Friday, August 31, 2007

In India, a Jewish Outpost Slowly Withers -

In India, a Jewish Outpost Slowly Withers - A story profiling one of the last living residents of Cochin's Jew Town. (Hat tip to Don Jim.

Not playing God in mission

A great interview in Christianity Today with Jayakumar Christian, head of World Vision India (a Christian humanitarian organization, as its website puts it. Interesting to see they have Rajdeep Sardesai's endorsement prominently flashing across the homepage! He's a famous journalist and founder of the 24/7 TV channel CNN-IBN.), on mission, focusing on the work they've done in one district (I suspect it's in Tamil Nadu. I've never heard of Gudiyatham district) in reducing bonded labor by children. He seems very level-headed, humble, deeply committed to the Gospel, and respectful of India's religious heritage as well, including the deep religiosity of India, at a level that most Westerners simply cannot appreciate until they've witnessed it firsthand. Here's some bits that really caught my attention.
But was seeing God in their liberation a theological shift for these Hindus?

I don't think it's a theological shift for the average Hindu Indian. For Indians, God is more involved in day-to-day life than most Western Christians' theology would allow. The average Hindu need not be introduced to God in that sense. They need to be introduced to the name of that God—Jesus. I've said many times that we do not need to break our heads in India convincing any Indian about the existence of God. The challenge is, "What is the name of this God who is involved with the poor?" That's where Christian distinctiveness—and divisiveness—is felt. Our privilege in World Vision is being able to call attention to the name of God as Jesus through our lives, relationships, and actions, not in a divisive manner, but in a distinctive manner.

Is there suspicion that your development work is a subtext for proselytizing?

There is suspicion in certain quarters. But we insist that in World Vision India, we do not trade our God for development. We do not trade our God to buy relationships. He is too precious for us to be bargaining with, too precious to be bargained for. He is not for sale.

So proselytizing, conversion through coercive means, is a non-issue for us. Not just because we respect the people we serve. That's one part of the story. But also because we value the God we worship.
And here's another part -- about access and linkages. One doesn't think about these things, especially not India's privileged, or even middle classes -- we take it for granted. For instance, the fact that I can speak English -- a sign of education, access, power and status -- opens doors automatically. In the stratified and inherently inegalitarian mileu of India, walking into a bank or talking to an official is a hugely intimidating experience for the poor.
You seem to think about poverty less in terms of prosperity and more in terms of access.

The word we use is linkages. Poverty is the absence of linkages, the absence of connections with others. So we look for opportunities to link powerless communities with people with good intentions, people with good hearts—government officials, health officials, panchayat presidents, headmasters in schools—who have an influence in the local area and who mean good. We work closely with them.

We also work hard on our own linkages. Here in India, there are government officials in very senior positions who are most willing to design programs that serve poor communities—if we can link with them and help them understand the needs and opportunities there.
The next part flows from this -- cultivating the powerful (and the wealthy) as partners in development. Most importantly, I find this attitude absolutely admirable -- to constantly beware of playing God.
The truth is that both the powerful and agents of transformation need to transform our understanding of power. It is not enough to simply play the power game better or more humbly. We need to come deeply to believe that our basis of power is not our professionalism or connections or resources. Those are only tools to be used. The basis for our power is our dependence on God. If we do not remember these fundamentals, it is so easy for us in World Vision to play God in the lives of the poor.

What form does 'playing God' take in mission?

You have to understand that my assumption is that the poor are poor because someone else is trying to play God in their lives. Human beings were designed to submit their spirit only to the Creator. Any attempt to take the place of the Creator leads to poverty. I talked about this with the community yesterday several times, and you could see heads nodding. Only God can direct how I should live my life, when my child should go to work, what my child should be doing. But others had taken that role of control in the lives of men, women, and children in that community.

In the very process of breaking the human tendency to play God, though, I can begin to play God. Because I have similar power. I have the power to approve or not approve development programs; I have the power of connections; I know people in high places. For the agent of transformation to refuse to play God requires great strength of character.

So how does one use one's power without playing God?

We constantly remind ourselves that our organization is dependent on God. We might have budgets, strategies, professionalism, and sophistication in organizational practices, but those do not explain our effectiveness. Our effectiveness is explained by our dependence on God.

I remember talking to one of my colleagues just three weeks ago. An elderly Hindu lady in his community came and handed a small wooden cross to him. She said, "I have figured out that this is the secret of your success." She said she had kept another cross for herself. I thought to myself, Who told her this? She must have observed his life. I was so grateful to God when I heard that.

Christian presence growing in the Gulf

An article by Sandro Magister on the guest-workers who are now 70% of the population of the UAE, a large number of which are Catholic Christians.
The Christians present in the United Arab Emirates represent about 35 percent of the population, for a total of more than a million faithful, a majority of them Catholic.

They are all immigrant workers, and many of them, because they live on the outskirts and don't have easy transportation access to the city, cannot regularly attend the official places of worship. This is the situation of the thousands of Indians who work on the construction sites in Dubai and are housed in the largest village-dormitory in Asia. According to unofficial estimates, this houses a population of about thirty thousand workers. Or there are the immigrants who work in the oil industry, who are cut off in isolated desert villages.

Another case is that of the Filipina housemaids who, because they don't have enough free time or enough money for transportation, remain bound to the places where they work. In consequence, small prayer groups - which are organized according to language and place of origin and meet in private settings like apartments, dormitories, and storage sheds - have become a very important and widespread form of religious expression for the Catholic communities. These are necessary moments of encounter, but they are also risky because of the rules imposed by the local authorities, who grant freedom of worship only in officially recognized places like the territory's parishes. In this context, the Charismatic groups from India or the Philippines take on an important role in spearheading initiatives in support of immigrants living in the most difficult conditions. These are often not limited to religious initiatives, but also include services of practical assistance, as in the case of the Legion of Mary mentioned above.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Settling in

Got all the boxes unpacked and so on. Saved on space by putting all my DVDs in the novice common room -- share the collection and all that (though, somehow, I don't think anyone will be stealing off with Munnabhai MBBS anytime soon ... :)). (Many thanks to a novice brother who started this trend. Of putting DVDs in the common room, not stealing other people's DVDs ...)

Blogging will be light. On Sunday we go up to NJ for a few days of retreat.

It's good to be back. And so darn weird at the same time. "I've been here before ... "

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Holy water barred from Vatican flights-It's a Mad, Mad World -World-The Times of India

One last post before I shut the laptop down. Holy water barred from Vatican flights-The Times of India Those darn liquids-and-gels regulations.

Makes one really scratch the bean.

Benedictio Cerevisae

Go check out the Beer Blessing at Izzy's.

[Oh yeah, this has appeared here before as well.]

And, in an email exchange, this just appeared in the inbox.
This extract from Aelfric's Colloquy, set in a 10th century British monastery where a master is talking to a group of boys. They've just talked a bit about diet, and the dormitories are next, but first let's see how we transition from table to unconsciousness:

Q Et quid bibis?
R Cervisam, si habeo, vel aquam si non habeo cervisam.
Q Nonne bibis vinum?
R Non sum tam dives ut possim emere mihi vinum; et vinum non est potus puerorum sive stultorum, sed senum et sapientium.

Q And what do you drink?
R Beer, if I have it, or water if I don't have beer.
Q You don't drink wine?
R I am not so rich that I can buy myself wine; and wine is not a beverage for children or fools, but for elders and wise men.

Make of it what you will.
Heh. Ok, enough dawdling around Atlanta airport. Time to wend my way to the gate.

Latest Facebook poll

[On the popular, primarily collegiate, social-networking site Facebook] "Are you religious?"

NO: 695
YES: 305

(Out of a 1000 responses. I think these polls are random and not self-selected.)

I wonder what the results would have been for "Are you spiritual?"

Here's a screenshot with a breakdown of the responses by age and gender.


Flying while brown.

Youngish brown guy with beard, traveling one way to the nation's capital (National airport no less), with two heavy bags. I was pretty sure I'd be "selected" for
"additional screening." This has happened to me, oh, twice or thrice now. That's pretty amazing actually, given how much I fly.

However, the boarding pass printed out without the telltale "SSSS," and the bags, though heavy (86lb total), were within the 50lb/bag limit, and were placed on the conveyor belt, no questions asked. I joined the long line for security at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

After dumping the bags, laptop, liquid-items-in-clear-plastic-bag, footwear etc. on the belt (one does this on autopilot now), I stepped through the metal detector. "This way sir," the guy barely glances at my boarding pass, and points to an enclosed glass area in between the two X-ray belts. Another guy comes and says, "Sir, you've been selected for addtional screening. Please identify your bags coming out of the X-ray." I recognize this TSA dude. He'd been going up and down the line outside, giving the passengers a once-over, it seemed. FWB means being acutely conscious of TSA folk, and I always get mildly nervous when one passes by. This one was standing outside the line, about five feet from me, and, I thought, staring at me. I avoided eye-contact and flipped open the phone to send a text message.

Belongings identified, I was taken to an area off to the side, surrounded on screens by three sides, and two other TSA dudes show up. Dude 2 starts doing the trace-explosives check on various items (camera, cell phone, charger) in my backpack. Dude 3 does the wand-over and the pat down and then goes off. Dude 1 starts up a conversation, very friendly, chatty even. "Have you gone through this before?" "Would you like to sign a waiver so that a female can examine you?" (Do what?) "Just kidding. We can't do that." "Are you in a hurry for your flight? Oh, how much time did it take to get up from Columbia? So, what's taking you to DC?" I have nothing to hide. I tell him about seminary ("is this your first time getting up there?"), about taking leave, why I want to be a priest, etc. And "where is your family? Oh India? Do you have a passport in there?" He goes through it carefully. At this point, I start getting a little nervous. In my experience so far, such "extra screenings" have focused on explosive checks and peering through corners of hand-luggage. No questions asked about anything at all. Why does he need my passport? I make sure to point out the Permanent Resident Card as well. "Oh, ah!" he says. Dude 2 meanwhile is flipping through a notepad in my backpack, then through my reading material (Mark Tully's new book) and closely inspecting my Breviary. What on earth are they looking for? Copies of the Qu'ran? Books in Arabic? (Oy! Did I doodle in Urdu in that notepad? I tend to doodle in different languages when I'm bored, or thinking through something. Oh, stop being paranoid.)

"So what kind of work did you do in South Carolina? Oh ... campus minister? Where? USC? Oh my neighbor went there I think." "What were you doing in Canada?" (noticing the Canadian stamps on the passport.) And so on. I talk in an equally informal friendly tone. A few minutes later, "You're good. Have a nice flight. Thanks for your cooperation and understanding."

No problem.

I take a few deep breaths and head to Burger King to get some breakfast health food.

What is this? A new TSA interrogation technique? Profile the brown-folk and converse to determine threat levels? (Maybe it's not new, and so far, I haven't aroused any suspicions. At least when one travels El-Al they tend to subject everyone to the same interrogation.

And, what if I were Muslim? Or, say, a Muslim student going to an Islamic seminary? Or what if I spoke with a thick foreign accent? I don't mind being interrogated ... but, I wonder how more "suspicious" folk get treated.

I'm also pretty sure that my check-in bags will have been inspected as well. Luckily for the TSA dudes on that assignment, I did laundry last night and all my underwear is clean.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Déjà vu all over again?

Flying up bright and early tomorrow to Washington DC to restart seminary and the formal discernment process with the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle. Last year I rented an SUV, packed it full of my stuff (~80% books) and drove it one-way to DC. This year, one-way rentals were in the $170-$180 range. So, I'm flying up. $88 on Air Tran. Can't beat that. Hopefully my two packed suitcases (most of my stuff is in a storage room at seminary already -- I got some stuff out for the summer. Goes to show how little one needs, and I guess I really ought to prune that pile of stuff. Hmm, seems like I thought the same thing last year!) will not exceed 50lb total. [Oh yeah. It's not just two suitcases. A few boxes are being generously hauled up I-95 by good friend Tom who's visiting SC for Labor Day.]

I am grateful for the ability to spend time with my father in his dying days, and with my mother and family afterwards, for the support, sympathy and understanding from the Paulists (and my family in SC!) and for a very relaxing (and healing) summer. I'm itching to start back up. I suspect I won't be as heartsick as I was last year.

But of course, I'll miss y'all in SC! Stay in touch, come visit, and keep those prayers coming!

Perhaps I shouldn't reading anything too ominous into the fact that I'm restarting seminary on the Solemnity of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. :)

314 29AUG07 Charlotte, NC 10:36 AM Atlanta, GA 11:43 AM
199 29AUG07 Atlanta, GA 2:13 PM Washington-Reagan 3:53 PM

Sede vacante nihil innovetur

When the See is vacant, there are no innovations. The latest issue of the Diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Miscellany, has an informative piece about what happens when a Bishop is named by the Holy Father to another See. The empty seat: What happens when a bishop is reassigned?
When a bishop is assigned to a new diocese or retires, he automatically becomes administrator of his former see until he is installed in the new one — but he no longer has full executive powers, according to Canon law.

“At the point he is notified of his transfer, all official offices like vicar general cease to be. The only one canonical office that stays in this period is judicial vicar,” said Msgr. Charles Rowland, judicial vicar for the diocese. “The bishop can use the men he had in these various positions and he can delegate to them but he cannot create positions.”

Bishop Baker’s duties as administrator of the Diocese of Charleston end on his installation as bishop of Birmingham on Oct. 2.

“On Oct. 2 we will have a diocesan representative at his installation to attest that the oath and installation has taken place,” Msgr. Rowland said. “That means if a bishop has not been named on Oct. 2 the see becomes vacant.”

If the Vatican has not appointed an administrator for South Carolina, then the College of Consultors for the diocese will be called together to elect one. This has to be done within eight days of the transfer.
Do read the whole piece. And aren't we glad that the Miscellany is now online, even if it is buried in the silly frames layout of the Diocesan website?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Remembering Fr. Francis

Today is the first anniversary of the death of Abbot Francis Kline, OCSO, the former abbot of the Abbey of Our Lady of Mepkin, near Moncks Corner, SC. The Spring 2007 issue of Mepkin's newsletter, Chapter & Verse, is a tribute to this remarkable man. Here's a brief snippet from an excerpt from a letter he wrote 13 days before his death. The letter was addressed to the Abbots and Abbesses of the US Region of Trappists, and was printed in the above newsletter.
God has spoken. His Word has changed me into a contemplative which I never thought I would become. By that I mean I feel totally taken over by God. Quite literally I have no one else. Nor do I wish for any one else. My deepest desires flow out of this experience. I want to share this with you, the Region, those who are dearest to me in the Order. I wish that you pray with me for this Mepkin community. This is how we remain united, when we pray with and for each other. In this unity of prayer, let us determine to run together ... toward the heavenly homeland. It is closer to all of us than we think.

Dum dum dum dum dumb!

Hitler used in Pizza ad. When that got people upset, they replace Hitler with ... Pope Benedict! All to sell "Hell Pizza."

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fire and brimstone

From the Scripture for today's Office of Readings.
The great day of the Lord is near,
near, and coming with all speed.
How bitter the sound of the day of the Lord,
the day when the warrior shouts his cry of war.
A day of wrath, that day,
a day of distress and agony,
a day of ruin and of devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of cloud and blackness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against fortified town
and high corner-tower.
I am going to bring such distress on men
that they will grope like the blind
(because they have sinned against the Lord);
their blood will be scattered like dust,
their corpses like dung.
Neither their silver nor their gold
will have any power to save them. (Zephaniah 1:15-18. Jerusalem Bible)

Mother Teresa's crisis of faith

I recommend the article on the cover of this week's Time magazine. It's well written, and does give some good insight into what is often a startling and puzzling aspect of Blessed Teresa. Also check out the responses and links at Amy's.

Abstinence only programs: asking the right questions

This piece at the Australian ejournal Mercatornet has some useful insights about the "effectiveness" or lack thereof of abstinence-promotion programs in education, in light of a recent British Medical Journal study that concludes that such programs are "ineffective" when it comes to reducing HIV infection. After briefly examining some of the methodological issues with the study in the BMJ, the author continues,
In any case, whether those programs worked is not the real issue. The real issue is whether we are asking ourselves the right questions about them. Do we really expect that "abstinence promotion" during a few school sessions will work in a society where the media are conveying exactly the opposite message? (5)

Think of gender violence, sexism, discrimination, academic failure, lack of exercise, unhealthy eating, the problem of drinking and driving, smoking and other drug taking. Would a dozen classes in eighth or ninth grade change these behaviours if everywhere else the message was different?

The question for these issues is "how" can we convey the right message and not "whether" we should convey them. If a program aiming to prevent gender violence does not succeed, it would be a terrible mistake to conclude that "education against violence is not effective". We would rather have to think of a way to do it better given that this particular program had failed, or we would have to think of how we could help this program to succeed.
Here's the real point
Let us not forget many anti-smoking programs have little success and no one doubts we should prevent smoking in youth. Do we really expect that "abstinence promotion" during a few school sessions will work in a society where the media are conveying exactly the opposite message? The question is: do we really believe abstinence is a good choice for our youth and do we really want to promote abstinence?

Bomb blasts in Hyderabad

Terrorists strike again. I just hope this doesn't develop into another Hindu-Muslim conflagration.

Twin Bombs kill over 40 in India

Day after blasts, 19 timer bombs found in H'bad.

It never ceases to amaze me just how quickly Indian leaders figure out who is behind such attacks -- be it LeT or HUJI or whatever other acronymn -- but then we heard hardly a thing about this, and rarely hear of anyone being caught or brought to justice. That favorite of the politician -- "the foreign hand" -- is trotted out in a jiffy, and somehow, this absolves the leaders from their abysmal lack of concern for the common man, for security, for real intelligence, for a law-enforcement system that actually enforces the law rather than bullies people and grows fat on graft.

Don't get me wrong: it's quite likely that the groups who were responsible for this were connected to Paksitan and/or Bangladesh, and that they do want to destabilize the country. But simply pointing this out ignores the much more discomfiting reality that foreign groups cannot just operate in isolation within India -- they need local cooperation.

It's a reminder again, of just how cheap life is in India, of how ludicrous security is for the common man, and what a joke the bloated Indian state is.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Back in the Palmetto State

Jet-lagged and dishevelled. The last leg (ATL-CAE) was a bit delayed 'cause of a malfunctioning APU, but they got that corrected pretty quickly.

Despite the fatigue, I managed to head out to the Saloon for some festivities. And, was awake at 7:00 am. Ah, jet lag!

A few busy days of socializing, and then I'm back up in the nation's capital! End of summer, resume serious discernment.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

More flying

Heading to the airport in a few. Here's the details for those who care (the AF flight numbers on the Paris-Atlanta-Columbia leg are codeshare numbers for Delta flights).

Flight reservations:
Flight: AF135

From: Bombay (Chhatrapati Shivaji) (BOM), Mumbai (Bombay), India,Terminal: 2
Departing: Friday, August 24, 2007 02:15

To: Charles De Gaulle (CDG), Paris, France,Terminal: 2E

Flight: AF8984

From: Charles De Gaulle (CDG), Paris, France,Terminal: 2E
Departing: Friday, August 24, 2007 09:20

To: William B Hartsfield (ATL), Atlanta, USA,Terminal: S
Arriving: Friday, August 24, 2007 13:10

Flight: AF8516

From: William B Hartsfield (ATL), Atlanta, USA,Terminal: S
Departing: Friday, August 24, 2007 15:00

To: Columbia Metropolitan (CAE), Columbia, USA,
Arriving: Friday, August 24, 2007 16:01

Air France wishes you a pleasant trip. Bon voyage.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Priest fined for early morning bell-ringing | Oddly Enough |

Priest fined for early morning bell-ringing | Obviously, they've never been to India, where the azan ringing out at 5:00 am over megaphones is routine, where any religious festival of whatever community results mostly in a lost of noise. [Just the other day, the neighbors across the street had a satsang -- they're followers of the Hare Krishna sect -- and the chants of "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna" blared away into the night. We all grimaced, bitched a bit, and then shrugged. Religion is in the air, in India.

I don't mind, personally. The West seems a bit, oh, how shall one put it, anti-septic and lifeless in these regards?

St. Anthony comes through ...

Indigo 6E277 was more or less on time, making a bumpy landing in heavy rain. One of my bags and my mom's bag were the first two off the conveyor. My second bag never showed up (this is your bag, J!). After waiting for an hour, an Indigo ground staff person suggested that I fill out a missing bag claim and they'd update us once they locate it. "I think it's still in Baroda," she said. I thought it was more likely that it stayed on the plane and went on to Bangalore.

Sure enough, that's what had happened. They called me at 4:30pm or so to tell me that it was in Bangalore, and then around 10:15pm that it had arrived back in Bombay. They're supposed to deliver it this afternoon.

Well, I hope this isn't premature (given that the bag isn't here yet! However, I called this morning and they were waiting on the delivery agency), but I must say I'm impressed.

[:: UPDATE :: Bag's here! :) :: The most important contents? Five boxes of contact lenses to last me the next few months. One can get these without a prescription in India...]

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Back in the air

Off in the morning (Sunday) on the Indigo flight to Bombay. Less Net connectivity there (no Broadband at uncle's place). Thursday night, back to the US.

The Catholic-Sh'ia connection

From John Allen's latest column.
Over the years, Catholic-Muslim relations have tended to focus on Sunnis. Yet in some ways it's an odd match; with their low-church view of clergy, congregationalist models of community life, and sola scriptura approach to the Qur'an, Sunnis often resemble Calvinists more than Catholics.

On the other hand, Iranian author Vali Nasr in his 2006 book The Shia Revival ticks off an impressive string of parallels between Shi'a and Catholicism: a strong emphasis on clerical authority; an approach to the Qur'an accenting both scripture and tradition; a deep mystical streak; devotion to a holy family (in the case of Shi'ites, the blood relatives of Muhammad) and to saints (the Twelve Imams); a theology of sacrifice and atonement through the death of Hussein, the son of Muhammad's cousin Ali, who was martyred in Karbala, Iraq, in 680; belief in free will (as opposed to the Sunni doctrine of pre-destination); holy days, pilgrimages, and healing shrines; intercessory prayer; and strongly emotional forms of popular devotion, especially the festival of Ashoura commemorating Hussein's death.

Next Wednesday, Aug. 22, CNN will broadcast "God's Muslim Warriors," part of a series on fundamentalism by Christiane Amanpour. The documentary features colorful footage of the Ashoura rituals in Iran, and Catholics will have little trouble spotting parallels with Holy Week devotions in various parts of the world.

Nasr compares a Shi'ite pilgrim in Karbala to a Catholic at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. He also writes that the mosque of Jamkaran on the outskirts of the holy city of Qom in Iran, where Shi'ites believe the legendary Twelfth Imam once appeared, plays a role similar to Fatima in Catholicism.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Nanaji's Agricultural Institute

Model farm

I've driven past the building often enough -- it used to be a drab ochre structure on the road out to the airport, right next to a vast field, in prime real estate in downtown Baroda. The road goes straight through this stretch. On both sides, normally, folks sit selling fresh corn, which can be bought by the dozen, or roasted on the cob, on coals, smothered with lemon, salt and mirchi and eaten on the spot. Then, it was repainted, brick-red with a yellow accent. I was dropping a cousin off at the airport earlier this year, when I noticed the name. "Woah ... is that ... ?" "Yep, that's your maternal grandfather."

I had no idea that there was an Agricultural Institute named after nanaji. "You didn't know?" My mother couldn't believe it. I can, however. It's such a patriarchal place -- I know way more about my father's side of the family than my her's. (Besides, three of my four grandparents died before I was born. I only knew my dad's mother.) Apparently, my grandfather donated the land and some Rs. 50,000 (a princely sum in those days) for an agricultural college. It was inaugurated by the Maharajah of Baroda in 1937.

Naniji, the Gaekwad, Nanaji

So, this morning, mom and I went out to the Institute with my mother. We were introduced to the new principal, who was very solicitous. We got a tour of the place (typical desi educational institution -- bright pastel colors, dusty, old equipment, one feels like one has gone back 50 years upon entering the doors, creaking fans [what would any "sarkari" establishment be without creaking fans?]). And then, this being India, it turned into a bit of a "function" We went to visit the student dormitory ("hostel" as its called here). They had just finished lunch in the mess, and were all herded together into a seminar room, chair were hastily furnished, and a few speeches of thanks were said. We were given two bag fulls of fresh corn, and some flowers. As chief guest, mother was asked to say the obligatory do shabd (literally "two words," but more often than not, many many more. As kids in school we used to groan on hearing that phrase.). Years of practice as an IAS officer meant that this was no problem for her: a short piece about gramin vikas (village development) and vaigyanik kheti (scientific agriculture) and congratulating the Institute for producing the best tuver daal (a kind of lentil) in the country (how did she know this?), flowed effortlessly from her lips. I was quite impressed. And highly embarrassed by this whole turn of events -- I just wanted to go have a look and take some photos, and not be treated like a visiting dignitary. This is a small institute, with hardly any visitors, so I hope we were welcome entertainment.

The student body is 60 strong -- all boys (there's a separate girls' institute in Disa in the northern part of the state, in Banaskantha district), from villages in nearby districts, who enroll in a two year Diploma course. "And yes, we do practice reservations" the Principal had shared, unsolicited, "There are even SC/ST [Scheduled Castes and Tribes] and OBCs [Other Backward Castes]" (referring to the Constitutionally mandated affirmative action for lower castes).  I was rather impressed that students from different caste backgrounds were actually eating together! "We do all round education. Including prayers in the morning and evening. And you know, improve culture of the boys. You know how these village boys are. Smoking beedi-veedi." There are no fees (the State foots the tuition bill), and room/board and a small stipend are provided each student. A certain amount of agricultural research is conducted (hence the nationally known tuver daal), and the large fields on prime real estate are used for that purpose. Builders and developer have tried for years to get their hands on this land (two new malls have gone up just down the street), but so far, the government has not budged. (Which probably means that the Institute has powerful patrons, or no one has figured out how to properly channel a sufficient amount of the purchase price into various pockets. Yeah, I'm cynical)


I took a photo of all the boys, promised to email them to the principal, and we bid leave.

The corn's darn good!

Pather Panchali

Image courtesy

You know, I've never seen Satyajit Ray's debut classic.

So we got a rental last night. (The goal is to see the rest of the trilogy, Aparajito and Apur Sansar as well).

Wow. What a movie! What brilliant cinematography! What an atmosphere! How real and how alive! And little Apu's eyes!

I wish I could understand Bengali. (Well spoken slowly I guess I could pick up, oh, I don't know, 30-40% of a conversation? But who speaks slowly in movies?)

Read this and laugh.

Or weep.
Hello dear! Myself Ram Chander Misra, politician from India, bringing business proposal for your kind perusal. I have been politician for more than 30 years now, and have worked in all major parties. I am currently holding important ministry portfolio, and handling many crores of funds for social welfare scheme. Indeed, many thousands of crores of rupees. Which comes to many BILLIONS OF DOLLARS, dear. And this is where I need your help.

First, dear, let me tell you something about Indian government. Government of India is existing on the basis that it will help poor people of India. This it can only do if there are poor people in India. Thus, it is important to keep people in India poor. This is for their own good, dear, for how can we help them otherwise?
Read on. So. Darn. True. A Business Proposal (Amit Varma's latest column in Mint.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Father Lee Selzer RIP

Got some very shocking news in a phone call earlier today. One of the younger priests in the Diocese died suddenly yesterday. He had severe diabetes. Fr. Selzer was 39. I didn't know him very well, but had met him in a few meetings here and there. Requiescat in pace.

Lashed for the Gospel

Man in Iran lashed for being Christian (CNA). More accurately, for being a convert from Islam to Christianity.

Dutch Bishop urges Christians to call God "Allah"

Catholic churches in the Netherlands should use the name Allah for God to ease tensions between Muslims and Christians, says a Dutch bishop.

Tiny Muskens, the bishop of Breda, told the Dutch TV program "Network" Monday night he believes God doesn't mind what he is called, Radio Netherlands Worldwide reported.

The Almighty is above such "discussion and bickering," he insisted.

Muskens points to Indonesia, where he served 30 years ago, as an example for Dutch churches. Christians in the Middle East also use the term Allah for God.

"Someone like me has prayed to Allah yang maha kuasa (Almighty God) for eight years in Indonesia and other priests for 20 or 30 years," Muskens said. "In the heart of the Eucharist, God is called Allah over there, so why can't we start doing that together?"

Muskens thinks it could take another 100 years, but eventually the name Allah will be used by Dutch churches, promoting rapprochement between the two religions, he said, according to Radio Netherlands.
Oh how wonderful, gush the relativists! Let's just hug and hold hands and sing Kumbaya! (I suppose it would be "Kumbaya Allah" instead of "Kumbaya O Lord?"). Heathen! Traitor! Sell-out! cry the haters-of-Islam! How dare he!

Well, now that the caricatures are out of the way, let's examine the good Bishop's proposal a bit (assuming, which is always a big assumption, that he was represented fairly in the story)? "Allah" is just the Arabic name for "God." If we use "Allah" instead of "God" (which is, incidentally, also the word in Dutch), we're more welcoming. We can build bridges, help healing between the communities. Middle-eastern Christians, after all, use Allah."

I don't know. I'm not that sanguine. Maybe in the context of a joint inter-faith prayer meeting, with the intention of conducting dialogue, learning about each other's traditions and beliefs. Perhaps, then, one could use some of these prayers of Middle-Eastern Christians. Perhaps one could also request that our Muslim friends use the English or Dutch word in their Arabic prayers. We meet as equals, after all, on the field of dialogue. In fact, I tend to be fond of reminding Western Christians of these prayers of Eastern Christians -- for, often, the Western understanding is that Allah is simply the Islamic (as opposed to Arabic) word for God. And while some might claim that the word "Allah" is inextricably tied to Islam, I suspect that Melkite or Maronite Christians would disagree -- at least forms of that word are used by Middle-Eastern (and it would seem Indonesian) Christians as well. (For a truly breathtaking example of fear and loeathing of Islam and Muslims, just read the comments on Robert Spencer's JihadWatch and Dhimmiwatch pages. Now, I actually find Spencer to be intriguing -- his books tend to focus on arguments and avoid ad-hominem attacks. The same cannot be said at all about the commentariat at his blogs.) I also suspect that Christians from the Middle-East might be a bit more circumspect and cautious about relations with Islam.

But unqualified use of Allah in the Mass in Dutch on a routine basis? (Or English?) ("May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of Allah and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be always with you."?) Certainly, if any Muslims are present (generally, I'd say, quite unlikely in Europe), they might be pleasantly surprised, and might wonder what is going on. I suspect though, all that this would do, is further the sense among Christians that what one says about God really doesn't matter, and promote religious relativism and indifferentism, already so widespread in the Church. For, the Christian understanding of God as Trinity is quite different from the strict taw'hid, one-ness of God, of Islam. Islam, after all, charges Christianity with muddying the pure waters of monotheism, and even charges Christianity with polytheism. One would hope that the good Bishop doesn't think that this is just "bickering" and that it does matter a lot, to us, who are trying to be faithful to our traditions, and who care about truth.

And if one accepts the Eurabia thesis (it's compelling, but I'm not entirely convinced), then the Bishop's words might be prophetic. Future Christians might be using Allah afer all. But not in the sense the good Bishop intended.

[Update Ruth Geldhill's picked this story up. Interesting comments over there.]

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Thirteen years ago today ...

... I was baptized into the death and resurrection of Our Lord and Savior, received the Holy Spirit in the oils of Confirmation, and participated in the Holy Eucharist for the first time.

Memorare, o piisima Virgo Maria, non esse auditum a saeculo, quemquam ad tua currentem praesidia, tua implorantem auxilia, tua petentem suffragia esse derelicta. Nos tali animati confidentia ad te, Virgo Virginum, Mater, currimus; ad te venimus; coram te gementes peccatores assistimus. Noli, Mater Verbi, verba nostra despicere, sed audi propitia et exaudi.

Pray for me.

[Wonderful links for today's Solemnity at Mike Aquilina's.]

Chak de India: Review

Last night mom and I went to one of the local multiplexs to see this year's I-day film, Chak de India, starring Bollywood king Shah Rukh Khan. It's a rare Bollywood offering, a movie that's entirely about sports, and doesn't feature a love story, or any song and dance routines.

Here's the plot outline. Kabir Khan (played by Bollywood veteran Shah Rukh Khan), a disgraced captain of the Indian hockey team (note, in India hockey means field hockey. You think they have ice here? Geez!), is hired to coach the Indian Women's Hockey team, to send them to the World Cup in Australia. The National Hockey Association doesn't really care about the lota-belan-waali team (best translated as "the pots-and-pans" team, referring to women and the kitchen), but needs a coach and Khan appears. In three months he whips up the fractious lot into a team that actually works together, surmounts their egos and regionalism, and despite incredible odds, heads to the World Cup, to let Khan turn his shame (he's called a traitor because of allegations that he, a Muslim, collaborated with the Pakistani team to make India lose) into pride.

It's definitely I-day stuff: lots of bhai-bhai, or rather behan-behan (better still, didi-didi) stuff, national unity, team-spirit, working together. I went in a cynical frame of mind, and nothing gets my cynical juices flowing as the mix of Bollywood and nationalism, which almost always turns into jingoism. Those cynical juices labored hard, but ultimately, they were washed away by Shimit Amin's brilliant direction, the fantastic cinematography, the catchy soundtrack, the absolutely fantastic acting, both by SRK and the girls, the neat dialogue (occasionally witty, appropriately, without any recourse to farce), the characters (oh and the girls absolutely carry the movie!), and even the predictable yet charming sports-underdog plot and storyline.

Bollywood (heck, India!) is not known for subtlety. There was no doubt at all that the team would actually win the world cup. [Hey, it is Bollywood. This, therefore, doesn't count as a spoiler!] But the brilliance lies in achieving in viewers that state that is so elusive normally for Bollywood movies, the suspension of disbelief. As the World Cup progresses, one cannot help but get caught up in the drama. Each win elicits applause from the audience, there's a palpable excitement in the air, and tense suspense in the penalty shoot-out in the final. It's almost as if it were real, that India was actually in a World Cup final. The illusion is complete, and one emerges with a smile, wilfully and joyfully beguiled, feeling warm and fuzzy, with a good dose of patriotism coursing through the veins, Jana gana mana on one's lips.

What was most fascinating was the social commentary that runs through Chak De. First of all is the unabashed feminism, in a culture known for the subjugation of women. It's a story about a women's team after all. And the women here are from all over the country, small towns and villages, boisterious, confident, some overcoming a lot of opposition back home. No adarsh Hindu naris here, no doe-eyed, docile bahus, no finding fulfillment only in motherhood or widowhood. One of the characters actively opposes husband and bahuji (father-in-law), another refuses to be a trophy girlfriend/wife to the Vice Captain of the Indian Cricket Team (who pooh-poohs hockey as gulli-danda, that universal neighborhood alley game played with two pieces of wood). And in one hilarious scene, the girls beat up some boys (and their pals) who were "eve-teasing" (i.e. cat-calling) a couple of the team members, right in the middle of a MacDonald's franchise. Girl power!

There's the whole national unity theme, of the girls overcoming their regional divisions ("You're not playing for Chandigarh or Andhra Pradesh, but India! INDIA!") and linguistic barriers and stereotypes. And this larger national identity, of being Indians, rather than Muslims or Hindus or Maharashtrians or Haryanvis, has taken root in urban India (and perhaps even beyond) in the past decade. It's not just a pious sentiment repeated ad nauseam on Doordarshan anymore. It's real, and it's not going away(Pavan Varma argues this point very well in Being Indian). Racism is touched upon (the Manipuri girls are routinely mistaken for Chinese or South East Asian tourists, and called "guests" even though they're in their own country). And even tribal India is represented by two girls from Jharkhand, one of whom doesn't speak a lick of Hindi. And while it doesn't play out in the story, the members are also multi-religious. Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian. (I guess even this film couldn't bring itself to credibly believe that a Parsi girl could play hockey!.) It's more than the usual superficial Bollywood bhai-bhai narrative. (That really contentious issue --the one that the country is still unable to address with any degree of honesty -- caste, is not touched.)

Surprisingly, a more live-wire issue -- the loyalty of Indian Muslims to India -- runs through the film in Kabir Khan's character. And he's unapologetically Muslim, greeting people with the salaam rather than the more standard namaste, referring to God as khuda, not bhagwan, and, in a dark moment, calling on God and quoting the Koran in Arabic.

Yet deeper than all of this, Chak de India echoes the tremendous self-confidence felt across the land. Yes, there's a touch of the adolescent fantasy, a deep longing for recognition by the world at large, represented in the film by the World Cup. Ham bhi kuch hain. We, too, are something. At one point, SRK gazes starry-eyed at the Indian flag being raised over the field in Melbourne in the mist of early dawn. Bas pehli bar ek goray ko tiranga fehratay hue dekh rahah hoon. "This is the first time I'm seeing a whitey fly the tricolor." But it's the fantasy of the adolescent stumbling head-on, awkwardly, yet inexorably, into adulthood. There is hope. One feels this, palpably, throughout the land. Yes the problems are deep and vast. But there is hope for change; that the freedom that was won at such cost six decades ago, might bear some real fruit in the lives of a billion people.

The title isn't simply a battle cry shouted on the hockey field, a cheerleading slogan to boost morale, urging the players to shuck the ball across the field. It's addressed to the nation at large.

Chak de, India.

Jai Hind.
Review in the New York Times.

Review 2 (For more reviews than you can shake a stick at, Google "chak de india review")


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Memo from the Chancery

[This arrived in my inbox a little while back. No, I'm not on the Chancery's list. But obviously, on the list of someone who is!] Nothing earth shattering. The Diocesan webpage has (finally) been updated with the news, along with a pdf of the Bishop's statement

Next month's Fire at the Beach conference in Myrtle Beach will now, I suspect, also be a venue to bid the twelfth Bishop of Charleston farewell.
Pope Benedict XVI has named Bishop Robert J. Baker as the bishop of Birmingham, Ala. He succeeds Bishop David E. Foley, who retired on May 10, 2005.

The appointment was announced in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, August 14, 2007, by Msgr. Martin Krebs, charge d’affaires of the Vatican nunciature.

Bishop Baker will remain administrator of the Diocese of Charleston until he is installed as Bishop of Birmingham in the Cathedral of St. Paul at 3 p.m. Tuesday, October 2, 2007.

For Bishop Baker’s farewell statement to the faithful of South Carolina, please visit the Diocese of Charleston’s Web site at and see The Catholic Miscellany this week.

It's official: Charleston is now vacant

[Well, technically, I think, the vacancy occurs when the Bishop is installed in his new diocese.] The Bishop of my home diocese is moving a little to the west, but still very much in the South.


Il Santo Padre Benedetto XVI ha nominato Vescovo di Birmingham (U.S.A.) S.E. Mons. Robert Joseph Baker, finora Vescovo di Charleston.

S.E. Mons. Robert Joseph Baker
S.E. Mons. Robert J. Baker è nato a Willard nella diocesi di Toledo (Ohio) il 4 giugno 1944. Ha frequentato la scuola primaria della parrocchia di Saint Gwendaline nel suo paese natale. Successivamente è passato alla Josephinum High School a Columbus (Ohio), poi è entrato nel Pontifical College Josephinum sempre a Columbus. In seguito, ha conseguito la licenza in teologia presso l'Università Cattolica di America a Washington, ed è stato inviato a Roma, dove si è laureato in teologia presso la Pontificia Università Gregoriana (1972-1975).
È stato ordinato sacerdote il 21 marzo 1970, incardinandosi nella diocesi di Saint Augustine (Florida). Ha poi ricoperto i seguenti incarichi: Viceparroco della Saint Paul Parish e professore presso la Bishop Kenny High School a Jacksonville Beach, nonché Direttore diocesano dei corsi di preparazione al matrimonio (1970-1972); Direttore Spirituale del Pontifical College Josephinum (1975-1976); Amministratore di Sant'Agostino a Gainesville, parrocchia frequentata soprattutto dagli studenti della University of Florida (1976-1981); Professore di teologia presso il Seminario Regionale Saint Vincent de Paul a Boynton Beach (1981-1984); Rettore della Cattedrale di Saint Augustine (1984-1997); Parroco della Christ the King Parish, la più grande parrocchia della diocesi (1997 - 1999).
Nominato Vescovo di Charleston il 13 luglio 1999, è stato ordinato il 29 settembre successivo.
Rocco has a lengthy post, with a recap of Bishop Baker's career, along with the full-text of his statements to the Church in Charleston as well as the Church in Birmingham. [And I think it deserves saying yet another time, Rocco rocks!!]

I actually served Bishop Baker's ordination, September 29, 1999. I was the only non-seminarian to do so (tahnks to the fact that my pastor was one of the MCs). It was a beautiful and powerful service, with thousands packing the North Charleston convention center. I've met him on numerous occasions, have lunched with him a couple of times, and served as a campus minister in his Diocese for nearly five years. He's a very personable, people-oriented guy, and his going out to the Salty Nut (a local college watering hole) after Confirmation Mass was high on the cool factor with the students.

It's eminently fitting that one of his last public acts was the ordination last month of the largest class in the Diocese since 1953. [Rocco says 1956. I am pretty sure the program at the ordination says 1953. However, since I'm about 9000 miles away from said program, could someone confirm?]

I wish him well as he labors in another corner of the Vineyard.

And folks, start the prayers now that we get a new Shepherd soon. Birmingham was vacant for 27 months. Sioux City SD for 22. Little Rock has been vacant since May 2006. So, pray. But don't hold your breath.

[It'll be interesting to see who the College of Consultors chooses as the Diocesan Administrator/Vicar Capitular)].

[More about Bishop Baker from Amy and Michael Dubruiel, who's an old friend of the Bish.]

Monday, August 13, 2007

10:30 am on Tuesdsay

A press conference is reportedly to be held.

That will be 8:00 pm IST today. I'll also be checking the Vatican in the afternoon (when it's morning CET).

A second encyclical?

Rocco has a piece on the rumors that the Pope will be coming out with his second encyclical next year, following in the footsteps of Pope Paul VI's encyclical on development, Populorum Progressio.

This should be fascinating. Not just the contents, but how it plays out in the Catholic and wider world. Most modern Popes have been suspicious of neo-liberal economics and unbridled capitalism. I suspect Benedict is no exception. And most of the (American) Catholic blogosphere that supports Pope Benedict wholeheartedly is doctrinally and socially conservative, but also tends to economic neo-liberalism (or "fiscal conservatism" in American parlance). I wonder how the media will receive this? Which template will the use? Benedict the Rottweiler who is now a Socialist? NPR surprised? First Things scowling? The Economist mocking?

Of cousre, all of that is not just speculation, but stupid speculation. There ain't no encyclical yet!

I haven't read Populorum Progressio and that's probably the best way to prepare for this next encyclical. But, I must say, I tend towards the more neo-liberal economic view, with some good anti-statism thrown in the mix (though I'm not libertarian and for completely unregulated markets). I'm not an economist, [just the son of two brilliant economists, which, of course need mean nothing as far as my own comprehension goes] (I really need to formally study some basic economics. I actually think all seminarians should. Some stuff one hears from priests makes one wonder whether there is even a basic grasp of economic realities!) -- however, I've seen what economic liberalization has wrought in India in 16 years, after decades of stifling Nehruvian socialist policies that bred endemic corruption and did very little for the poor. Oh it's not perfect, far from it. But it's better than any garibi hatao ("remove poverty") program of the 1970s. And that really is the rub. We don't have perfect poiicies or systems. Or perfect anything. We have better ones and worse ones. Or, least worse ones.


Photo courtesy Tribune India

Sorry for the shocking, graphic photo. Context from Amit Verma's brilliant article, The Republic of Apathy.
In some parts of the country, remote from our cities and our consciousness, the government treats the people as the empire once treated us. Do you remember a photograph from three years ago, of a group of Manipuri women outside the entrance of the Kangla Fort, which was occupied by the Indian army? They were protesting the gang rape and murder of a 32-year-old woman named Thangjam Manorama, who had been picked up from her house in the middle of the night by the army. Frustrated that no one cared to listen to them, that the law-and-order mechanism existed only for the rich and powerful, 12 of these women stripped naked, and held in front of them a banner that said, “Indian Army, Rape Us.”

I suspect had that image been taken in 1930, and had that banner said “British Army, Rape Us,” it would have been one of the defining images of our struggle for freedom. Today, no one cares. Across the country, law and order is a joke, and our government fattens itself on the sweat of a billion people. Free speech is endangered, and censorship thrives. Honest men wishing to start a business that will fulfil the needs of others - as all businesses must in order to survive - find themselves having to deal with licenses and inspectors.

The price of freedom, it is often said, is eternal vigilance. We let our guard down 60 years ago. Perhaps it’s time to fight back?

Almost a senior citizen

India will celebrate the 60th anniversary of her Independence this year, two days from now, on August 15. Sixty years ago the Union Jack came down from the top of Red Fort, and the tricolor shimmied up the pole, heralding that famous tryst with destiny, drenched in the bloodbath of Partition. [(Youtube) I've heard that crackly recording so many times. Gives me goose-bumps every time.]

This is the third year in a row that I've been in India over Independence Day. This year seems a bit more special, mainly because there's retrospectives and analyses and stories (and I-Day sales) everywhere for the big six-o. On the streets the beggars at the traffic lights are hawking paper flags and plastic dash-top ones. These ones, I am pretty certain, are not (unlike similar things I've purchased in the US), made in China.

The headlines right now are dominated by the devastating floods in the northeast (and in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and parts of Gujarat too.), which have killed over 2000 people, and have affected some twenty million and, yet again, have exposed just how the callous Indian state fails so spectacularly in its basic duties. The Pope has appealed for international aid. The bigger culprits seem to be a near complete lack of planning by the authorities, infrastructure that has just disappeared, lack of coordination. And it's not yet over. This story from Sunday's Indian Express introduces us to one village which is now an island, and the lives of its residents in the past few weeks.

The other big story is the fate of the 123 Agreement (as it's being called hear), the historic India-US nuclear deal. And more than that, the fate of the government hangs in the balance. The Left parties, which support the coaliting government from outside, have made increasingly threatening noises opposing the deal (and thus, ironically, putting themselves in the same camp as their arch-rivals, the right-wing BJP! But irony is completely lost on India's politicians.) The Prime Minister has called their bluff: we're not budging. If that means you try and topple the government, so be it. This afternoon, I flipped the idiot-box on, and there was Dr. Manmonhan Singh valiantly addressing the Lower House, completely drowned out by idiots from the Left who were standing across the rotunda from him, shouting slogans. It was spectacularly absurd. Shekhar Gupta takes the Left to task in the Indian Express.

What a bizarre reality is India. As part of that small, Westernized, urban, English-speaking elite (and part of the even smaller subset in the diaspora), I feel like such a firang at times. Well, I am, of cousre, in so many ways. Still, this is desh. Native land.

Azadi Mubarak

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The new bishop of EWTN?

... umm ... Birmingham? (/tongue-in-cheek)

Rocco is confirming, obliquely, some rumors. And we all know he's never wrong.

Now read that again. "multiple sources report that the choice has fallen on (and been accepted by) neither the butcher, nor the candlestick-maker... making another vacancy rise as a result."

What's that old rhyme?

Yep! Close to home!

Gospel Squirm

From today's Gospel.
Sell your belongings and give alms.
Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out,
an inexhaustible treasure in heaven
that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
But if that servant says to himself,
‘My master is delayed in coming,’
and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants,
to eat and drink and get drunk,
then that servant’s master will come
on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour
and will punish the servant severely
and assign him a place with the unfaithful
Squirm Squirm
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.
Squirm Squirm SQUIRM.

Act of God

So I get an email with five photos of my car banged up. A tree fell on it last night. As some of y'all know, my close friend Matt's been using the car while I'm away. There was a storm. It took out the neighboring car's windshield. No one was hurt, thankfully.

The landline that has international dial facility is down. The balance on my mobile here is rather low. So I went to the Alltel website to text Matt my number so he could call me. That section of Alltel's website wasn't working. So I did the same at Verizon's for J, who emailed me back. And a few minutes later Matt did call, using one of my Reliance India calling cards (it's like 10c/minute to call India). Ah the joys of modern communication.

It'll probably end up being a claim on my insurance.

Ah well.


Alan Carter (Thoughts on a Journey), has tagged me with the "8 things about you meme." Alan is a seminarian for the Diocese of Lexington, KY -- check his blog out. (He also has several blogs of guys in discernment/formation/seminary on his blogroll. Some of them will end up on mine shortly ... ) Well, it's been quite a while since I've been tagged, so here goes.

"The rules are simple…Each player lists 8 facts/habits about themselves. The rules of the game are posted at the beginning before those facts/habits are listed. At the end of the post, the player then tags 8 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know that they have been tagged and asking them to read your blog."


1. I'm left-handed. (There, you always knew there was something sinister about me!)

2. I'm somewhat of a polyglot. I also seem to have two "natural" "native" accents in English: American (on occasion with quite the Southern drawl) and Indian, and can switch effortlessly between one and the other. (In Hindi I can do the clipped Punjabi-influenced Delhi Hindi as well as Marthi-laced Bambaiyya.)

3. I've always wanted to fly. I love planes, aviation, flying, am an avid FlightSimmer and, though I've no earthly idea how this might be possible, dream of getting my PPL.

4. I trained in North Indian classical (vocal) from when I was about 7 or 8 till I was 21. In college, I was in a Russian folk song group for about three years. When under the influence of spirits, I've been known to spontaneously break into renditions of the Gosudar'tsvenii Gimn Sovyetskovo Soyuza (the national anthem of the erstwhile USSR), Podmoskovnyiye Vechera and Katyusha.

5. I could almost be considered half a Hajji (one who has performed the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca). This is because I've been to the revered tomb of Kusam-ibn-Abbas, the Prophet's cousin, who is buried in the Shah-i-Zinda complex in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. According to what I remember being told, two visits to the tomb are considered the equivalent of performing the Hajj. Of course, there is no such thing as "half a Hajji," I'm a blasted kafir (well according to some, Christians are kafir) or a saleeby (crusader), I could never actually go to Mecca, and the visit to Samarkand wasn't a pilgrimage. Which is why I said "almost." :)

6. I've hiked up to one of the base camps of Kanchenjunga (the third highest peak in the world), in Sikkim in northeast India. I think this was to an altitude of 11000+ feet. Those who know me will probably find this to be most incredible.

7. I have a hard time praying. Both maintaining a disciplined prayer life, and concentrating while praying. The Zen expression "the monkey mind" (referring to the mind's endless leaping around from thought to thought) certainly applies to me.

8. I'm an extrovert ("off the chart" is the term the psychologist [who evaluated me when I was applying to seminary] used] and very much a people person.

Ok. Tagees.

St. Eliz
St. Izzy

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Turning of the Wheel of Law

Dhamekstupa, built over the site where it is believed that the Buddha preached his first sermon.

The first stop the morning after our arrival was Sarnath, a town 10km to the north of Benares, and one of the main spots associated with the life of the Buddha. It was at Sarnath that he is supposed to have preached his first sermon (dhammacakkapavattana sutta in Pali, the turning of the wheel of law) after achieving enlightenment (which happened under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, some 200 km to the east in the neighboring state of Bihar), found his first five companions, and established the first sangha. After the conversion of the Mauryan Emperor Ashok in the 3rd century BC, Buddhism spread across the land, and Buddhist missionaries took this Indian religion across eastern Asia. Monasteries, viharas and stupas sprung up in Sarnath (there are ruins of a medieval monastery complex with one surviving stupa that shows evidence of dating back to Mauryan times), and though Buddhism eventually virtually disappeared from the land (There are various theories: assimilation by Hinduism, a concerted effort by Brahmanical Hinduism to absorb and contain the egalitarian critique of both Buddhism and Jainism, an effort that wasn't without violence, destruction by Muslim invaders. Ultra-right Hindu nationalists tend to minimize the second.), Sarnath remains an important spot on the Buddhist pilgrimage route. There are Thai, Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist temples and pilgrim houses. We passed a large group of Tibetan protesters, chanting anti-China slogans under large flags of free Tibet.

Detail of carving on the Dhamekstupa

An early 20th century vihara, the Mulagandhakuti Vihara (whose donors included a wealthy American lady from Honululu), contains a beautiful gilded image of the Buddha along with frescoes depicting scenes from his life painted a famous Japanese artist. As we approached, several women, clad entirely in white, with white face-coverings, were leaving. They could have been Jain pilgrims (there's a Jain temple nearby, and the area is holy to Jainism as well, it seems), or Indian neo-Buddhists. The area wasn't crowded, with visitors mainly being Indian and foreign tourists, among a few pilgrims. The vihara contains a silver reliquary with relics of the Buddha himself, that apparently came from Takshashila
Image of the Buddha, Mulgandhakuti Vihara

On leaving the grounds we passed a sign in Hindi, "This is a holy place. Please show respect to the surroundings." A few feet away a man was relieving himself in the bushes. Only in India.

I had forgotten that the famous Ashoka Pillar, the capital of which is now the national emblem of the Indian state, was discovered in Sarnath. The fragments of the pillars themselves can be seen among the monastery ruins -- light brown Chunar sandstone stumps with indecipherable inscriptions in the ancient Brahmi script running down the side. The capital itself -- the four lions, facing the four directions, with the Ashoka Chakra (a thirty-two spoke wheel representing the Buddhist conception of the eternal Law, the dharmachakra. The chakra is part of the flag of modern India) on its base, and also as a separate piece (surviving only in fragments) atop the lions -- now rests in an archeological museum close by (Entrance fee Rs. 2! Ten dollars or Rs. 400 for foreigners.). The Ashoka pillar is the first thing one sees in the entrance hall of the museum (no cameras allowed! Stupid Indian paranoia); I had no idea it was this huge, beign at least 6 feet tall, I'd say. It must have looked imposing atop the xx feet tall pillar. Numerous other archeological finds are displayed in the museum's gallery, dating back to Gupta (5th century AD) and Maurya (3rd century BC) times, including an incredibly peaceful and beautiful seated Buddha from the Gupta period. A local guide was giving a visiting Spanish couple a detailed description, in pretty decent Spanish. It was a bit surreal listening in to a Spanish conversation in eastern Uttar Pradesh!

Fresco depicting a scene from the life of the Buddha, Mulagandhakuti Vihara.

Not too far along the road back to Benares is another Mauryan stupa, a four-sided one (Chaukhand stupa, where the Buddha met his five companions.), surmounted by an octagonal brick structure dating from Mughal times.

One tends to forget that Buddhism originated in India and flourished in the land for over a millenium. This visit to Sarnath was a wonderful reminder of this.

[And while surfing Wikipedia, I came across this interesting story: Barlaam and Josaphat, apparently a medieval Greek legend based on the life of the Buddha!]

Friday, August 10, 2007

The obsequies of Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger

[Had to interrupt the reportage of the Banaras trip to mention the funeral of this remarkable man.]

The Cardinal's grand-nephew sprinkles dirt from the Holy Land on his coffin. Photo courtesy Yahoo.

John Allen's coverage in the Wall Street Journal: The Conservative Revolutionary..

Rocco has a beautiful piece up: Kaddish for the Cardinal, and he translates the La Croix coverage of the funeral. A commemorative plague for the Cardinal in Notre Dame Cathedral will read:
I was born Jewish.

I recived the name

Of my paternal grandfather, Aaron

Having become Christian

By faith and by Baptism,

I have remained Jewish

As did the Apostles.

I have as my patron saints
Aaron the High Priest,
Saint John the Apostle,
Holy Mary full of grace.
Named 139th archbishop of Paris
by His Holiness Pope John-Paul II,
I was enthroned in this Cathedral
on 27 February 1981,
And here I exercised my entire ministry.
Passers by, pray for me.
† Aaron Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger
Archevêque de Paris
(I don't know about you, but reading that gave me goosebumps. RIP.)

The Lord of the World

Temple and mosque. Image courtesy of the District of Varanasi website.

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple is on the "must-see" list of places to visit in Varanasi. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiv (in the aspect of Vishwanath, "Lord of the World"), it was destroyed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in the late 17th century and replaced by the Gyanvapi Mosque, and subsequently rebuilt adjacent to the mosque. Parts of the old temple's decorations can still be seen on the mosque walls. It is both a major pilgrim destination as well as a terrorist target. In March 2006 three bomb-blasts killed some 21 people in various areas of the city. Situated in the heart of the old city, surrounded by rickety old homes and a warren of alleys, it's a flash point on the religious divide that runs through the sub-continent.

We were lead to the temple along a narrow path ("It may be a little longer, but the main entrance is very crowded and I'm not sure mataji would manage," our guide explained, using the common North Indian honorific for mom.) dodging cows and fresh piles of dung and ignoring the stares from the locals (I suspect it was my camera.). Security is tight. Mobiles, all sharp objects, cameras, are to be left in lockers outside the temple area (along with one's footwear, of course). Mom negotiated the price for a bundle of garlands, sugar, sindur (red powder, to be offered to the goddess Annapurna, whose temple is right next to that of the jyotirlinga) and prasad. Our guide warned us that we'd be harrassed by the priests in the temple. "Don't say yes to them. I will arrange a sarkari pandit ..." I hastily cut him off. "No, we don't want any priests. None. Period." (Besides, what the heck is a sarkari pandit - a government priest - anyway?) I was frisked four times by four different police officers. Mom got away with two inspections of her handbag. Another narrow alley -- in a gap I spotted several jawans of what appeared to be the CRPF, machine guns dangling nonchalantly from their necks -- a little ahead and there's a deep red wall to one's right with a Devnagiri inscription identifying the temple, a crowd of devotees jostling one another in the short, narrow doorway leading to the inner compound.

And then they appeared, like vultures smelling a fresh kill. Bare chested, white dhoti clad pandits, janeus (sacred threads) running down the ample contours of well-fed bellies. "This way mataji. This way sir ." We wave our hands in protest. "No, no! We don't want a priest. No rituals are necessary." "Don't worry, no puja vuja. Just follow me to offer the oblations and the prasad." I should have firmly put my foot down then. However, the tray with the offerings had already left my mother's hands, and given the general bustle, with throngs clamoring around, we followed him, like mice following the piper. My original intention had been to stay in the compound and let mom go say her prayers and offer prasaid, however, with such a crowd, I didn't want her to be alone, so I followed her into the first garbha griha, where a large flower covered lingam, surrounded by praying pilgrims, was attended to by a fat brahmin. "Put the flowers here, here take this garland. Touch Shri Kashi's feet. With both your hands. No no, both hands at the same time. Let me put the tikka on you. Now repeat after me." ... "Om ..." followed by incomprehensible Sanskrit. "You too, sir." And then, palm upturned ... "Dakshina. Whatever you please, 500-1000." Five hundred? You're kidding right? Here's fifty, bubba!

And then on to the second shrine, this one dedicated to the goddess Annapurna. A line of pilgrims was crowding the narrow doorway, orange-clad young men, kanwaris (who've taken vows to travel to various sites of pilgrimage during this holy month of Shravan), each ringing the bell and shouting "Bolay bum!" Our pandit beckons, "Mataji, this way!" I hesitate. There's no way all those kanwaris can fit inside the little sanctuary. "Let's wait till this lot gets out." "No no, come this way." Looking back, I realize that by "hiring" our own pandit, we jumped the queue. No need to mingle and jostle with the poor riff-raff, the aam janta, the hoi polloi. You're here to offer homage to the god and goddess, after all, to appease, to beg favors, to ask for help with your business, or your family, or to give thanks, maybe for a boy-child. Why stand in line? Like anywhere else there are different classes of service, with different price tags.
Once inside, a similar scene. Offer this here. Here get a tikka. Now a garland. Now say "Om" and repeat. Touch her feet. No no, with both hands. You too, sir!

Uhh. Umm. The first commandment? I told myself weakly. Oh please, you don't want to create a scene. Lord alone knows what they'll do if they find a mleccha in here, that too one that has abandoned the purity of the sanatana dharma, and one who is going to be a padri no less! Just follow along. Oh great. You know your spiritual forbears preferred death rather than offer libations to the emperor? Yes yes I know! You should have just worn your cross on the outside of your shirt. Oh shut up! I'm not going to embarrass my mother here!

It was hot, and waterfalls of perspiration gushed down my face, periodically causing the dark glasses perched on my head to slide down most annoyingly. Crowds pressed in on all sides. I felt claustrophic; and like a deer caught in headlights. I was furious. Mainly with myself for not anticipating this better, and not feeling resolute enough to avoid being bulldozered by the religious versions of the pesky wannabe guides and trinket sellers who plague tourist sites in India. And yes, furious at the exploitative pandits whose upturned palms emptied my wallet faster than the Sanskrit slokas flew out of their lips. Furious too because my father would have utterly despised this -- he was a rationalist, an agnostic. He could never stand this aspect of religion -- superstition, ritual for the sake of ritual, any sense of appeasing or bribing the divine, and certainly not a priestly caste that acted as a gatekeeper to God. He'd have lost his temper well before I did.
At the last one, we were told to do a parikrama around at least a dozen shiv-lingas. Separately (a tactic, we realized later, so that they could ask for dakshina from each of us separately). "Your name?" ... "Wife's name? "You're not married!" (Mumbled incantations follow asking for a good match for me). "Next time you come with wife and we will say prayers for domestic harmony." I gag. "Parents both alive?" "Oh .. you know, it is the duty of the son to pray for moksha for his father. Only a son can do this! Here! Pray now!" I bowed to the stone representation of Shiv's phallus, shut my eyes, and begging forgiveness, said an Our Father.

Finally, simultaneously, both of us said, "Ok, enough! Let us out of here!" Sensing our frustration, the brahmin complied and lead us to the doorway. "Now please, a dakshina for a poor brahmin. You know it is parampunya to feed a brahmin!" The highest of merits! He pointed to his bulging middle. I ignored him. Mom had had enough. "Bas! Enough! We've given enough inside there." He harangued us for a while, tried to snatch away the plate with the flowers and prasad, but finally, somewhat to my surprise, gave up. Perhaps because his keen nose smelt fresh victims approaching.

"I've never experienced anything like this! Not at Srinathji or Dwarka. Not at Tirupati!" my mother exclaimed. "It's enough to make one an atheist," I fumed. "Papa would have been furious!"

I felt filthy leaving the temple. Not just because of the crowd and heat and sweat, my shirt clinging to my back, and my feet sticky from god-knows-what from the temple floor. It was like having gone through a processing plant, or a conveyor belt, so that the ritual obligations could be fulfilled in the most efficient manner, in the least amount of time to the greatest benefit of the temple pandits, and once the gods were appeased, you could be spit out the narrow door, satisfied that the cards had been punched, the divine obligations met, ironically, spiritually clean. Certainly, there was no time to actually have any aesthetic appreciation of the place, or to people watch, or, especially, to actually pray or meditate. It was like having swallowed somethign bitter, with a lingering foul after-taste that permeated everything.

So, why on earth does it matter that I participated in some Hindu rituals? Aren't we all praying to the divine, in our own different ways? What does it matter that it was a statue of the goddess Annapurna rather than the Blessed Mother? I can see how my inner struggle above can be offensive to Hindus -- though some, certainly those Brahmins, would have been more offended at the violation of ritual purity that my presence might have caused -- as well as to secular liberals. For me, it isn't about purity at all, as if Hindu temples were spiritually polluting or some such thing. Purity/pollution as a ritual/cultural concept just doesn't -- rather it ought not to -- exist in Christianity. While I respect my religious roots, and the religion of my family (I've never understood my conversion as preventing me from being present at family pujas and other rituals, for instance), I also respect the fact that the two traditions understand the Divine in vastly different ways. It's one thing to dialogue, to learn from each other, to seek out commonalities, to work together for social reform, even to pray alongside each other. It's another to present oneself as a Hindu and participate in Hindu rituals. Apart from being deceptive, it's unfaithful to my own religious tradition and sense of discipleship. It's because truth actually matters -- and because religious rituals and symbols actually do matter (pace the secularists) -- that one ought to take these things seriously. Yes, I felt coerced and caught off-guard, but, my will wasn't shackled. I was, weak. Sinfully so.

[If one thinks that I'm exaggerrating about the putative offense that violations of ritual purity cause, just think to the fact that that unique feature of Indic civilization -- caste -- is entirely about ritual purity and pollution. The brahmins of Kashi Vishwanath, for instance, will not let the lower-castes who work the smashan ghats, the cremation grounds, on the banks of the holy Ganges, enter the temple. Their presence is defiling. It was gratifying to learn that those folk have built a large copper lingam of their own, right on the banks of the river, where they can offer their own pujas.

[I should add that, in my experience, not all Hindu temples operate with such efficient aggressiveness. Nor is Hinduism just about offering oblations to various gods and goddesses. It's an ancient religious system, vast, bewilderingly complex, mutli-faceted and mult-layered.]

The City of Purification


"Welcome to the Holy City" the sign proclaimed at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport at Varanasi (named after India's second prime minister). The Hindi, however said, Pavan nagari par aapka swagat. Welcome to the city of purification.

And they come, over a million every year. Not just to take a purificatory dip in the holy waters which wash away sin; for Hindus, this is the place to die, this is the place to have one's ashes immersed in mother Ganga, a sure path, so it is said, to moksha, freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. The ghats (steps leading down to the riverbank) are lined with palaces built by the erstwhile native rulers of India, (who no doubted wanted to ensure that they did not return in a lower station in their next birth!), and are known by their names, as well as numerous temples, pilgrim guest houses, hotels, and private residences. There are over one hundred ghats clustered together on a bend in the Ganges.

Boats line the shore

Cars are banned from the road leading to the river in the old city. Of course, this doesn't make it any less congested. The road is like any other, in any Indian city -- chaotic traffic of cycles, cycle-rickshaws, horns blaring, vendors shouting, cows everywhere, and noisy, smelly, colorful humanity. From the Kashi temple (see above), it is a short walk to the Man Mandir ghat. Public cleanliness has never been a hallmark of Indian culture. The steps are steep and filthy, puddles of urine, piles of cow dung, goat dropping and dog poo scattered about like olfactory landmines. Families of beggars and rag-pickers have staked out various areas on the steps. Mangy stray dogs wander about hungrily, sniffing and scavenging. The area where the famous evening aartitakes place is right next door, and preparations are underway. Orange-clad kanwaris are everywhere. People line the riverbanks, bathing, swimming, taking a dip, washing clothes, expectorating or just enjoying the slight breeze that tries vainly to penetrate the oppressive humidity. The brown, muddy waters of the Ganges swirl past rapidly. A few boats can be spied in the river, most seem to be docked, awaiting the evening's rush of tourists. The opposite bank is completely bare, nothing but tall grass and the occasional tree. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world has not yet found it necessary to expand to the other side of the river.

The evening aarti

Our guide mumbles something about "adjusting" the price because of the high water level. "Nothing doing. The hotel said we had to pay Rs. 100 to the boatman. That's what he's getting. If he wants more, we'll find someone else." I'm absolutely sick and tired of being treated as an endless font of rupees. If they persist, they'll lose my business, or at least my baksheesh. To his credit, he drops it and goes over and whispers something to the boatman who doesn't look too happy. We get into a rickety boat (no life vests in sight), manned by three oarsmen, one of whom could not have been more than 12 or 13 years old. Two other tourists get in as well -- a thirty-something NRI from the US and a 40-something gent from Sri Lanka (or so one of the boatmen tells me later -- our fellow travelers don't say a word throughout the trip, and remain stony faced. Actually, I thought they looked quite miserable.) First we head upstream, hugging the riverbank, or rather the boats that lined the riverbank, bumping into one on occasion. We pass the various ghats, named after their royal patrons -- Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, Rana Pratapsingh of Mewar, the Peshwas of Pune, Ranjit Singh of Punjab, Vijaynagar -- a parade of beautiful old buildings, some still inhabited, some crumbling shells, silent witnesses to a vanished age. The line of ghats on the left bank of the Ganges runs for about a kilometer and half. Towards the very end are the smashan ghats, the cremation grounds. We can see the orange glow from two pyres, the charred remains of several others. At the very edge of the river, a corpse lies draped in red, its feet just above the level of the water, awaiting its turn, family members sitting around. A stream of ash and flowers flows rapidly downstream away from the ghat. Sticking out above the water on a covered wooden platform is a gleaming, polished copper lingam. The lower castes made this themselves, since they are barred from entering the Kashi Vishwanath temple. There's just one more ghat, used mainly by Gujarati Vaishnavites. "They say their prayers while invoking the name of Krishna, not Shiv," explains the boatman.

Princely Palaces

The sun had set behind the layer of light clouds, and darkness falls as we journey downstream at a rapid clip, to the site of the evening aarti. The stage is floodlit, and bhajans performed by live musicians blare out from loudspeakers. Seven small altars covered in saffron cloth have been set up at the edge of the ghat, and seven gaudily dressed young men (I first thought they were women, the outfits looked like saris, but they were actually elaborated tied dhotis with bright red colored tops) took their places, performing the ritual with dhoop (incense bowls) and lamps, to Sanskrit incantations chanted by priests over the loudspeakers. There was a huge crowd of devotees and worshipers all over the ghats, and a dozen or more boats crowded along the riverbank, weighted down by (mainly foreign) tourists, cameras and camcorders awhir.

The walk back to the car park takes a good thirty minutes along busy, crowded road. Once we clear the "pedestrian" zone, the lights wink out, and a hum of diesel generators fills the air, and lights wink back on in a few shops. The street remains dark. It's incredibly crowded. A thin stream of sweaty, smelly, pedestrians practically at the edge, in the gutter, a cow or two, and a jumble of cycle rickshaws, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, and the occasional brave car struggling in the flow, like an island in a river. The air is filled with soot and exhaust fumes. At one traffic circle, a couple of traffic cops in white uniforms chat idly. A non-stop chatter emanates from some invisible loudspeakers. I catch something about driving carefully, "otherwise, from having two legs, you'll go to having one!" I am certain that whoever was sharing this profound wisdom had absolutely no sense of irony. And over it all, like a thick, smothering blanket, a layer of heat and humidity. I grab mom's hand firmly and weave in and out of the river of cycle rickshaws. Crossing the street involves stepping out into the flow and inserting one's body forcefully in front of a vehicle and screaming at the operator to stop. The noise, the darkness, the heat, the sweat, the strident didactic noise from the loudspeakers, the press of bodies. It was hellish, a surreal nightmare. We reach the waiting car and collapse into the cool relief of the air-conditioned interior. I have rarely felt more like a foreigner in my native land.