Salt of the Earth BY TEESTA SETALVAD
I honestly believe that missionaries have done more for women’s education in this country than government itself. The women population of this country has been placed under a deep debt of gratitude to the several missionary agencies for their valuable contribution to the educational uplift of Indian women. Of course, at present India can boast of several other religious bodies such as the Brahmo Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission, Arya Samaj, etc., doing work in the field of women’s education, but in the past the Christian missionaries were the only agencies in that field… Had it not been for these noble bands of Christian women teachers, who are the products of missionary training schools, even this much advancement in the education of the Indian women would not have been possible; even to this day, in every province, we find the missionary women teachers working hard in a spirit of love and faith, in out-of-the-way villages, where Hindu and Muslim women dare not penetrate.
— Dr. (Mrs.) Muthulakshmi Reddi, in her presidential address to the All–India Women’s Conference in January 1931.
Being a mission school we had a Bible class every morning which nobody minded attending even though the bulk of the students were Hindus. I happened to be a good student of the Bible and carried away many Bible prizes. This fact, and the fact that I was good in English made me a favourite of the Principal. Even in those days, however, there used to be scare-stories about missionaries trying to convert students to Christianity. I remember a wholly unfounded report having reached my parents that some of the teachers were trying to convert me into a Christian!
— Motilal C. Setalvad, first attorney general of India, in his autobiography, My Life — Law and Other Things)
Christian schools have been able to inject a large number of non–Christians with a sense of dedication and commitment to education. That has been a very major contribution. Commitment to education that comes from commitment to scholarship is a good thing. But when it comes from a stronger motive, like service to society or religion or God, I think the commitment is raised to an entirely different level altogether; and such commitment is what you have been able to achieve for a number of years and to communicate to others.
— JP Naik, eminent educationist and a former educational advisor to the government of India.
Logic and reason, and even the most elementary notion of fair play should defy the grand lie. If the lie holds it’s own against lived experience, reason, and the harsh reality of statistics, there must be ‘good reason’ for its tenacity. If hysteria governs its currency, an emotion of unreason clouds clear–thinking and honest responses, the lie has hit upon an emotional chord or bed of support, however perverted. The kind of emotion that helps perpetuate the lie.
The grand lie that I speak of — and we have as a nation been piteous victim to a series of small and big lies over the last two decades or so — is the one unleashed against Christian institutions. It is alleged that the insidious intent of ‘conversion’ is the sole reason why, in the service of their Lord, Jesus, Christians travel to regions ignored and neglected, to people forgotten and even brutalised, to educate, to nurse, to cure and to comfort — all with the missionary zeal that has come to be associated with their life–long work.
The lie took its toll in the past, too. But it has achieved unsurpassed success in the past five years or so, with chilling violence of varied kinds being used against Christians. This despite the dogged service that these women and men of faith continue to perform. We have as a nation allowed the burning of Bibles and the desecration of churches, just as a 400–year–old mosque was demolished to lay the foundation for mass violence against others in our midst. Worse, nuns and priests have been killed and terrorised, sexual violence, too, used to ram home the message.
All these assaults have taken cover under the grand lie. Why do I call it the grand lie?
Consider this. As we enter the third millennium of human civilisation, as calculated by the Christian calendar, Christians of various denominations in India, totalling not more than 2.3 per cent of the entire population, are responsible for 25 per cent of the social services provided in the country. Consider this. Forty per cent of the total social work by NGOs undertaken in the country is undertaken by Christian institutions alone.
Consider also this. The UN Human Development Report, 2000, ranks India abysmally low in human development — at 128 out of 174 countries in the world. Low life expectancy (people not expected to survive beyond 40), high levels of adult illiteracy, deprivation in economic provisioning, counted by the percentage of people lacking access to health services, safe water and social inclusion (employment is one indicator) are the areas where Indian governance has failed it’s own people.
A decade–old UNESCO figure tells us that we had 370 million illiterates amongst us. Literacy rates among women of all classes, castes and communities are lower than those of men; other figures of the vast disparities or differences between the opportunities and privileges available to one section as opposed to another tell their own tale:
For example, in India, the illiteracy rate among the scheduled tribes (about 7 per cent of our total population) is 70 per cent compared to 48 per cent for the country as a whole. What does this mean? That, whereas nearly half of all Indians are today denied the basic right to education, among scheduled tribes who live in remote and far flung areas, the deprivation is far higher.
What else does this mean? That, the buzzword on development and progress notwithstanding, we need to dig deeper behind the cold comfort of numbers and see their social relevance. We need to face our own shame and recognise that based on religion and scripture and the cultures and traditions that have evolved from these, we have created and allowed different levels of denials.So that the poor and marginalised oppressed castes, were and still are subjected to inhuman levels of spiritual, physical and material denials; long–forgotten tribes who are the original, pre–Hindu inhabitants of this land were and are rendered even more illiterate; our women, whether Brahman to ‘atishudra’ or ‘mleccha’, were and are not only kept away from education and attendant empowerment, but also subjected to violent abuse, within the family and outside.
We do not, however, rise as a people in anger and shame even while these figures and searing tales of humiliation and cruelty stare us in the face. We are not outraged when the current–day perpetuators of the big lie travel long distances to perform ghar vapsi (return to the home) rites on children, women and men from whom their own forefathers have snatched land, food and shelter for centuries. And then, having forced the re-conversion on the tribal people, and unconcerned about issues like food, education, health and empowerment), say they will construct separate temples for them to pray!
Within this larger sphere of material and spiritual disparity, present day statistics and our history of the past centuries, lies embedded the contribution of Christian individuals and institutions, of varied denominations but all driven by the message of Christ — in building schools to educate girls as well as boys, in reaching inaccessible areas and holding out a caring hand to sections brutalised and excluded by scriptural faith and certainly by living tradition.
It was inevitable that the mission of Christians in India would take them where the Indian establishment, still shackled by caste–bound prejudice, dithers and even after Independence, gingerly refuses to tread. To provide succour and to empower the poor, the tribal, the Dalit, the women.
We turn a blind eye to both realities. And both denials together make up the grand lie. The first is the collective denial of present human development figures that stare us in the face and which are linked to the historical denial of opportunity and fair play to large sections of our population in the past. The second denial is our refusal to recognise the contribution of Christian institutions.
The second denial is indeed linked to the first because it is in the arenas of these past and present day inequities and injustices that Christian individuals and institutions have located their work, their mandate being to work for the most marginalised and underprivileged. To deny the existence of disparity now, and historically, is to deny Christian contribution, then and now, and to claim that its all nothing but convenient cover for conversion. To accept their role is to face our moral and cultural poverty, the rank injustice and marginalisation that we have perpetuated on sections of our people. To accept their role is to nail the grand lie.
We have heard so much in recent years about the offensive language contained in the Minute of Macaulay (March 7, 1835). But what we refuse to accept is that elementary and higher education came in through different Christian missions long before the colonially driven and objectionable Macaulay edict, that spoke brazenly about the promotion of European literature and science among the people of India, and that referred to the indigenous people as persons of inferior (heathen) status.
There was a St Francis Xavier who trailed the path in elementary education by exhorting companions to build a school in every village next to which a church was built; today Christian schools number 11,801 (pre–primary, primary and village level); secondary and higher secondary schools total 3,614!
Since as early as the 16th century, several Christian colleges have existed in western and southern India. These colleges were not only in the business of education, but they also created fine libraries and collected archival material valuable for oriental knowledge. Missionaries who set up these institutions of education got engaged and embroiled in the land they came to inhabit. The tracts on biological species, the first dictionaries in many Indian languages, the singular contribution to indigenous dialects, are some of the fruits of that engagement.
It was the Scottish mission, begun in South Konkan in 1822, that inspired the young, Jyotiba Phule, a radical mind from the region of current–day Maharashtra, who was a strong critique of the Hindu caste system in the 19th century. Pandita Ramabai, a Brahmin widow who chose conversion to Christianity as a means of emancipation from the persecution and drudgery of life as a Hindu widow, gave her testimony before the Education Commission in 1882. Official estimates of the time stated that one hundred million women were uneducated, with both Hindu and Muslim traditions historically denying women these rights. Included in this were girls, married women and, worst of all, widows who were subjected to humiliation and denied the dignity of living autonomous lives.
Testifying before the commission, Ramabai had remarked that in ninety–nine cases out of a hundred the educated men of the country were opposed to female education and the proper position of women. It was of little use to build schools without girls to fill them, or without a staff of female teachers. The teaching profession for women was thought to be incompatible with womanly modesty, she had said.
As far back as 1823, the Church of England Missionary Society ran 23 girls’ schools in Calcutta. In 1824, the American Mission opened the first school for girls in Bombay, a school that, incidentally, was open to children of all castes. The threat of the democratising processes that these contributions unleashed are undoubtedly behind the violent resistance to their work, then and now.
In South India, too, it was the missions who pioneered women’s education — the first university college, the first medical school and the first training college for women — the Sarah Tucker College, Palamcottah, the Christian Medical College, Vellore in 1918 and St Christopher’s Training College, Madras in 1923 were set up by them.
In failing to nail the grand lie, we deny not just our past but also present day Indian reality. A few weeks ago, the RSS chief KS Sudarshan demanded, if you please, the ‘Indianisation’ of the church in India. It needs a great lie to hide the truth of the Church’s engagement with the marginalised people of India who are perceived by some as the real ‘problem’ of India.
It is not my intention to uncritically glorify the role of the Church in India. It is definitely my intention to challenge the insidious attempt to deny and dismiss decades, even centuries, of compassion and commitment with a grand lie.
|‘We chose the Holy Family
Hospital because we felt that
it would at least be God-fearing’ Narayan Ananthakrishnan
In his late 30s, Narayan Ananthakrishnan, a father of two, was suddenly faced with a medical emergency. He had to undergo a brain surgery at less than 24 hours notice. Which hospital should he choose? Guided by his neuro–surgeon, who consulted with three such institutions, Narayan opted for the low–key Holy Family Hospital at Bandra, Mumbai. Recalling those harrowing weeks, in conversation with Communalism Combat, during which his life hung in the balance, Narayan has warm memories of an institution that lived upto it’s calling — caring for a patient with dignity and compassion.
It was all such a shock. I was not even aware that I was bleeding in my brain. I merely felt an acute pain on the top of my eyes that was unbearable when I went in for the MRA scan. The diagnosis indicated that there was severe bleeding on both sides of my brain and I had to be operated upon immediately.
It all happened within the space of a few hours actually. I left home at around 9 a.m. in June 1999, went through the MRA scan and by 12.30 the diagnosis was known. Things moved at lightning speed after that because there was no time to be wasted. My brother–in–law, a doctor, helped me identify and contact a neurologist, Dr RD Gursani, immediately. There were two options before me in the choice of hospital (to which my neuro–surgeon, Dr Harshad Parikh is attached) since the third, the Hinduja hospital, was beyond our budget.
It was to be either Nanavati or Holy Family Hospital at Bandra. None of us were in favour of Nanavati. Faced with a critical operation upon which my life depended, we chose Holy Family because essentially I am a God–fearing person and we felt that being a Christian hospital, Holy Family Hospital, too, would at least be God–fearing!
It didn’t bother me which God or which religion. First of all, I had faith in the doctor recommended to me who consulted there. Secondly, though I am a Hindu it does not bother me which God or which religion I see in front of me. Be it a Muslim place of worship, a Christian one or a temple. It is the home of God.
I was in the hospital for just under two weeks. The nuns used to make their rounds, the father would come every single morning, check on how I was and ask, “How are you, son?” He would then bless me and say, “Don’t worry, son”. The first time he blessed me was on the morning that my operation was scheduled.
You see, I was under severe stress and pain. It was a critical operation. Soon after the surgery that lasted over four hours, the surgeon came and told my wife, Geeta, “Whichever God it is you pray to, go and thank him. Thank him that your husband is safe. The amount of blood that I have removed from his brain, it was not in my hands to save him. I operate with the same sincerity on all my patients. He survived because of God.”
For the first few days there was unbearable pain, so bad that I could not open my eyes. But my entire treatment there, the handling by the staff, the operative and post–operative care was impeccable. I had no complaints. Post–operative care in my case was especially important since I am diabetic. My blood sugar needs to be tested three to four times a day and the staff did not need to be reminded even one time.
I was in a non–AC room with two beds, but my room and the whole hospital was spotlessly clean, the atmosphere calm and all the rooms spacious and airy. The staff responded immediately to the bells by the side of every patient. The floors, the tables and the toilets were kept scrupulously clean. The staff is well–trained and conscientious about injections and cleaning wounds, the sort of thing that is vital for a hospital.
The whole ambience and atmosphere of this hospital was enriched by the church just across. Patients can hear the mass as it is conducted and this is very soothing, you know. I noticed this only on the fourth and fifth day because the first three days were a living hell with the kind of pain I had to undergo.
The strange thing is that after my operation, we heard so many people bad–mouthing Holy Family Hospital because it is a charitable hospital and so on! I find this ironical because my treatment there by the staff from the ward boy to the nurses was faultless. What struck me most was that there was no indifference in their behaviour towards me. Be it someone in the general ward or the first class ward, they treated every patient with the same concern and care.
Some things from my harrowing experience have left a lasting impression. I have been to a number of hospitals. My father has been admitted two–three times for operations; we have even admitted him to the Ramkrishna Mission hospital that is also a charitable hospital. But there is a vast difference between the two hospitals. In the atmosphere, the treatment of patients, the caring and dignity, cleanliness, there can be no comparison.
One thing I remember clearly about the Holy Family hospital was the strict adherence to rules. They would not budge from the visiting hours rule, no body was allowed after the permitted time! Even my own brother–in–law, who is a doctor, was not allowed to enter the operation theatre because he had not taken prior permission from the surgeon. He finally had to approach the head of the department for the clearance. They were very strict about certain things which I think is not happening in all the hospitals and which is why standards are not being maintained.
My wife stayed with me most days. There was another strict rule of not allowing children into hospitals to guard against their picking up any infection. On the seventh or eighth day I approached the Father to give me special permission to let me see my children for just five minutes. I had been through a tough time, come out of it but not seen their faces. I promised that I would not even speak with them and finally they allowed them to come and see me.
The only thing that I remember on the negative side was their inability to register my request for a pure vegetarian meal, be it breakfast or lunch. I made repeated requests to the dietician but the request just would not register! It might sound facetious but once I find either egg or fish in the plate I just lose my appetite. But all things considered I feel that this was a relatively minor complaint.
Above all else, I got this efficient and considerate treatment at a decent and affordable rate. My total bill for a serious brain surgery and fourteen days of hospitalisation, including the surgeon’s charges (normally we have to pay doctors separately) amounted to Rs. 70,000. We must have spent another Rs.15–20,000 on medication and injections purchased from outside. Can you ever contemplate such reasonable treatment in a so–called private hospital?
Besides, no section of the staff was on the look out for tips every other day that has become the hapless norm in most hospitals in the city. From the man or woman who swept the floors to any other member of the staff, they did not accept tips.
I wanted to give them a donation in cash or kind before I left the hospital as a token of my appreciation but they simply refused. My father even spoke to the head sister in Malayalam explaining that what we wanted to give was a token of our appreciation for the institution but she simply said that their rules forbade her from accepting. “The fact that you recovered well is sufficient for us,” she told my father.
We all left the hospital, extremely happy. The greatest happiness of course was in my recovery itself from a critical and sudden brain surgery. Coupled with the warm treatment I received there.
Every time my father visited me in the hospital he would say, “Whenever you are feeling sad and afraid, just look up there to the photograph of Jesus Christ. Just look at him and he will save you.” The photograph of Jesus hung just above my hospital bed.
‘Bosco made an enormous contribution to me as a person’
I do not think that I can ever de–link myself from the influence of my formative years spent in the cradle of that whole culture with the Salesian priests and their commitment to the education system. The institution that they ran with caring and a deep sense of values, the grooming I got to grow into the kind of person that I am today. All that is part of the unconscious. Something that I carry wherever I go.
This experience goes with me, colours my vision, influences the way I look at things, at the world, the way I act, react and think. It is part of the collective unconscious, in the bloodstream, in the marrow of my bones.
We have millions in this country who are a product of these missionary schools. I grew up with the saga of Mary and Jesus inside of me. My mother, a Shia Muslim, took me to seven churches, every Friday, the month of Lent.
And I was very happy that I came to know of Jesus and his way of looking at the world at Bosco. That whole dimension that is deep inside me was perhaps imbibed from my days at Bosco. The way of looking at things, celebrating Christmas, after which comes the month of Lent, followed by Easter. In many ways I am a truly Christian boy.
Through all my growing up years I never ever felt that a faith was being forced upon me. There was a clear distinction made between the Catholic boys who had to attend Catechism classes while non–Christians learnt had to attend moral science classes. Christianity was never paraded, never imposed. There was not even the faintest such streak among the priests or teachers. The teachers, too, never put especial emphasis on anything ‘Christian’. This harmful propaganda is petty paranoia on our part.
In any case, if Jesus is injected in my consciousness it is not going to disempower me. There are many highs in Christianity that you can draw from. Jesus as a person had a unique way of looking at things. A life assertive outlook, compassion and conscience, who’s appeal is not limited to Christians alone.
The concept of Santa Claus lives on for my children. It is a fairy tale from which all of us are rudely awakened as life dishes out its offerings, but all of us need to keep the concept alive for the young, for the next generation. We should all play Santa Claus till we are rudely woken up!
Now this is something I inherited from my Christian upbringing. And I am grateful for my mother for having chosen to send me to a missionary school.
I owe my formative years to them. Bosco has contributed to my being what I am and I am thankful for the teachers and fathers for being so caring, tolerant and patient with me. I was a troublesome boy, not easy to handle. I was an anti–power and anti-authority kind of guy. But they showed me tolerance and compassion.
We also, by the way, had the best church built through my school that was completed during my school days. It was, and possibly still is, one of the best churches that we have. The marble for it came from Italy. We had some great and meaningful times in that church; I used to go inside and spend long hours. We used to play on the rocks and stone slabs.
Even though I left school many years ago, over the past 20 years or so, since I became a film maker, I have kept visiting and re–visiting the spot, the Church for shootings.
Now, you only revisit what is pleasurable and memorable and my memories of years at Bosco are nothing but that. That upbringing has also made enormous contribution to me as a person, a creative artist and this lasting impression manifests itself in my films, in my work.
‘I am what I am thanks to my school’
Film Actress, Rajya Sabha MP, Social Activist
Shabana Azmi is a former student of Queen Mary’s, Mumbai. This is also the school where the former darling of the silver screen, Nargis, did her schooling from. While Nargis was rose to the eminence of being Head Girl of the School, Shabana didn’t because “I was far from Head Girl material, being a very naughty girl”. But she has very warm memories of the school that nurtured her in her formative years.
We had Psalms and hymns being sung in our school every morning. So, in that sense you could say that there was a Christian influence in the general sense. But at no point did I ever feel, nor was I ever made to feel that Christian religion was more important than mine. Never did I experience any feeling of suffocation by the Christian influence.
All festivals were observed or celebrated with equal gusto, all traditions were honoured and respected.
The sheer dedication of Christian institutions, and the women and men who run them, to education is tremendous.
The Irish lady who was the principal of Queen Mary’s when I was at school is now 84–years–old. But do you know, after retiring from the school, she did not go back to Ireland. Today, she is in a remote village in Tamil Nadu dedicated to the education of tribals. Apart from the fact that neither you nor I are doing this, casting aspersions on this commendable dedication to basic education, when hundreds of thousands of our children have no access to basic literacy, is both cynical and spurious.
The other thing I liked about my school was its commitment to an all round education. There were the ex tremely serious lessons on morals and values, you know, like, jhoot nahin bolna chahiye, khana kis tarah khana chahiye. I feel all this helped in moulding all of us into the persons that we are. Which is why I say without hesitation that I am the person who I am thanks to my school!
Each one of us greatly benefited from the outlook that was integral to education in our school. Marathi was given as much dedication and importance as French.
One approach that the school followed that has left a lasting influence on me is that, on principle, children from all classes were, admitted into the school. It was not a school of only the very rich or only the very poor. There was a genuine attempt at a policy of integration so that it did not become a typical, snooty, elite South Bombay school!
I remember so well that on our birthdays we were permitted to wear our birthday frocks instead of the uniform. But the only sweets that we were permitted to distribute among our classmates had to be the kind that all children could afford! None of us were allowed to distribute chocolate pastries, for example, simply because our parents could afford them.
A keen sense of justice and fairness dictated the approach and commitment to education. By the way, Nargis, the darling of the silver-screen in the past was Head Girl of the Queen Mary’s in the 1950s! I was far from being Head Girl material. In fact, I was not even a monitor but I loved every minute of my school days…
There was a lot of singing, dancing, encouragement of theatre and drama, the all round development of the child. It was not a school that concentrated on academics and academics alone. Which is why I loved my school!