Simple Acts of kindness
In recent issues of this newsletter [TOS in touch.online] we have celebrated some simple acts of kindness that no one gets to hear about. Now we feature a Theosophist whose service to the TS has gone largely unseen because it has always been performed in the background.
Bernice "back home" in New Zealand
The President’s Secretary
Bernice Croft acted for ten years as Secretary to our International TS President, Radha Burnier, before retiring last February and returning to her native New Zealand. While many of us around the world wish Bernice a happy retirement, we know in fact, that she is as busy as ever, and has really only changed her service address from India to New Zealand where, amongst other community activities, she has resumed her long-standing membership of Soroptimist International, a volunteer service organisation for business and professional women working to improve the lives of women and girls in local communities and throughout the world. Her busy life has also included attending the annual ES retreat at The Manor in Sydney, Australia in May, joining a creative writing group and lecturing at the Wellington TS Lodge. Bravo, Bernice!
Dorothy Bell, a member of the Australian Mornington Peninsula TS Group and a national member of the TS in America – and one of the many visitors to Adyar whom Bernice befriended – shares memories of Bernice here.
Bernice Croft in Adyar near the big Banyan tree
My first meeting with Bernice Croft
It was Sunday, mid-afternoon, in early October 2002 and I was in India. After unpacking my clothes in the intense humidity and heat of the day – and adjusting to my allotted sleeping quarters on the ground floor of Leadbeater Chambers – I trundled over to the dining room seeking the company of those who were also attending the 8-week School of the Wisdom and visiting the legendary Adyar TS Headquarters for the first time. Fortunately, I found a few other weary travellers from Europe, England and even another Australian whose flights had arrived either in the middle of the night or early morning. We swapped stories for a while.
Two Western women approached our table from the little road alongside the dining hall, both in Indian outfits – with those colourful pants and long shirt-dress that we came to know as the salwar chemise. They joined the table, introduced themselves as Bernice and Leonie, and we learned that they were volunteer workers on the compound, both Kiwis – from New Zealand. Bernice explained to a questioner how she purchased her dress materials, her salwar chemise basics at the huge Chennai Silks store in the CBD, and had them made up to her own design specifications by a man out the back of some nearby shops in downtown Adyar.
Not a strand of burnished gold hair out of place, and looking as cool as a cucumber, she answered a whole stack of questions about water and food, shopping and supermarkets, snakes, rabies, jackals, cobras, bats and mosquitoes – and how to handle auto drivers. She was elegant and the sweeping scarf-shawl – worn over the left shoulder – sometimes found other positions with equal grace.
By comparison, I felt hot and uncomfortable – as well as slightly underdressed – in vanilla summer slacks and cotton top that clung uncomfortably in the heat. Of course, to a student of Theosophy, such body-conscious thoughts were totally inappropriate and should never have registered on the radar. Suddenly she turned around, fixed her eyes directly on mine in a no-nonsense summons and declared, “You missed lunch, so we’ll take the bicycles.” Surprised, and not knowing what it really meant, or how long ago I had breakfasted on the plane or ridden a bicycle – I said, “Yes, I’d love to.”
So this was my first meeting with Bernice Croft. Sizing up what was really a trivial, personal situation of my own making, she stepped in and did what was there to be done with no concern at the inconvenience to herself or the loss of her precious leisure time on a Sunday afternoon. There she was, checking the tyres, thrusting a bicycle into my hands and then setting off down the road calling, “Don’t worry, just follow me.” I watched her ride off, admiring her mastery of the machine that to me was like an uncomfortable, militaristic improvisation that refused to co-operate or respond to any effort of mine to gain momentum. As I wobbled in zigzag fashion after her, I wondered how anyone could portray even a smidgen of elegance in such a bodily position – her feather-light shawl, now resembling a long scarf, seemed to trail freely in the air behind her, very much in the genre of the English actress, Maggie Smith, pedalling her bicycle around Scottish laneways in the movie, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
“Come on,” Bernice called after a while, checking my progress on the bumpy little road, winding through palm trees and other exotic trees and flowering bushes, past a few scattered buildings here and there, “Just out the front gate for a wee bit.” I raised my eyes from the roadway to the Bookshop sign and then towards the front gate. To my horror I saw heavy traffic – trucks, buses, taxis, autos, big cars, little cars, motorbikes, scooters, even a bullock cart and other bicycles, all rushing past, changing lanes and swerving in and out, with no space in between. In panic, I yelled, “I can’t go out there… I’ll be killed,” my voice trailed off in disbelief. “Just follow me, you’ll be safe,” Bernice sang out.
We passed the security guards through the gates of the walled compound, turning hard left to the edge of the roadway. I breathed a little, assured that we were not actually going to be swallowed up into the mainstream traffic. Nevertheless, the assault on the senses upon leaving the peaceful verdure of subtropical jungle vegetation had begun. Such a cacophony: the honking and blaring of all types of horns, whistles and unknown others, and the droning and revving of all kinds of motor engines, charging along, expelling heavy diesel and petrol fumes into the odorous hot mix of near invisible swirling dust and dirt.
As years rolled on…
I grew to know Bernice Croft when I returned regularly to Adyar for Schools of the Wisdom and International Conventions, and the little incident of kindness I have just related – wrapped in adventure as it was – came to represent to me her way of truly working the first object of sister-brotherhood – and HPB’s “theosophy is altruism”. She was a natural. Her helpfulness and assistance to those around her turned into a reputation as ‘the traveller’s aide’ in India, and it spread through word of mouth to more and more visiting Western members, who were disadvantaged by language and ignorance of local custom and the ‘Indian way’ of doing things.
Whether it was getting stamps, posting letters and sending a parcel home; working the banking system with travellers’ cheques, changing money or finding specific shopping items and venues – Bernice was a voice that was well-grounded in experience. She knew the tourist traps and exploitation routines and she knew the relatively authentic markets and stores for genuine rugs, crafts and jewellery and took members there. She knew about transportation, in and around Chennai, visiting local temples and ashrams as well as Ramanashram and Auroville. She knew the local eating places, and the nooks and crannies of the suburb of Adyar, including the adventures surrounding a visit to Elliot’s Beach on a Sunday afternoon.
Bernice behind her desk at head-quarters building in Adyar
She was up to date with local arts activities and festivals, and occasional visiting musicians giving concerts as guests of Consulates were also on the “let’s go” menu. She also took Westerners to the Cathedral for Christmas Carols and service on Christmas Eve – to compensate for an otherwise hollow time for those who came to the International Convention and were away from family and traditional Christmas celebrations at this time.
She also helped the TOS in many ways. Our International Secretary, Diana, recalls one such gesture of practical thoughtfulness, “When I was at Adyar once and about to travel on to Auckland, I mentioned to Bernice that the TOS there was about to hold a sale to raise money for its projects. Bernice filled an entire suitcase with a wide variety of tasteful Indian handicraft objects for me to donate to the sale anonymously. (Some of the items were valuable too – necklaces and things.) They sold like hotcakes, in fact.”
But there was another part of Bernice’s work of which very few people were aware – and about which I have had to read between the lines when only a few clues had randomly manifested – but enough to join the dots, and I suspect that they represent the tip of the iceberg. Because she is a very private person, I know that she will be embarrassed to read any public acknowledgement of her work, but she made a difference to many lives and she is an inspiration to us all. In this world we need such inspiration and to acknowledge this rarity of true service, done with great humility and invisibility, seems to me to be appropriate – and an honour.
I refer to the kind, practical and material assistance given to Indian workers and their families, in times of dire need and survival, or in helping to make a new start or build a temporary bridge for some to ‘find a way’ to earn a living. The struggle for existence – to meet day in and day out, their basic physical needs, medical debts and especially the burdens suffered under the illegal practice in Indian culture of wedding dowries – played heavily on Bernice’s mind and her response to it was a natural one. Whether it was in food, clothing, furniture or financial support, Bernice gave of herself and her own pocket. In so doing, she also walked her own tightrope nightmare of realising that her generosity was possibly being exploited but her desire to alleviate a little of the suffering – imposed by practices of the caste system, the gap between the wealthy, privileged and poor, the systemic corruption of social institutions – was all that really mattered. In these contexts, she also seemed to try to impart some simple skills of budgeting and planning, priority-setting and problem solving – a little bit of self-empowerment that was also a way of helping that had longer term value.
Observing from the outer, there are many Westerners like myself who witnessed her dedicated serving of the President not as “only the typist” – as she often referred to herself – but as a true secretary and minder, a guardian of the Office. She was a companion and server, often with chauffeur, travel agent and mediator duties. Whether she was fixing afternoon teas for dignitaries and visitors to the Office or organising painters, plumbers, electricians or IT technicians, she kept the Office machinery operating and functional – literally and administratively – with dignity and decorum.
Bernice Croft (r) and Radha Burnier in Rome during the World Congress in 2010
Ever ready to assist, to solve problems, to roll up her sleeves to lend a hand – in her role as Secretary to the President, informally as a ‘traveller’s aide’ or as a friend to Indian workers – Bernice Croft raised the bar of “the Supreme Duty,” in the words of Annie Besant, to great heights.