A Day in Calcutta—Reaching “People of All Sorts” With the Good News
CALCUTTA, India, is a city teeming with “people of all sorts.” Among its more than ten million inhabitants, Jehovah’s Witnesses are busy preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom. It takes a great deal of ingenuity and endurance to reach all these people with their highly diversified racial, social, cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds. But like the Christian apostle Paul, whose missionary journeys took him to the far corners of the world of that time, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Calcutta also “have become all things to people of all sorts” so that they might “by all means save some.”—1 Corinthians 9:22; Colossians 1:23.
How do the Witnesses there go about their preaching work, and what kind of people and conditions do they meet in their ministry? Recently, as a visitor, I spent a day in Calcutta with a pioneer, or full-time preacher. Would you like a peek into that unique experience?
A Vast and Varied Field
Late in that busy and fascinating day of house-to-house preaching, my companion and I were ready to go home. As we were waiting for the bus, we began talking about the challenges that he and other pioneers face in this enormous city.
“Well,” he commented, “ask anyone in the full-time preaching work here if he would like to move to an easier assignment. I don’t think he would be keen about it.”
He was right. The pioneers in Calcutta view their work as one of the most interesting careers in the world. They have a vast and varied field in this city of great contrasts.
Though the Hindu religion dominates the city, churches and Muslim mosques are plentiful, and one finds a few Buddhist temples here and there. In some quarters, stately mansions house some of the world’s richest people. Not so far away are the lean-to shacks of the migrant workers who can expect to earn as little as 150 rupees (about $12, U.S.) per month. Their customs, languages, and appearances are as varied as their religions and their living conditions.
In the midst of all of this flourishes one congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses with about a hundred active Kingdom proclaimers. Though the challenge is formidable, the Witnesses find special joy and satisfaction in being able to adapt themselves in order to respond to the needs of the people.
Just then, Bus No. 45 juddered to a halt in front of us. It was so packed that my immediate reaction was: “I can’t possibly get on!” A friendly push came from behind, and soon both of us were swept along onto the bus by a wave of arms and bodies. At least ten more people got on after we did. They were riding on the footboard, hanging on like bees around the entrance. Inside the vehicle, designed to seat 46, I counted over a hundred heads before giving up the count to resume my conversation with my friend.
“Are the buses always like this?”
“They often are a little crowded,” he explained, “but they are inexpensive, which means we can easily afford to ride even 6 to 9 miles (10 to 15 km) each day to some of the more distant parts of the city to preach.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to work in communities closer to home more often?”
“Yes, but some of us full-time workers have decided to make the effort to reach the people in other areas. Our records show that many neighborhoods of Calcutta have not been visited with the good news in the last 50 years!”
Yet reaching everyone in a given area is a real challenge due to the sheer quantity of people. A survey once put the density of the population in Calcutta at three times that of New York City at the time, and the number has increased in recent years.
At least one third of Calcutta’s people live in overcrowded slums known locally as bustees. Typical bustees are rows upon rows of small huts, usually within arm’s reach of one another. Each hut consists of a dirt floor and walls made of mud and cow dung smeared on wooden frames, all under the cover of a clay-tile roof. Each hut, with little or no ventilation, is the sleeping quarters of as many as seven or eight people. There is usually one water standpipe for about every 150 people, and in long-established bustees, the government provides a few community latrines.
As one starts to make calls in a bustee, it is not uncommon to be escorted by crowds of as many as a hundred curious onlookers, mostly children. One Witness, somewhat annoyed by a persistent youth who heralded his visit at each home, asked the young man if he would like to do the rest of the talking too. At this seeming invitation, the good-natured youth took the tract from the Witness and gave the presentation word for word, even offering the Watchtower and Awake! magazines.
Tackling the Varied Religious Backgrounds
About half of the city’s bustees are inhabited by followers of Islam. The tolerant attitude prevailing in the city, however, makes it possible to preach from house to house in such areas, a privilege not always enjoyed in other countries with large Muslim communities. I asked if the pioneers in Calcutta have a special approach with people of this background.
“Some use local problems to highlight man’s inability to solve his woes,” my friend replied, “while others try to overcome religious prejudice by discussing points held in common, such as belief in one God (not a trinity) or our common belief that the original Bible was inspired of God.”
“And the results?” I wondered.
“Very few are interested enough to want a Bible study. Making a living and bettering their station in life seem to be the only things on their mind. That, coupled with minimal, if any, education, makes it very difficult for them to accept the good news.”
Hindu views are most commonly encountered in the city. The Bengali people in particular are fond of quoting a saying of Ramakrishna, who lived and preached in the mid-19th century. “Jotto moth, totto poth,” means, when loosely translated, that all religions are but different roads leading to the same goal.
“Is this viewpoint difficult to overcome?” I asked.
“Not if the person is open to reason. We can tactfully explain some obvious differences, such as our Bible-based hope of living forever in human perfection on earth. Or we can point out that it is not possible for opposite views to be true at the same time. For example, either there is an immortal soul or there is not one.”
“That’s sound reasoning.”
“Yes, but too often people refuse to take what we say seriously. They are sure that they know what we believe and that they believe the same thing. This attitude tends to foil any constructive discussion. So we try to leave some literature and move on to the next person.”
“Have there been any from the Hindu community who seek a deeper knowledge of God and his purposes?”
“Yes, the pioneers contacted a young man who had been disillusioned by his association with the followers of Ramakrishna,” my friend related. “He accepted the magazines and had read them by the time he was visited again two days later. After several discussions, he began to study the booklet The Path of Divine Truth Leading to Liberation. He would write out his answers and comments on the study questions in a notebook. Within five months, this man was baptized and serving as an auxiliary pioneer so that he could share his knowledge with many others.”
“That’s quite an experience! But what was the reaction of his family?”
“He was living with his widowed mother and grandmother, both devout Hindus. They, too, began to show interest and started to study the Bible. Soon the neighbors noticed the changes in the women, and three others became interested as a result. The mother has now been baptized, and granny, a little slower due to her 70 years, is hoping to be baptized soon.”
From my friend’s excitement in relating this story, I could see that such experiences are a real stimulus for the pioneers. Sometimes there may appear to be little progress, but then someone takes an exceptional interest. Thus the pioneers are encouraged to press on in their search for yet others who may be interested.
Hurdling the Language Barriers
The crowd on the bus had begun to thin a little, and I recognized some English. “Ticket, apnar ticket,” cried a short, nonuniformed man, who had a colorful fan of bank notes in his right hand and a leather pouch of change on his side to show that he was the conductor. I offered to pay, but my friend’s Indian hospitality would not hear of it. He thrust his briefcase into my hands and delved into his shirt pocket for change.
“Whatever have you got in here?” I exclaimed. “This must weigh a ton!”
“Well, the Indian language editions of the Bible are rather large. To be fully equipped in Calcutta, we really need to carry Bibles in three languages—Bengali, Hindi, and English—plus Bible literature, of course.”
“Surely you could just take an English Bible and translate the verses.”
“I suppose we could. However, many people who read only Bengali or Hindi have never seen a complete Bible in their own language. We feel especially good when we can show them a copy and read to them from it. It’s well worth the extra effort and weight.”
Adjusting to the needs of the different language groups here keeps the pioneers busy. Most of them teach themselves to witness effectively in the three main languages. Some with exceptional skill have learned to speak five or six languages. The local people appreciate the efforts of the visitors in trying to speak in the tongue of the community, and their attentive response can be reward enough for the long hours of language study.
Finding Joy in a Challenging Territory
Just then our bus again grated to a halt on brake linings that had long since worn out, and I was jostled outside.
“Why here?” I asked. “This is not where you live.”
“No, it’s a Punjabi area. These people make the best tea, you know. I thought you might like to try a cup.”
The tea was excellent.
“How did you know about this place?” I queried.
“Working around each area, we pioneers get to know what the local specialties are and where the best and cheapest shops are. If your stomach is strong enough, we can go and sample some interesting foods tonight.”
Remembering the advice of some of my more cautious friends, I declined the invitation. But I did enjoy the tea. I could see that the pioneers are balanced and have learned to make the best of their circumstances. Even things that at first seem to be obstacles can be overcome and enjoyed.
“Is there anything you don’t enjoy about your work?” I finally asked.
My friend contemplated this question for a while. “I think the summer and monsoon weather is something we will never really get used to. Yet that is a problem you have whether you are pioneering or not. Heat and humidity get so high that perspiration often drips from the tip of your nose onto your Bible as you read from it. Still, we learn to put up with it. Why, in May, perhaps the hottest month of the year, we see the highest number of auxiliary pioneers joining us in the preaching work.”
Looking back on the day and my conversation with my pioneer friend, I am impressed with the ability of Calcutta’s pioneers to adapt to so many varied situations and peoples so that they can reach them with the good news. Of course, I realize that pioneers all over the world are doing just the same. They are truly happy ‘to be all things to people of all sorts.’—Contributed.
[Map/Picture on page 26]
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