Review of Rebels and Outcasts: a journey through Christian India, by Charlie Pye-Smith, Viking, £20.
by John Wijngaards, The Tablet, 13 December 1997, pp. 1400-1401.
Many people look on India as a Hindu country with troublesome Muslim and Sikh minorities and a Christian presence which is no more than a hangover from colonial times. This travel book by a Christian journalist seeks to redress the balance. The Christian faith is, indeed, one of India’s oldest religions. It entered long before Islam did or before Sikhism was established, and it has given rise to flourishing Christian communities.
The author describes his encounters with vicars, priests, bishops and other church leaders who talk about their ministry and who, occasionally, show the activities they are engaged in. The book thus provides anecdotal glimpses of the hopes and struggles, worship and education, social action and institutional reforms experienced by India’s widely dispersed and incredibly varied Christian denominations. The account is eminently readable, often witty and entertaining and sprinkled with relevant facts and historical information.
Unfortunately, the author structured his journey around major cities such as Delhi, Mumbay (Bombay), Mangalore, Cochin, Madras and Calcutta, which makes him over-report on urban Christianity and miss out on the important sections of rural Christianity. To give one example: in his discussion on the need for Christianity to retain its Indian face and integrate with Indian culture, he praises the use of Hindu symbols in the prayer service at Christa Prema Seva Ashram in Pune. He seems totally unaware of the fact that Indianised Masses, with Brahmin-style low altars, saffron-coloured robes, arati puja, bhajan singing and other traditional symbols, are routine among the tens of thousands of Catholic communities in northern villages from Madhya Pradesh to Bengal. He also missed out on an equally fascinating Indianisation of Christian life in Catholic communities in the so-called tribal belt which ranges from Rajasthan to Bihar. Here six dioceses holding more than a million Catholics bear the imprint of tribal custom in their organisation and pastoral practice, no less than in their liturgies.
For the informative sections in the book, Pye-Smith often relies on what local leaders told him. Usually he is aware that the facts may be coloured by the bias or limited perceptions of his guide; but not always.
Thus he states categorically that during British times Protestant missionaries cared more about social reform than Catholics. This is unfair and not borne out by the facts. Catholic missionaries were just as much involved in furthering education, health and social reform as their Protestant counterparts. The truth of the matter is that colonial officers frequently favoured the Protestant mission, granting it land and licence withheld from Catholics. On the other hand, the Protestant missionaries, through affinity of language and closer social contact, were often in a better position to put pressure on government officials. It is to their credit that they did; it does not prove Catholic indifference.
The author reports extensively on his meeting with Bishop Azariah of the Church of South India in Madras. The bishop, who is a champion of the dalits, the untouchablcs, misled him in his one-sided presentation of virtually the whole Christian community as dalit. “The Church of South India” is almost totally dalit in origin, to be sure. The Catholic Church in the South, however, if we do not include Kerala, has a large proportion of caste Christians. It is this mixed-caste composition, and not an anti-dalit prejudice, that explains why the Church of South India has more dalit bishops than the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, has three dalit bishops, but also bishops from other castes: three Reddies, two Kammas, one Baluja and one Sale. This skcwcd perception of caste among Christians may also have given the book its misleading title. Why give the impression that all Christians in India belong to the lower social classes? It will be resented by Christians in Goa, Mangalorc, Kcrala, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka anti the tribal areas who between them form 80 per cent of Christians in India.
In spite of such limitations, the book is worth reading. Dr John Pye-Smith, the author’s “grandfather’s great grandfather”, ministered in Calcutta as a nonconformist divine in the middle of last century. His descendant has obviously inherited his interest in India, and this latest book shows sincere respect for India’s people. The book reaches its greatest depth where the author dares to break out of the narrow circle of his English-speaking contacts and recounts meetings with ordinary men and women. The prostitute’s daughter in Calcutta’s Bowbazar, with her dream of a better life for all and her wish to be a doctor “so that I can give free treatment to all the poor”, spoke to me of the ever-youthful India I know and love.
Scanned courtesy of John Strange