|Trudy Hunzikar - Mother Courage
© Copyright 2020 by Eva Bell
Friendships never die. They run through life like an enriching melody. We were friends for seventeen years, and though Trudy has gone to hide among the stars, the courageous life she led can never be forgotten.
We did not start out as friends but more like sparring partner. I had been appointed as Director of a Mission Hospital in Udupi, South India. I was cautioned that there would be a lot of meddlesome interference from Trudy. She was one of the pioneer missionaries who had set up the hospital and also spent a major part of her life working here. The hospital had now passed into Indian hands and the missionaries of German and Swiss nationalities had all gone home. But Trudy had stayed on for personal reasons. She was well versed in local customs, habits, behaviour and the different illnesses prevalent in the area. But at that time, I had a particular aversion for anyone with a missionary tag. She was used to the adulation and sycophancy of the local people among whom she had worked. I saw her as someone puffed up with her own importance. She considered me cheeky enough to disregard her stature in the community.
Many months later, we met at the home of a mutual friend. I was impressed by her irrepressible sense of humour. Her conversation seemed genuine. The glimpses she gave of her life in the community were unbelievable. She had me spellbound. And so began a friendship that lasted all of seventeen years until her death – a friendship between two people of different cultures and colours, different temperaments and a wide gap between our ages.
To begin her story – The year was 1944 and WWII had not yet fully ended. Trudy was thirty when she landed in India, a tall sylph like creature with a beguiling smile and laughing blue eyes. She came under the missionary banner because it was the only way she could enter India for a long stay. She unabashedly admitted that this had been an escape route from an intemperate father and a love that had gone sour. She had planned to stay in India until the bruise in her heart mended, but stayed on for life – something she attributed to her karma or destiny.
Even at the age of fourteen, Trudy had dreams of becoming a nurse and working with someone like Albert Schweitzer. She was also attracted to the Diakonia. She spent four years in this religious institution in Basel, training to be a nurse as well as learning Church history, Diakonal history and study of the Bible. She was then posted to a large hospital in Basel. It was towards the end of the war and the hospital was crowded with many wounded and dying.
Trudy was devoted to her job. But when it was time to take her vows as a Deaconess, she backed out. She felt she could function only in an atmosphere of freedom and not under the restricted life of the Order. She went back to her parents’ home in the city. Her mother had already committed suicide unable to bear her father’s drunkenness and philandering. Her two sisters married early, to escape the tyranny of her father. Trudy had to care for the house and slave for the father she detested. But the next four years gave her time to do various courses in Accountancy, Law, Architecture and music. She learnt to play the violin. But she was not happy at home and felt it was time to move out.
Religion seemed a possible escape route from a father who had taken a second wife and the monotonous round of household chores that fell to her lot. She decided to join the Basel Mission and go to India as a missionary nurse. The voyage by ship was long and tedious and lasted almost a month.
Life was very hard. The Mission Hospital was still in its infancy and was a dilapidated structure that functioned on a shoe-string budget. It was situated in a village called Udupi and lacked basic amenities like water and electricity. The mode of conveyance was by bullock cart. Work was very hard. People were steeped in poverty and superstition. For company she had four dowdy missionaries. They were real Victorian prudes and their attitude to the locals was at best condescending. But Trudy was not to be cowed. “I have come here to forget my miseries and no matter what, I’m going to be happy.”
Contrary to the general belief that missionaries had it good in India, Trudy’s monthly allowance was a meagre sum of sixteen rupees. It was barely enough to cover her toiletries and postage stamps. Some months, after the hospital bills and salaries of the local staff were paid, there just wasn’t enough to go around. Many times her pocket money would be just six rupees.
Recalling those days, she laughed, “You won’t believe this, but for weeks the only vegetable we had was string beans alternating with aubergines. Whenever we could afford a pound of meat, the German doctor insisted that she got the lion’s share as she had been severely deprived in her country due to the war. As if we had not suffered too!”
She told it all so dispassionately with no signs of anger.
“When desperately hungry, I’d get on my bicycle and ride to the periphery of the village where some tribals lived. They were basket weavers and I’d go there on the pretext of learning how to weave baskets.”
Tears welled up in her eyes as she recalled those days. At first, awed by the white woman’s presence, they would run into their huts and hide. But they soon realized that she was only trying to be friendly, and would gather around her and encourage her in her clumsy attempts to weave a basket. Many times a man would climb up a coconut tree and bring down a tender coconut. “Nectar of the Gods!” he would say as he lopped off the top and made a hole through which she could drink the sweet refreshing water. But soon she realized that every coconut offered to her meant loss of money for them.
As the hospital grew, Trudy took charge of the Nursing School and the extensive Community Health Service covering several villages. She was a nurse-midwife and used her expertise to improve the health of the villagers. The people were of low caste and poor, and no doctor would venture into this area. With a band of nurses specially trained for Community Health work, Trudy would trudge from hut to hut, teaching the villagers about hygiene and nutrition, immunizing children and delivering babies. Her rapport with the villagers was unique. She would laugh with them in their happy moments, advise them on their problems and console them in their grief. Patients who required hospital care were transported to the base hospital.
Then one day something happened that changed the course of Trudy’s life. She was called out to attend to a woman in labour in one of the villages under her supervision. The woman was rolling in pain on her mat, while two little children a boy and a girl were crying for their mother’s attention. Trudy picked up the children and tried to comfort them, while her assistants prepared to conduct the delivery. Soon a bouncing baby boy was born, and even as Trudy and her team were exulting over his birth, the woman began to hemorrhage. Trudy did her best to stem the flow with all the emergency drugs in her bag. An ambulance was immediately called for to transfer the patient to hospital. But even before it could arrive, the woman breathed her last.
She was the wife of a carpenter who worked at the hospital whenever needed. Trudy felt bound up with this tragedy. For days she could think of nothing else. The two children were accommodated in the hospital crèche and the newborn was transferred to the nursery.
Trudy watched the carpenter David grow thin and gaunt after his loss. He seldom spoke to anyone but would visit the crèche several times a day. But the crèche could not keep them indefinitely, neither could the infant remain in the nursery permanently. He needed a woman to care for them.
The carpenter David was semi-literate. But he was skilled in his work. He was known for the good furniture he made. He could also create intricate designs in wood. What Trudy went on to relate next was simply unbelievable.
“He needs a woman,” I thought, “Perhaps I can fit the bill.”
“What?” I could scarcely hide my consternation. “Did you offer to be a surrogate mother?”
“I went one better,” she said, “I offered to be his wife.”
“But those were the forties. How did you dare to even think of such a thing? The cultural, social, religious divide was so rigid in those days that the barriers were insurmountable.”
“I had to pay dearly for my decision. Not only did I jeopardize my own life but also that of the poor man. And if my skin hadn’t been white, I’d probably have been lynched and driven out of town,” she said.
A few weeks after David’s bereavement, Trudy brought out her cycle and pedaled to his house. It was Sunday and he had taken the two children home from the crèche for the weekend. He jumped up at her unexpected intrusion.
“Do you have work for me Madam? Why didn’t you just send for me?” he asked.
“I need to discuss some important issues with you,” Trudy said. “The children can’t be kept in the crèche indefinitely. We could keep the baby in the nursery for a few more months but not permanently. What preparations have you made?”
He hung his head. “None.”
“The children need a mother.”
“It is too early to think of another wife. The pain is too intense. Besides, which woman would want to care for three children?”
“I’m offering to be your wife and look after your children.”David was shocked.
“This is bad talk. It cannot happen. I’m an illiterate labourer. We have nothing in common. Madam please go now.”
“I’ve given this matter serious thought,” Trudy answered. “You think about it and let me know unless you have a better alternative.”
As Trudy recalled those days, a faraway look came into her eyes.
“This guy was shocked by my shameless suggestion. At home, nobody would have batted an eyelid. But here the dice was loaded against such a union. We were worlds apart. Missionaries were expected to behave in a certain manner and keep a respectable distance from the locals. We were expected to follow a specified moral code.”
A couple of weeks later out of sheer necessity, David accepted her proposal. When Trudy broke the news to her fellow missionaries, their angry reaction was predictable.
“Crazy woman! You’re just about thirty and you want to spend your entire life with an illiterate man?”
Stony silence prevailed for many days. Telegrams went back and forth between missionaries in India and the Basel Mission House in Switzerland. A senior missionary working in a neighbouring town paid a visit to dissuade Trudy.
“This will be nothing but a mismatched alliance. Are you going to live in a hut and sleep on the floor?”
“It is possible to rent a decent house and buy a few sticks of furniture. David is a skilled carpenter and is earning many times more than what I am paid here.”
When persuasion failed, threats were made.
“You will be struck off the missionary list. We will have nothing to do with you,” they warned.
There was a general boycott of the wedding. The villagers were angry with David.
“You fool! The white woman has bewitched you with her magic. She wants you for a plaything. You’ve got a fine physique. The sex-starved woman wants to lure you into her bed. When she’s tired of you she’ll give you the boot.”
David’s limbs trembled as he walked to church in a new suit specially made for the occasion. Catcalls and jeers followed him all the way. Trudy was clumsily draped in a sari by a helper who dared to defy the ban. The only wedding present she received was a wooden ladle from her tribal friends.
There was no doubt that this was a marriage of convenience, without love or passion. Many times Trudy thought of cutting loose and heading for home. The saddest part of the union was the inability to communicate meaningfully with David on subjects she loved like music, art, or literature. It was just baby care and home management. David was a good cook so that weight was off her shoulders. She was asked to put in her resignation at the hospital.
Then not long after, Trudy’s father died in Basel, leaving her the sole beneficiary of his wealth and property. Everything changed for the better after that. Trudy invested in a timber depot and a saw mill for David. He became an independent businessman. There was also enough money to build a house for themselves.
The attitude of the whole community changed. As their financial circumstances improved, all was forgiven. Even the missionaries decided that Trudy was now respectable enough to be taken back into hospital service.
“Such are the ways of the world,” she said, “It’s not who you are but how much you’ve got.”
Trudy went back to work at the hospital. But for many years she carried the scars of rejection.
At the time when I became friends with Trudy, she and David had celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary. Trudy had adjusted well to her circumstances and the couple was happy together.
But almost a year later, tragedy struck. David died of a massive heart attack. People thought Trudy would rush back to Switzerland. “This is my home,” she said, “When I die I want to be buried next to David.”
Over the years the Mission Hospital has grown to be one of the best and busiest hospitals in the district. Trudy continued to work there as Nursing Superintendent until her retirement and even for several years after. The nursing school trained many girls from different parts of the country.
However on the home front things had begun to change drastically. Her step daughter and husband treated her badly. They even ran the timber business to the ground. Trudy’s life now centered on the son she had helped deliver. They were very attached to each other.
My tenure at the Mission Hospital was over. I decided to take up a job overseas. We had grown very close to each other in spite of the twenty five year gap between our ages. We kept up a brisk correspondence and phoned frequently for two whole years. Her letters were light and humorous. She wrote on music, politics or plain gossip.
One morning I had a call from her step son to say that she had passed away. I had spoken to her only a couple of days earlier, but she never even dropped a hint that she was undergoing chemotherapy. “She did not want you to know that she was ill,” said her son.
I was able to visit her grave many months later. As I travelled through Udupi which was now a rich, busy, bustling town, I was happy to recognize her imprints everywhere. She had been generous to a fault and helped many poor children finish their education. The saw mill had provided training and employment to several young men. The Mission Hospital where she had begun her life in India was now a modern, well equipped hospital. The Nursing School had trained many girls from orphanages and poor homes to become full fledged nurses. And I had been blessed through our friendship.
walked to the cemetery and knelt at the grave of Mother Courage. At
her marriage, Trudy could afford just one white gladiolus. Now
symbolically I placed a single white gladiolus on her grave and
whispered “Goodbye my dearest friend.”
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