It rained heavily that night; my first night back after many years overseas. The South West monsoon roared its welcome as streaks of lightning lit up the black sky outside my window. I listened to the familiar sound of the torrential rain pummel the tin roof: The sound of a thousand drummers pounding an unrelenting rhythm that kept me awake as I lay on my bed, staring into the dark space above me.
This was the rain of my childhood. Monsoonal rain, pouring out of the heavens. Scouring the red mud brick walls of the village huts, churning up the narrow roads and even narrower laneways into rivers of mud. God’s fury and anger spewing forth on the hapless souls below.
“Washing away our sins”, my grandmother would say. “Lightning and thunder is God’s call to us to pray harder. Pray for our sins, pray for those who can’t save themselves”.
My grandmother’s God, like the monsoon, always seemed fierce and scary to me as a child. Not loving and forgiving as I thought he was supposed to be. Fear and my grandmother drove me to Church every Sunday. Fear of punishment. Fear of retribution. Fear that this God would take from me yet again.
I lay there, listening to the rain, thinking about my childhood all those years ago. A lifetime and a world away now.
I thought about my grandmother.
I remember asking her why God made some people poor and others rich. Why we had a car, enough food and a nice house, while across the road, hungry families eked out a living under the flimsy skin of cardboard and corrugated iron. Plastic sheets tearing a losing battle against the fierce rain and scorching sun.
I wondered why we had new shoes at Christmas, clean shirts and tailor made trousers, while across the road, children my age, snot streaming down their nose in an endless green stream, would live, fight and play on the street. Protected only by dirty torn singlets hanging off their scrawny brown shoulders and wearing pants and sarongs that had seen better days and clothed the despair of past generations.
“Don’t question God’s ways,” she would scold me. “God rewards good people and punishes the evil”. “They’re all sinners, not like us.”
Even as a child I failed to see how a newborn infant could be condemned at birth. What could a filthy five-year-old street urchin with weeping sores and a runny nose have done to be damned as evil and be deserving of the punishment of her God?
My grandmother was a pillar of the Catholic Church. A confidante and close friend of Father Basil the parish priest, who relied on her to organise the faithful.
She immersed herself in the church.
Novena on Wednesdays. Stations of the cross on Fridays. Mass on Sundays. Sometimes every day if she wanted a special favour. She was everywhere. Singing, praying, feeding, cajoling and scolding. The presbytery was known to many of us as the scolding room.
She loved talking about the suffering her Jesus went through. The pain he went through for all of us and how ungrateful we all were.
She was president of The Lady’s of Charity, on the committee of St Vincent de Paul’s society. She ran sewing classes for young unemployed girls. She taught troubled young illiterate boys to read. The list went on and on.
The church wouldn’t function without her. Couldn’t function without her. I was sure the Parish priest would not dare make a decision without consulting her. It wouldn’t have surprised me if God himself asked her for advice.
She’d converted to Catholicism from the Church of England. A Christian soldier shining a light into the dark hearts and minds of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Doomed non-believers who had to be shown the truth for their own good.
Atheists didn’t exist in her world.
Living with her as a child, I marvelled at her bustling energy and detested her overbearing presence.
In those days I didn’t see the contradictions that infected her life.
Her relationship with her God and her endless works of charity stood in stark contrast to her relationship with those around her. Her condescending attitude to the poor, her arrogance towards her fellow parishioners and her ill treatment and bullying of her domestic helpers or servants as we used to call them, went largely unnoticed by me.
She was doing them a favour she said. Giving them a chance. Slave wages, food and a place to sleep in exchange for eighteen hour days cooking, cleaning, shopping and running errands.
“What would they be doing in the village if we didn’t employ them?” she would say frequently, as if to justify her actions.
The servants lived with us, sleeping out the back veranda; meagre possessions bundled up in a small storeroom.
While she kept her servants in poverty, she would go out to ease the suffering of the poor. She and her army of church going volunteers patrolled the nearby slums, dabbing ‘Dettol’ on running sores and handing out loaves of bread and cans of fish. They scolded alcoholic fathers and lectured negligent mothers too tired and depressed to care.
She liked to do things her way. And she was always right.
But, despite all her faults, she did look after me and brought me up. Even comforted me at times. She was my grandmother and my mother. I think I even loved her.
But I was too young to question her.
I just accepted that that’s how things were.
It seems a lot of people are like that. They just accept that things are the way they are.
My sister was the exception.