Remembering Father Thomas

I met Father Thomas when I was running an agency for garment exports. Every day a lot many promotional samples of clothing – children’s, women’s and men’s, fanciful and ordinary, would come by courier to my office. Many of them, the merchandisers decided, were not suitable for European or American taste.  They piled up, filling a whole room.  That is when Rita, the senior merchandiser, suggested that we talk to Father Thomas, who ran a home for the poor in the far outskirts of the State.

The priest landed up in a pickup truck in the same evening as I called him.

“People call me scavenger priest. Tell me what you got. I will take anything that could be of some human use.”

Father Thomas was excited to see the collection of clothing I had to offer. After brooding for a few moments, he said:

“I will take them all. But to tell you the truth, I will sell some of them for money. My children don’t wear fancy clothes. But to send them to school, I need the money.”

The priest, I noticed, wore a robe that was clean and white with a faint patch of blue on one shoulder. The ends of his sleeves were slightly frayed.

We met every month since then, and I was greatly impressed. There was no big collection to offer every month, but his pickup van came nonetheless- sometimes with him, other times only the driver. Thomas was happy to take a table with a leg broken, and actually asked for and got a black board used in my office to display important dates for shipping.

It dawned on me that I was doing him no great favour. I was merely getting rid of the unwanted at no cost. Thomas was doing a great service – he was doing something for the poor and needy. When I mentioned it to him, he chuckled.

“Oh, no. Not everybody thinks like that. Many think that I’m trying to convert people. In Chattisgarh  someone took a potshot at me. The only reason I escaped, I guess, was God wanted me around a little longer. I din’t go to police; thought it would be a waste of time.”

This was before Graham Staines and his children were burnt alive inside their pickup van.

“Perhaps you do expect a reward from your God,” I said, tentatively. “Like a place in heaven.”

“Heaven, who knows? Maybe Jesus used the word to make us all do goo deeds,” laughed Thomas,

jesus-on-heaven

Father Thomas refused to be drawn to a discussion about religion. Till one day I challenged him to explain why there were so many denominations – so many contesting churches – in Christianity. In the chapter named Revelation, God commented some churches and warned some others. Reformists said that the Pope is the living anti-Christ. Catholics worshipped the idols of Christ on the cross or Mary holding her baby, Reformists fumed that it was idolatry banned by God. How did he reconcile such differences?

“Vishu,” he sighed. “No matter what Christians say against each other, there is one thing we all agree upon.  That Jesus gave up his physical body to save mankind from the result of their sins. That is the essence of Christianity. Two billion human beings believe in that truth. Two billion people are convinced of that. Two billion men and women – doctors, lawyers, writers and scientists, ministers and presidents, people from all walks of life who believe in Jesus cannot all be wrong, can they?”

I told him that two billion people were born into two hundred or more varieties of Christianity, but half of them were not sure they were right. Even Mother Teresa said she was occasionally troubled by doubts. Did he too occasionally feel the pang of doubt in his heart of hearts?

“I believe in what I do,” was his curt response.

I too believed in what he was doing, I told him. I didn’t tell him that I didn’t buy the Jesus-died-for-us jargon.  That he was helping the poor Adivasis, the indigenous people, was what mattered. People deprived of their land and their trees, the animals they used to hunt for food, now themselves hunted by police and forced out of the forest clearings, had two options – turn radical communists called Maoists and pick up arms to kill by stealth, or convert to one form or another of Christianity and live on charity.

I said: “Let us say all two million people are true believers in Jesus. That still makes four million who are not – among them doctors, lawyers, writers and scientists, ministers and presidents?”

“In the seminary, we do discuss these things. A priest does not become one by just reading the Bible and willy-nilly believing in all that is written. Philosophy is one of our subjects. So is comparative religion. We have debates on the Bible. Some of them give up half way.  I finished because I believe in what I do. As we always say, it is your faith that will save you.”

I later learnt that Father Thomas had a Master’s degree in Physics and had been doing a PhD on astrophysics when he was an intern of sorts – a deacon.  When he was elevated to the rank of a priest and called up to work in the Parish, Thomas gave up his scholarly pursuit and got involved in the church.  That was when he came in contact with the poor Adivasis.

On one of his later visits, I asked Father Thomas how he managed to reconcile his knowledge that there are billions of galaxies out there with the Biblical theory of God doing his work from the earth and hanging up the sun and the moon in the sky.

“The Bible and science run parallel,” said the priest in his calm voice.” So they never meet. Since they don’t meet, there is no conflict.”

“But they surely meet in your mind,” I said: “Surely they should conflict inside your head.”

“All that I have inside my head is the pang of hunger in the little children I meet. Their pleasure when I gift them a dress, their mother a new sari or give them a good meal topped up with ice-cream. The toothless smile of an old man when I gave him one of the colourful T-shirts you gifted last time.”

I noticed that the sleeve-ends of his white robe had .begun to fray even more than before.

“I will ask my tailor-master to take your measurements. Before I go I want to gift you a couple of robes,” I said. “I am closing the agency and moving abroad.”

Thomas looked indignant. “Vishu, I don’t live on charity. I get a salary. But you can give me the money. I could put two kids to school through a whole year with it.”

He didn’t collect the money before he said goodbye and left. I wasn’t sure how much a Catholic Priest’s robes would cost, so I sent a thousand rupees to his office before setting off for the job abroad.

Ten years later when I returned, I looked for Father Thomas. The school he had started looked deserted. The new priest, an ageing man,  whom I met at the door of the chapel said, “Yes, Father Thomas. I have only heard about him, and I find his name in our records, but never met him. A few Adivasis used to come to church when I first came here. They would ask me about Father Thomas.  Now hardly any of them comes.”

Orphans don’t go to church. I asked if he served the Adivasis in their secret hovels.

“I buried a couple of Christian boys among them.  Also a pregnant woman with her baby inside her – six or seven months, maybe. Shot dead in an encounter with the police. Very young. Those who brought the bodies had guns with them. They are dangerous commies, aren’t they?”

Encounter, my fucking foot. They were killed in cold blood. An informer tells the police when they would be arranging a meeting of thirty or forty people in the Jungle. When all the men are collected together, the police or some other security force spring a surprise,  shoot down a few in cold blood while the rest of them vanish in the dark. Women with babies on their hips cannot run fast enough to escape the bullets. A fleshy teenage girl or a middle-aged woman might get gang-raped and then shot so she couldn’t bear witness. It was all a clean job, done with practised skill. If among the dead a few were wanted men with their names on the rolls, the killers would get a reward and a commendation for their bravery.

“Yes,” I said aloud. “Terribly dangerous when they are hungry. They steal guns from the police, but can’t find food in the police stations.”

The old priest got down from the steps of his chapel to get closer.

“Tell me,” he said in a hoarse whisper: “Why can’t these young people work for a living instead of fighting with the police?”

I laughed. Why didn’t Jesus Christ find a job of a Rabbi or take up carpentry rather than going around synagogues, chasing gamblers and toppling gambling tables?  Why didn’t Lord Ram give work to the night-walkers instead of arrows that were probably poison-tipped? Why didn’t the pioneers give the Apaches work instead of bullets? Why didn’t the British convicts give the aborigines work in place of cannon balls? Asking a god’s man those questions would be a waste of time.

“If you ever meet Father Thomas, he might be able to answer that,” I said.

“Sorry, I didn’t get your name. If Father Thomas did come by who should I say was looking for him?”

“An Adivasi who found a job,” I said.

The colour of my skin must have convinced him.

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