Travels in India

Bruce Spinney

It is a couple of days after Christmas as I write this, and I am on a train to Calcutta (now Kolkata). I am very pleased to be going to a place that is a bit warmer.

I spent the last two weeks up in the Himalayan Mountains visiting a pastor friend of mine. He lives and works in the town of Dalhousie, which was built by the British as a retreat for the troops who were stationed here in India. The town literally clings to the cliffs and slopes and it is a remarkably beautiful place. The problem, it seems, is to get a picture that captures the grandeur of the scenery.

It looks a bit like Rivendale with the architecture of some of the nicer sections of Mordor. The streets are the width of alleyways in Edmonton with bits missing; having eroded down onto whatever house was built below it. All this with the backdrop of the mountains is just unbelievably pretty and exotic.

Rajan, the pastor that I have been visiting, had me booked to visit all the people connected with his church. Having a white person in the home is a big thing and so I was encouraged to come and be seen all around the city. It is difficult to meet people and not be able to get to know them because of the language barrier. They were all very nice and kept bringing me things to eat and drink. When I visited here two years ago the congregation was at about 70 to 80 and now it is somewhere between 170 to 190. This includes two church plants in other parts of the town.

It is clearly a different religious situation here in India. It becomes clear that the idol worship that is connected to Hinduism has made the occult and demon possession incredibly common and overt. I have been around people who see demons behind every sneeze and will try to exorcize a demon out of a hangnail so I am a bit cynical about these things, but when I talk to these people about their experiences and talk to the pastors here about their work, it becomes clear that the spiritual realm is a bit closer to the surface over here.

Many of the new Christians talk about the experience of possession and demonic activity that was a part of their everyday lives as they sought power. So many people have been healed of illnesses that were connected with possession that it seems to be the norm here. I know, I know. All those psychosomatic illnesses and imaginary experiences formed by religious expectations! Few people are as cynical about these things as I am so I will not try to defend the point. One has to come over here and see for one’s self.

I have been cold for two weeks straight apart from a few hours of basking in the sun in the afternoon. I have come to realize that when Canadians talk about cold they really mean that it is cold OUTSIDE. We might think that we are tough to experience -40 C but we do not live in that cold. We live in well-insulated houses. We might spend a few minutes walking to the car and then wait a few more minutes for the car to warm up and then brave the walk from the car to whatever warm building is our destination. But we do not live in the cold.

Unfortunately India has not discovered the joy of insulation which would be quite the life changer in these higher regions. It is like living in your garden shed in late autumn over here. You can survive but not comfortably. I am not as tough as I thought.

I stayed in a hotel for the first few nights because I was dreadfully ill when I arrived. The drive up into the mountains for eight hours while trying not to think about the bugs causing sundry gurgling in my bowels was an exercise in character development. Three days later I was as right as rain (but less fluid).

I was introduced to the local Roman Catholic priest and invited to stay at the small abbey attached to his church. This was about 160 years old and had not been updated much since new. The walls were five feet thick and were great for retaining all that cold that was absorbed during the night. I did sleep well once the blankets warmed up, which burned up many calories.

It was Christmas season and one of the ways they celebrate is carol singing and bonfires, just like in my youth. No hot chocolate and no toboggans (once moving, a toboggan here would not stop until coming to a gentle rest in the far off foothills, the rider having long since been greeted at the doors of heaven or hell, depending) but the same sense of joy and celebration.

It was also a bit of a workout climbing all the hills to get to the houses. By the time I could catch my breath to sing (not that I knew any of the Hindi/Punjabi songs) it was time to move on.

I am bracing myself for the teaching job after this break. They have added the book of Romans to my schedule and so I will be scrambling to get things in place for that course. You might send up a quick prayer on my behalf on the subject.

That is all for now. I will be attempting next to get off the train at the proper stop in Calcutta which is not that easy a thing having no idea of the names of the stops. My next update may include a stirring story of being lost and abandoned for days only to be found by one of the Sisters of Mercy and becoming a nun.