AN ORDINARY DAY, AND DIGRESSIONS
Ponnamal’s ordinary day began before dawn; for, up till the time of her illness, she saw to the night food of any babies who required it. At that time most of the infants were in one large nursery, under her care; she had of course young girls to help her, but it was she who was responsible; and always she had the sick babies herself. She was a splendid sick‐nurse, and knew exactly how to manipulate the food for varyingly constituted babies. ‘She knows far more than I do about it,’ one of the Neyoor doctors said to me; and as he spoke I recalled a day when she told me how in her extremity she was inwardly directed: ‘For the baby “it was Evu who had been at death’s door and was still lingering thereabouts” could not take her food, do what I would. She was on Benger, and it had always suited her, but now it failed. I tried weakening it till it contained as little nourishment as I dared to give her; and I tried “digesting” it for a shorter and longer time, but nothing was of any use, and I did not know what to do. And then one day as I stirred in the flour, I lifted my heart once more, and said, “Lord, the inside of this little child is well known to Thee. Guide me, tell me what to do, or she will die!”’ And then she told me how, as it seemed to her, the exact number of minutes the food should be ‘digested’ was suggested to her mind. The directions on the tin were otherwise, but she tried the new way, and immediately Evu began to mend, and recovered perfectly, to become one of our healthiest children.
So, after being up almost invariably several times in the night, Ponnamal’s day proper began; and whenever possible it began with short informal prayers with the nurses, at half‐past five sometimes in the nursery while the babies slept in the hammocks all round, or in the milk‐kitchen, so that the fire‐glow fell on the little group kneeling on the floor.
As early as she could get them to come, she was ready for the milk‐sellers, and she tested and measured their milk. No one who has not done this sort of thing in the East can imagine all it entails of vigilance. There is not much in India about which there is not a chance to turn a dishonest anna, or, at lowest hope, a pie —a pie being a twelfth of an anna, which is a penny, which is the sixteenth of a rupee. But of all substances, solid or fluid, milk is perhaps the most accommodating, and Ponnamal needed all her nous in dealing with the milk‐sellers. ‘The mind of the people of this land,’ she remarked one day, ‘revolves round pies, annas, rupees; rupees, annas, pies.’ We knew then that one otherwise minded is rare. We know it with tenfold more emphasis since Ponnamal was taken from us; for we have found it impossible to find anyone able to take her place, even in merely ‘secular’ ways.
‘Have you not one relative or friend you could trust to help you in this work?’ we asked the much overburdened Sellamuttu, known elsewhere as Pearl, after a grievous breakdown in good faith on the part of one from outside whom we hoped could have helped. ‘Amma,’ she answered simply, ‘do not expect to find another Ponnamal or even another such as I, by the grace of God, in the matter of truth now am; for such you will not find.’
After the milk‐buying came the food‐making. For years Ponnamal did this entirely herself. And till we had our own English nurse she was always the one to help me in making up the medicines if any were needed. Her clear head was of wonderful assistance in working out the doses in correct proportions. But here again, as in the housekeeping matter, I feel hardly one in a thousand will realize what it meant to have her help.
Take a concrete case, one of scores: Preena, the Elf, was ill with enteric. The Walkers had just gone home, and the night they left, the only sound in the house was the moaning of the delirious child. I remember how empty the house felt, and how silent, and yet it was not empty or silent. Those who had to leave us were not forgetting us as their bullock‐carts trundled off; and we were not alone. But the nursing of typhoid night and day, even with a doctor to pilot one through, must always be arduous work; without a doctor, it is, to put it briefly, killing. Toward the end of the time, the child, who had been doing well, suddenly developed a new trouble. Her throat seemed to shut up, and for three days she swallowed nothing. I searched desperately through Moore’s Manual of Family Medicine and Birch’s Management of Children in India, our two standbys here, but found nothing relevant to her condition; and with eyes that could hardly see the print pored over the four columns of A Dictionary of Domestic Medicine and Surgery, by Dr. Thompson and Dr. Steele, which ponderous volume sometimes showed us the way we should go. All in vain; Preena had walked out of the pages devoted to her malady in all three books. It is a dreadful way children in India have, this branching off into vagaries in illness. ‘What does the book say about it?’ ‘It says nothing at all!’ How often we go through that experience of despair. Months later, in an old edition of Moore, I found a small‐print note to the effect that a certain swelling of the glands of the neck is a possible, though unusual, complication in enteric. But that day I found nothing.
Think of what it was at such a time to have one like Ponnamal alongside, able to look after all I had to leave undone, and ready, too, to make up the medicines for the village people; for we had what was almost a village dispensary in those days. It was rest to the tired‐out mind to feel she could not if she tried make a mistake in a calculation, so accurately did her clear brain work; all would be correct to the fraction of a minim.
This gift of precision was one for which my soul sang many a Benedicite. Who that has had to diagnose an infant, hunt through medical books for corresponding symptoms, make up the very minute doses, and give them, and all in what sometimes was tearing anxiety, but will appreciate the comfort of such help? In the earlier days of the work, as I have said, some very miscellaneous children were sent to us—weakly, diseased, hurt little mortals. We could not refuse them, though they were not the kind of child we existed to save; we had to do our best for them all. Some died, but others throve; and on the whole, doctorless as we still are, we are a very healthy family.
Ponnamal was rather wonderful, too, in the way she learned to appreciate methods which to her were entirely new and crudely Western. The Indian mind is made of folds, firmly folded in unexpected places. You despair of ever winning to the far end of it, there are so many plies in it, as Samuel Rutherford said in a different connection, and Ponnamal’s mind was Indian. The first time I remember our differing about anything vital was when I wanted the babies to sleep in the open air. Ponnamal had been brought up in the usual Indian fashion; a stuffy little room with every
window carefully shut at night was her idea of things as they should be. As soon as possible we built airy rooms, with verandahs on which the children could sleep; and life was made as much out of door as possible; and Ponnamal, in her loving solicitude for the babies, feared this very much, and the creases within were evident. But I knew she would speedily iron them all out, and waited in peace. Presently I saw her do it; and she soon became as keen about fresh air for the children as we were. When her own little daughter came from school with signs of tubercle upon her, she threw herself heartily into the fresh‐air treatment, and Purripu grew into a healthy girl. ‘Look at Purripu,’ her mother would say to anyone who, dismayed by our new‐fangled ways, cheerfully prophesied chronic colds ending in premature death all round. ‘She was thin and stooping six months ago, and always tired. Now look at her!’
But this is a digression, though belonging in spirit to the ordinary day.
As long as she could, Ponnamal had a Bible‐class with her young nurses in the forenoons; but as the work grew, this became impossible. And it hardly mattered; for her whole life was a lesson. No girl, however naturally self‐centred or indolent, could be with her without catching something of her brave unselfish spirit; a spirit that toiled unto weariness every day it lived, and cared for nothing but the children’s good.
In the afternoon, if all were well, she went to her own little room behind the nursery, and rested for an hour. But if a baby were ill, or any other anxiety pressed, it was hard to get her to rest; if her heart were anxious, her body could not rest. Then came the evening milk to be tested and measured, and the night foods to be made, and so the ordinary day ended.
But how little of it I have told! There were so many other things tucked into its corners—little acts of helpfulness, careful thoughts that worked out into some new economy or some new endeavour—that a book might be written about them alone. For example, while she was measuring the milk, a servant would pass, and she would call him aside for a moment and say a word or two. And the next thing we who had to see to the larger matters of life were aware of, was some pieces of work about which we had consulted together, accomplished, or set on foot. She had that faculty, as rare as nous, the power to get things done. And in a land where a workman comes, bargains about the work, says he will do it to‐morrow, takes the inevitable advance without which a carpenter cannot mend a stool, or a potter make a pot, or a mason build a house, and then goes away, finds a distant relative has just deceased, goes to the funeral, and forgets to come back till you have spent what ought to have been his wages on coolies to go and search for him, this faculty is invaluable.
Then there were those other days, when everything seemed to go wrong on purpose: ‘Piria Sittie is learning how upsetting things can be in India,’ Ponnamal said once about Miss Wade, who was experiencing what the land can do in the way of heaping up difficulties. Or if, later, the newly launched litle school were plunging about in troubled waters, she would sympathize, and lend a helping hand by trying to replan the nursery work so as to make the dove‐tailing of the two halves of the family a little easier to compass. Or we would be suddenly involved in some tangle of circumstances, where her sagacity was required to find the way out; or perhaps it was a battle for a child—a battle in the heavenlies, to be fought out on our knees; or something needing for its handling the very wisdom of God. Whichever it was, Ponnamal, as I have said before, was ready. Many a wise and silent raid upon the kingdom of darkness was thought out by her, and often she led it herself. Once she came back in triumph with a baby in her arms, about whom the town—a famous Temple town—was so stirred that it all but rose in streets, but did not; for the quieting hand of our God was upon it.
But that last was a strange experience. The child’s mother, knowing the peril to which her little babe was exposed, put it herself in Ponnamal’s arms with the hurried whisper, ‘Hasten out before you are waylaid.’ Ponnamal knew well that if she were, the angry hunters after such prey would coerce the mother into denying what she had done. She knew the upshot would be a false case, with all the paraphernalia of witnesses ranged ready to forswear themselves for four annas a head. And she knew how such things end; what she had done would be a crime—she knew right well its penalty. But not even the word prison, a word that strikes the Tamil heart cold, held terrors for her. In a work like this, open at all times to attack which no ingenuity of man or woman could avoid or repel, was it not something to have for a fellow‐worker one to whom the word ‘fear’ was a word unknown?
Only once I saw her shrink. It was when the shadow that is never far from us seemed about to close round me. She did not seem able to bear it. A thousand times Yes to it, if she were the one to be engulfed—for the one she loved it was different. But she came to be willing for even that, if thereby a child could be saved; and beyond that I know of no more loyal, perfect love.