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Love in the slums

23 August 2013

Pat Ashworth finds a Norfolk woman amid India's worst squalor


Acts of kindness: Pat Atkinson at the Madurai boys' home with Balmuragan, who went on to found a successful paint business. A photo from her book, reviewed below

Acts of kindness: Pat Atkinson at the Madurai boys' home with Balmuragan, who went on to found a successful paint business. A photo from her book, r...

Touched by Untouchables: My life and work in India
Pat Atkinson
Connaught Books £8.50
Church Times Bookshop £7.65 (use code CT559 )

I HAVE sighed over many worthy accounts by Christians working in terrible situations, not because what they are doing is not extraordinary (and always humbling), but because such books are often marred by a kind of overt piety that meets every new hardship with a sitting-down to prayer. It is as though the authors think that this is what the Christian reader expects.

There was no sighing over this one. A chance encounter with a 15-year-old beggar who was dying by inches at the roadside in India drove Pat Atkinson to roll up her sleeves and keep returning to the country to live and work among the Dalits, the Untouchables. This is a woman driven by compassion, who just gets on with it, gets her hands dirty, and refuses to be overwhelmed. Small acts of kindness are the key, she suggests: in this way, you can change the world.

And so, living among the filth, the squalor, the flies, the disease, and the acceptance by the slum-dwellers that "that's the way it is," she inspires people back home to fund small things at first: an ambulance, a clinic, a dentist's chair and a year's salary for a dentist, the equipping of a pharmacy, leprosy treatment - the list is endless. She observes and analyses the broader social picture, and so her efforts go where they can do some lasting good, not least in the setting up of homes for street children as the work continues to expand.

It is all at great personal cost: she cannot afford (and doesn't choose) to stay in air-conditioned hotels; she almost dies from amoebic dysentery; she is involved in a horrific road accident, where she has to repel a woman who is trying to steal the gold chain from a dead baby. Awareness of the special needs of girls and women leads to money raised for the establishment of tailoring units: the Bishops of Norwich (her home diocese), Thetford, and Lynn were the first customers for clerical shirts.

God is her driving force, but we don't read that until the last chapter. "I don't 'preach' the Gospel. It's difficult to do that in India but instead I do something I believe is more important," she says. "I try to show people the love of Jesus." If Jesus came back, you'd find him in the slums, she sug- gests, with the absence of sentimentality which is the hallmark of the book.

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