladly step in. He would laugh when I used to tease him and call him a “ Stepney Priest ” . He used to tell me that Priests never retire and he was right.
The only time he became impatient was when he got behind the wheel of his car. Then he was a different man. He could not stand road hogs . If someone cut him off or pinched his parking space he would growl veterinary endearments like Donkey or Monkey.
My Mum passed away on July 1st 1984. My Dad passed away on March 10th 1986 , twenty lonely months after my Mum. He just pined away after my Mum died. I was training at St. John’s, London, when my cousin Leela rang to tell me that that my Dad had been hospitalised. Sam and I reached The Balaji Hospital in Guindy , two days before my Dad passed away. He had told our tenants The Milners staying upstairs that he was not feeling very well. The Milners were not mere tenants. They had lived with my Mum and Dad for years and they were like our family. They very kindly took my Dad to the hospital. My Dad was a diabetic and had walked into the hospital nursing a silent myocardial infarction, as diabetics are known to do..
I think my Dad knew that he was not coming back because he went across to the Bank of Baroda in front of the House to sign some papers before he left for the hospital and told the Bank Manager that he would not be coming back. He told them that I was on my way home and asked them to help me when I arrived as I was not very sharp about banking and accounts. He gave Bhaji, our Nepali Man Friday his keys to give me when I returned.
When I saw my Dad, he was medicated and drowsy as he struggled feebly to speak. He signaled for a paper and pen which slipped from his hands when he tried to write. Regret , remorse and guilt chased each other down my cheeks as I looked down at my Dad lying on the crumpled white hospital bed. I could not believe that my Dad, who was the pivot of my life, was dying in front of my helpless eyes.
My Dad was embalmed and laid to rest in an open coffin placed in his prayer room. There was an altar in the room with a silver cross, where he would celebrate the Eucharist every day. As people got to know this, they would come in on special occasions like a birthday or an anniversary to have holy communion as most of the protestant churches are closed during the week except for Sundays and special days . They knew that they would be able to receive Holy Communion any day of the week at my Dad’s home. Once a week , Dr. V. M Thomas my Dad’s friend and a fellow retired pastor who lived in Velachery, would join him and they would celebrate the Eucharist and have breakfast together, a routine they both looked forward to.
My Dad’s wake lasted 3 nights as relatives and his old parish members came from all over the world to bid him goodbye. I was astonished to see the crowds that came to keep vigil in the house, singing hymns, praying continuously and waiting to attend his funeral. We were working in Nepal when they moved to Madras and came home only on holidays. I had no idea that he had become such an integral part of the Community in St Thomas Mount.
A lady who did not leave my Dad’s side the whole time the coffin was kept in the prayer room, took me aside to tell me this story. She said that her husband had died when the local pastor was away. The heat of Madras does not allow long waits or wakes, unless the body is embalmed or placed in a refrigerated coffin. They were not expecting anyone from overseas or from any great distance. All their near and dear ones lived close by and they had already arrived to say goodbye. There really was no need to delay the funeral. So she came home and asked my Dad if he would kindly conduct the funeral service. My Dad agreed willingly.
When the hearse arrived at the Cemetary later that afternoon, the sun was shining. In a few minutes it looked as if it was going to rain. My Dad started the funeral service under a few dark clouds. Soon it started pouring and everyone ran for cover, except for my Dad, the Corpse and his Widow. The muddy grave slowly filled up with rainwater. The coffin dislodged itself and started shifting, threatening to float up and out of the grave. Undeterred my Dad finished all 5 pages under a torn umbrella, shielding the prayer book, not missing comma or colon. She said she would never forget his dedication. She was sure that anyone else would have continued only after the rain stopped. She was so grateful that my Dad did not abandon the service midway and that her husband was buried with full honours.
There were no short cuts in my Dad’s book when it came to The Book of Common Prayer .
Many people came to see me with words of comfort and anecdotes. They spoke of his support, emotionally and financially. Some were absolute strangers, I had never met in my life. My Dad had one principle in life. If anyone came to him for help , he never refused them. He never gave them the whole amount that they asked for, but he would give them something, so that they did not leave disappointed. What he gave, he never expected back. Many never returned it anyway. It did however discourage them from coming back and asking for more. I suspect that most of the time he never told my Mum anything about these accounts.
My mum was the one with the instinct in their marriage. She could suss up a person in five minutes. If she said that someone was okay, that person usually was. Funnily enough, their male Lhasa Apsoo Tiny, tended to agree with her judgement. He never barked at the “okay” people. If she said that someone was funny, she did not mean funny-ha-ha. She meant that we would soon find out a shady side to them, as time passed. She was usually right and Tiny always agreed with her, with his uncanny canine sniff. If he thought that someone was “not okay” he would bark, jump up and down, all the while trying to nip their heels. Bhaji would then pick him up and carry him unceremoniously to another room and lock the door. Tiny would continue barking till the “not okay ” person left and he was released from captivity. More out of outrage that he was locked up , I would think.
My Dad on the other hand presumed that everyone was created in the image of God and would trust people blindly, part with his last dollar willingly and would get hopelessly and predictably conned at every corner.
“This Iyah is hopeless” my Mum would exclaim in exasperation.
“How can you trust people like this? Even Tiny knows better. ”
I remember a particular encounter that my Dad never lived down in Singapore. A stranger, a seaman from a ship that had come into the wharf, walked through the door with some cock and bull story. He fooled my Dad and he managed to palm off some worthless copper coins as antique, in exchange for money. My Dad thought he had struck gold. My Mum never let him forget it.
There was another gentleman who came and stayed with us in Singapore. He worked with a missionary group in India and my Dad thought he had fallen from heaven. By the end of his stay, he had convinced my Dad that he should invest in real estate in Madras. My Mum was skeptical but gave in when she saw my Dad’s mounting enthusiasm. The money was transferred, the land was bought and a building was built. My Dad trusted him implicitly. No drawings or accounts were discussed and my Mum and Dad never knew that the missionary and his wife were building two houses on the money that they sent. One for him and one for my Mum and Dad. The building in the front that had the access to the road, was for the missionary gentleman and the appendage at the back, the after thought, was for my Mum and Dad.
There was only one problem. The houses had been built in a part of Madras that was low lying marsh land and under water most of the time, which meant that three, of the 4 foot high , compound walls, stood permanently in green stagnant water, that bred mosquitoes for export. There was no gate to enter my Dad’s house. To get to my Dad’s part of the property, you had to enter the single gate from the road and walk round the side of the missionary’s house. Or swim from the back.
“Maybe you should buy a catamaran when you go to India next,” my Mum suggested in her best “I-told-you-so ” voice.
My Dad may not have been street smart and he may have stepped into every con-puddle he met on the way. But he was the sweetest and kindest person I have ever known. A gentle giant who laughed out loud and heartily without making a sound.
When I get to heaven, my Dad will be waiting for me at the Pearly gates with St Peter. He will give me his most endearing smile. The one that cracked up his face and crinkled up his twinkling eyes.
He was my hero and I miss him even today.