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.

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.