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Amy Carmichael :: Ponnamal—Chapter I: The Girl Ponnamal

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A girl stood alone in the dark, listening. No one moved about her; the old mother‐in‐law who slept near by breathed steadily, she would not waken yet awhile. The girl drew back the heavy iron bolts of the door and slipped out into the night.

Out there, in the soft warm air, with the white stars looking down on her with only pity in their eyes, she stopped. She knew the thing she purposed doing was unreasonable and hopelessly wrong; but she was too desperate with loneliness to care. Life since her husband had died had been too hard to live. A widow's life in India-God only knows how hard it can be made-she could bear it no longer; she had crept out now to end it, as so many girls have ended it. The well was near; it seemed to draw her to itself. And yet she waited; and the quiet stars soothed her, and the soft night airs did their healing work.

Then as she stood came the memory of something she had read about an Indian widow in Western India who was working a great work for her country. A widow, and yet of use to India: the thing had been; could be, perhaps, again. Perhaps there was something left for her to do. She would not end all hope of it tonight.

So she stole back again and lay down on her mat, and clasped closer the little child, her only child, whom she had all but left for ever in her mad misery, and lying with unsleeping eyes thought many thoughts till dawn.

This was Ponnamal: and thus was the awakening of a spirit that was to travel far in the fields of joyful adventure.

She was born in August, 1875, that great year for India when Edward, Prince of Wales, came and stayed in simple fashion with the Collector of the district in which her home lay, and stood to be gazed at by crowds of gratified Christians at the railway‐station. And because she was born in so great a year, the village folk told her father she would be great among women. He, good man, believed them, and received her with much joy, and called her Ponnamal, which means gold.

She grew to be an attractive little maid, of a soft clear colour quite unlike the 'black' of English imagination. And quiet eyes she had,that looked steadfastly out on the world; and hair that waved and curled; and delicate little hands that no work ever spoiled. The mother, a saint of typical Indian type, brought her up carefully; and when she went to school, and returned praised by all and very wise, the father felt she had indeed begun her life in an auspicious year.

At nineteen they married her, as the custom was, and too often is, with little knowledge of the one to whom they committed so dear a treasure; he was a professor in a mission college, had good pay, was of the right degree of relationship, and of course of the exact shade of suitable caste. And clothed in silken garments, and decked with pretty chains and bangles, as sweet and true as she was good to look upon, she left her father's house, girl of high spirit, but gentle as a fawn.

Of her one year of married life Ponnamal never cared to speak: it was disillusionment. Perhaps this was inevitable, for she was by nature spiritual, and he was of the earth earthy, and his pursuits apart from his college duties were not of an elevated character. She had no sort of kinship with him till her baby came, when, the Tamil being an affectionate parent, they met for the first time on common ground; and with the Indian woman's gracious gift of making the most out of little, she contented herself and was happy.

Then suddenly her husband died, and she was that most desolate of God's creatures in India, a widow.

At first the gloom was lightened by the kindness of her father "her mother having died previously", who took her home and in his simple way tried to comfort her. But even he could not quite rise above the sense of heavy disgrace and misfortune. Life seemed suddenly one long, tired perplexity.

Then pulling herself together she faced it; knew that to conquer in it she must be strong; felt that the sorrowful, considerate affection of her own people was weakening something within her. 'I wanted to learn to endure,' she told me years afterwards, 'and so I went to my father‐in‐law's house;' where, as all knew, she was wanted, because of the child whom the parents‐in‐law counted theirs, and because of some property now Ponnamal's, which they wished to appropriate. Of sympathy they knew nothing at all. Now, in real earnest, began the discipline of widowhood.

Ponnamal's mother and her mother before her had been women of that sweet and saintly type so essentially Indian, that those who know and love this land will recognize it without more descriptive words. The family had become Christian in the great‐grandmother's time; and the women seem to have been notable all the way down the line, which in India, with its early marriages, covers fewer years than one might expect. The parents‐in‐law were also Christians of standing, but the tenderer elements somehow had been missed when they were made. Fine folk they were of their sort, people of force, some wealth, and abundant worldly wisdom. To them the girl widow was a blot on the prosperous landscape of life, to be tolerated only for the sake of the child-their son's child. With the shrewdness of a woman of this type, the mother‐in‐law recognized in Ponnamal something foreign in spirit and therefore obnoxious. Her harsh voice drove the girl about the house from morning till evening; and Ponnamal, who was eager to help, was treated as an unwilling drudge, to be scolded for her good. And for her good did that strange girl accept it all. The stuff which makes meek nuns scourge themselves in secret was in her. She accepted it, and at first in peace.

But little by little she sank under it. She was not allowed to keep herself nice, and that wounded the self‐respect in her. Her beautiful long waves of hair might not be combed except with her fingers, and never might be dressed. Except on Sunday, when she was taken to church, she was not allowed a clean garment: soiled things become a widow. She was never allowed out anywhere except to church. In curious contradiction to this they wished Ponnamal to wear some of her jewels still, a quite unjewelled woman being too terrible a thing to have to contemplate daily. But of this Ponnamal thought little. What broke her spirit was the restricted life, the sense of being always wrong, always under the shadow of disapproval as a widow. She felt smothered. Her child, a precious little person called Paripuranam "Perfection", shortened to a purry sort of word best spelt Purripu, was hers, of course, but far more its grandmother's: so there was the constant fret of a divided responsibility and disputed claims. Sometimes she would try to lift herself above everything and triumph through sheer will‐power. But will‐power fails under certain forms of trial long continued. She would not give in, acknowledge herself defeated, and return to her father's house; but she slipped down. It was then the cool waters of the well in the courtyard called her. Did an angel lay his hand on her arm at that moment and draw her back? The thought that worked within her I have already told.


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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