the god of small things
MILTON KEYNES AND MALVERN PAPERS - March 1999
THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS
By Murdoch MacKenzie
Early in 1998 Murdoch MacKenzie spent ten weeks in India. Events in India have moved on since then, but some of his observations are still relevant.
Arundhati Roy is not popular in Aymanam. Whilst she claims that all the characters in her Booker prizewinning book are fictional, some of them claim to be very much alive and kicking and screaming in her home village, the name of which is scarcely disguised as Ayemenem in the book. Whether true or not, this is what local people said.
We stayed in Aymanam at Palathra, the home of Thomas and Elizabeth Kunnenkeril whose garden, full of every kind of tropical tree imaginable, runs down to a peaceful backwater.
Our arrival here was at 6.45 am and immediately a programme for the weekend (this was Saturday morning) revealed that we were meeting the local bishop in Kottayam at 9.00 am and that Murdoch was preaching at Ascension Church, Kanjikuzhy, at 7.00 am on Sunday 1st February. Altogether in the ten weeks we were in India Murdoch had 19 speaking engagements of one kind or another. These included preaching in the Kirk in Madras on Christmas Day and at the New Year Watchnight Service, as well as conducting the Silver Jubilee Service for the Riber Memorial Day Care Centre on 15th February, the day before we returned to England. On 8th February we returned to Chennai on the Madras Mail (still not changed to ‘Chennai Mail’) from Thiruvanathapuram (Trivandrum) due to arrive at 7.30 am, but notoriously always late by about an hour, which miraculously arrived spot on time that morning and enabled Murdoch to be at St Mary’s Church, Fort St George (oldest Anglican Church East of Suez – now CSI of course) to celebrate the 9.00 am Eucharist and preach on the lectionary theme of the Integrity of Creation.
But to return to Kottayam. Sam Mathew, the relatively new CSI Bishop, is an old friend of ours, having been our neighbour in the 1970s in the Kirk compound in Madras, living in the CSI Malayalam congregation’s parsonage. Here he was in the bishop’s house in Kottayam and as we sat down he showed me a fax which he had just received from the CSI Synod Office in Madras marked MOST URGENT. It informed us that Bishop Lesslie Newbigin had died at 6.30 am the previous morning, 30th January, which in fact was the 50th anniversary of the death of Mahatma Gandhi. We were very upset as Lesslie had been our mentor and guide for over 30 years. But it somehow seemed appropriate that we were in India probing into the life of the CSI and CNI and so Murdoch continued with interviewing Sam Mathew about episcope. Lesslie’s death has continued to give us cause for much reflection.
Looming large throughout our visit were the forthcoming Indian elections. More than 600 million people are expected to vote. There are 545 seats in the Lok Sabha and where we stayed at the CNI Bhavan in Delhi we could see Parliament House from the bedroom window. 4,693 candidates from 7 national parties, 36 regional parties, hundreds of smaller parties and some independents (including Ninan Kosy, brother of Prof George Koshy – till the CSI Synod in January CSI General Secretary) are standing for election. The Election Commission has registered a total of 662 parties and I do not think Screaming Lord Sutch is among them! 900,000 polling stations will be staffed by 4.5 million election officials. Each candidate has to pay a deposit of Rs 10,000 ($258). Counting of votes starts on 2nd March. Mind boggling!
On the way out we were in transit in Bahrain and there was a huge notice at the centre of the terminal building under the heading MISSION PRINCIPLES. Carved into the stonework above the main entrance to the Raj Bhavan in Bangalore in large letters it says GOVERNMENT WORK IS GOD’S WORK. Right across the front cover of the Mulki Telephone Directory at Mangalore it says ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD TO THOSE WHO LOVE GOD. The foyer of the Blue Diamond Hotel in Poonamallee High Road (now EVR Salai) in Madras (now Chennai) has the following inscribed in Urdu, Arabic and English: WE BELIEVE THAT THE SERVICE OF OUR COUNTRY IS THE SERVICE OF THE LORD OF LORDS AND DEVOTION TO THEIR PEOPLE IS THE DEVOTION TO THE SUPREME SELF. Our visit to the factories of our friend P M Thomas, formerly in the Kirk Youth Fellowship, now worth crores of rupees but as always extremely generous and kind, burning 14 tons of wood (imported from Andhra) each day to generate the steam for the dyeing of thousands of metres of cloth, reminded us that at the main entrance to the factories there is a picture of Christ kneeling in Gethsemane and the words JESUS CHRIST IS THE HEAD OF THIS FACTORY. All Indian newspapers every day have religious devotional material – mainly Hindu – and we will never forget the insistent complaints of a young doctor in Madras who, having listened to the BBC Overseas Service for over 20 years, was complaining bitterly that, instead of the good Christian teaching and worship services from such places as St Martin’s in the Fields, to which he was accustomed, he is now forced to listen to a lot of secular clap-trap or to talks about Islam. He said he was surrounded by Islam in India and he thought Britain was a Christian country. He expects me to write to the BBC.
10th December was World Human Rights Day. Our friend Bishop Azariah, Bishop in Chennai (Madras), was in Delhi at a meeting of the Human Rights Education Movement of India which was sponsored by the Church of North India Diocese of Delhi and the Dalit Liberation Education Trust, whose convenor is Henry Thiagaraj, again an old friend of ours from Chennai. The main topic was ‘The Importance of Human Rights in Education’. Both Bishop Azariah and the new CNI Bishop of Delhi, Rt Rev Karim Masih, are Dalits and between them they form a powerful axis of solidarity between north and south India on behalf of the Dalit Movement. The Dalit Movement itself is a very positive new force in Indian politics and in the Indian churches. Because of its deep involvement in issues of justice and peace for those who are really crushed and marginalised in Indian society, the Dalit Movement has undercut many of the normally accepted niceties and divisions and has had a huge ecumenical effect in bridging the gulf between different faiths and in particular between the Roman Catholic Church and other mainline churches. One of the particularly encouraging new developments is the very close solidarity between Roman Catholics and CSI/CNI, in places like Delhi and Mangalore for example. Among the many books relating to the Dalit Movement, we were particularly struck by one called From Role to Identity – Dalit Christian Women in Transition – ISPCK, 1997. The Dalit Christian woman is a woman, a Dalit and a Christian. She is thus thrice handicapped or thrice alienated, on the basis of her gender, her caste and her membership in a minority religious community.
Writing in India Today on 2nd February 1998, Yogendra Yadav claims that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) still has a narrow base: “For long derided as the Brahmin-Bania party of the urban areas, the BJP has come a long way in expanding its social base. Be it the Jats of Western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, Sikhs in Delhi or the Patidars in Gujarat, the BJP’s influence goes beyond the top three varnas. Yet it still carries a lot of its old features: virtually no Muslim vote, very strong among the upper castes and weak among the Dalits (outcastes). It has some appeal among the Adivasis (tribals), but only in a few pockets ... The narrow caste base is reinforced by an even narrower class base. There is a straight correlation: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to vote for the BJP. Urbanity, ritual hierarchy, education, respectable occupations and wealth are all associated with a greater propensity to vote for the BJP. Class and caste reinforce each other: if you are well off and educated, you are more likely to vote BJP but if you are from an upper caste group as well, the chances are even higher. The BJP’s social base reflects all the signs of a party of the privileged.”
People often asked us what changes we noticed in India. The thing that does not change is the people. In the course of our travels, from Madurai to Madras to Bangalore to Hyderabad to Delhi to Amritsar to Ludhiana to Mumbai (Bombay) to Goa to Mangalore to Kottayam to Trivandrum and back to Madras, we were treated with the utmost kindness by old friends and new ones. Indian hospitality never ceases to astonish the ‘western’ visitor and it was so good to be able to see so many friends in all parts of India, many of whom took a great deal of trouble to meet with and care for us. We were also struck by the sheer quality and calibre of many of our Indian Christian friends, whose intellectual and practical witness to the core values of the Gospel and to the person of Christ, in the midst of ambiguities of Indian society and its globalisation, are quite outstanding.
But there are changes – superficial ones but none the less real – in the form of traffic density and chaos. Crossing most roads was an act of faith, except in Mumbai where traffic is well regulated. Travelling by autorick puts one right at maximum pollution level and travelling by night along a national highway makes the big dipper or the dodgems at Blackpool seem like child’s play. Of course a doubling of the population means a doubling of housing colonies and industrial production, and cities seem to go on for ever. Somebody asked how long it would be before Pune and Mumbai would merge. But the most significant change which, if it continues, could affect the total life of India is the emergence of Hindutva as a serious political philosophy. This is being put to the test at this moment via the electoral process and, even if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not win the election outright, the issues will not go away. It is not simply a matter of Hindu nationalism but of the politicisation of caste. The BJP support divides as follows: Upper Caste 40%, Other Castes 24%, Adivasis 18%, Dalits 13%, Muslims 2%. The perceived wisdom of the Gandhi-Nehru secular basis of Indian society is under threat and Indian bishops have advised their flocks not to vote for communal forces and those which would be oppressive to Dalits.
Ten weeks of immersion in India leaves one with a kaleidoscope of images. The sheer glee on the faces of fisherfolk’s children as they watched quite spontaneous cockfighting on a beach in Goa. The impenetrable smoke in a hotel in Hyderabad as each evening they fumigated the place against mosquitoes. A visit to Ballard Pier in Mumbai, now a naval base but on 19th July 1966 the place where we first set foot in India after our voyage from Tilbury on the SS Himalaya. Next door to Ballard Pier is a huge sandstone building with the words MACKINNON MACKENZIE carved in large letters. We went to the reception and I said ‘I am Mackinnon MacKenzie’ but they didn’t believe it! The uncanny experience of standing on a small balcony in Bom Jesus Church in Old Goa and being almost able to touch the silver casket containing the body of St Francis Xavier. Sunday evening Mass in the Church of the Infant Jesus in Colva, the huge church packed to overflowing, three-quarters of the congregation being women, but with a sacristan whose job included a really delicate mountaineering expedition up and down a series of high altars to light innumerable candles. A large notice on the main door read ‘Beware of AIDS Chastity before Marriage Fidelity after Marriage AIDS DAY 1st December 1997’. The marvellous sunsets of the Goan beaches and the taxi-man who was called Napoleon. City bus-stand in Bangalore was to be seen to be believed. There seemed to be literally hundreds of buses pulling in and out and an unending stream of people, like the disgorging of a crowd after a football match but which never stops. Chickballapur Hospital, from where Dr Leslie Robinson will soon retire after over 30 years of service in India. St George’s Cathedral in Chennai (Madras), where Murdoch was ordained on 30th April 1967, with its buildings and grounds beautifully cared for and where recently was celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the Church of South India. A visit to a friend’s farm at Sriperambadur, the small town in which Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and where there is now a huge Rajiv Gandhi Memorial being built. It was from here that Sonia Gandhi chose to start her election campaign on behalf of Congress. A Saturday morning visit to our village project clinic near Pulicat, where 87 patients were given attention. The log fires in Mrs Bhandari’s Guest House in Amritsar contrasting with the natural temperature of Trivandrum, which was the hottest place in India while we were there so that a visit to Kovalam beach was extremely refreshing.
Whether Arundhati Roy is popular in Aymanam or not, the title of her book, and the way in which she focuses on the ordinary but intensely interesting existential moments in people’s lives, in some sense reflect the texture of India. 960 million people for whom God is both the great Ishwar, God of the Universe, but also very much the God of small things, whose image in one form or another is literally to be seen on every street corner, in every home, in every factory, in every taxi and autorick, bus and lorry. To walk down the main street in Mumbai or Madras (Chennai) and be jostled by a thousand images of film stars and advertisements, Mercedes Benz and beggars’ bowls, is to realise afresh the truth of one of Roy’s major thrusts that “there are big dreams and little ones”. That there is ‘Big Man, the Laltain sahib, and Small Man, the Mombatti’ – Big Man, the Lantern, and Small Man, the Tallow-stick. The village ponds near Ponneri in Tamilnadu with their lotus flowers look much the same as they have for a thousand years but on the roads beside them have sprung up innumerable SRD boxes and TV sets bearing witness to the globalisation of Indian culture.
Bur we were supposed to be studying episcope and there are still miles to go and much work to be done. Again it is about the Big Man and the Small Man. There is much talk in India about ‘power to the people’. The Dalit Movement is a mighty symbol of this but itself is sadly fragmented, as various small men vie to be big men. Episcope is supposed to be personal, collegial and communal. Even Cardinal Newman wrote a treatise ‘On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine’ but the weekly news-sheet of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi dated 11.1.98 carried a headline: “VATICAN WARNS SOME LAY MINISTRIES MAY BE HARMFUL - Lay ministries that obscure the differences between the ordained priesthood and the laity, even if motivated by a desire to serve priestless communities, are harmful to the Church, Vatican officials said.” In the CSI many articulate people (why say ‘lay’-people when ‘lay’ simply means people!) are highly critical of the episcopate. In the CNI the episcopate itself is asking people for dialogue about episcopacy. For all churches a reassessment of diaconal ministry is urgently overdue. The look in the eyes of a saintly bishop, with considerable experience of the episcopacy within a united church, will continue to haunt me, as he said: “We could have had a beautiful church but we have blown it.” In the bones of many people is a feeling that the church is ripe for renewal.