Remembering Uncle Ben

In April this year, I visited Aolichen for Uncle Ben’s sake. “Uncle Ben” is how I, and the many Nagas and non-Nagas that knew him, have always called him. The rest know him as Dr I Ben Wati.  

That brief visit to the tree-clad campus where his precious books are stored moved me immensely. He is still so much in our hearts - that lovely, funny, generous and absolutely Christ-filledperson that we were so privileged to know.  

The Vice Principal of the college told me that Uncle Ben’s books donated by him to the college were being preserved in a room of their own. I was so glad to hear that though he would have given a merry chuckle at that information. Because he was just such a humble individual who never wanted any pomp and glory for himself.  

He liked to laugh, and that is how I remember him. He had his wonderful sense of Ao humor that made him tell some unforgettable anecdotes from real life. The humorous side of him stayed with him all his life. It came out in the emails he regularly wrote to those on his correspondence list. The stories that he tells about his childhood and life in his autobiography Impur Chanu (child of Impur), and the volumes following that are interspersed with this uplifting humor that lets us look away from the hardships that were part of life in those days, and lets us remember the upbringing that shaped him and made him into who he was.  

The humor was a doorway into Uncle Ben’s amazingly altruistic spirit. He loved the Nagas but always had far reaching thoughts for their future. He did not bind himself to temporal issues of a political nature that were good only for destroying and dividing. He talked to the spirits of men, women and children and sought their salvation. A great wise man lived and walked among us, and only few of us knew how truly great he was.  

I knew him only halfway along the long journey that was his life. I met Uncle Ben in 1983 and was immediately at home with the warm and welcoming manner that he offered to this new entrant. His home in Bishnupur, Shillong was a graceful combination of elegance and homely comfort where we would find him cooking Naga pork for his guests. Over lunches and dinners, he would transfer his rich store of wisdom into our then young hearts. He brought to his daily businesses with people and congregations and colleges, a meticulousness that was his heritage from his father, a former teacher. In every city that he made his home, Shillong, Pune, Bangalore, Oxford, he gave back to the city much more than what that city had given him. Nagas living in and around those areas were the biggest recipients of his generous nature.  

For me to find a library of his books in Aolichen was like seeing the story of Uncle Ben come round full circle. He never abandoned his roots. In the days when his health permitted him, he made several trips back home to visit his ailing mother and to stay connected to Impur, Aolichen and the Changki village of his mother. And then he came home to die so they could lay the Impur Chanu, back into that mother earth for the last time. It was so right and just the way he would have wanted it. He went out from Impur and returned to Impur after enriching all the parts of the world where he went. What an inspiration for the rest of us to follow!