Father Vinander finally agrees to let me give the brothers an English lesson, and if it goes okay to make it a part of their regular timetable, substituting with one of their afternoon Divinity lessons. They can speak English of course, but their grammar is generally all over the place, a strange stilted pidgin mixture, and I thought I’d do them the favor of straightening it out.
The first lesson is after Siesta-hour, and I’ve deliberately avoided my spliff-break. The brothers are in a festive mood, having been released from a period of dry catechism class. They sit cross-legged on the floor with eager attentive faces. We’ve only been allotted half an hour and the lesson I planned begins with a song - “What Shall We do with the Drunken Sailor?”
They enjoy that, particularly when I get them on their feet, miming the hauling of the anchor with “Hooray, and up she rises!” although I notice Brother Jerome avoids sharing eye contact with me.
The mini-dialogue I devised also goes down well. – ‘A robber comes into a shop with a gun, demanding money. The shopkeeper hasn’t got any, so the robber settles for a coke’.
I write the words on the lumpy old blackboard, and they practice in pairs. Then I choose a couple to perform, to the great amusement of all. They’re like kids at a party.
Next, I’d decided on a free improvised dialogue in pairs, an interview between the shopkeeper and a detective about the robbery. I tell them they have five minutes to plan the conversation, and then we’ll listen to a couple of pairs before we call it a day.
They begin, and the room is filled with the babble of voices. I walk round the room, trying to listen to different pairs, but it’s impossible to distinguish what they’re saying. After a while I check my watch and discover that they’ve been practicing for seven minutes, so I tell them to wind up their conversation, but they don’t hear me, lost as they are in excited conversation. I raise my voice.
“Could we stop now please? We’re running out of time!”
The din only seems to increase. I look around at them all jabbering away and ignoring me – not a word in English. They’re simply gossiping in their own language, enjoying an excuse to get off a boring Divinity lesson. I have no control.
“Be quiet!” I shout. They chatter on.
“SHUT UP!” I bawl.
That does the trick. They stop and stare at me in silent amazement, never having been spoken to in such a manner within these walls. Class is dismissed.
It’s been decided that English lessons will not be continued. I can’t say I’m sorry - but I’m embarrassed by my loss of temper. Well, at least I learned something. I definitely don’t have the patience of a Saint!
John has gone to Delhi for a couple of weeks to stay with some old friends of his mother who live there; Gunter has been struck down by amoebic dysentery and removed to the sick-bay, where he languishes as stoically as a Christian can.
Their absence has increased my morning workload; more piss-bottles and bedpans to wash out, and more patients to hose down. I’m using this as an excuse not to change the bandage on my old gentleman’s elbow wounds, convinced that they might heal by being left alone for a while.
I’ve also taken over Gunter’s pet patient - the young man who lies on the floor mattress next to the T.B. ward with the shattered leg and hip, his beautiful dark eyes staring despondently at the ceiling. I kneel beside him, confronted by the tiny encrusted hole in the swollen pus-filled thigh and hip, remembering Gunter’s words that the poison must come out.
Without really knowing what to do, I press my fingers around the little crater and begin to knead. After a few minutes there’s a sudden eruption, and a thick, yellow, foul-smelling cream oozes out. Fountains of liquid follow, becoming more transparent with each press and spurt. I am jubilant. The dam has broken. The patient is surprised and pleased, nodding as I work. I milk on to get as much of the infection out as possible; it seems a never ending task, but lunchtime comes, and as I wash my hands I remind myself that no matter how much poison is removed from the leg, the shattered bones can not re-knit, and he will never be able to stand on it again.
With John and Gunter gone, I have the volunteer dormitory to myself. Tempted by the privacy, I commit an act of self-abuse while soaping myself down in the washroom - trying not to think of anyone in particular. It’s enjoyable while it lasts, but afterwards I don’t feel particularly proud of myself. Not guilty or ashamed though, which is important. Just a minor lack of self-control.
The Catholic Church has been one of the most outspoken groups condemning masturbation. Catholic teaching is that sexual activity is intended for conception, thus masturbation is an immoral sexual practice because it does not permit conception. In addition, the Catholic Church teaches that masturbation breeds lust and selfishness, which takes one further from God.
On Dec 29th 1975 Pope Paul wrote this in his Persona Humana - Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics: “...masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act...the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty. For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes ‘the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.’ All deliberate exercise of sexuality must be reserved to this regular relationship.”
John is back after only four days, and has joined Gunter in the sickbay with the same illness - amoebic dysentery - the shits with a vengeance, completely debilitating. I suppose I could also be struck at any time too, but I can’t believe it’s the fault of the food here, which is carefully chosen and cooked.
I wake with a sharp pain in my chest in the middle of the night and think I must have contracted T.B. I decide not to tell anyone, to wait till I’m coughing up blood like a proper Romantic poet, and gently fade away. I go back to sleep feeling very noble, but the pain hasn’t returned since.
The symptoms of TB include a low-grade fever, night sweats, fatigue, weight loss and a persistent cough. Some people may not have obvious symptoms.
Among eminent personalities who were victims of the disease which John Bunyan called ‘the Captain of the Men of Death’ were Voltaire, John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, R.L. Stevenson and D.H.Lawrence.
Someone dies of tuberculosis every 10 seconds. The death toll is equivalent to the crash of one jumbo jet every hour of every day. Virtually every one of these deaths is preventable.
Shakespeare and grass on the roof at siesta time has become a revelation, a mystical experience! Rather than watching them performed, reading the plays gives me time to savor and enjoy. I think that the antipathy I had towards them before was because of the ‘Shakespearean Voice’ affected by such worthies as Gielgud, Richardson and Olivier – that quavering bass or falsetto, warping and obfuscating the words to distraction.
With the book on my lap under the lapis lazuli bowl of sky, the sun on my skin, I savor the sentences like sips of vintage wine.
Gunter is up and amazingly sparky after his week in the sick-bay. But a sad decision - after inspecting the patient I’ve been looking after for him, he announces that he must be sent to the nearest hospital without delay to have his leg amputated.
“Gangrene is spreading,” he explains. “Without the operation he will surely die.”
The situation is explained to the young man. He nods silently and is carried away sobbing on a stretcher to the ambulance waiting outside.
Back to my normal duties, Brother Zachary reminds me that I haven’t changed the bandage on the old man’s elbow for about three days. I don’t have the courage to tell him that I’ve been conducting an experiment, but obediently unwind the bandage and discover that I’d been right in my surmise - wafery scabs have formed over the wounds. Brother Zachary stands and watches as I daub fresh ointment on them and wrap the elbow up again with fresh gauze, before taking me aside and scolding me for giving bidis to patients. I protest weakly that it’s unkind to deprive addicts of their nicotine when the relief is available.
“Don’t yield to their wheedling!” he says. “Show them who is boss!”
That’s something he does very well. I’ve seen him dragging weeping patients to the washroom and forcing them to take a shower. Hygiene is all very well, but a little politeness wouldn’t go amiss!
Towards lunchtime I notice a group of brothers and patients gathered by a window in the corner, sighing and cooing in admiration. I go to see what’s happening. The center of attention is a beautiful little boy with a beaming smile, two or three years old, prattling away in the arms of his mother, another woman by their side. The child is a ray of sunshine in the dingy, miserable ward, and I find myself smiling, until I notice one of his thumbs, wrapped in an old encrusted bandage. I learn that several weeks ago his thumbnail had been smashed in a slamming door; his mother had bound it up; but now she thought it time for the dressing to be removed, and because it had dried so hard, she had decided to bring the boy here to have it taken off.
“And off it will come!” cries Brother Zachary as he unpicks the imbedded knot and begins to unwind the cocoon. The frightened child glances at his mother in alarm and starts to squirm, but she holds him tight. As the bandage jerkingly unpeels, his whimper rises to a cry, to a wail, to a scream, while from all sides soothing voices try vainly to placate him. It’s too much for me. I have to get away, and I flee to the roof with my grass, my only anodyne.
The Catholic graveyard has been transformed. The graves I look down on from my sentinel are now a scatter of luminous lozenges. Tomorrow being All Souls Day, relatives and friends have come and painted the mounds of hardened earth in glorious colors – pink, turquoise, lime, and sherbet yellow. Planted candles flicker on them, surrounded by garlands of red and orange blossoms. Each tomb looks like a birthday cake that could be sliced into and devoured. A drowsy cow meanders among them, pausing to crop here and there. My heart rejoices at the sight. This is beauty. This is poetry – no doubt accentuated by the heady, aromatic smoke of my joint that has banished the cares of the day. If only for a short while, I have found peace.
Brother Amit Prem sits opposite me at lunch and after a few curious glances, leans across and asks what’s wrong with my eyes.
“Nothing,” I stonily reply. “Why do you ask?”
“But they are red,” he smiles cheekily. “Why should your eyes be so red?”
I say it was probably due to a cold coming on, but it’s the grass of course. Dope has that effect sometimes, especially that heavy Bombay black I was smoking in Kuwait, which made my eyes look like moist roses. Brother Amit Prem has such a saucy way of looking and questioning, that I think sometimes he suspects all sorts of things about me, and only asks to stoke a little paranoia.
The yoga teacher visited our room this evening to have a chat with Gunter before the lesson. During their conversation, in order to demonstrate a particularly difficult posture, the teacher suddenly strips down to his pristine underpants, gets into full lotus position, and to our astonishment, supports his body on the palms of his hands and balances there for a full minute.
“The conquest and training of the physical body is the least difficult part of yoga,” he announces, as he pulls his clothes back on. “Most of the obstacles to enlightenment I have managed to overcome – Pride and Self Love; Mistake; Wrong Faith; Doubt; Love of the World; Desire for Heaven – these I have conquered. But Lust – that carnal craving – remains to be defeated. I find Lust the most difficult of all the temptations to wrestle with.”
Gunter grins and shrugs, and the teacher leaves to report to Father Vinander before the lesson.
It makes me think. If Lust is so difficult for him to overcome, shouldn’t it be harder for me, a gay man in an all-male commune? But in fact, although many of the brothers are handsome and desirable, all are off-limits, and their boyish wholesomeness makes the very idea of dalliance absurd. My mind rarely strays to thoughts of sex nowadays, but I can’t say I’m safe, for it is out there and Lust can attack at any time.
For instance, alone in the dorm the other afternoon, aware of a repeated thudding sound, I look out of the window and see a worker in a scant loincloth breaking coal with a pickaxe in the neighboring compound. His skin is dark and glaucous; the sharply defined muscles tauten and relax as he pounds. His back is to me, and he’s totally unaware of my scrutiny. With shock and disappointment, I feel desire. I try to deny it and walk away from the sight, but am drawn back despite myself to secretly admire his physical beauty.