In his marvelous, most recent novel the Indian writer, Amitav Ghosh, tells the story of the mid-19th century Raja Neel Rattan Halder, the zemindar of Rashkali[i]. The fictitious Halders were among the oldest and most noted landed families of Bengal. Born of a high caste with religious sensitivities, Neel is a paragon of purity and cleanliness. As a child he was delicate and fragile, characteristics that he retains in his adulthood. When entertaining Englishmen, Neel would not eat with them, “the rules of the Rashkali household were strict in regard to whom the Raja could eat with, and unclean beef-eaters were not a part of that small circle.” This is not so much a judgment of the westerners as a statement of fact, and for Neel, the extension of his gracious hospitality need not be an occasion for defiling himself. He can remain clean in their presence, even as they transgress bounds he would never allow himself to cross.
What Neel has been unable to retain in his adulthood is the wealth of previous generations of his family, which has been siphoning away for years, without his really knowing it. And eventually Neel finds himself in prison because of his inability to pay his debts, and because it suits the British colonizers who want to make use of the Raja’s land holdings.
In prison, Neel has no choice buy to occupy a filthy cell that is an affront to every pattern, every rule he has tried to live his life by. Ritual cleanness is a luxury even dearer than actual cleanliness. But the greatest affront to Neel’s status and identity, the greatest challenge to his cleanness is his cellmate: a stinking, shriveled, convulsing, nameless soul who is an opium addict in serious withdrawal, who lies huddled in a corner of the cell, “so thickly mired in dirt and mud that it was impossible to tell whether the man was naked or clothed.” “For a man of Neel’s fastidiousness,” Ghosh writes, “it was to cohabit with the incarnate embodiment of his loathings.”
Neel, the Raja of Rashkali, decides that if he is to remain sane, he will have to clean his cell. But to take up into his hands the broom and the dustpan required to do so, is to come into contact with objects heretofore untouchable to him. “Closing his eyes, he thrust his hand blindly forward [to grab the broom], and only when the handle was in his grasp did he allow himself to look again: it seemed miraculous then that his surroundings were unchanged.” And he goes about the process of sweeping, and scouring the floor of his cell. But there remains, in the corner, the addict in the throes of his withdrawal, covered in his own filth, reeking like a toilet, quivering in his semi-private agony.
Eventually, as time passes and the addict’s convulsions subside, Neel decides that he has no choice but to complete the job of cleaning the cell, and this will mean taking his cellmate into his own hands and cleaning him, too. So he barters with other prisoners for some slivers of soap and some rags, he convinces the guard to allow him access to water, he finagles a new set of clothes, and he approaches the figure that has huddled in the corner of the cell for days. The Raja of Rashkali scrubs the filth off the man, cuts his loose clothing off of him, finds someone to shave his head and his beard, both of which are teeming with lice, cleans and de-louses his bedding and washes that last corner of the cell, to which he returns the bedding and the still silent figure of his cellmate.
And this is what Ghosh writes in summarizing this phenomenal event in the life of Raja Neel Rattan Halder of Rashkali:
“To take care of another human being – this was something Neel had never before thought of doing, not even with his own son, let alone a man of his own age, a foreigner. All he knew of nurture was the tenderness that had been lavished on him by his own care-givers: that they would come to love him was something he had taken for granted – yet knowing his own feelings for them to be in no way equivalent, he had often wondered how that attachment was born. It occurred to him now to ask himself if this was how it happened: was it possible that the mere fact of using one’s hands and investing one’s attention in someone other than oneself, created a pride and tenderness that had nothing whatever to do with the response of the object of one’s care – just as the craftsman’s love for his handiwork is in no way diminished by the fact of it being unreciprocated?”
When I first read that beautiful passage, I knew that it was the Gospel in a different tongue. I did not realize how well it matched the Gospel reading for today: “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?”
We find it more or less easy to love those who love us already, and it is a fine thing that we should find it as easy as we can. But Jesus calls us to love those whom we are not inclined to love, to reach out to those for whom affection does not immediately swell in our hearts, to love, even our enemies. “For if you greet only your brothers and sisters what more are you doing than others?”
I cannot speak for all of you, but speaking for myself, even though I have not a single land holding to my name, generally speaking, I am a Raja in the world, surrounded by things and people that remain essentially untouchable to me. I could tell you that there is no system of purity rules that I am following, but I would be being a bit dishonest, although the system in our country is not codified and not defended as it has been in India. Still, much remains untouchable to me.
And yet I know that lying in the corner (of my block, my neighborhood, my city, my nation) there is a shivering, filthy, quivering, convulsing soul, or more, whose misery I can hardly measure. I do not know his name, or where he comes from. I do not know how many of him there are in the world. I only know that I am not inclined to love that slight and stinking bit of humanity. I am not inclined to wash him off. I am not inclined to care nearly so much about his cleanliness as I am about my own cleanness, especially since I do not expect that much gratitude will be shown for whatever I do.
But I am reminded that I am a creature of God’s own making, and that God’s love for me is in no way diminished by the fact of it being more or less unreciprocated. And I hear Jesus asking, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? What more are you doing than others?”
Eventually in the story, Neel awakes one day to find his cellmate awake and near him, resting his arm on Neel’s shoulder, and he has only one thing to tell Neel, he tells him his name.
This city is full of quivering souls who have been consigned to lives of dirty, low expectations. It is convenient that for the most part I do not know their names. How long will it be, I wonder, before we Rajas are willing to use our own hands and invest our attention in someone other than ourselves? How long before we learn to love those who do not yet love us? How long to reach out to all that frightens us and threatens us, to our enemies, and to discover, when we open our eyes, that in our case, the world has changed. And it is good.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
20 February 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008