The Low Down: Post XXIV – Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India

My experience in India thus far has been either of the sublime of the ridiculous. Thus far I have mostly written about the sublime. Now lets try the  ridiculous. This is all pure venting but my experience nevertheless.

India is without a doubt the most frustrating place I have ever been. Perhaps the way I should put this is that I find it the most frustrating place I have ever been. It is almost as though everything has been setup just to push me over the edge. Funnily enough, I am thankful for this.  If I can stay calm here I do not think there is anything I can not handle serenely (except family dynamics but that is always a given exception).

To begin with there is noise almost all the time. A great deal of work seems to be done by ‘day labourers’ who, contrary to name, work through the night. At the Old Seminary in Kottayam workers were cutting tiles with power tools all through the night right outside the guesthouse doors. One evening painters even painted the outside of my door. Even the nuns are noisy, staying up late laughing, laughing, laughing. I am pleased they are enjoying themselves, but still. Religious services tend to start blaring their music at about half past five every morning and you get to hear the nuns again.

I have lived by myself for almost seventeen years and for most of that period I have lived in silence with no background noise of any kind. The last thirteen years have been in quiet rural settings where often the only sound was that of the wind, the crackling of the fire, or my fat cat plopping down from the bed or a chair and padding along to the kitchen to stuff herself again. For excitement there is a fur ball episode every couple of months that lasts for a few minutes. I often drive in silence as well and spend the travelling time thinking. I avoid restaurants with piped music and complain like an old man when I go to the cinema once a year because it is “too loud”. I have become addicted to silence. I even spend at least two weeks a year on silent retreat with the Anglican Benedictines at Holy Cross Monastery because where I live is not 'silent enough’.

Then this! The indigenous population seem to be oblivious to it. The constant blare of the church and temple loud speaker systems, the trucks driving around town announcing upcoming political or social events on loudspeaker systems, the constant non-stop beeping and blaring seems to have no affect on them. At the Maramon Convention I could hardly slept a wink for at least two days because the watchdog at the retreat house would not stop its high pitched, high volume barking through the night. The first morning at breakfast I asked the bishops how they slept with the barking going on all night right outside their windows. They all said “What barking?”. I could only stammer “That barking!” and have them stop talking and listen to the self same barking echoing though the refectory from, you guessed it, the dog sitting just outside the window! “Oh!” they said. I could have sworn that until I pointed out the deafening presence of the noise they were truly oblivious. I could write volumes about the constant screaming at excruciating volume of people into their cell-phones. Still, surprisingly, I seem to be adapting fairly quickly and have even started sleeping some nights all the way through without earplugs.

Little seems to work here (or at least not in my budget range) or is so complicated that by the time you get it to work the will to use it has been sucked right out of your soul. Yet there is nothing so complicated that it cannot be made more complicated by five people trying to get something to work at the same time. Really you have to experience it to believe it. I feel bad pointing this out primarily because the issues are often caused by people trying to be helpful. Yet I have learned that to be ‘travel wise’ in India is to expect whatever it is to not work. I found myself smiling to myself over breakfast whilst listening to a French woman trying to explain to the manager that the electricity was not working on her side of the building. The manger just kept repeating “It IS working”. It wasn’t. What I was thinking was “newbie, how naive to expect the electricity to be working!”

One group of West Syrian monks tried so hard to be hospitable it made me want to flee the monastery. At one meal I casually glanced at the ceiling which produced the effect of a monk literally dashing over to turn on the ceiling fan. When I looked at anything on the table some monk would jump up and refill the dish, move it two inches closer to me, or try and put some of it on my plate. When I asked, trying to make conversation, whether the pepper on the table came from the pepper vines I had seen outside on all the trees this produced a flutter of activity and the promise that the monastery would provide me with pepper to take home with me and to give to the Oratory Superior.  I felt like Queen Mary on one of here almost clepto-maniacal royal visitations. I did have one genuine request and made the mistake of asking one of the priests if I could be shown the library sometime that afternoon. This resulted in the librarian being sent for immediately who, as he had been milking the cows, was just sitting down for his meal. No matter how I tried they insisted I be shown the library then and there. So the poor brother librarian had no lunch.

To make matters worse, when I asked if there were any books on West Syrian liturgy in the library, he almost manically told me to “please wait” at which point he literally took off running down the corridor, the steps, and I could here him running at full speed across the monastery courtyard and a few minutes later back again. Anglicans should get a kick out of this – he arrived back dripping with sweat and panting “here Father, an excellent book on our liturgy” at which point he handed me a familiar looking thick green bound tome. Thus in a West Syrian monastery in an isolated part of the foothills of the Western Ghats I found myself holding in my hands the life work of that great Anglican Benedictine liturgical master Dom Gregory Dix OSB

Dom Gregory Dix OSB at Nashdom Abbey
Dom Gregory Dix OSB

The Shape of the Liturgy!

The Shape of the Liturgy

I was also offered a smaller book on liturgical theology by that other famous Anglo-Catholic Anglican monk Father Frere CR (who received the first professions of the Father Founders of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd). It turns out that, once again, the Anglican church has had a huge impact of the West Syrian Church here although not as much as the East Syrians. The founder of the monastery of Bethany, HG Alexious Mar Theodosius OIC, lived with the Cowley Fathers in Oxford and founded the first Indian orthodox order, The Order of the Imitation of Christ, based on the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. The second Superior had been a student at Mirfield and made some changes based on his experience with the Community of the Resurrection. So, as far as I can tell, the impetus for the order is Anglo-Catholic and stems from the Cowley Fathers and the Mirfield Fathers. They also used the office book of translated Syriac produced by the English Benedictine monk Dom Bede Griffith OSB, who was a convert from Anglicanism. To top it all off, the first convent of the West Syrian church in India, The Sisters of the Imitation of Christ, did not come from Antioch, Alexandria, Armenia, or even an Eastern Orthodox church. Rather it came through the auspices of our own Sisters of  Saint Margaret (whom I remember with fondness from my years in Scotland) in Sri Lanka.

Anyway, to return to the original thread, I find the ‘honorary’ treatment excruciating. I do not blame them, I am sure that it has been drummed into them that I am a guest of His Holiness. But still I had hoped that at least in a monastery I could at least try to ‘blend in’. No such luck, they even displaced the Abbott from the high table so that I could sit there resplendent in isolation at the head of the refectory. Everyone else eats from buffet style while I alone am surrounded by dishes and even, as I noticed only today, given some foods that no one else is given. Luckily it is Lent so I am only eating one meal a day and only have to endure this treatment at lunchtime and the brothers do not have to faff about when they eat dinner after a long days work.

Unfortunately, as far as I can see and as I have been told numerous times, this fawning behaviour is expected by many of the Bishops in Kerala and the lack of it would be interpreted as rudeness by them. The prevalence of the class (read ‘caste’) and rank system in the church here seems to my post colonial Western eyes dehumanising. There is no questions of egalitarianism and it brings out a fairly radical socialist streak in me.

I must also say that I had not realised how controlling this treatment is for the person of the receiving end. It effectively isolates you from others, and takes away your freedom of movement and autonomy by making you reliant on others all the time. The perfect example of this was when I asked the senior monk where the refectory was so that I would know where to go for the first meal. He refused to tell me but simply insisted that junior monks would come to escort me. I tried to wrestle the information out of him but it only resulted in him escorting me immediately, leading me to the head table and tried to get start eating before the dinner bell and thus before any of the other brothers or even the Abbot had arrived. I really liked this older monk and felt awful refusing to start eating until everyone had come. I know he only wanted to make me happy and he almost pleaded with me to not be worried about anything. Yet at the same time I only needed to wait about five minutes more for the bell to ring and for the other brothers to come to eat.The point is asking where the refectory was turned into a major drama (you had to be there) that involved at least six people. I had hoped someone would just point to which of the four buildings it had to have been and say “lunch is served there when the bell rings”.

I can hear you now, wondering why I am whining about not being treated the way I want to be. I am where I am why not just go with it? Well, there is wisdom in that and for shorter stays it is probably the best option. However there is also an ethical and religious principle at work here. I do not believe that any Christian should expect to be ‘served’ in the way that exists here. As the Baptised there is an equality that even if it does not extend to function, does extend to human dignity. No one, including the most junior monk, should feel he has to run flat out for anyone unless it is an emergency. I know that the concept of western autonomy is somewhat alien and can be taken too far yet there still needs to be a line. Do the monks here really want me to feel this uncomfortable? Of course not. Yet as far as I know there is no simple way to tell people that what you want is for them to just be themselves, to act normally and get a result. Just ask a photographer. Do not get me wrong I like the brothers here and have enjoyed the recreation hour with them in the evening. Interestingly it is here that some of the very first questions about Canada, the Canadian Church or Anglicanism have been asked.

The next thing that I feel I must say (and one younger priest begged me to put in print), but that may be slightly undiplomatic, is that way too many of the Bishops I have met thus far have displayed an aloofness that is remarkable to a modern westerner (or at least to me). Although there have been many exceptions, they do not seem particularly friendly and seem to actually try to not seem interested in anything happening around them. I think it is something cultural I have yet to grasp. Yet their dress, mode of transport, decorum, and treatment of those not of the same rank for the most part has left me nonplussed. I have on more than one occasion heard casual episcopal talk about poverty stricken priests and their families that would lead many people to suspect there may be a strand of sadism lurking underneath their apparent lack of compassion. I tried to hint at this extraordinary behaviour with some of the younger priests and deacons to see what sort of reaction I would get. I did not have to try very hard as many opened up to me immediately and shared their deeply jaded view of the Keralite episcopal culture as a whole. The fact that everyone I spoke to thought the typical Episcopal behaviour was profoundly out of sync with the Christian values of humility makes me wonder if a small reformation is coming.

Then again I doubt it. The British tried to stamp out the caste system and the Government of India has followed the British ruling and kept it illegal. Yet my reaction 150 years on is the same as the first British missionaries. For those of you who find it ironic that the British, with a class system that includes aristocracy and nobles as well as a Monarch, would react so badly to another rigid caste system I ask you to take one step back. Although Britain has a class system it has always been the most fluid of all the European systems and has allowed much more freedom of movement through its ranks than other countries. It also has a noted stand of democracy that has run through it since the Magna Carta. I also wonder if seeing the caste system so starkly in India made the Raj see itself in the mirror in a typically Jungian way.

One Bishop, a CSI (Church of South India) one this time and thus part of the Anglican Communion, when I stooped by to give my card to his secretary to ‘pay my respects’ happened to be in. He chatted away nicely in English for awhile and spoke about his visits from Canadian bishops and Archbishops before inviting me to join him the next day at a gathering of Christian leaders at an ecumenical centre a couple of hours to the north east. I agreed and his Chaplin picked me up the next morning at 7:20am to take me to the Bishop’s Palace to leave from there. The Bishop was not ready and so to kill half an hour I wondered around his beautiful garden. I was standing about fourteen feet from the car when I became aware of someone calling out rapidly “hey! hey! hey! hey! hey!” I though someone was calling a dog until I realised it was the Bishop and he was trying to get my attention! It all went downhill from there. Somehow overnight he had almost completely lost the ability to speak English, or at least the will. He insisted I sit next to the driver in the front seat, and proceeded to pick up another priest with whom he spoke with loudly (when he was not screaming into his cell phone) the entire way there. No one spoke to me, told me where we were going or even what the meeting was about. I was asked if I had had breakfast and when I replied that they did not serve it at the seminary during Lent this resulted in a long drawn out conversation in Malayalam by the rest of the passengers. Finally I was dropped off for breakfast  (even though I did not want breakfast) although the Bishop had already eaten, presumably what he was doing while I was wandering around waiting for him,  and so spoke on his cell phone outside the restaurant. When we did arrive at our destination I was taken to the meeting room where the Bishop promptly told me that it was a private meeting and I could not be there and asked me to leave immediately after I was introduced. Another Christian leader in Kerala (who I happened to have shared several meals with earlier in my trip and was also in communion with Anglicans) decided he wanted to be the one to introduce me. So this Archbishop struggled to his feet and announced to the assembled heads of the churches in Kerala that a distinguished guest “Canon Slymal from Sweden” was visiting. Yep, I had made a big impression. What made it worse was that my card was sitting right in front of him on the table. Oh well, I only wish I had those Swedish looks. I might be able to pull off blond.

I then had to head out for a couple of hours to entertain myself. As the centre was in the middle of the jungle with nothing at all around it the only option was to wander the jungle roads until lunch was served. This I did and, although blistering hot in the middle of the day, it was lovely. At the meal they placed me at the head table but at the far end with at least two empty places between me and the Bishop on my left. No one spoke to me the entire meal. Finally before getting into the car I told a few priests what I had been up to and they were horrified. Supposedly there are herds of wild elephant in that area of the jungle that are not only a nuisance but also very dangerous. More frightening was the panther that had been attacking people in the area. This turned out to be ok though because they had, after months of trying, finally shot it that morning. So I narrowly avoided wandering exiled by a CSI bishop into a jungle inhabited by a man eating panther by only a few hours! All I can say is at least it was not a tiger.  For the two hour trip back to Kottayam no one said a word to me. Upon arriving at the Bishop’s Palace he got out opened my door to say to me “You’ll have enjoyed yourself then and I hope to see you again” or something to that effect before disappearing inside. I really do not think he will do.

Sooo, the gist is either way, way too much attention, or none at all. Feast or famine and through it all - noise. What is clear is that neither church really knew what to do with me. I do not mean this as a complaint or a criticism but as an observation. It may even be that one or both churches really did not have the resources or understanding of the purpose of the scholarship to make a plan for someone staying any length of time. In both cases I have had to figure a huge amount out on my own and take much more initiative than I ever expected.  In the end this has turned out to be quite difficult but has provided me with a quick learning curve that has got me into the swing of things much more quickly than would have otherwise been the case. A veteran Indian traveler of many years from England said to me last week “Is this really your first visit to India? It seems as if you know the place awfully well.” I would not necessarily agree, but certainly more than would have been the case if the churches had provided a more comprehensive or integrated approach to my ecumenical visit.

What has also been made clear is that most of the bishops have little interest in the Anglican Communion or the Anglican Church of Canada (to be fair most Canadian bishops probably would not be interested in Kerelite Christianity but I expect they would at least pretend). Or at least no one asked about it and when I volunteered information they showed little enthusiasm. One Bishop actually fell asleep when a deacon asked me a question about the Canadian church in his presence and it was not because I had spoken too long, I had barley got one sentence out of my mouth before he closed his eyes and let his head fall to his chest. I have done most of all the question asking and it has all been about the host churches. The bishop responsibly for the ecumenical affairs office of one of the churches asked me no relevant questions at all. It was also fairly clear from the prompting of his secretary that he only had a vague clue as to who I was or why I was there. When I asked him questions about his approach to ecumenism and his particular ecclesiological views he seemed totally nonplussed. When I asked more general things like how he became interested in other churches I received the same response. At times he seemed almost comatose, although he seemed to perk up when his cell phone would go off and he went outside to speak on it. It turns out, as I later found out, that he had been given the post because he had worked as a registrar at an institution that accepted students from other denominations and so had had some limited exposure to other types of Christians. He did offer one bit of fascinating insight into the workings of the Anglican Communion when he said that the 1998 Lambeth Conference (at which I worked and was assigned to the group that drafted Motion 110 on Human Sexuality as so was there for most of the meetings) had something to do with Lesbian Bishops! I though we only just got that with Bishop Glasspoole less than a year ago. Who knew!

What is also clear is that, even if the bishops are not, many of the younger clergy and especially the seminarians and novices ARE interested in learning about us. Or at least they ask questions when you get them into a relaxed atmosphere. They do not seem willing to do so around senior priests or bishops. They also seem more willing to answer my questions honestly instead of giving pat answers. So that is where I must put my efforts.

Everyone talks about the extraordinary amount of trash and waste in India, the dirt and the smells. All I will add is that I have found this perfectly true. I have never seen so much litter in my life – and it seems to be everywhere. The air quality is bad and thus there is a great deal of throat clearing and  spitting. Or at least that is why I think people seem to spit constantly. Body functions are simply not treated with any sort of modesty here. How could you with such a vast population. It is all rather new to me, belching, passing gas, spitting and urinating all seem to be perfectly acceptable activities just about anywhere. I must admit it took me a while to get used to seeing people publically defecating next to road or railway tracks or even just off the pavement (sidewalk). I think I am used to it now. What I have not been able to adapt to is the knowledge that, although people use their left hand with water to wipe themselves after defecation, it is obvious that there is no set up for most people to use any sort of sanitary measures as there are almost no public conveniences and people do not seem to carry water bottles or ‘wipe’ rags with them. The conclusion which I have reached, which makes me very very uneasy, is that many of the people around have one part of them that is unclean. It may make me prudish that this disturbs me but I have not adjusted to it yet. What has become abundantly clear is why Indians never touch food or make contact with other people with their left hand. I am not sure I will ever see the left hand the same way again. I am not joking, but seriously indicating the impression this basic difference in hygiene has made in me.

On last gripe, it is extraordinarily wearing on me  to know that so many people are trying to charge me more than they should. Anywhere that does not have posted prices is dangerous for someone who looks like me. They do not even try to hide it. You ask the price, for example for a auto rickshaw trip somewhere they go several times a day, and they sit looking at you in silence while thinking how much extra they think they can charge you. Mind you it is not the cost, often it is nothing, it is the fact that you know they are trying to cheat you and by a great deal. usually an extra third is added or the price is even doubled. There are meters that are supposed to be used but no one does and most have not worked for years if they ever did. I tried an experiment a few days ago. I went down to hire a taxi and after gathering around and laughing and jostling me the gang of taxi drivers insisted that 2000 rupees was the set fare. I haggled it down to 1500 which they whined (I mean the word) was a hardship to them, then left without hiring a driver. Half an hour later I asked one of the Indians working at the small hotel I was staying at to go and hire me a taxi without saying it was for a ferengi (foreigner). He came back with one of the same cars and a price of 600 rupees for the trip. When you know people are lying straight to your face and trying to cheat you, regardless of if it is because they think  all westerners are millionaires and thus fair game, it makes you feel threatened, untrusting and angry. I find that it just makes me quite resentful and the gleeful way it is handled has left a sour taste in my mouth.

Enough griping and lets hope it is now out of my system. I just want to be on record that this is not just a bed of roses and that for all of the sublime there has been a fair share of ridiculous.

POST SCRIPT: The Photograph of the ape has nothing to do with anything except how I have felt at times. I just like it.

Really Frustrated