A few weeks ago [December, 2000] I traveled to England from India to attend my father’s funeral. I had lived in India almost continuously for more than twenty years, mostly in Tiruvannamalai, a medium-sized town at the southern end of the country. I hadn’t been back to England much during that period so there were people at the funeral I hadn’t seen for thirty years or more: old neighbors, members of dad’s church, people he had worked with before he took early retirement about twenty years ago. We peered at each other, calculating who had best weathered the ravages of time. My sister Geraldine started chatting to Mrs Broad, an old neighbor who had worked as an administrator in the school where my father had taught for many years.
‘How’s David?’ enquired Mrs. Broad. ‘Is he still a missionary in India?’
Geraldine laughed. ‘He isn’t a missionary and he never has been. That’s just a story mum put out. He lives in India and writes books there, but they are nothing to do with Christianity.’
Mrs Broad heaved a sigh of relief. ‘Oh, I’m so glad you told me. It seemed such an improbable thing for him to do.’
The missionary story came into existence in the late 1970s and early 80s, a period of my life when my mother was trying hard to put a gloss on my activities in India. To understand its social necessity you have to know that just about every member of my mother’s family was a devout Methodist. The surviving ones still are. On my mother’s side an uncle and two first cousins are Methodist ministers. My paternal grandfather was also a Methodist minister and my father served as a lay official in the church for many years. Imagine their collective consternation, then, when I took off to India in my early twenties to live in an Indian ashram and became a devout, practising Hindu.
My mother was a physiotherapist who spent most of her working life treating handicapped children, but if she had ever wanted a second career she could have been a great spin-doctor. She glided over inconvenient facts and always ended up believing whatever she wanted to believe. Once she had established a particular belief in herself, she could happily promulgate it to others, with great conviction.
After I had been in India a few weeks I sent both my parents a ten-page letter in which I outlined my beliefs and practices. To give them a frame of reference, I threw in a few biblical quotes that seemed relevant to what I was trying to explain.
My mother’s rosy response was, ‘I’m so glad you still believe in God.’
The essence of good spin-doctoring is to take the offensive, to get your interpretation in first before rumours of damaging alternative versions begin to circulate. My mother took my letter to her local church women’s meeting the following week, stood up and read it in its entirety. Because the biblical quotes were familiar and made sense, and because I was quoting them in an approving manner, she somehow managed to convince her audience that I was involved in some esoteric branch of Christianity. The romantic myth of ‘My son David, the missionary’ was born.
The vedantic ideas I had tried to explain undoubtedly sailed over the heads of everyone present. The facts that stuck were as follows: I came from a good Christian family; I clearly had a passionate belief in God; I had gone to India for religious reasons. It wasn’t hard to make a jigsaw of these selected pieces of my narrative and arrange them in a way that made the missionary scenario convincing.
I unwittingly bolstered up this image by sending home a report of how I was dealing with the pervasive poverty I saw all around me in India. I decided early on not to give money to beggars because once they know you are a regular donor, they will all mob you every time you set foot on the road. I didn’t have much to give – my total worldly assets at that point were less than $500 – but my conscience would not permit me to do nothing at all. In the first year I was in India I resolved this dilemma by organizing a large Christmas dinner for the beggars and all the other poor people of my neighborhood. The idea was that I would give all my charity money for the year in one go, in one public function, and for the rest of the year I would give nothing. I borrowed two huge cauldrons from my ashram’s kitchen and with the help of a few friends I prepared rice and vegetables for about 150 people. It was a great success. We all ate together in a mango orchard that I had borrowed for the morning.
I included an account of the day’s events in a letter I wrote to my parents. My mother, of course, immediately saw an opportunity to add a new entry to my missionary CV. Doing it on Christmas Day, rather than on some Hindu festival, was a major plus point for her. David, the missionary, was now feeding India’s starving millions.
The local churchwomen were informed of my Christmas Day treat. They all thought it was a wonderful idea, one that they should support with their funds. A collection was made on my behalf. My mother informed me a week or so later that the churchwomen would sponsor all my future poor-feedings. She even enclosed a cheque for the next one. It would have been churlish to refuse such good-hearted charity, but at the same time I knew that feeding hungry people once in a while wasn’t a productive way of dealing with India’s pervasive poverty. I did arrange another feast, since that is what the women had wanted me to do with their money, but when I gave them an account of the next meal, I informed them that their money could be better invested in projects whose benefits would last longer than the amount of time it took for a stomach to empty. I remember citing the following story in my letter:
Around the turn of the twentieth century one of America’s famous millionaire businessmen was confronted in his office by an earnest young socialist who tried to persuade him to spread his money around a bit more. The notion of equal shares for all featured prominently in his talk.
After listening for a while the millionaire called his secretary and asked, ‘Miss Smith (or whatever her name was), how much am I worth today?’
‘About $300 million,’ came the prompt and efficient reply.
‘Young man,’ said the millionaire, digging into his pockets for some spare change, ‘you have completely convinced me. There are two billion people in the world right now, so I calculate your share of my money to be fourteen cents. Here’s your money. Now go away and leave me in peace.’
I passed on this story to the churchwomen to demonstrate how even the deepest pockets couldn’t make much of a difference to global hunger.
‘If you are donating small amounts and you want value for money,’ I told them, ‘buy schoolbooks and uniforms for the local children here. Children can’t attend school in this part of the world unless they buy their own books, and the good schools demand uniforms as well. A child who graduates from school has a good chance of escaping the grind of rural poverty.’
This scheme found favor with the local churchwomen. For the next few years I received regular donations that put many local children through several grades of primary and secondary school. My mother, of course, was delighted. I had graduated from feeding India’s starving millions to educating them. The fact that I spent virtually all my time working and meditating in a Hindu ashram didn’t make much of a blip on her radar. I was saving the world, or at least one tiny corner of it. She now had ample evidence for her friends and family to back up her initially dubious proposition that I was a missionary.
I went home in 1979 and discovered that my mother had already booked me to speak at a fundraiser in my local church. I tried to get out of it but mum told me that the posters were already up all over the neighborhood. My speech was going to be her vindication.
I didn’t want to stand up in church and tell people who had known our family for years that my mother had created a ‘David myth’ for public consumption. As a compromise I agreed to give a general talk about the problems experienced by poor people in India. I would not describe my charitable activities and I would not ask for money.
It hadn’t really been my intention to gross my audience out, but when I began to speak I could tell that many of them were genuinely shocked by some of the stories I told. My father told me afterwards that I had dwelt too much on the squalid side of life. Limbless lepers, mutilated babies who were sold to increase the earning capacity of professional beggars, open sewers full of human shit: this was not what the good folks of the neighborhood wanted to hear. They wanted a sanitized, well-scrubbed picture of India in which the good guys (the missionaries, no doubt) were triumphing over poverty, adversity and pagan disbelief. I refused to give it to them because in India the good guys are definitely not triumphing. After about fifteen minutes my father started to tap his watch and give me meaningful looks. He wanted me to stop, or move on to more palatable, positive subjects. If there had been a curtain to pull down, I’m sure he would have yanked the cord and pulled it.
A few days later I was given another large check to take back to India. ‘The situation is far worse that we thought,’ I was told. ‘You obviously need more money to deal with it.’
I used this new donation to start a village-level disaster relief fund. If a roof blew off in a storm, or a leg got broken in a farming accident, I would use an intermediary to get money through to the people affected. I didn’t want people to know that I was sitting on a pile of give-away money because that would have made my life intolerable. I would have been besieged with supplicants, most of them bringing bogus stories. I explained this aspect of the situation to my mother. Mum the spin doctor sprang into action.
‘David is so humble, he doesn’t want anyone to know all the good things he is doing.’
My unwanted halo got scrubbed and polished a little bit more.
In the early 1980s both my parents retired and moved to southern Spain. That’s where I visited them on my next trip to Europe. One of their neighbors, Frank, was a Scottish industrialist who loved good causes. I seem to remember that he was the Scottish president of Rotary, or some similar organization.
I realised early on in my career,’ he told me, ‘that I had the Midas touch. Every business I have ever been involved in has made money. I’ve backed some wacky schemes in my time but they all ended up making me money. I’ve got far more than I need. Nowadays, I am more interested in giving it away to people who need it.’
His penchant for wacky schemes extended to his charitable causes. He told me about a project to introduce reindeer as draught animals in the Philippines. There was apparently a very confused reindeer called ‘Frank’ who was pulling a plough in that country.
Mum had obviously primed him with stories of my good deeds. I sat there, waiting for him to reach for his cheque book. Frank had a different agenda, though, one that would also satisfy his other great passion in life. He loved parties and merrymaking in general. He was a genuinely happy man who had a mission in life to make everyone around him as happy as he seemed to be.
‘I’ll organise a big lunch,’ he announced. ‘I’ll invite everyone I know. I’ll charge them all a lot for coming and say that the money is going to good causes in India. At the end of the lunch, I’ll give them a sales pitch to see if I can get even more money for you.’
The outdoor ‘lunch’ lasted from about midday till midnight. Prodigious quantities of food and alcohol were consumed by about a hundred people. No one was charged for any of it and Frank never made his speech. The next day he came to my house.
With a straight but somewhat haggard face told me, ‘That was a great fundraiser. Everyone gave money. Look how much we raised.’ He handed me a large check. I studied it with disbelief until I realised what had happened. Frank had wanted an excuse to throw a big party and I was it. He had paid for the party himself (that had always been his intention) and I ended up with enough of his spare change to benefit many, many people in India. I thanked him and went along with the game.
At the time this story took place (1983) I had been living in India for seven years. I had spent my time meditating in a famous Hindu ashram, running a religious library and editing a magazine whose readership consisted primarily of devotees of one of Hinduism’s greatest modern saints. I had kept my mother abreast of all these developments with regular letters. She could no longer sustain the illusion that I was a Christian, even though she was still proud of the charitable acts I was orchestrating with funds she and her fellow Christians had raised.
There is one conversation from this visit that always sticks in my mind. I was in her bedroom, looking at a photo of me that she had put there.
‘I used to keep it in the living room,’ she said when she noticed what I was looking at it, ‘but I had to move it up here where no one could see it.’
‘Why?’ I asked. I am no Hollywood hunk, but even so, I couldn’t image people recoiling in horror when they saw it.
‘Visitor’s would say, “Who’s that?” and I would say, “That’s my son David.” Then they would ask, “What does he do?” and I had no idea what to tell them. In the end I moved the photo up here because I found answering questions about you so awkward.’
It was a sad moment for both of us. My mother clearly couldn’t relate to what I did. For a few silent moments we stared at each other across a classic mother-son chasm: I wanted understanding for what I did and who I was, and she wanted me to be doing something that she could be proud of when she talked to her friends and neighbors.
‘Why don’t you tell them I’m a Hindu monk who lives in a monastery in India? That would shut them up, and it’s a close approximation of what I really am doing.’
‘I couldn’t say anything like that. People wouldn’t understand.’
What I think she meant was, ‘People would think my son was a weirdo, and I can’t deal with that.’
She had abandoned her illusions about me but she wasn’t yet comfortable with the truth.
Later that day she told me, ‘I have kept all your letters in a file. Once in a while I get them all out and go through them. I think I am looking for understanding, but I never get it. I read them again and again, but I never get an overall picture that makes sense to me. I don’t know what you are doing or why you are doing it. I can’t explain what you do to other people because I can’t even explain it to myself. That’s why I had to move your photo. It was a challenge I couldn’t meet.
‘I don’t understand your philosophy or your way of life, but I can recognise happiness when I see it. What you have done has completely fulfilled you. I don’t know how or why, but it’s an undeniable fact. But I can’t tell people “David lives in India and is happy,” when they ask me what you do. They want details, and that’s where I get stuck.’
I helped her out of her quandary by writing books about the Hindu teachings I had been studying and practising. Mum never read them, but she kept them around where people could see them. ‘My son, the author who lives and works in India,’ replaced ‘My son, the missionary’.
On the same 1983 visit to Spain I asked mum why so many people wanted their charity money to go to me instead of an official organisation.
‘We trust you,’ she replied, ‘and there are no overheads. If some small group gives you $50 to buy schoolbooks, we know that $50 will be spent on books and that they will go to people who need them and can’t afford them. If we give $50 to a big charity, there is no accountability. The money may go on some official’s lunch. Even if schoolbooks do eventually get bought, some money goes to administration. Every time we have given you money, you have written back to say exactly what you have done with it. I read your letters out to all the donors in church. They love to hear that their donation has bought a new school uniform for a particular schoolgirl. We could never get that kind of feedback from big charities.’
This point was brought home to me a couple of weeks later when I read an advertisement in national British newspaper. The Spastic Society, a charity based in London, was advertising for a new director. My mother had spent her whole life working as a physiotherapist with spastics in under-funded, badly equipped government clinics and schools, working long hours to ensure that all her handicapped children received proper treatment. She retired as head of a huge department, yet her final salary was about a third of what was being offered to this director.
‘There’s a good job for you here,’ I said, jokingly, ‘if you want to back to work.’
Mum apparently didn’t see the joke. She read the ad with a grim, tight-lipped expression on her face.
‘I spent years raising money for that organisation. The government never gave us enough, so we would try to get money from the Spastics Society for special projects. I have done endless fund-raisers for them. I have stood on street corners rattling collection tins, begging for pennies. The money I raised in twenty years wouldn’t pay that man’s salary for six months. I’ve had enough of big charities. That’s why I still encourage my friends to send money to you.’
When my mother moved to Spain in the early 1980s, the burden of fundraising in England was passed on to her elder sister Ivy. She was a retired school principal who frequently spoke at women’s meetings. Once in a while she would mention my activities and collect money for me. In the mid-1980s I started funding operations for local people who had mild cases of leprosy. In the initial stages of the disease sufferers lose the ability to move their fingers and toes properly. An operation that costs about $50 per hand or foot can fix the problem. I found a cycle-rickshaw driver who could no longer pedal his vehicle because he couldn’t wrap his fingers around the handlebars or push the pedals with his feet. He was the perfect candidate for the churchwomen in England. A small donation would have him back on the road, earning his living. I funded his operation out of money they had given me and sent ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos to the group that had sent the money. They were delighted. I could see what my mother meant about getting reliable feedback on where the money was going.
This rickshaw driver was a bit of a rogue. Once he realised there were foreigners who were willing to pay for his operation, he approached many of them independently and managed to get at least four different people to pay for his surgery. With the extra money he raised he put an engine on his rickshaw, which meant he didn’t have to pedal it at all. He drank his way through the remaining profits, but I have no regrets. He can walk normally and flex his fingers properly. No one should be deprived of that degree of mobility simply because he can’t afford a few $50 operations.
I was still continuing to fund the education of various children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to go to school. India is a corrupt country, and the people who run schools and teach in them are just as interested in making extra cash as anyone else. The teachers who work in government schools whose students get high grades can get bribes from the parents of rich people who want their children to go there. The higher the average grades, the higher the bribes to gain admittance. This works to the advantage of poor people who have very intelligent children. The teachers need a substantial group of smart students to keep the averages up. Without them, they can’t get good bribes from the rich parents of stupid kids. A poor but academically gifted child can always find a berth in a good government school so long as he or she can afford the books and the uniform. In the mid-1980s I would use my church women’s money to get poor but intelligent kids into the best government schools because I knew that this was their best hope in life.
After I explained this to the women in one of my letters, I never heard from them again. I have often wondered why. Were they so pure, they didn’t want children to go to a school whose teachers took bribes? Did I somehow shatter their illusions? Their money was not going to pay for bribes, it was going to pay for books and uniforms. Did they have the same romantic notions of my life in India that my mother once had?
So, when the last donation ran out in the mid-to-late 1980s, my career as a fake missionary came to an end. The slack was taken up by several major foreign-funded charities that now run huge hospitals, schools and job-training programs in and around my town. These are multi-million dollar projects that benefit thousands of local people. My drop-in-the-ocean projects are no longer needed. I don’t miss them, but there may be women in England who miss putting $5 in a collection plate and then, a few weeks later, getting a letter that describes how their money has changed or transformed someone’s life. I think that’s what it was really all about. Long after the missionary pretense had been dropped, I gave people who cared about impoverished and disadvantaged people in the third world more bang for their buck.