An Interview with One of Amy Carmichael’s Students
Nesarathina, now eighty-five years old, was one of the first graduates from the school Amy founded in Dohnavur. She was also among the first batch of students sent out to attend secular studies after graduation. Though she thought she would never come back to Dohnavur, she began serving on the campus after graduation. She was the first lady who was given charge of the campus after the departure of the foreign missionaries. She is currently still in charge of the missionary children school in Dohnavur. Others described her to me as a keen soul winner, a good counselor, a top leader, and a great friend. She is now battling breast cancer. Please pray for her..
It was a great honor to sit with her and briefly interview her within her own home (which I am told was the very first house built on the campus). The conversation went as follows:
J: How long have you been here?
N: Ever since I was a two-week old baby.
J: What year was that?
N: 1932. Now I’m 85. I knew Amy Carmichael. I called her “mama,” because I thought she was my biological mother. I loved her very dearly. It was only after the age of 12, that I found out she was a missionary. But I didn’t bother about it, for she was still my mother.
J: What was your fondest memory of her?
N: When I was three years old I remember climbing the steps and somebody would pick me up and put me on the bed. She would hug me and I would hug her..
When I was growing older, she asked me one day to look at the fishbowl. She asked me, “How do you look at the fishbowl?” I said, “Of course, through the glass.” Then, Ammai said, “Ah, that is how your heart must be: sincere, open, transparent; no threat of insincerity and no threat of pretending. Don’t tell lies. You must be open. People must see you throughout. You must be transparent. The Lord wants you to be, and people will see that Jesus Christ is in you when you are honest.” Honesty was rare, and it was her desire and teaching. You know, in India now people come from different Hindu families and they don’t make much of honesty. They can tell lies whenever they want. Ammai had to fight that.
We had many, many missionaries around in that generation. One day when I went to Ammai and was talking to her, her brother came. He was very distressed. One of the boys that he was looking after was very difficult and hateful. He didn’t even see me or notice me, because he was so worked up. He was telling Ammai, “I can’t manage this boy. I don’t know what to do with this boy.” Then Ammai gave him a verse, “Despair of no man” [Nesarathina motions with her hand to indicate that this was a verse written above a doorway or on a wall]. I learned the meaning of the verse from Ammai then. Then she calmed him, soothed him, prayed with him, and then sent him off. That boy [the one who was difficult] became a pastor in North India. I have forgotten his name, but one day I told him this story, and he was very surprised.
J: How did you end up working here in Dohnavur?
N: When I finished my education in English here according to the Cambridge system, we didn’t know how to understand the people who would talk Tamil outside of Dohnavur. We were only talking English. So the missionaries felt that is was time to go out to Indian boarding school, get the government exam, government qualification, and that we should work and be a witness to the Lord where we serve. Nine of us were chosen. I was the first. So we had to see Ammai every day, and finally one day Ammai called me and said, “Darling, do you really want to go out?” I said, “Yes, Ammai.” “I have told you all that you need to learn, and you don’t need to learn even more.” I said, “Ammai, I want to go out.” The two missionaries sitting there said, “Ammai, trust her to the Lord and the Lord will bring her back.” I thought to myself, “No, I’m not going to come back immediately. I want to see the world.” But the Lord, after my graduation, said, “Go home, and tell your friends the great things the Lord has done.” So, I came here in 1960 as a staff worker. And there is no regret..
[One of the current staff members, who was present during the interview, adds that she was Nesarathina’s first student. Without missing a beat, Nesarathina points at her with her tender hands and says, “Uncontrollable!” The room fills with laughter..
Then all of the naughty girls were given to me. Twenty girls. Imagine! Any time, they would make a game. When I would sleep with my mouth open, they would come and pour water in it. Then they would run off, because I was going to catch them..
I used to take the girls to swimming from 11-12pm. I would be in the well too. When 12 (o’clock) came and the time was up, they would not come up. Then they would push me in the well, and say, “Oh, we must go in and rescue her,” and jump back in. It would take half an hour to get out of the well.
Smiles and laughter dominated our brief conversation. As we closed, Nesarathina put her hands together, bowed her head, and prayed. It was obvious that the past was now fresh on her heart as she approached the throne with heartfelt thanksgiving; thanking the Lord for the fellowship and for Ammai’s love for the Savior and for the children. She thanked the Lord for His grace in the rescuing of sinners from darkness, while petitioning Him to continue His work of salvation in the hearts of the children who are currently at the orphanage. She prayed for continued sanctification for the workers, so that the believers there would continue to glorify Him. She then prayed for us, that as we travel He would meet all our needs according to His riches in Christ Jesus. She closed by wrapping all of India in her arms and bringing the nation before the Father, desiring to see a great movement of the Lord. She prayed for revival.
Life. That is the word that I would use to describe this brief interview. Though she was weak in body, Nesarathina was fully alive in spirit. It was obvious—our Lord’s fingerprints could be seen in her and in this place. Life was present in the stories of the past, in the gentleness of her voice, in the wisdom with which she spoke, and in the care of those with her. Life was present (instilled, as it were) in the very fabric of the work. Life was present in her closing prayer as she spoke with reverence, hope, and sincerity. She was Ammai’s fishbowl: honest and transparent. Though Amy was no longer physically present, it was obvious—listening to Nesarathina’s stories, seeing the joy written on her face, watching her interact with others, and hearing of the hope that lies ahead—that the Lord was still present through this simple, faithful, and loving servant called Ammai.