The Comforts Of ‘Abide With Me’

Legend has it that Mohandas Gandhi adored Abide With Me, “a Christian hymn by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte most often sung to English composer William Henry Monk‘s…’Eventide‘.” I learned of this particular proclivity of the Mahatma long after I had first heard the hymn’s notes as a child attending or watching the Beating Retreat ceremonies, which marked the end of the Republic Day celebrations in the Indian capital New Delhi where it was “played by the combined bands of the Indian Armed Forces.” But that experience had little impact on me; the tune was one of many unfamiliar ones that I heard on that evening (the closing of which was always the melancholy, haunting performance of Taps by a bugler.) Matters changed when I attended a boarding school in India’s north-east, where, as I’ve noted, “I was subject to a non-negotiable, uncompromising rule: daily attendance at an Anglican chapel service was required.”

There, during our daily service in the mornings, I joined in the singing of hymns with the school congregation–ably backed up by our schoolboy choir, which came with a full complement of sopranos, tenors, and basses. The congregation’s singing was trained by our school music master, Mr. Denzil Prince, a man whose love for music and passion for teaching was all too visible in his interactions with us. He transformed, slowly and patiently, an incoherent band of squawkers into a harmonious assemblage of voices. Even a recently disillusioned former believer like me could not but be thrilled at those moments when it seemed we had achieved some sort of divine harmony with the beauty of the Himalayan ranges that lay outside our chapel.

Among the hymns I sang and listened to was Abide With Me. It’s opening verse, and in particular, its opening line,was instantly memorable for someone whose melancholic bent had found–in the beauty of the Himalayan evenings and approaching sunsets, and in my separation from my mother–yet another forum for expression. But I did not miss the presence of God in my life; that particular train had long departed the station. I missed my mother. When I heard school choir sing ‘Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;/The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide/When other helpers fail and comforts flee/Help of the helpless, O abide with me/, the comfort I sought was only forthcoming from one entity, and it was not divine. My desire and longing for that missing presence though, felt to me as deep as I imagined that of any believer to be. I was thirteen years old, and I was supposed to be away from home for nine months. Letters, not phone calls, not occasional visits, were supposed to be sustenance during this period. It was not enough. But standing there, in that chapel, or sometimes, outside, listening to the choir’s evening practices, listening to those haunting lyrics and notes, sent soaring up into our chapel’s rafters and through our bodies, it was possible to begin to address some of that gaping absence.

The Organ In The Chapel

For the two years that I attended boarding school, I was subject to a non-negotiable, uncompromising rule: daily attendance at an Anglican chapel service was required. The bell calling us to service would ring out, loud and clear and persistent; we would make our way to the chapel and file in obediently, taking our pre-assigned positions–arranged by grades. We were led through a service by one of our masters; we sang hymns, said the Lord’s Prayer; we knelt down, we stood up; we listened to the occasional ‘sermon.’ And then, as the service came to a close, and as the gathered congregation stood in silence, waiting to file out, we were treated to a short organ recital that served as epilogue.

I knew little of the organ and the music it produced; I knew even less about the many pieces I heard. Still, my body and my aural senses knew what they liked, and there was little doubt that the organ recital was the highlight of the service. I knew the master who played, up above in the loft that held the choir, was a short and stocky man, with hands like little cudgels. (Rumor had it Mr. Paul had been a boxer in his school days, and was still capable of landing a fearsome slap or box to the ears of the insolent.) I could imagine him bent over the keys, his fingers busy at work, the ‘pipes’ towering over him, his feet working the pedals, sending out those notes, sonorous, commanding, filling the spaces of the chapel and my imagination.

My musical tastes, as I indicated, were not too sophisticated. Still, I acquired an early favorite: Bach‘s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. (I had first heard it on the soundtrack of Rollerball; when I first heard it in the chapel, I was curious and excited enough to find out more about this melody that had so intrigued me.) Mr. Paul, our organist, only played it occasionally, and every one of those occasions made the proverbial hairs stand on end, my skin prickling.

I was not a religious person then; indeed, I had lost whatever little religious belief I had in the years following my father’s death. I participated in the chapel service because I was required to; I was used to being subjected to school discipline, so mouthing the hymns and prayers and going through the motions of rising and kneeling in unison came easily to me. It was all a bit of a performance, and I was well aware of it. We were in chapel for no longer than fifteen minutes at most, and though I chafed occasionally at the service’s constraints, I put up with it, much like I did with all the disciplinary codes of this highly structured home away home.

But that little organ recital did not fail to induce an emotional response in me; it made me look forward to the service, if only its end. (Of course, the organ accompanied our hymns too, and thus, in them as well, I found much stirring within me.)

Mr. Paul often practiced in the evenings; on some those occasions, I, along with a friend or two, would sneak down to the chapel and treat ourselves to a free concert, standing outside the back wall. These were short, for our days were tightly scheduled. But they were memorable; I could see the Himalayas towering ahead, the well-groomed gardens of the campus laid about. And through the walls, I could hear that mighty instrument, an accompaniment to the sacral, but also capable of uplifting the profane.

All Things Bright And Beautiful: The Sunshine Holiday

On a day like this, as the East Coast digs in and prepares for a blizzard, as my daughter’s daycare shuts down early and as Brooklyn College, my employer, preemptively calls for a closing tomorrow, I figured I might as well write about the time I used to get days off when the sun shone.

My ninth and tenth grades were completed at a boarding school in India’s north-east. (More precisely, in the town of Darjeeling, in the state of West Bengal.) Amongst other things, India’s north-east is famous for the quantity of its rainfall. The world’s wettest place, Cherrapunji, in the Indian state of Meghalaya, is in the Indian north-east. You get the idea.

I learned these facts about my new location the hard way. Rainy, grey days were exceedingly common; these were accommodated by covered walkways between buildings, which facilitated easy umbrella-free transits between them.  Still, the persistent rain resulted in an all-pervading air of dampness all over and around the school; you couldn’t escape the odd soaking or two. We played our sports in the rain; our gear hardly ever dried in time for us to wear it again. You couldn’t get away from the mud, sometimes on your shoes, sometimes on your trousers. All too soon, you could smell the mold everywhere. It was very often, a miserable state of affairs.

A few weeks after I started school, on the morning of a day on which the sun had finally shone after several days of rain, I walked into the school chapel for our morning service, and noticed that the number of the hymn listed on the board next to the pulpit was 155. It indicated we would be singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” during the service. On seeing this, some excited murmuring broke out around me. I asked a friend what the matter was. “We’re going to get a sunshine holiday”, he whispered back. I had no idea what that was.

A short while later, I found out. We were getting the day off. There would be no classes. Apparently, my school had a tradition: when the sun finally shone after a long absence, we were given the day off, and whimsically informed of the school’s decision to give us this little treat by indicating we would sing that Anglican classic during our service. Some games of intramural soccer were organized but other than that, we were left to our devices. We reacted to this news by sunbathing on lawns and the roofs of buildings, putting out moldy and damp clothes and linen to dry, and going for long walks around our campus. I don’t think I’ve ever welcomed the sun’s appearance as much as I did on those occasions. For a young lad who had just left India’s hottest city, my school’s response to the sun’s presence was an utter novelty. And a welcome one at that.

PS: On one occasion, as I worked in the chemistry lab, I noticed a strange bright glow outside and wondered what it was. It was the sun, making its appearance after a rain that had lasted sixteen days. It had shown up a little too late for us to get the day off and I never forgave that tardiness on its part.