Episode 4 of the Cherrapunji chronicles (the previous ones are here, here and here). One of the most exciting stops for me on the Cherrapunji tour is the little church in the centre of the town. It is quite inconspicuous, though prepossessing and we missed it on the first few trips in the excitement of the many other more obvious tourist destinations. It was only when Dr. Dhruv Ghosh, a close friend from Ludhiana and a major history enthusiast told me to stop at the cemetery (which is just opposite the church on a hill), so he could look around, that I realised the extent of my folly - I had missed for so long what was probably the most important landmark of Cherrapunji! Dhruv said that in the old British towns of India, the most interesting place for a historian is the cemetery!! There the old tales spring to life in the various tombstones and monuments to great men of another generation (agreed, they were our 'hated' conquerors, but let's give credit where it's due - some, at least, were certainly worthy of the adjective). Personally, I thought this was rather silly and I sat in the car and tried to snooze while Dhruv, George (another Ludhiana friend) and Cornerstone (one of my colleagues and yes, that is his real name) explored the cemetery.
As I was parked in front of the church, I lazily read the inscriptions on the monuments in front of me - and that is when I discovered what I had so far been missing. I was parked in front of the first church in Meghalaya!! Now, since the fact that Meghalaya was one of the only places in India where there was widespread acceptance of the missionaries and their faith (to the extent that 70-80% of the population is now Christian), I forgot my nap and explored further. The church was founded by Thomas Jones, the first missionary to the Khasi hills and the founder of the Khasi script. Yesterday was the 170th anniversary of his death. Here is his story.
Thomas Jones, the son of a carpenter from Wales, was ordained a Methodist minister and left soon after with his wife, Anne to India. Soon after their arrival in Calcutta, Anne gave birth to a child, who could not survive and died soon after birth. The Jones' then climbed the hills up from present-day Bangladesh to reach Cherrapunji, where they set up their base. It always occurs to me, when I hear the stories of these early missionaries, that they certainly were men of tougher fibre than me!! An afternoon's climb is enough to put me out of action for at least a few days!! Sometimes, when it rains, I am ashamed to say I use the car to go to the hospital, a mere 5 minutes walk away. And I certainly cannot imagine living without electricity, running water and the so-called 'basic' comforts, though there are missionaries even today in our own country for whom this is normal! (Isaac and Vijila in Barharwa come to mind). It's easy to assuage our guilt and claim we are not called to such a life, but the question is, if that is the call, am I ready for it. Or have these material comforts become so much a part of my life that I would be lost without them.... But, I digress.....
Rev. Jones' skill as a carpenter were well appreciated by the local people and he soon became a part of the community and learnt the language. Here again, I realise the quality of his fibre. I have been here for more than a year and a half and I still cannot frame a straight sentence in Khasi - a source of great embarrassment for me. (Amy however, speaks like a native - her English has also taken on the lilting twang that is characteristic of this beautiful land). In comparison (to me!), by 1942, just a year after Jones had reached Sohra, he had already brought out the first ever works of modern Khasi literature - a Khasi reader and the translation of a Welsh book. Rev. Jones used the Roman script (which is what I am writing in), which fit very well with the Khasi language. Before this, there were many attempts at devising a script and the Bengali script appeared to be the least difficult to adapt. However, Thomas Jones changed all that and wrote his name into Khasi history for ever.
In 1846, Jones established the first church in Meghalaya in Sohra. But soon after that, tragedy struck and his wife, Anne, died in childbirth. She became the first Christian to be buried in the Khasi hills as her tombstone in the centre of the cemetery proclaims. Every missionary story seems full of this - tragedy. Having been recently meditating a lot on suffering, it amazes me that these repeated and regular assaults on the soul of these missionaries did not (for the most part) cause them to turn back from the road they had taken. In our modern age, where prosperity is often the marker of success or failure, even small setbacks are enough to cause us to rethink our situation and second-guess our calling. Like I said, those men and women were made of sterner stuff.
After his wife died, Jones found life tough. He fell out with the missionary board and had to strike out on his own, establishing another mission and church in Pomreng. He married again, but this caused him even more trouble with the mission as his new wife was only 15. He then condemned the malpractices of a local businessman (expatriate, of course) who was powerful enough to have him barred from the area. He returned to Calcutta, where he contracted malaria and died on 16th September 1849. At the age of 39. He had been in Meghalaya for just 9 years. In that time, he had given the Khasi people the script for their language and sown the seeds of the church which would bear great fruit in the years to come. All completed just in his 3rd decade of life.
There are many stories of the unsung men of God in small pockets of this world. It is unfortunately the Joel Osteens of this world who command our attention. But for me, stories of men like Thomas Jones strike much closer to home. He followed his call through every difficulty, he applied himself to relevant activities in his chosen community, he accepted major setbacks as part of his ministry and he died without ever seeing the fruits of the seeds he helped plant. But in heaven, he sits at a place of honour for eternity, which is far better.....