Reminiscences of St. Andrew's Church

EUGENE IS AN AMAZING person ;  he knows just about everything there is to know about life in railway colonies in pre-partition India. And his knowledge has not been gained secondhand through research. Eugene has lived all through his boyhood in railway colonies here in Central India where his father worked for the Bengal Nagpur Railway. And he has great tales to tell about life in these colonies. He has explored the backyard of nearly every home in his neighbourhood while he was a boy. And the fragrance of these homes still lingers on him, as fresh as ever. His work in Britain’s RAF has not dulled his longing for a whiff of the good old times back home in India.

Eugene’s knowledge is phenomenal ; he has enlightened me with many a fascinating tale from his boyhood days. And he tells me that since earliest times, every railway colony in the country had a church in it, most often Church of England, but sometimes Roman Catholic. This was a startling revelation for me. Back in the early seventies, my father was posted in Gorakhpur where we attended St Andrew’s Church, a magnificent brick edifice, set amidst the sprawling railway colony. I was but a lad of twelve then ; winding my way through the streets of the colony my mind often wondered how a church came to be in the midst of these brick red homes. The answer was to come only several years later. The topmost cadres in the railway administration in those times were occupied by Britishers, while routine jobs and operating posts were held by Anglo Indians, fiercely proud of their association with the railways of India. To ensure all-round growth and a well-balanced personality among its workforce, the railways provided each of its colonies with an institute for recreation, an English medium school for the children staying in the colony, parks, officers’ clubs, and a church. The colony was thus self sufficient in itself, a small township whose inhabitants were well-provided for in all respects, not needing to look elsewhere for any of their needs, not even for a place of worship.

And so here I was, a boy of twelve, whistling a tune to myself as I trudged along to attend the railway school, sachel slung around shoulder. Built in true railway style, the school was an architectural marvel in brickwork with a large playground at the back, and a large lunch hall furnished with benches and water taps where we tiny-tots gathered in the afternoon with our tiffin boxes. Next to the school building was the railway institute, tall and graceful, standing amidst majestic silence, the wind playing on its twin towers in a soft caress, while an occasional hoot of an engine followed by a rattle of wheels reminded me that a train was making its way out of the railway yard nearby. Oh, for a taste of those days again!

The railway primary school I attended was staffed by ladies many of whom lived in the railway colony itself. And quite a few of these dear aunties were Christians who attended church. There was Mrs Newbolt the Headmistress, fair, tall and aloof. Then there was Miss Clifford who taught us Social Studies, Mrs Joseph, Mrs Cecil, and others, many of them familiar to us as members of St Andrew’s Church. Each Sunday the crisp morning air of the colony echoed with the toll of the bell high up on the steeple. Jangle-jangle chimed the bell, while families dressed in Sunday best would be seen walking up the driveway for morning worship. Many a young lad like me stood watching spellbound as Musa, the sexton, tugged at the cable that hung down, causing the huge bell atop the church to swing giving out a rhythmic musical peal.

The bell atop St Andrew’s tolled twice each week, one for morning service, the other for evensong. Morning service was always more formal and was attended by the cream of the congregation. There were the Browns and Benjamins and their sons, the Josephs, Cecils, and Amarnaths. After-church gatherings in the church premises were tinged with a butterfly touch when the men gathered in small groups lost in profound conversation, while the womenfolk flitted about speaking in low whispers, letting out occasional giggles. Some folks like the Chandis kept out of the general talk; they preferred to keep aloof, standing quietly beside their car.

The seven years we lived in this town in eastern U.P. saw a succession of parsons who held charge over St Andrew’s, beginning with the quiet Pastor Lall, followed by Rev Baldeo, Pitamber and others. Week after week these men watched over their flock, expounding the Word for all, exhorting men to turn back from the world and its ways and follow the path of honesty and godliness. Occasionally, a guest speaker would be called in to preach. I can still remember the clear tones of the Reverend William Paul, an English missionary, speaking out from the pulpit on one occasion. Lean, tall and fair, Reverend Paul was a much loved figure in Gorakhpur. He lived in an old style bungalow in Basaratpur, and we had the pleasure of having him in our home a few times accompanied by his Canadian wife.

Having stayed in India for years, Paul finally had to prepare to return to England. We went to see him in Basaratpur and found his wife had laid out several articles on a table to be given away to friends for a small price. Mother bought some cutlery, and several cut glass bowls. Then there was an old Viewmaster with several reels that we took home with us.

There was hardly a crowd beside the Ist class carriage at the station when we went to see off the gentleman and his wife. My hand was in a cast after a fall, and I was subdued, though inwardly excited to be at the station. The whistle blew, but Paul was unperturbed. He nimbly walked up to me, and holding the cast in his hand , signed his name on it.  W. M. Paul.  This was his parting gift to me. It was something anyone would treasure. Then as the night express to Allahabad jerked forward, Paul smartly moved and with one bound he was aboard, waving us goodbye as the train slowly pulled out.

But it was Evensong at St Andrew’s we liked to attend, for it was held in the cool of the day, and was more a relaxed affair free from the formalism of the morning service. Thus each Sunday evening found us preparing for a ride through the railway colony. For a fare of only Re 1, the rickety old rickshaw would take us past the railway sports stadium, go right over the level crossing of Mohaddipur, and then into the depths of the colony lined with tamarind trees. It was incredibly calm here. As the rickshaw creaked on, all you could hear was the rustle of the branches overhead, the distant cries of children playing, the occasional rumble of a train. We ride on going past railwaymen’s bungalows, neat and clean, set amidst an overgrowth of neem and mango trees. We ride on through Private Road, bypass the turning that leads to my school, and cross a square. The rickshaw grinds to a halt beside a gate and we alight. St Andrew’s is now in full view, thrusting its spire into the crimson sky, and bathed in the soft light of the setting sun. The place is aglow with life in the evenings: bees and insects swarm through the air, settling on hedges of pansies and snapdragons, while birds of all descriptions congregate on trees chirping excitedly, preparing for the night’s rest ahead. St Andrew’s church was truly set in paradise.

Evensong was held by the Reverend Caleb Bellah, a short, stout, cheery old man, as cheerful and vivacious as the birds now settling in the trees around. Bellah was in fact a pastor employed with a Christian girls’ orphanage, but as a sideline to his work he often volunteered to undertake the evening service at St Andrew’s. He was a man given to brevity ; he believed that a church service should be short enough to be effective, and to this end he would order the evening’s proceedings so as never to last for more than an hour. His sermons were always a pleasure to sit through; they were well-planned and thought out, and although he read his text aloud from a typed sheet he would give away cyclostyled copies which we were allowed to carry home. With never more than about a dozen persons in attendance, Evensong was a truly enriching experience quite alike an informal prayer gathering in the home.

The final hymn sung and benediction said, we emerged from church. It was dark by now as the little group stood chatting beside the magnificent edifice built in brick. It was a quiet little group; often there would be none besides my father, mom, my sister, the parson and his daughter and son-in-law. Then under the dim street lamps of Private Road we would begin our trek home with Pastor Bellah by our side, his vigour undiminished by the labours of the evening. And on we walked, sharing our tales of joy and sorrow with the old man, while the bungalows on either side, now alight, seemed to peek at us through rows of hedges and foliage. We walk on under the canopy of trees until we reach the railway. Here we slacken our pace, for we have often to wait till a shunting train has moved out of the way and backed into the yard from whence it came. Beyond the yard is a busy thoroughfare, and here we come to a halt waiting for a rickshaw to appear which will carry us back home before bidding goodnight to the cheery old parson.

The church of St Andrew still stands, a lone sentinel pointing the way to heaven amidst the jungle of trees and shrubs of Gorakhpur’s railway colony. Today a new group of worshippers may be seen in the pews on Sunday. New faces have appeared, new voices, a different gathering. The old congregation we had known is not to be seen anymore. After a space of four decades, many of its veteran leaders and elders have gone on to be with the Lord ; the children who graced the flowering gardens with their colourful attire and cries of play are now grown-ups who have moved away to distant lands in search of greener pastures. But the church itself remains unchanged, as of old. The bell atop the steeple still rings the same chime calling forth souls to praise and worship. And the story it has to tell is the same old story, a tale of glad tidings for all.
Ravindra Bhalerao