Thursday, June 24, 2010

A CANTERBURY TALE

Imagine waking up to a shaky morning… No, it isn’t your head that’s spinning. It’s your room, swaying under your feet ever so gently. You make your way past the bed and writing table to the white drapes covering the window and hold your breath… Your heart skips a beat and then… Ever so slowly, you let out a sigh. For drifting languorously by was a breathtaking vignette of beauty.

What was drifting was actually the barge I was in, making its way along the green waters of an ‘English’ channel that wound its way along the town of Canterbury. But on either side of the channel there stretched sloping fields of verdant green. A bay stallion circled its paddock and then reared up on its hind legs and neighed… Perhaps at the red mare and her colt next door or perhaps rain… I don’t know but what a picture it was! Further away, a boulevard of tall trees lined the banks and their branches met, forming an arched canopy over our heads. Beyond the trees ran little gravel paths that led to beautiful little houses. And to think that people lived here and woke up to this gorgeous view of the world made me go a little green. Must have been the water, I told myself as the channel got a little narrower… Here, the houses made of wood, brick and stone, sprang right out of the river, on either side. And thus began my education on England beyond London.

Ashford, a quiet little town and an hour’s drive from London, is where it all began. Ashford, explained my brother-in-law is what you would call a commuter town – a residential zone where people like him and my sister, professionals, who are starting out with jobs in London but aren’t keen on riding the steep rent spirals spinning out of the Thames for now, stay. They’ve been living here for a while now and since all my trips to ol’ blighty had been short stopovers in London, they insisted that we’d never really see the real England and that this trip, they would introduce us to the soul of Britain. And it would begin with a pilgrimage to the seat of English faith: the fortified town of the men of Kent called Cantwaraburh, or what has come to be known as Canterbury.

A canal tour on an open boat or a barge is a wonderful way to see this ancient English town that at one point in history was more a Roman town than an English one. All around town you see Ochre arches with tuft s of grass peeping out of the crown of the arch... Silent reminders of England’s pre-anglo-saxon heritage Round a bend in the canal, our boat went under a bridge that was brimming with tourists stretching and straining to try and capture a white house on the water with red roses on the sills and green-grey panels and a little board that said, “The Old Weaver’s House AD 1500”. “It’s the most photographed house in town,” said the boatman. “It was a sanctuary for Protestant weavers seeking to escape persecution from all over Europe at the time.”

The sun grew stronger as the day grew longer and the boat dropped anchor at The Weaver’s... We got out and on to the street. It was Friday and there was a steady throng of tourists and travellers. Incidentally, tourists are not new to Canterbury. This town’s streets have been laid far more oft en than most others, for pilgrims have been flocking here for a 1000 odd years or more.

For centuries, Christians and adventurers have been drawn, like waves to the shore, to one of the greatest monuments dedicated to the Christian spirit in all christendom - the Canterbury Cathedral. In fact, my first introduction to Canterbury was in a dog-eared book I bought for my graduation in literature from a second hand book store. It was The Canterbury Tales by that ‘other father’ of English literature - Geoffery Chaucer. I found the language a little cumbersome and was glad it finished sooner than it had threatened to, but today, I kinda missed that book. I vaguely remembered it as tales exchanged between pilgrims on their way to the Cathedral.

To be walking in the footsteps of pilgrims who once walked these very streets, perhaps the very same cobbled stones that I now walk on, left me humbled. While I’d fl own, driven and drift ed here by plane, car and boat, pilgrims in those days would walk all the way from London, oft en in bare feet. Their feet would be ripped to ribbons on the sharp rocks and stone paths and yet they would plod on through the mud and the pain, always reminding themselves that their pain doesn’t compare with the suffering and sacrifice that was endured by two men whose images still adorn the walls of this Cathedral. The first is the ‘Son of God’ and the other a bishop, an archbishop actually… Archbishop Samuel Becket.

So while we wait at a tavern to rest our weary feet, let me tell you the story of the man whose sacrifice truly made this town what it is... A place of pilgrimage for the faithful and a place worth visiting for the not so faithful. Samuel Becket was a Chancelor - a high official of the king. He had been a great soldier, of proven valour and victories. Both erudite and elegant, he had a taste for the finer things in life. He soon became a favourite of King Henry II. Though both were men of opinions, they respected and liked each other. At the time Archbishop Theobald was at the head of the Church of England and was a mighty power, one that rivaled and threatened the King’s. So in 1162, when Theobald died, King Henry thought it might be a good idea to have his own man in the church and decided to appoint Thomas as the new Archbishop.

But now that he was Archbishop Thomas, he was a man of God before he being the King’s man, and whenever the King and Church collided, instead of siding with Henry as the King had hoped, Becket stood undaunted in support of the Church. He gave up his riches and became a monk dedicated to serving the poor. Arguments between the two friends reached a point where an exasperated Henry asked if anyone could rid him of Becket. Four of Henry’s knights and their men rode to Canterbury and demanded that he do as the King bid. But Becket refused, as he knelt at the altar in prayer, saying he’d happily die for Jesus than let the Church bow before a monarch. Infuriated, the knights hacked him down with their swords, one blow splitting his head open spilling his brains onto the floor. As I stood in the cold solitude of the Cathedral, under the shadow of the swords that point to the spot where Becket lay in his own blood, I began to understand that more than the power of the Popes and their crusades, and so much more than Christmas and Easter, it is this fearless and forgiving embrace with which Jesus, and his saints like Becket, welcomed death at the hands of their oppressors that made Christianity such a noble and powerful philosophy.

If you are distracted by similarities between Becket’s story and the Amitabh Bachchan- Rajesh Khanna classic “Namak Haram”, don’t be, for that isn’t the point. All that matters in this Canterbury Tale is that there is great power in belief, one that resonates through time and space. Christian or not, may we too find the calm courage of a saintly spirit… Amen!

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