I am slowly writing a memoir of my Catholic Childhood in India. Scroll to the bottom for the chapters I’ve already written. Thank for reading along as I share the first version.The final one, no doubt, will be shorter!
A Teenager at University Faculty Housing at XLRI, Xavier Labour Relations Institute, Jamshedpur.
When my father retired as Controller of Accounts at Tata Iron and Steel, Jamshedpur, at the mandatory age of sixty, full of experience and vigour, I was at an expensive boarding school, St. Mary’s Convent, Nainital, and my younger sister Shalini was just eleven. We were, unusually, born in his late forties, and he had little wish to retire,
He was, providentially, offered a job as Financial Controller at Xavier Labour Relations Institute, XLRI, a prestigious American Jesuit-run post-graduate business school, one of South Asia’s oldest and highest ranked–serendipitously located in Jamshedpur–with, surprisingly, an increase in salary. My father loved his new job, a combination of Chief Financial Officer, Treasurer and Internal Auditor—haphazardly making enemies as he queried fanciful expense accounts. We lived in Faculty Housing on the XLRI campus for eight years.
* * *
Jamshedpur, a small town in Bihar, was not an entirely quixotic choice for a Business School. The Tatas, Zoroashtrian industrialists, had settled there, drawn by iron ore, and Jamshedpur hosted two of India’s largest companies, Tata Iron and Steel, TISCO, and Tata Electric Locomotive Company, TELCO, which attracted executives from all over India; few managers were born there!! Our sleepy provincial town was a business hub!
Xavier Labour Relations Institute was founded and largely run by missionary priests, American Jesuits from the Baltimore province, though as to be expected from the International Society of Jesus, there were priests on loan, like Father Arroyo from the Jesuit Gujarat province, a missionary project of the Spanish Jesuits, as well as Mangalorean Jesuits from India’s Karnataka Province. (The Jesuits, like the Catholic Church, were an early and great multinational!) However, though XLRI was then largely staffed by American priests, my father’s younger brother, Father Theo Mathias, a Jesuit, was the Director during the eight years that we lived there. My father held Theo up to us as a role model of productivity and perfection. “Lolling? Wasting time? I don’t think Theo ever wastes even five minutes.”
The genial American Jesuits on campus, Fathers Keogh, MacGrath, Moran, Father Tome, and Father Guidera referred to Theo as “your kid brother,” when they spoke to my father, which amused us; both dignified gentlemen were in their sixties. “Here comes Noel and his harem,” the American priests sang out as they saw my father walk through campus with my mother, my sister and me in tow. “XYZ,” they’d say, eyeing his fly, which my father worked out as meaning “Check Your Zip.” He was as absent-minded as I am.
* * *
East and West! Culture shock–all the time. Father O’Brien, good-natured, dreamy, noticed his student had a mundan, shaved head, a custom of conservative Hindus mourning relatives.
“Hey Ravi,” he slapped him on the back with easy friendliness. “How you doing? Why have you shaved your head?”
“My mother died,” the student said, mournfully.
“Great, great,” Father O’Brien patted his shoulder, walking on, quite obviously not having heard a word.
* * *
When we were invited to dinner at the Jesuits’ house, peacocks strutted, manifesting iridescent moons– pets, food, mewling alarm-raisers–and alarm clocks!). The sweetest caged rabbits provided free and delicious meals, and the house was guarded by glorious pure-bred Alsatians, parents of our Brutus.
Some of the priests were radical, left-wing, and I listened, open-eared and fascinated, as they openly criticized the Vatican for censoring Hans Kung, and patiently explained Liberation Theology to me. These idealistic men had come to India, probably expecting to serve the poor, but puzzled, often piqued and restless, found themselves education ambitious go-getting business managers-to-be, while hoping to transmit Christ’s values to them, so the Christian ethic might trickle through society, like salt, like light.
I used to attend the weekday student masses on the XLRI campus in my late teen very Catholic phase. The wind of the Sixties–a post-Vatican II liberation–had finally blown to India. We sat on the floor on cushions, and sung toe-tapping folksy songs, accompanied by guitars–“Make God your guru,” “Honey in the Rock,” “He is my Everything,” a far cry from the soulful, formal hymns of my German-run boarding school in the Himalayas. At Mass, we sung “Kumbaya,” and “Blowing in the Wind,” singing protest songs against Vietnam and for Civil Rights, oblivious of their origins.
How many times must the cannon balls fly,
Before they are forever banned?
An’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
And how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,
The answer is blowing in the wind.
And on and on it went. How soulful it all sounded, how many calls to action, too many, blown away before any took root in conscience.
* * *
XLRI offered an MBA in Industrial Relations and Business Management, drawing students from all over India, and countries including Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Iran, and Malaysia to Jamshedpur, my sleepy little hometown. It was ranked fifth among India’s eight hundred business schools.
Since fewer than one percent of applicants were accepted, Professors on the admissions committee, as my father every year was, were offered myriad bribes. My father scanned the letters, then flung them in the waste paper basket. I retrieved one. “Why are you torturing me?” and then, “Okay, I can offer an additional five thousand rupees.” Wealth, emigration to the US, better marriage prospects for men, a cheaper dowry for women–a lot hinged on the right education.
My father’s secretary, sorting the mail, once snorted “This bloody fool thinks he can draw green hearts on the envelope and get into XLRI.”
“Show me!” my father said uneasily. And then, shyly, “It’s my daughter.” Attempting to assert my individuality at boarding school, I used brilliant inks: turquoise, emerald, bright pink, and magenta, idly covering the envelope with hearts.
Every year my father, his brother Father Theo, and their younger brother Eric interviewed short-listed applicants in Bombay at the Oberoi Sheraton or Taj Intercontinental, exclusive hotels which then catered to foreigners or the very rich. Eric and my father had unregenerate sweet teeth, and–still boarding school boys at heart–attacked the buffet first, eating black forest gateaux, trifles, knickerbocker glories, and eclairs before they considered, well, real food. Though my father had become health conscious in his late fifties, his resistance crumbled when confronted with twenty Western desserts. (I myself used to start with the dessert at buffets all through my twenties and thirties and even forties, but now avoid sugar–which would astonish the child who looked forward to heaven as the country of unlimited condensed milk, jaggery and Cadbury’s chocolate.)
* * *
Living on the XLRI campus provided more cultural and intellectual stimulation than usual in a small Indian town, especially when XLRI hosted Kaleidoscope, an annual national inter-collegiate cultural festival. Student teams from all over India competed for a few frenzied days of competitions—music, debating, drama, quiz, based on the B.B.C.’s Mastermind; elocution competitions: strutting forth purple passages of poetry or prose, and “Just a Minute” impromptu oratorical competitions in which one was given, well, just a minute to argue a point, starting the instant a topic was announced. (I introduced this to school, and was rather good at it!)
We watched Of Mice and Men at XLRI performed by a visiting American theatre troupe, and I remember a chilling production of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little N*****s by XLRI students, who, in that innocent age, did not realize that the word was considered offensive; interestingly, the American priests didn’t tell them. When I loved a play, I’d get my father to ask the students for the script, and take it up to boarding school where I directed them as fundraisers for our Social Service League, which I ran—Moliere’s The Miser when I was fourteen and Overtones by Alice Gerstenberg when I was fifteen. Overtones has feral shadow selves voice their thoughts, while the social selves shallowly smile; it shaped my perceptions of social life: the scowling shadow self behind the smiling face.
Unusually for Indian libraries then, XLRI’s library was well stacked with American classics, absent both from the local Club libraries and from my school library which had–almost entirely–British authors. Besides, being on faculty in an American-run institution enabled my father to borrow books for me through inter-library loan from the United States Information Service in Calcutta. This was the era of the Cold War; we received a glossy magazine Span from the USIS, a dreamy representation of America and American writers like Eudora Welty and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Sputnik from Russia, on cheaper paper, with hagiographic stories of the childhood of the sainted Vladimir Iliych Lenin, for instance.
I read T. S. Eliot for the first time here in a volume borrowed from the XLRI library, included because he was American–enchanted by the rhythm and resonance of the words long before I worked out the meaning. I memorized Gerald Manley Hopkins–who was here because he was Jesuit; like Eliot, he spoke to me, pulse to pulse, heartbeat to heartbeat. I was learning the magic language of poetry. I read St. Augustine’s Confessions, who was there because he was Catholic, enchanted by his sense of the dual plots and stories in our lives. You acted with malice: he addresses the teachers of his youth, but God was active too, shaping it all for good.
I read the writers the priests suggested, and sobbed through the stunning final scene of “The Grapes of Wrath.” One winter, I checked out Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and then Ibsen from the XLRI library, reading play after play. I read rapidly when I was home, a book a day. We had a live-in cleaner and cook, so there was no domestic work. There was no TV; except for the three movies we went to each week at the Clubs, I had nothing to do but read.
During the three month winter vacation from boarding school, I checked out The Hundred Greatest Speeches, and memorized speeches for elocution competitions at boarding school: Frederick Douglas on the Fourth of July, Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions; Martin Luther King’s resonant and alive, “I have a dream” and “The Gettysburg Address.” Decades later, I still remember them; their rhythms beat in my veins.
* * *
The students hosted marketing festivals to test-market new products, guinea-pigging their relatively affluent and educated visitors into market research in the form of games. My mother played intently and came home with tote bags of Lux Supreme Soap, Bianca Toothpaste, Five Star Chocolate and canned Utterly Butterly Delicious Amul Cheese. My father watched from a distance, quietly amused.
We often had students, faculty, and the Jesuit priests over for dinner, and unconsciously, the romance and magic of business and wealth-creation seeped into my artistic blood during those eight years on the campus of a business school. I borrowed the books the students read in their Organizational Behaviour course from the XLRI library—introductions to psychology, to Transactional Analysis—”I’m OK; You’re OK,” listening intently to conversations on business, thinking I’d be rather good at running one, though fearing I was too literary and poetic to do so. I now do own my own; perhaps those years in faculty housing of a Business School indirectly inspired me to see the world in business as well as poetic terms, untapped wealth-generation ideas blushing unseen everywhere.
* * *
My mother invited particularly bright, charming Catholic students to dinner. They asked us to dance at Christmas dances, bestowed our first kisses on us. Coolness was prized; the cool were “hep,” or the “hep cats”; those who tried too hard were the “pseuds.” In retrospect, there was probably little difference between them.
XLRI had foreign students from all over Asia and the Middle East, but only one African, a Nigerian called Charlie. Charlie fancied Indian woman. Undaunted by repeated, almost inevitable, and sometimes horrified rebuffs, he assiduously proposed marriage to fellow students, stenographers and telephone operators. My father said his secretary burst into his office, wailing, “Charlie asked me to marry him.” The entire college community would now tease the latest intended…until Charlie proposed to someone else.
My mother once invited Charlie to lunch with other students. He talked about women, marriage and weight! In Nigeria, he said, brides were sent to fattening parlours before their wedding day. Being hefty was sexually attractive, he implied, a status symbol. My family claimed Charlie looked straight at me, as he said that. I was five feet two and weighed a hundred and sixteen pounds to the despair of my parents who wanted me to weigh a hundred. They teased, “Well, you could diet, or you could marry Charlie.”
* * *
Autodrivers and rickshaw-wallahs called the leafy, secluded campus of Xavier Labor Relations Institute set in a sylvan setting on the outskirts of town “Jayber-Laber.” “Jayber-Laber please,” we said. To the English-speaking, it was XLRI, or serendipitously, XL, Excel, an acronym much milked.
The priests built faculty housing in an enclave adjoining the University; like our house at Tata Steel, housing came with the job, and was surrendered with it. Providing housing helped employers attract talent in a developing economy in which banks did not offer mortgages. (The provident saved, and bought houses with cash, often after retirement; many never did.). Besides, non-taxable perks like housing—TISCO provided medical care, telephone service, and cafeterias–kept the taxable salaries of businessmen in company towns low.
I liked strolling on the quiet, peaceful road which encircled Faculty Housing, two storied apartments, each assigned to two families, on one side of the road, and brilliant red-flowered flame of the forest and bottle brush trees on the other. Each house had two balconies; oases where I sat and gazed at the fiery parasol of the Royal Ponciana trees across the street. The flat was much smaller than our large house at Tata Steel, and laid out on a more open floor plan than most Indian houses, each area glorified by an imprecise American name. When it was decided that we would move about ten miles across town to XLRI, a professor visited us to describe the house. “There are two balconies, and a lobby,” he said. “What’s a lobby?” my mother cheeped up. “And then an alcove.” “What’s an alcove?” she said plaintively.
The faculty and staff of XLRI worked together during the day, and lived a few yards apart in the evenings; almost every family had domestic help, a maid or a cook, who hung out with each other in their off-hours. What was whispered in living rooms, virally transmitted through the servants, reached the rooftops where families relaxed in the evenings. Any illusion of privacy was illusory.
In his hours off, our cook Durga sat in the sun outside the campus gates with other off-duty servants and the Gurkhas, indomitable Nepalese watchmen, who were guards at XLRI and the Jesuit residence. He returned with juicy gossip–which members of the faculty hated each other; whose wife was going quietly insane in the privacy of their house; whose secretary was shamelessly flirting with her boss–who just happened to be a priest. And probably, our secrets left the house by the same channels that other people’s secrets entered it.
* * *
While an acre of garden encircled our Tata Steel house with an oasis of privacy, at XLRI we were assigned the top floor of the apartment building. There were neighbours beneath us. According to campus tradition, families on the upper floor used the rooftop terrace to eat dessert or relax in the cool of the summer evening, or sit and read, soaking up winter sun. We hung out laundry, spread shrimp, meat, ginger, and vegetables on dishcloths to sun-dry for pickles, and even slept up on the terrace on sweltering summer nights; it functioned as an extra room. The people on the lower floor traditionally had the small garden to hang out their laundry, and cultivate.
Moving from a bright airy twelve large-roomed house with an additional outdoor kitchen and quarters for two servants to a three bedroom house with one outdoor room for a servant and no garden was a huge transition. I disliked the apartment, finding it too small, dark and gardenless, and affording less privacy to read and think than our previous house–and my mother pined for a garden, having grown her own flowers, fruit, vegetables and herbs all her married life.
Eating from the garden was a way of life for us. We used to have crisp freshly-picked lettuce and fresh radish, tomatoes or peppers for breakfast layered in cheese sandwiches; made pestos with our own mint and coriander; and my father made himself a garden-fresh cucumber and lettuce salad for lunch, not liking to eat raw food that the cook had touched, for he suspected him of not washing his hands. On seeing cultivable land lie overgrown and unused right beneath our windows, my mother’s green thumbs itched. She had our cook dig out a little plot, and planted vegetables, herbs, flowers, and mulberries bushes. The little garden bloomed.
The faculty wife downstairs, Mrs. Gupta, was a recluse, made strange and half-crazed by loneliness within her yellow-walled house. Less-educated than her respected professor husband (as often happens in arranged marriages where parental life savings “buy” a better educated husband, whose salary, would, perhaps, support both sets of parents in old age) she was out of her depth in the University environment. Though this indolent, eccentric woman rarely stepped outside her house, and had done precisely nothing about planting a garden in all the years they had lived there, she was furious to see my mother plant a garden on what, by campus tradition, was her land.
One day, as my mother was pruning and harvesting, Mrs. Gupta rushed out of her house with a packet of seeds, flinging them over the hard unbroken weed-choked ground, almost dancing in her rage, like the multi-armed goddess Kali over battlefields. “Mrs. Mathias,” she yelled. “This is my garden. See, I am using the garden. See, I am planting my seeds”
There were interventions. Both soft-spoken dignified husbands managed the families’ foreign policy, and my mother was given half the garden, in which she densely planted flowers, vegetables, herbs, papaya, banana, and mulberry trees; and perennial fruiting shrubs like roselle. Mrs. Gupta, it was agreed, could use the terrace, though being reclusive, she never did—for then we might have seen her. In the eight years we lived there, I saw her just once.
The families then, more or less, co-existed, an uneasy truce, confining themselves to snide barbs. When I returned from boarding school, and my mother and I were left alone while my father was at work and my sister was at school, the decibel level soared as we screamed at each other, every interaction ending in intense drama. When my father returned for lunch, both my mother and I rushed to him, the one getting there first having the first shot at a recitation of woe. “She did this. She did that. All I did was this, and she…,”. Professor Gupta on encountering my youngest sister as they entered the building, said dryly, meaningfully, “I hear your sister’s home.” And so he must have.
* * *
The next salvo. Mrs Gupta hired a “jungli” (as the Adivasi forest dwellers who belonged to the scheduled or “backward tribes” were then colloquially called) to dig her half of the garden, and prepare the hard, compacted, rocky, never cultivated laterite soil for planting. This was iron country; the red soil was riddled with murram, pellets of iron ore. He laboured, day after day, from dawn to dusk. And when, each evening, he presented himself at her door for payment, she inspected the plot and said, “No, it’s not deep enough; it’s not wide enough.”
The man continued the exhausting digging with the dumb accepting air of a sad animal, afraid of quitting and not being paid for the work he had already done. However, when she kept commanding, “Dig deeper. It’s not deep enough. I will pay you when it is finished,” our cook Durga told him to quit. “She’ll never pay you,” he warned. And, sorrowfully and reluctantly, the man finally did leave. Never paid. It was the first time I’ve observed someone who made a game of power and exploitation.
Mrs. Gupta never did have a garden. Little was planted on that cruelty-cursed earth, and little grew. Her half of the yard was soon weedy, overgrown and neglected, but it was hers, and she had it.
The faculty flat came with an outdoor room for a servant. Mrs. Gupta let hers to a woman who, well… Durga said men on motorcycles came at night, stayed a while, and then left. During the day, Mrs Gupta worked that woman–no fixed hours or half-day off as our servants had. Sweep, scrub, cook, wash up, do laundry, iron. But when she said, “Ma, hum jata hai,” “Ma, I’m going,” the parting greeting of the servant going off duty, Mrs. Gupta would say, “Wait. Massage my feet. Massage my daughter Kalpy’s feet; massage my daughter Archy’s feet,” keeping her on, keeping her on, exploiting that woman’s weak position and vulnerability.
* * *
Somewhat ironically for a University which taught Industrial Relations and Business Management, XLRI had a strike–endemic in India, a common way to negotiate wage increases or better work conditions.
“Labour,” the staff: secretaries, telephone operators, and clerks, struck against “Management,” the administration–the Jesuits, including my father’s brother, Theo, the Director, and some faculty, such as my father, the Financial Controller.
Some of the bleeding-heart liberal, almost radical, American Jesuits sided with the staff; this was to be expected, given their temperament and politics. They were children of the sixties. They were forgiven by the other priests. An Indian Jesuit from Mangalore, however, sided with the staff, to be cool, to court popularity, the other Jesuits said in disgust; and he was never forgiven. (Eventually, he was moved to the University of Detroit, and his archenemy, the fiery Spanish Jesuit who, quite properly, took the side of the administration and thought this betrayal of his Jesuit brothers was inexcusable was moved to St. Joseph’s, Philadephia. To the Jesuits, the world was a chessboard.)
The strike was a game for the students. It had an air of gaiety and unreality, an unexpected foretaste of big boy life, making solemn, pompous armchair ethicists of them. The students sided with labour—the charms of the underdog whom you don’t have to feed! They were playing at being liberal, but this would change once they became management, my father snorted. The more radical people were in youth, the more conservative they became at the scent of money, he said, recollecting the hot-air talk of the young Indians he knew in London in the forties and fifties, who returned to India, made money, and became pillars of the establishment, forgetting youthful idealism and patriotism.
We felt under siege during the strike, waking up to see the air released from the tires, and long gashes in the silver paint of my Father’s beloved Fiat. He insisted that we stay at home during the strike, lest the student comment rudely on us–and so we did.
However, since keeping secrets was not my father’s forte, he eventually let slip that posters saying, “Director, get rid of your inefficient retired brother,” were plastered over campus. Too punctilious to be inefficient, and persnickety about the strictest honesty, my father was, if anything, too competent. As he had at Tata’s, he challenged creative accounting, and imaginatively padded expense accounts. “And he’s billed us for a stay at the Oberoi Sheraton, when I know for sure he stayed with his brother-in-law. And six meals a day? Even five I could accept.” And so, he discovered the truth of Emerson’s saying, “He who has a thousand friends has not one to spare; he who has an enemy shall see him everywhere.”
I was surprised to hear my father say that he prayed every day. Like many neophyte believers, I considered spirituality my own private domain.
“You pray?” I said. “What do you pray for?”
“I pray for you and Shalini and Dan.”
My father detested Dan, an unpleasant clerical worker who was the ringleader of the strike, taking advantage of the gentle, fair-minded, generous and out-of-their depth American priests to demand concessions unusual for India. Dan was responsible for those offensive posters.
“For us and Dan?” I was almost offended. “Why Dan?”
“Because Jesus said we should pray for our enemies,” he said–adding hastily, “Not just our enemies.”
Ah, never underestimate the spirituality of your parents!
My Grandmother, Small Nana, Molly Coelho; My Grandfather who lived by the sea and taught me to love poetry; My Uncle Eustace, The Maharaja; My Uncle Mervyn; My Maiden Aunt, Joyce; Youpee or UP, my Grandparents’ Formidable Landlady; Decembers in Gay Bombay
Travels with my Father; Mangalore: My Ancestral Hometown, Dreaded Family Evening Prayers at my Grandmother’s House; My Great-Uncle Norbert, a Pious Crook, My Grandmother, Josephine, and My Grandfather, Dr. Piedade Felician Mathias, My Father’s Sisters: Ethel the Grand Duchess, and Winnie, the Duchess; Christmas in Mangalore, and Mandatory Visits to All our Nun Relatives; And Mandatory Visits to Everyone Else, My saintly great-aunt Rosie, and her rebel daughter Marie; Arranged Marriages and the Consequences of Small Town Inbreeding.