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Abide With Me

Abide With Me

Those who used to watch Doordarshan in the early nineties would be familiar with the name of a popular news-reader, CM Mathew. His father, the late CM Mathai, was a founder of Deepalaya, a New Delhi-based NGO. When he passed away, I succeeded him as chairman of the organisation.

Nobody could be more pious than Mathai uncle, as I used to call him. I remember him going around the church and collecting small amounts from the faithful to feed fledgling Deepalaya. His son was a chartered accountant who freelanced as a Doordarshan news-reader.

I was greatly disappointed when I heard that he was immigrating to Toronto in Canada because television news-readers were celebrities those days. I wanted him to read news, may be because he was my friend. Those days, I was also a Malayalam news-reader at Akashvani Bhavan where our paths would sometimes cross.

I remember Mathew for an advice he gave me. Broadcasting by AIR, New Delhi, had become round-the-clock. He advised me to tune into Akashvani from 4 am to 5 am every day. It was devoted to Western classical music. 

When I began listening to the programme, much to the annoyance of my family whose sleep was disturbed, I realised why Mathew advised me to do so. Most of the classical songs were actually hymns sung in the church and Christian homes. 

What’s more, I learnt to my pleasant surprise that many of the Malayalam hymns that I knew were originally tuned by Western composers. In short, the one-hour programme gave a great insight into the origin of Malayalam Christian songs. It was followed by one hour of Indian classical songs that usually ended with Suprabhatam in which Sita asks Ram to wake up for he has many duties to perform.

One hymn that used to be broadcast almost daily was “Abide With Me” written by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte. It is most often sung to the tune Eventide by William Henry Monk. “The hymn is a prayer for God to remain present with the speaker throughout life, through trials, and through death”. 

The opening line alludes to Luke 24:29: “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent", and the penultimate verse draws on text from I Corinthians 15:55: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"

Here is the hymn in full, though one of the stanzas is often omitted for being too personal:

“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;/ The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide./ When other helpers fail and comforts flee,/ Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

“Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;/ Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;/ Change and decay in all around I see;/ O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

“Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,/ But as Thou dwell'st with Thy disciples, Lord,/ Familiar, condescending, patient, free./ Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

“Come not in terror, as the King of kings,/ But kind and good,/ with healing in Thy wings;/ Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea./ Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.

“Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,  And though/ rebellious and perverse meanwhile,/ Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee./ On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

“I need Thy presence every passing hour./ What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?/ Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?/ Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me/ I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;/ Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness./ Where is death's sting?/ Where, grave, thy victory?/ I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;/ Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies./ Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;/ In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

What inspired Lyte to write the poem was the death of a friend for whom he was a caregiver and who used to chant, “abide with me”. Lyte did not live long afterwards. In fact, the song was first sung for Lyte’s own funeral on November 20, 1847, a century before India became independent.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who is Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and former Governor of West Bengal, writes in an article in the Hindustan Times: “The song wafts on its tune. Indeed, without that tune, the song would have lain on paper. The melody composed by William Henry Monk in 1861 goes by the name of “Eventide”, meaning, quite simply, evening. 

“And if the song has to be among the world’s most moving hymns, that tune has to be among the world’s most heart-wrenching melodies. I wish the words of this column could reproduce its transporting notes. Readers may wish to reach for them through the Internet.”

Soon after I became a journalist in Delhi in 1973, I managed to get an invitation to witness the Beating the Retreat ceremony at Vijay Chowk on January 29, 1974. It was a great event. I felt proud that our armed forces could not only fight battles but also transport the whole nation to the wondrous world of pure music, martial and mesmerising.

Let me quote, once again, Gandhi, “The words and the tune of “Abide With Me” have, for the last half-a-century, become Beating Retreat’s most memorable passage. 

“As the last note of the hymn subsides, the bells from the Church of the Redemption, nearby, peal in pure pathos. To say not one person moves, not one shuffles in his or her seat would be to exaggerate. To say that not one eye is dry, not one throat unconstricted would be to exaggerate. But that is about as near the truth as there can be. The experience is deeply, profoundly moving.”

Is the song just a Christian song? It is a song that comforts, it is a song that lifts up the morale of a person, it is a song that questions the very foundation of death, for death is not the end of life. Can anything be more inspirational? For a soldier who sees death in front of him all the time, the prayer “abide with me” is of profound significance.

It is for these reasons that Mahatma Gandhi greatly loved this hymn. He had a friend in Stanley Jones, the American missionary who set up an Ashram near Nainital in Uttarakhand and who donated the first public address system ever used at the Maramon Convention in Kerala which turns 130 this February.

Stanley Jones was greatly disturbed by Gandhi’s killing. He had a special reason to be sorrowful. He was supposed to be present at the evening prayer at Birla House that day when Godse used a German revolver to shoot him at close range. Alas, he did not get a taxi to reach there. He probably haggled too much over the fare missing in the process an opportunity to meet Gandhi and be an eye-witness to a cataclysmic event.

By the way, the Gandhi Smriti underwent a modernisation in which his killing has been underplayed, while highlighting other aspects of his life like when he took a broom and a bucket to clean the toilet. While Godse sought to obliterate Gandhi, his followers try to obliterate his memory. In less than five years, Gandhi who died for communal harmony has been converted into a symbol of cleanliness.

Yes, Gandhi believed in the cleanliness of the mind as much as he believed in the cleanliness of the air we breathe and the water we drink. He believed in simplicity and even discarded his upper garment while those who use his name do not wear their dress a second time.

Be that as it may, at the all-religion funeral ceremony, Stanley Jones was called upon to represent the Christian community because of his closeness to Gandhi. He gave a short sermon which concluded with the recital of Lyte’s hymn. That was the last time the song was sung for the Mahatma who lay in state.

It was a shock for not just Christians but people like Gopalkrishna Gandhi that the hymn was removed from the list of compositions to be presented at the Beating of the Retreat ceremony on January 29. The Defence Ministry came up with the argument that it was part of reviewing the list of songs.

Such reviews had happened in the past also but Abide With Me was never affected. The circumstances in which the excision was carried out lent credence to the theory that it was all part of the Hindutva agenda of the government. 

It was only a few days ago that a Kathak dancer was stopped from dancing to the tunes of a Qawwali in Lucknow. Little did those who cut short her programme realise that Qawwali is of Sufi and Indian origin and should be promoted, not discouraged.

Many saw the exclusion of the song in the context of the renaming of places like Allahabad, Faizabad, Gurgaon, Mughalsarai and roads like Aurangzeb Road. So far, the name Ahmedabad which has Ahmed in it has not been touched. Those who would like to know how Ahmedabad can be written without Ahmed in it can check Panchjanya, which is the mouthpiece of the RSS.

It was against this background that there was a huge protest against the removal of the song. Of course, there was no protest on the streets. There were also no slogan-shouting but protests came from people like Gandhi. Fortunately, it had an effect on the government and if a report in The Hindu (Jan 24) is to be believed, the song would be used in the Beating of the Retreat this year also.

A few years ago, I attended a choral presentation at the Church of the Redemption I mentioned earlier. It began with Mosie Lister's famous song "God is Able". The programme concluded with Lyte’s hymn. 

The Beating of the Retreat concludes usually with Saare Jahan Se Ache, composed by Mohammed Iqbāl. It is in Urdu and it is a truncated version that is used by the Army. Incidentally, the poem cannot be sung in Pakistan though it was originally sung at Lahore.

Such songs speak volumes about the secular, cosmopolitan character of the nation which is its strength, not weakness. I am reminded of a Muslim journalist friend who went to Pakistan and was asked about his impression about the country. Without batting his eyelid, he answered, “Everything looked fine except the fact that there were too many Muslims!”

Anyway, I have been presented with an occasion to congratulate the government. It was thoughtful of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to have listened to the voice of protest and reinstated the song in the Programme that starts with the parade on January 26 and ends with the musical extravaganza on December 29.

More so, at a time when Home Minister Amit Shah reiterates every now and then that come what might, the government would not amend the Citizenship Amendment Act. Anyone can make mistakes, for to err is human. However, anyone who persists with a folly is a super fool. 

The citizenship law was very clear right from the beginning. Anyone who was born in the country was a citizen. Anyone who lived in the country for 11 years continuously was a citizen. To make an exception in the case of Muslims is to undermine India’s secularism which at its core is philosophical or spiritual, not just political. 

I hope Amit Shah will follow in the footsteps of Rajnath Singh, who is a more seasoned politician than him, so that his government can address the bread and butter issues of the people of this great nation of 135 crore people and not waste its energy on CAA.

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 27th January 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 05)