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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER V. MY FIRST YEAR IN BENARES.

Life And Work In Benares And Kumaon 1839-1877 by James Kennedy


A stranger passing hurriedly through a country may carry away impressions about its climate, products, and people, which residence for a considerable time would not merely modify but reverse. There are some things of which he can speak with some confidence. The great natural features of a country, its mountains and plains and rivers, do not undergo any marked change, and these may be truly described by the casual visitor. The general aspect of a people, their houses, dress, and look, remain much the same, and of these an accurate observer may give a trustworthy account; but if from what he himself has seen and heard he attempts to give a general estimate of the character of the people and of the state of the country, he is almost sure to fall into great mistakes.

Within the last few years India has become a favourite field for travellers who can without inconvenience spend a few hundred pounds, and be absent from home three or four months. Swift steamers take them quickly to and from Bombay, and railways carry them in a short time from one end of India to the other. They travel at the season when travelling is delightful, and thus see the different countries of that great region in their most attractive form. If they infer what they do not see from what they see, they are sure to make statements utterly discordant with fact. Mr. Wilson, who was sent out to India to put its finances into order after the Mutiny, travelled through the North-Western Provinces in the cold weather, when the country was covered with abundant crops, and was delighted with all he saw. He declared it was the finest country he had ever seen. He returned to Calcutta as the hot weather was setting in, and died in the succeeding rainy season. It is said that some time before his death he pronounced the climate to be the most detestable on the face of the globe. Dr. Norman McLeod was our guest for a very short time in Benares, as he was prosecuting his Indian journey. When driving about on a fine balmy morning, he said, in his genial fashion, |You missionaries often complain of your climate; I only wish we in Scotland had a climate like this.| To which I replied, |Ah, doctor, kindly stop with us through our coming seasons; prolong your stay till next November, and then you will be able to speak with authority.| The worthy doctor did not take my counsel. His death some time afterwards was attributed to his Indian tour; but if it left in him the seed of disease, the blame rests not on the climate, but on the excessive fatigue caused by overmuch travelling and work.

The case of a person who has lived through a whole year in a country, and has during that period moved among the people, is very different from that of the passing stranger. He knows the climate as a traveller for a few weeks or even months cannot. The seasons during that year may have been more or less abnormal, and yet the resident cannot fail to have obtained that knowledge which enables him to form a notion of what he has in the main to expect every year. He gets a glimpse into the character and peculiarities of the different classes of the population, both native and foreign. He may know little of the language of the country; but if he has an observing mind, and moves freely about, he is constantly receiving information about the people in a degree which he himself does not always realize. If his residence be prolonged for many years, as he looks back to his first year, and remembers its experience, he finds that his views have been greatly enlarged, on many points greatly modified; he is sure that his knowledge is much more accurate and mature; but there is scarcely any subject on which he finds his views entirely reversed.


This, at least, has been my experience. I have a vivid remembrance of my first year in Benares -- a much more vivid remembrance than I have of subsequent years, and it would be strange if I did not find that my views on many Indian subjects have been greatly modified, and on all much enlarged; but I do not discover that on any subject there has been a complete reversal.

I have already mentioned that on my voyage from Calcutta to Benares I spent much of my time in the study of the Hindustanee language, commonly called Urdu. Within a week of my arrival I gave myself to it with all the application of which I was capable. I had as my teacher a munshee, who had been long employed by the missionaries of our Society, but who could not speak a sentence in English, though he knew the Roman character well. I was told that his ignorance of English would prove an advantage, as I should on this account be obliged to speak to him, in however broken and limping a fashion, in the language which it was indispensable for me to acquire. We had before us an English and Hindustanee Dictionary, a Hindustanee and English Dictionary, a Hindustanee Grammar, and a book of easy sentences in both languages in the Roman character. At first my teacher and myself had to put things into many forms before reaching mutual intelligibility; but gradually our work became easier, and when two or three months had passed we fairly understood each other -- I trying to express myself in Hindustanee, and he performing the much-needed work of correcting my words and idiom. I commenced with a portion of the New Testament, and soon got into some of the classics of the language. The use of the Roman character in the writing of Indian languages had been strongly advocated by Sir Charles Trevelyan, by Dr. Duff, and other men of mark, and was accepted by the majority of the missionaries. Portions of the Scriptures and other books were printed in it. Like all young missionaries, I learned the Persian and Nagree characters, in which the languages of Northern India had always previously been written; but the Roman character was very convenient, and I regretted afterwards I used it so much.

This study of the language was felt to be a foremost duty, and was prosecuted from day to day. This went on for months with little interruption, except what was caused by the serious and continued illness of Mrs. Lyon, which, to the great regret of all their friends, led before the end of the year to the departure of Mr. and Mrs. L. for Europe.

In the seventh or eighth month of my residence at Benares I wrote a short sermon in Hindustanee on John i.29, and read it at the native service. Within a year I took my part regularly at that service, first using my manuscript, and then extemporizing as I best could.

I must confess I regarded my new linguistic acquisition with much more complacency at the end of my first year than at the end of my fifth or sixth. On my way to Benares, as I have already mentioned, I spent a few hours very pleasantly with Mr. Leslie, the Baptist missionary at Monghyr. I mentioned to him that my friend Mr. Lyon had learned the language, and was preaching in it. Looking me full in the face, he said, to my surprise and chagrin, |Depend on it, Mr. Lyon may use the words of the language, but no one can be said to acquire it in a year.| I thought this a hard saying, but years afterwards I was forced to feel its truth. I had in a year got such a glimpse into the Hindustanee and Hindee languages as to have some conceptions of their nature, to know their tone, and to bring them into partial use; but I had a very limited notion of their nice distinctions, their peculiar idioms, and their vast vocabulary. I cannot say that the opinion on this subject I formed in my first year was entirely reversed by my after experience, but it was largely modified.


While studying the native language, I felt myself studying the native character as well. My teacher was very patient, correcting my mistakes -- mistakes, I must confess, often repeated -- without allowing even the slightest surprise to appear in his countenance. He did not smile at blunders at which, when I knew better, I myself heartily laughed. When I showed the slightest impatience at being checked he at once allowed me to go on as I liked, though, as I afterwards knew, I needed to be corrected. He was loud in praise of my progress, declaring that I would soon surpass all my predecessors. In my intercourse with him I had illustrations of the patience, the courtesy, and also the flattering, cozening character of the people, when dealing with those by whom they think they can be benefited. The impressions of native character thus obtained were amply affirmed by the experience of after years.

This munshee was well acquainted with our Scriptures. He belonged to the Writer caste, and had from his early years been in contact with Europeans. He was ready for conversation on religious subjects, and had much to say in favour of the philosophical notions which underlie Hinduism. Three or four years afterwards he seemed to awake all at once to the claims of Christ as the Saviour of the world, and under this impulse he openly appeared in a native newspaper as the assailant of Hinduism and the advocate of Christianity, which led to the hope that he was to avow himself, by baptism, a follower of the Lord. But he became alarmed at what he had done; he could not bear the reproaches of his friends, and he fell back into the ranks of his people. Though he had ceased to be my teacher I had opportunities of seeing him, and I tried to speak to his conscience, to his conviction of the Divine origin of the gospel. The last time I spoke to him he said, with marked emphasis, |There is no use in speaking to me. Let Hinduism be false or true, I am determined to live and die in it as my fathers have done!| His case was that of many with whom every Indian missionary is brought into contact.

During this year I was introduced into the methods in which evangelistic work was conducted. In addition to attending the services of the Lord's Day, I went now and then with my brethren to the city. We had at that time two little chapels in good positions, at the doors of which the people were first addressed, and were then invited to enter that they might hear the new teaching more fully expounded. There was, of course, nothing of the staidness or quietness of a Christian congregation. The speaker was often interrupted; questions, sometimes very irrelevant questions, were asked; and the people came and went, so that those who were present at the commencement were seldom present at the close. During the year I saw the principal places in Benares -- its main streets and markets, its temples and mosques; and thus formed some idea of the great city, where for many years afterwards it was my privilege to labour in the gospel of Christ.


The work of the missionary in Northern India would be greatly simplified if he had to learn only one language. He has to learn the two I have named, the Hindustanee and the Hindee. The Hindustanee arose from intercourse between the Muhammadan invaders and the people they had subdued. It is written in the Persian or Arabic character, and draws its vocabulary mainly from the Persian and Arabic languages. It is the language of law, of commerce, and of ordinary life to many millions. The Hindee in its various dialects, some of which almost rise to the dignity of languages, is the vernacular of the vast Hindu population of North-Western India. It rests mainly on the Sanscrit, and is written in the Sanscrit or Deonagree character. In some of the most popular books the languages are so strangely combined that it is impossible to give any definite name to the language used. An acquaintance with these languages is indispensable to missionary efficiency in Northern India, but it is very difficult to attain marked excellence in both.

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