It was the early 1920s, India was called the British Raj. There was a little village, Ongole, in what is known today as Andhra Pradesh, back then it was still Madras Presidency. In this little village there was a certain woman named Naga Ratnamma. She was all but 19 when she was married off as per customs. A little while later her husband died and she became a widow. Back in the day, you did not have much respect if you were a widow. People looked at widows like they were accursed. If a widow crossed your path when you stepped out of your home, some old timers say, “it’s best if you get right back into that house. She could get you some really bad luck.”
She went back to the house of her parents after the death of her husband. Sure, she had some brothers who took care of her and helped her meet her needs. But that was all she had, and nothing else. Except, except Naga had a daughter whom she named Koti Rathna, which meant “a thousand diamonds”. The child was feeble and lanky. But Naga loved her more than she loved herself. Life sure wasn’t easy. Nothing went her way. 1900s India was a place where women were treated like the bottom of a rug. A woman’s opinions did not matter to anyone, But Naga took joy in the smallest of things. The blue birds that sang, the rain that pattered on the muddy roads, and the shoes on the cobbler’s stand. Often, as she walked to work in the fields, she would stop by the cobbler and notice how he carefully and skillfully crafted those shoes. Ah! How she desired for a new pair of shoes! “If only”, she thought, “if only I could buy a pair for my daughter”.
The cobbler only made shoes to order, and they were expensive. Give him a size and a color, and within a day or two, you have the prettiest shoes ready. Each day, she desperately longed to buy a new pair of shoes. Not just for her, but for her daughter.
One day, as she walked by, she saw him carefully craft two little shoes. The tiniest of feet alone, would fit in them. She walked past them urgently so that she would not be taken up with them…but they were already in her mind! She turned back and exclaimed, “they are so pretty!”
“Indeed!”, replied the cobbler with a knowing smile.
“Who are they for?”, she enquired, curiously.
“Why! Your daughter of course. Is not the wedding tomorrow?”
She felt the wind knock out of her as she realised what was happening. No one told her. Why would anyone tell her? She was just a woman…a woman who didn’t even have the right to know that her own daughter, who was but three years old was being given in marriage to someone she did not know. She could not speak. Her heart was being wrenched away from her and she could do nothing.
She somehow made her way back home as tears threatened to fall. She did not have any wealth she could call her own. Not a penny could be spent without the permission from her brothers. Koti Rathna, who to her, was worth more than a thousand diamonds- was the one thing that belonged to her, and sadly, she too was being taken away. She quietly made an inquiry and found out the “husband” of her daughter was a 65 year old man who was a widower. According to the religion and tradition the man followed (or the interpretation of it), if a man died as a widower, he would go straight to hell. So it became his absolute necessity to get married to someone, anyone- for otherwise, he believed, he would go to hell and be eternally damned. The man had to get married, even if his bride was just three years old.
She shivered, not because of the cold, but because of the utter hopelessness and gloom that awaited her. Naga had no education, no mode of transport, and no money. So she packed the little food she had, gathered clothes, and waited for the night to arrive. There was no light on the muddy village road. The jungle harbored wild animals. Naga finally broke down…tiny sobs first, then vehement cries as her mind thrashed around for some way, any way, out.. She wanted to run but didn’t know where to run to. She needed a hiding place but didn’t know where she could find one. She needed a savior but couldn’t find anyone who was on her side. After all, she was a widow. A curse.
She called on the name of every god she knew and decided to flee with her daughter. Picking up her bags and holding her daughter’s fragile hand, she abandoned her home and walked away not knowing what to expect, where to go, and unsure of whom she would meet.
She went straight to the fields, for the crop had grown and the grass was tall. She hid there in the fields for three days and three nights. The village council sent out a team to find her, but Naga hid well. After three days, Naga knew she had to leave the place. The field would not protect her forever.
And so, she pressed onwards- from Ongole to Guntur, through whatever means of transport she could find. Most of it, she simply walked. She travelled over a hundred kilometers with a hungry toddler in her arms.
A few months earlier, a ship had arrived on the coast of Vishakhapatnam, India. The ship carried a group of men and women, who called themselves “missionaries”. Of course, today, we would label them “Christian radicals”. Now, in the hearts of these men and women, there was no guile. There was no pretense. For who would leave the comforts of England or the USA to land on the dusty ports of India? They left their wealth. They left their parents. They left their comfort and came to this country, our country.
Now, one can easily mistake them for tourists, leaving the damp foggy London to experience the lush exotic continent, if only they had a place to stay, butlers and servants to wait on them. They had nothing, they sold their belongings-to fund their travel, traded their haute couture for the humble saris and dhotis, gave up their princely invitations for dictionaries of languages. Where did they stay? At a tea bungalow in the Nilgris? No, in the wilderness. Some were mauled by wild animals, some by cholera. Where is the conspiracy in all this? What did they gain?
Ladies and Gentlemen, there was no conspiracy. They really had nothing to gain by coming to a country that was not their own- to preach the Light that conquered darkness and the message of absolute redemption.
A young Miss Jessie Thomas was one of such. Fresh out of college, she had her share of doubts and failures. She was no perfect woman. “Why is there so much suffering in the world, preacher? Why is He not doing anything?”, she quipped. “Of course, He is doing something about all the trouble in the world, Miss Thomas. He made you, didn’t He?”.
“Your entire mission could be to serve a single human being. Your names will not be recorded in history books. You will not be rewarded for your bravery by any king. If you still want to serve, serve. If you cannot, go home and come back when you are ready to be humble”, the preacher man would say.
So she tagged along with Dr. Ida Scudder, the lady who built the Christian Medical College in Vellore, and Dr. Anna Kugler, who built Andhra’s first hospital. She spent a few days by the port and slowly made her way into regions unheard of and untapped by any other missionary. She had no weapon. She had no idea what language the people spoke, but she just arrived on the scene, hoping, praying that she could tell someone about Jesus. Her teacher taught her that words don’t matter, but rather, actions do. He left her with this verse from the Bible: “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
“Show me an orphan, Lord! Show me a widow that I may care for her!”, she prayed zealously.
Days passed and weeks passed. And she made progress with the local language in leaps and bounds. But her prayer stayed the same. “Show me an orphan, Lord! Show me a widow that I may care for her!”
Little did she know that her sincere prayer was going to be answered.
A young woman with a toddler reached the last hedge row of a tiny village in the dead of the night. A hundred kilometers from where she started, the young woman paused. She hesitated. That was the furthest she had been from her home. One more step and it was a new record. She took the step, and many more, knowing that with each one, there was no turning back. Her heart trembled, but it is in that moment of weakness, that she found her greatest strength. She looked up at the sky, countless stars shined, she thought maybe that’s how diamonds look like, for she had never seen one. It reminded her of her daughter whose tiny hands she held, she held on tighter and they strode along. For she knew she had a long way to go.
Many days and miles passed since she ran away from home. The darkness of the night was fading away, sun was soon coming up. The young woman was tired, the toddler even more, they had come to yet another village. The name of which she did not know. All she wanted to do was get away as far away as possible. And as the light was coming in, she wanted to leave this place without anyone’s notice. So, she walked by a desolate house, into the shadows, trying her best not to make any noise. But Her little child, tired as she was, cried and made a mess of all the effort she took. But it was not a desolate house, another young woman, who too had travelled many a mile was staying there.
The woman of the house awoke and saw her. For the first time, their eyes met. The mother was distressed “Alas! I have been seen. Now my child will be taken from me”, was the first thought that ran through her head, as she swiftly moved to hide the child behind her while keeping her hand on the little girl’s mouth.
Instantly, the woman of the house understood what was going on. “This is a runaway”, she thought. “Maybe a criminal. Maybe just another mother. Maybe a slave girl, but definitely a runaway”. She decided not to react and comfortably settled in her chair and picked up that book on linguistics that she was keen on mastering. But she remembered that Bible verse she was given. She remembered the prayer that she prayed. “Show me an orphan, Lord! Show me a widow that I may care for her!”
Was this that woman? Was this that child?
Miss Thomas took Naga and her daughter into her house. She fed them, bathed them, clothed them and prayed for them at the table in broken Telugu. Naga was puzzled. Why would anyone do this? Why would anyone from another country take the pains to serve her, a widow, a curse?
Miss Thomas went on serving them, not just for a few days, but for 6 years. Finally, one day, Naga broke. “Why?”, she asked. “Why did you clothe me, help me find a job, care for my child as your own… just why?”
Miss Thomas had no other option but to point to the large book that lay on her table. The Bible.
“This is why”, she said as she told the mother and the child about a certain Jesus. “Some called him ‘friend of sinners’. Some called him ‘the curse’. But he came to seek the lost and to heal the broken. He called Himself ‘the hiding place’, ‘the tower of refuge’, ‘the father of the fatherless’ and ‘protector of the widow’. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life”, and Naga, when you lose your way, He is the Way. When you’ve been deceived by those you cherished, He is the Truth. And when your soul is dying and is desolate, He is the Life.”
She handed Naga a Bible and taught her how to read. Naga read the Bible cover to cover. At that point, there was a forced conversion. Naga gave up on her old beliefs, and stepped into Christianity. Of course, she had her doubts. But love trumped hate and faith trumped doubt. There was a forced conversion, but the force, was not money. It was not gold. It was not anything material. It was the tidal force of love, and of compassion. The Great Force was the mercy preached about in the Bible.
This is no fiction story, ladies and gentlemen.
Even my life has been a by-product of this Great Force. You see, Naga is my great grandmother.
I shudder to imagine what would’ve happened if Naga hadn’t left her house that day. Would her daughter survived that “marriage”? Would she have learnt to read and write? Would that be the end of her genealogy? Would I be here giving this speech?
If Miss Thomas had done nothing else in her life but to take in that young runaway widow and her daughter, if she hadn’t left her comforts for one desolate and her child, she would’ve but only saved an entire family.
In the wake of the ban of Compassion International, a foreign funded NGO, there has been a talk out there about Christians converting people by force. Compassion International received close to 50 Million USD every year for their operations in India. Their work is to give life to 145,000 dying children. Their mission was to give them an education and help them find a livelihood. They obviously preach Christ, because that is the reason why they serve so unselfishly. Their actions preach louder than their words.
Tell me this, have you even heard of Compassion International before? You would not have. Why? Because they work for no applause. They only seek the applause of the God they believe in.
Now, if there is something called “forced conversion”, I would like to know what it is. How can a man’s faith, or a woman’s faith be altered by money? If a man’s faith can be purchased by money, he does not have faith at all. If a man’s faith can be purchased by showing a prosperous future, he does not have loyalty. You see, Jesus never said to anyone that they would be wealthy and happy if they accept Christianity. In fact, he said the opposite. He said that you will be persecuted. He said that your families will despise you. He lived a life of great sincerity and demanded the same standards from everyone that followed him. “Be ye perfect”, He said.
If a man’s faith can be purchased by love, grace, compassion, kindness, purity, virtue, patience, what fault is in the man, (who you call a preacher) who is showing love, grace, compassion, kindness, purity, virtue and patience?
I am not saying we are perfect. We aim to be, and there is no escape for when some of us falter. Some of us Christians mess up real bad. We are human, just like the rest of the world is. But you cannot pick a single bad apple and claim that all the tree is sick.
There is a word that is used quite frequently these days: “trolling”. I can comfortably say that anyone who is religious these days is at the receiving end of trolls. But Jesus told us to expect it. He used a word with more class: persecution. He promised us that we would be met with contempt and be thrown into pits and burnt at the stake.
To all my Christian brothers and sisters out there: We have to love. We have to serve. We knew persecution was coming. We knew what was at stake. But we cannot fall back. We need to love more. Serve more. Give more. Let us care for the widow and the orphan. Let us not pay much attention to the background noise of trolls. Let us put away those encumbrances that so easily entangle us and run in pursuit of the ultimate goal: Doing what Jesus told us to do: To love, serve and care. For there is no greater force in the universe than love. But let us be humble when we love and serve. For our salvation is not produced by works, but our works are produced by our salvation. As Spurgeon would put it, our works have to be the evidence of our salvation.
As Oscar Wilde bluntly put, “How else, but through a broken heart may the Lord Christ enter?”
For all the science fiction nerds out there, I would like to end with a Star Wars quote: “May the Force be with you!”. Every single one of you! The same Great Force that lavished itself over good old Naga Ratnamma, and which lavishes itself over me, converting me, transforming me, cleansing me, pursuing me every single day.
(A special note of gratitude to my father, my aunts and cousins who helped me piece this entire story together. And also my friends, who helped me edit this. Thank you. You are all invaluable.)