Theodore: Letters from the
Oxford Mission in India, 1946-1993
This is the story of Father Theodore Mathieson, member and ultimately Superior of the Anglican Brotherhood of the Epiphany in India. In Calcutta Father Mathieson ran the Hindu Students Hostel and cared for lepers from 1946 to 1955; he then moved to Behala, where he ran the compound, taught music, started an industrial school and ultimately created a centre where young men out of work could learn to start up their own businesses which would bring them better lives. He wrote letters every month or so to his sisters in England and these have now been edited by Gillian Wilson as a fond memorial to him; they are supplemented by nearly forty black and white or colour pictures. She leaves little doubt of her affection both for 'Theodore', a 'truly formidable human being with immense influence on others for good', and also for the mission, 'men and women of unselfishness and dedication' whose 'brotherhood sadly has now lapsed since Theodore's death (though the mission is still itself is still very much at work).
Theodore's own letters give us a continuous record of his daily life for nearly fifty years from his arrival in Calcutta in 1946, a young man of 33 who had already served ten years as a parish priest in England, to his death in 1994. During the decades he was in India the country established an independent government, split off Pakistan and faced periods of severe labour and ethnic unrest; Gandhi was assassinated, the Queen visited, Rostropovich came to Mathieson's mission to hear the Chapel Band perform, Theodore met Mother Teresa and persuaded her to take in the mentally ill mother of several of his students. All these events are described in his letters. A memorable period!
In his early years in India the young missionary was very much an observer of an exotic world and amused by the 'disorderly society': 'if you want something to be done the best way is to put up a notice that it must not be done'. He was stunned that the people he met 'have not a good word to say for the British rule'. Gradually India began to lose some of its mystery and Theodore some of his detachment. As early as April 1947, he wrote, 'I have been recently trying to imagine myself an Indian and see how I would like to be ruled by the British . . . It is when one has thought along these lines for some time that one can begin to understand the Indian's passionate desire for freedom at all costs'. Five years later he found himself 'happily fitting into the Indian way of life'.
When I first picked up this book I confess I had two fears, both of which turned out to be quite misplaced. First, seeing a long (400 pages) string of letters by a single individual who spent much of his life in the same place, I expected at least to resort to a little skimming when the pace slowed. It didn't happen. The pace never slowed and I never skimmed. Then I also expected to lament the absence of the kinds of 'scholarly apparatus' I am used to: Introductory pages or chapter openings giving us a social and political context, footnotes developing details. But, in fact, the narrative flows so well, the letters are so self-contained (and so carefully selected and edited) that I was actually glad there were no third person explanations to get between me and the letter writer himself. The book should be of great interested to scholars working in Indian and in the history of the Anglican Church overseas.
In Gillian Wilson's fine edition we feel like personal recipients of Theodore's letters. We glimpse a country few of us are likely to visit and yet we feel at home there; we follow a story of a man we never knew, and yet in him we recognise a friend.
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