In one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, his two heroes, Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, find themselves stuck in Bombay for several weeks while their ship, the Surprise, is being refitted. Stephen Maturin, always the adventurer, takes the opportunity to explore this exotic city, controlled by the British in the early 19th century. Dr. Maturin soon acquires the assistance of a young Indian girl, Dil, to help him navigate Bombay’s streets and negotiate various business transactions. The street-wise Dil wins a place in Maturin’s heart, and he treats her like a daughter. The gap between Maturin and Dil is enormous. He is a highly educated Irishman, whose modest wealth places him far above almost everyone in the poverty-stricken city. Dil is a young orphan, come to the city from a tiny village with her old grandmother. She lives in a tiny shack and owns only the clothes she wears.
As the time nears when Surprise must sail from Bombay, Dr. Maturin takes steps to insure a better future for Dil. He arranges for a friend to provide training for the girl in sewing, so that she would not be forced into a brothel at puberty. And then, the evening before his was to sail, he gives Dil an extravagant gift: six silver bangles to wear on her arms. Her delight is inexpressible, and Maturin’s heart is warmed. Dil promises to come say good-bye to the good doctor the next morning, in time for him to board the ship.
Maturin rises early that morning, but Dil does not appear. Maturin begins to worry and finally he sets out into the city to the dirty slum where Dil lives. As he arrives at the hovel Dil and her grandmother occupy, he sees that a small crowd has gathered in the street. Then he sees Dil’s tiny body laid out on the ground. He sees the marks on her arms where the bangles were violently ripped off. The ancient grandmother is railing at the crowd, asking that they would each give a coin to pay for a decent funeral. But the neighborhood is desperately poor and only a few coins are in the begging bowl.
As Maturin takes in the situation, he stands next to the headman of the area who explains the tragic scene. “It is sad,” he says. “Usually a funeral would be provided by members of her caste, but she is far from home and no other caste members live here. She will not be given a proper funeral.”
The terrible caste system of 19th century Hindu India has made the death of the small girl even worse. She is from an extremely low caste, and the people are very reluctant to break through this entrenched system. Maturin, of course, as a foreigner, is exempt from the system, and cannot understand how some people can be treated as “untouchable” simply because of the family they are born into.
But rather than fight the injustice of the ancient caste system, Maturin simply tells the headman this, “Tell the old woman that I will buy the child. I am of her caste.”
We, as humans, are floating in the sea of a godless world. We have drifted far from home. We look to others trapped in the same dilemma to give us comfort and give us guidance, but they too are lost. So we float along, gasping for breath, afraid that the next wave will overwhelm us and plunge us into the deep. We cannot save ourselves, nor can any fellow floaters help us. As darkness approaches, we are without hope and in utter despair.
Jesus, the Son of God, has seen our plight and has had mercy on us. He came to the world of humans, and in so coming he identified with us, even in that most human of experiences: death. God in flesh and blood. Fully God, yet fully human. And while he shared in human death, Jesus defeated death through his resurrection, and thereby freed us from the terror of death in our lives. He has freed us from the power of Satan, who wields the natural fear of death over us to control us. He has saved us from drowning in the sea of despair. When he sees us in our helpless state, he says for each one of us, “I will buy that child. I am of her caste.”
Nebraska Christian College