Conversion of our Ancestors

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Written by Mrs. Pritilata Singha in 1995 on a visit to Halifax, NS, Canada

This was an article written by my mother for the St. Peter’s Church Birch Cove newsletter. This is our church in Halifax. Most of our congregation found this very interesting and fascinating. I’m placing it here for my family – immediate and extended as a story about their background and inheritance.

To understand conversion in India, I feel one must have a basic knowledge of the social, economic and religious structure of our great country.

The East has always been religious and most or almost all religions have sprung up from Asia and the Middle East. Some have been born in India. Man has dominated Man by superiority of intellect, economic power or sheer physical strength.

Naturally, the ignorant accepted, respected and obeyed the intellectual, who interpreted natural phenomena as a revelation from a Super Power – God. Such a person claimed a personal link with this power. All over the world there were periods when individuals claimed to have this link and they became the priestly class. They were the intellectuals who rose above all other human beings in their communities. These intellectuals created social divisions based on economic and physical status of the rest of their race and community.

In India this was how the Caste system evolved and, in other parts of the world, the different social strata came into being. In India, the Brahmins, or the priestly class, put themselves as the top-most rung of the social ladder. They became Kingmakers and supposedly got their directives from God. The next in the social ladder were the Kshatriyas or nobles and then the Traders (Vaishyas) and last of all the menials or Shudhras who were workers/ labourers.

My maternal grandfather’s name was Pyari Mohan Mukerji – he belonged to the Brahmin community/ caste and came from a village called Noakhali, which is now in Bangladesh. This was in the nineteenth century during the British rule. His father and grandfather had held a high position in the village as Pradhans. At this time in history, they realised that if their son had an English education and could communicate with the British officials when they visited the village, his son’s prestige would rise higher in the eyes of the locals, especially when it came time to present their cases to the visiting British dignitary. It was for this reason, perhaps, that he was sent to Calcutta, the then Capital of the British Raj. Another reason could have been that ambitious missionaries visiting the village may have convinced Pyari Mohan Mukerji’s father and grandfather and a few other leading men of the village that a modern education was necessary for the young boys of village leaders. Anyway, whatever the reason, four boys were sent to the premiere missionary school, it was either the Alexander Duff School, or what is now called the Presidency College, at this point in time, I don’t remember.

Along with formal learning, scripture classes and chapel attendance were compulsory. My grandfather attended the school with three other boys, two of them were Prio Nath Ghosh and Meghdnath Saha; there was one other boy whose name is lost to memory. All three also attended both the scripture classes and chapel. These young boys were greatly impressed by the scripture stories and the tranquillity and dignity of the chapel services. What drew them to Christianity, I do not know, but they must have been attracted to something which they found missing in their temples – but being young and impressionable – they may have voiced a desire for conversion.

No sooner had they done this, the ever-vigilant missionaries wasted no time in going to work on them. Having been filled with the doctrine of Christianity and having God interpreted to them for the first time in their young lives as a loving God who sacrificed His divine Son for the redemption of mankind, must have had an electric effect on the young boys. It was perhaps this that led them to baptism. The whole event and the new attention of the teachers they commanded must have kept them on cloud nine for a long time. They were too young and immature to question and compare this new religion to their old religion – they may not have known what the renunciation of the old religion meant. However, it was too late to retract and the four of them decided not to let anyone from their village and especially anyone from their families know anything about it.

The first holiday they were granted they were allowed to go back to their villages and their respective homes. Unfortunately for them the news of their conversion had reached their fathers and they were in for an unpleasant surprise. Their fathers had had to hang their heads in shame and were perhaps afraid of losing their position in the village society. So when the boys came home they were beaten mercilessly and locked up while their fathers planned their next move. One thing was certain they would not be going back to school. They were made to realise that the crime they had committed had brought disgrace upon their families. The penalty they merited was Death.

On the other hand the fathers also realised that it would not be easy to kill them and dispose of their bodies. The school authorities would report the boys’ absence to the Police and the added information that they boys had recently converted and had not returned could well result in the whole village being made to suffer in some way. So very careful and clever planning and execution had to be done. Repeatedly the boys were told that they would not return to school and that perhaps death was the only punishment that would restore their fathers to their positions. Just fathom the mental agony of these tender teenagers, their fear and despair. They were too young to accept the martyr’s crown. There was no one to encourage and reassure them, perhaps they were too young in their faith to pray to their new God. Who knows what mental torture they went through.

Each boy suffered daily lashings they were often denied food and water. Perhaps they cried themselves to sleep. Only their mothers, who in the stillness of the night crept slowly and stealthily to their locked rooms and passed through some food and water, shared their sobs and anguish. And yet, somehow, the boys remained devoted to their new faith. Then one day the miracle happened. Each boy was set free by his mother and given a little money and food and told to flee to Calcutta and never to return. Perhaps the mothers had planned their escape at the village well on the days the fathers were attending a meeting with other leaders regarding the fate of these renegades.

What a tearful parting it must have been for each mother! Perhaps they were beaten by their husbands, who knows? But it was sons and mothers who paid the agonising price of those conversions.Of the four young boys, Ghosh suffered the most as he was given small doses of Dhatura (Datura)* poison – which would either make him insane or paralyse him. The four young boys were weak from starvation, bedraggled and rather lost little souls, who were almost unrecognisable when they entered the gates of the school, their only sanctuary. At this tender age they had sacrificed home, loving mothers, village friends, their siblings. They had suffered physically and mentally. However, on their return they were given a royal welcome by the missionaries and they perhaps became heroes in the school.

My maternal grandfather Pyari Mohan Mukerji became a priest – I have no idea what became of the others. (Note: my mother mentions Megh Nath Saha and Bankim Chander Chatterji – but I have found no evidence that they became Christians so cannot verify this reference). They, like Michael Madhusudan Dutt, retained their Indian names because they were proud of their heritage.

My grandfather the Rev. Pyari Mohan Mukerji married three times. He had left his girl bride behind in the village, the poor young girl must have lead a miserable existence and blamed for being he evil genius that caused her husband to convert and bring disgrace to the family. My grandfather was then married to a lady from the U.P. (Uttar Pradesh today). These marriages were, I think, arranged by the missionaries. This second wife died while travelling in a train.

His third marriage was to a Bengali lady – a Miss Bannerji – also from a Brahmin family – but her mother (my great grandmother) was an Irish lady. And her father (i.e. my grandmother’s father), my great grandfather came from an extremely wealthy family and had been sent to England to qualify for the Bar – but he fell in love with this young Irish maiden, married her and returned to Calcutta. His father then promptly cut him off. And again, the British couldn’t possibly bear to see a woman of their community in any sort of squalor or poverty, so they gave her husband a job. They had thirteen or fourteen children, and my grandmother Mrs. Pyari Mohan Mukerji was one of them. (That is the daughter of the Irish lady and her husband). Then Mrs. Pyari Mohan Mukerji and the Reverend had two children, a son and a daughter; their daughter was my mother.

There are several anecdotes about my grandfather’s encounters with criminals during his ministry and some tales abut men who tried to (among other things) hypnotise him. He was greatly respected by all these people.

My mother was a brilliant person who was encouraged by her father to study and she did her Masters in English in the late 1800’s, was a gold medallist of the Calcutta University – one of the few well-known Indian Universities of the day. She had been a headmistress of Bethune Girls High School and became an Inspectress (sic) of Schools. It was then that she married my father.

There is another piece that my mother wrote regarding her father’s history, another fascinating tale of loss and discovery, a fateful “peeli andhi”  and the Hand of God. To be published here!

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2 responses »

  1. What a fascinating story !!! I am so privileged to have met your mother and spent few memorable days with her in TO.. I did not know her first name was pritilata, such a sweet name.
    Am so glad I read the story today rather late than never..thank you for sharing..

    One thing I know for sure is that – you have lot of your mother’s characteristics in you..she must have been very proud of you..

    • Thank you Prema! I thought I told you this story one night in TO a couple of years ago when just the two of us had finished watching a movie and the ‘brothers’ were asleep!

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