Thursday, September 30, 2010

My verdict on Ayodhya

Who wants blood in the land of the holy rivers?
Who wants to kill in the land of non-violence?
Who wants to destruct in the land of creation?

The Allahabad high court in a few minutes is going to deliver the judgement in the Ramjanmabhoomi- Babri Masjid title suit. Thousands of police and para-military personnel have taken position in several parts of Uttar Pradesh sensing trouble after the judgement is delivered. After last minute efforts to scuttle the judgement were denied by the Supreme Court, all eyes are on the court premises of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court.

Both Hindus and Muslims are saying that they will accept the judgement. Many Indians across religious and cultural divides are saying that India has moved on since 1992. There is a sense of positive energy this time around. But the government is not taking any chances.

There is still a fear going through several minds of what could happen. The same fear which has lead to the tensions between two religious communities in India. The same fear which make us wall ourselves away from others. The fear that prevents us from sharing our public places of worship and laying claim to each others worship places. Being a Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Christian, I am in no way preaching to others, as I am also guilty of this same fear that my worship place is going to be taken over by someone else. I live in this fear that someone is going to take away something which belongs to me. My attachment to physical spaces is making me crazy and fundamentalist. I have turned into a warrior for Christ, guarding my church from others. But did Jesus ever think of physical wealth and spaces? My fear thus turns to shame. Shame on what I have become. A selfish, fearful and violent soul!

I understand to an extent what the two communities in Ayodhya are going through. I am going through the same. All I can say is that we have to work together towards peace in this country. I can never continue with my distanced criticism and ten point proposal for peace because I am part of the problem as much as everyone else in India is. Let us pray for peace to be expressed from all our hearts. My verdict thus, is a verdict and a plea for peace.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Who has plundered our common wealth?

With barely a month to go for the Common Wealth games in Delhi, the can of worms is being celebrated in the Indian media. What so far was kept under guard in a locker room of patriotism and national pride is out in full public view. Even though several concerned citizens in India cried foul of the high handedness, corruption and waste of public funds, it was brushed under the carpet. So is this a failure of India which has again breached the 20,000 point mark in the sensex index or is this is a concerted effort of a few to plunder what is basically the common wealth of all the citizens of this country?

The former sports minister of India Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar ruffled quite a few feathers in the Congress party and the Indian government when he said that he wished that the games failed. He must be giggling in private and public listening to the stories of collapsing bridges and unliveable apartments in the games village. These voices of cynicism have been many over the past few months. They have been silenced and branded as anti-national and un-patriotic.

Despite having close to seven years to prepare for hosting the games, the committee with Suresh Kalmadi as its chairperson has ended up confounding not only the people of India but also the several countries which are supposed to participate in the Common Wealth games. The cost of the games coming to 7.5 billion dollars is way beyond the 1 billion dollars of the 2006 games. The cost does include roads, a new airport, new stadiums and a big infrastructure drive which is supposed to be use worthy several years after the games. But can we justify this huge expense in a country like India which constitutes 50% of the hungry in the world and where one out of two children is under nourished?

The post colonial researchers will even question the need for a common wealth games. If India claims to be a nation which is marching forward and even forgetting its colonial past, what is the point in hosting such an event? One explanation would be that some of the oppressed have out grown their outfit and have now grown into the outfit of the oppressor. But who are we oppressing? The only answer would be that we are oppressing our own people. The common wealth organizers are thus plundering our common wealth which is meant for our common people.

What then does development mean? Is it to ensure food and basic amenities for our people or is it to dine with the wealthy? The common wealth games fiasco is not just the work of a few renegade men. It reflects the skewed aspiration of a people who want to be associated with money and power. We have a great bunny in the form of Kalmadi to kick and blame. But isn’t he just one pawn in the intricate game of fooling the poor in India?

All religious communities compete to build massive structures which house only the rich and keep out the poor. Our common wealth is plundered by our leaders who use it to grow into the custom made outfits of oppression. We definitely need a change in the development paradigm. Progress should mean that we try our best to root out oppression rather than becoming oppressors ourselves. Till then our common wealth will be plundered and ravished.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

We need more Elsammas

Kerala is experiencing the battle of the spirits. The orderly queues are visible at the civil supply liquor joints and the spirit filled battle cries in the numerous and ever growing tents of various spiritual organizations. Both are disciplined, decided and sure about what they will get at the end of the exercise. One is predominantly dominated by men and the other by women. The state is thus in a perpetual state of the spirit, whichever way you look at it!

In this state of the spirit, one industry which manages to hold its own in the midst of several film industries in India, is the Malayalam film industry. Even as Mammooty and Mohanlal continue their unabated grip over the industry, new timers and excellent scripts offer inspiring models to follow and think of. One such recent addition is the movie “Elsamma enna aankutty”. Directed by Lal Jose and starring newcomer Annie Augustine, the movie is about a girl who stops studying after her tenth standard to take care of her mother and three sisters. She works as a newspaper delivery girl, newspaper agent, distributes milk, helps to make rubber sheets and cooks in the nearby house as part of the numerous jobs she has to do to make a living. Her day starts at 4:30 in the morning and ends late. The power she has as part of being a newspaper agent and the passing on of news stories to the newspaper keeps the inhabitants of Balan Pillai city (BP city) on their toes. From the panchayat chairperson to the spurious toddy (liquor) business man, the attackers of the natural hills of Kerala to the rich boys who only think of ruining the lives of simple girls, Elsamma appears as the only one who stands for what is right.

Scripts which highlight a woman are rare in all forms of Indian cinema. The male audience also finds it difficult to accept a woman who is after all doing the right thing and is a source of change in society. The panchayat and municipal elections next month in Kerala will have 50% reservation for women. Even though it is a great opportunity for Kerala to have the vibrancy and innovations of women added to the leadership of the state, many are questioning the reservation itself along with the skills of women. Some men are using this to arm twist their wife’s into contesting wards which they themselves can’t this time round. In essence this would mean that the men would run parallel administrations from their homes.

The acceptance of women seems to be something that will take more time. One wonders whether this could be because women are too close and taken for granted. In the gospel of Mark 6:1-6 the power of Jesus is questioned in his home town as they see him as the son of Jesus and Mary. Jesus is too close for comfort. This is perhaps the way we see God too. Whenever God seems close we are uncomfortable. And that makes us seek a spiritual stupor in whatever form. Jesus says that a prophet is without honour in his own place.

Elsamma is also too close for comfort. She is in one sense the girl next door. But if we accept her, we have to accept that we are living in the wrong. So we will look at ways to deny her the credit for what she does. Who is Jesus? Who is Elsamma? Jesus questions the leaders of his time who practised their own beneficial way of governance and living. Elsamma questions the corrupted village panchayat, stands for the rights of her village and fights for the common person. Maybe that is why we may feel inside, “who is Elsamma?” We don’t mind to accept big banners and big screen names. But we are suspect of offerings which make us think.

BP city is a constructed space. But it is also a space which makes us think of our own spaces. Elsamma enna aankutty does have problems with the handling of some of the concepts it contains. But there should not be any doubt whether it does put forward a message. This message is also a message for churches as well. Women in Kerala will provide a substantial portion of good understanding and good governance. If we keep them away we will remain in a spiritual stupor without accomplishing anything more. If we care to entertain more Elsammas’ we might after all find a few solutions to the problems Kerala faces today.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Greatness through acceptance: 30 years as patriarch of the Syrian(c) Orthodox Church. H.H. Ignatius Zakka I Iwas

The prince patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox church, H.H. Ignatius Zakka I Iwas celebrated 30 years as the spiritual head of the church yesterday, the 14th of September, 2010. As church members all over the world celebrated along with the blessed occasion of the festival of the cross (Sleeba perunnal), other churches also looked curiously to understand the demeanour of the leader of this ancient church. In 30 years the patriarch has seen the rise and spread of the Syrian Orthodox church to all parts of the world. It is then no wonder that everyone would be interested to know more about the patriarch.

Born in Iraq the patriarch had an initial experience of what many Syrian Christians in the Middle East had to come to terms with; ‘migration from their places of birth’, due to socio-economic reasons and political unrest and war. This has been a significant part of the history of the church in the Middle East, something which the church in India has not totally and completely understood. The will to do well may have arisen through this and the patriarch did well in his studies and was accepted as a good interlocutor early on in his career. This must have led the church leadership into sending him as an observer in the second Vatican council.

The patriarch’s exposure made him a person who the church could count on to dialogue with other churches and communities. The finding of the relics of St. Thomas also brought him into good standing as a man who was not only interested in dialogue outside the church but also within the church as in trying to bring about a link between the present and the past. The patriarch’s tenure thus far has to be remembered as one which has managed to accept the unknown or the other. That is the greatness that we can truly and affectionately attach to the patriarch.

Within two years of patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas’ enthronement he got into talks with the then pope H.H. John Paul II of the Catholic church and signed a joint document in 1984. Both leaders continued in the foot steps of their predecessors. The importance of the document is reflected in the words “The confusions and schisms that occurred between their Churches in the later centuries, they realize today, in no way affect or touch the substance of their faith, since these arose only because of differences in terminology and culture and in the various formulae adopted by different theological schools to express the same matter. Accordingly, we find today no real basis for the sad divisions and schisms that subsequently arose between us concerning the doctrine of Incarnation. In words and life we confess the true doctrine concerning Christ our Lord, notwithstanding the differences in interpretation of such a doctrine which arose at the time of the Council of Chalcedon.”

In 1998 the patriarch became the president of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Middle East region. In his capacity he tried to reach out to the Muslim community in the Middle East. The patriarch has in this way tried to reach out to a local and global audience taking into consideration cultural, national and humane outlooks. It would have been this inter-religious experience which has led the patriarch into understanding the unique situation in India as well, where we live harmoniously in the midst of other religions.

The patriarch has built his ecumenical and inter-religious experience on the rock of ‘love.’ This has also brought about a rich love and acceptance of his spiritual children in India. The love has translated into four apostolic visits to India in 1982, 2000, 2004 and 2008. Even though the huge crowds in India have kept him from speaking to each and every person, a visit to his abode in Syria will get one just that. A deep hospitality and love for all.

The leader of the Syrian Orthodox church has written on several matters in the church and they include the role of women, fasting, identity and monastic life in the church. But more than anything else it has to be the patriarch’s acceptance of what lies inside and outside the church that has to be his greatest contribution to the church and the world. It is this acceptance which gives us a great patriarch, H.H. Ignatius Zakka I Iwas.

Monday, September 6, 2010

St. Mary the teacher

In Christian theology Jesus comes through as the teacher who answers and guides those who question him. This irrepressible quench for teaching starts at a young age and many are amazed by what the carpenter’s son accomplishes. Even as Mary and Joseph shared this sense of amazement one has to also acknowledge the role they would have played in the development of Jesus.

One can question this quest to identify Jesus’ teachers as a futile attempt that will lead nowhere. How can anyone teach God? Jesus being the child of God would then have known everything and what would then be the reason for anyone teaching him, leave alone Mary and Joseph? But isn’t keeping quiet when needed and non-teaching also a form of teaching? In this regard we can look at St. Mary the teacher.

The wedding at Cana initiates one of the few lines credited to Mary which the biblical writers finally manage to part with. Mary says in John 2:3, “They have no more wine.” Even though this looks like a lecture about the state of wine in that house, it is a question directed at Jesus by Mary in teacher’s robes. The answer is something like Jesus is not ready to answer the question. Unlike many teachers in our time who would then proceed to beat out the answer of the student, Mary tells the others, “do whatever he tells you.” The un-complaining teacher gives space to her student to make sense of the question she has put forward.

What happens later is history and well documented in our minds. To look at this passage for teachers’ day brings about a total re-working of the concept of who a teacher is. In the luminosity of the relationship between Mary and Jesus we are still left in the dark because that is indeed what a student-teacher relationship is. It is abstract to the one looking but clear to those involved. The best teachers I have had are the ones who made me think, who left a space for me to be me, who left the jars empty for me to fill up!

For teachers’ day the concept of a teacher has to be re-defined before we wish happy teachers’ day. Who is my teacher? My teacher is the one who allows me to learn and do. For this reason I cannot define who my teachers are. They are one and many. My mother, father, priest, aunt, school facilitator, theology guide, college friend, wayside vendor, co-journeying passenger! Happy teachers’ day to all of you. You have left the jar empty so that I could figure out what to do with it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Is St. Mary our model of protest?

‘Ettu nombu’ (eight day lent from Sep 1- 8) is being observed by the Jacobite Syrian Church and several other churches for several decades now. Even though it is not an official lent of the church, the people have adopted it and made it their own lent whereby they faithfully abstain from meat and milk products and meditate in the mornings and participate in Qurbana. The culmination is celebrated with ‘pachor’ (a sweet preparation made with rice on the 7th evening) on the 8th morning.

The lent is supposed to have started as a result of the faith of the people in the intercessory powers of Mother Mary. Such is the belief in St. Mary that the church has accepted the wishes of the people and by now almost all churches in Kerala and other parts of India and the diaspora observe the eight day lent.

But what is the eight day lent really? For me the lent is a mass protest against injustices in society. The magnificat (Luke 1:46-56) of St. Mary includes these words of protest when she says, “For God has been mindful of the humble state of God’s servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name. God’s mercy extends to those who fear God, from generation to generation. God has performed mighty deeds with his arm, God has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” What inspiring words?

In this regard the sainthood of Mary does not just come because she gave birth to Jesus but also because she held the beacon of protest in her womb and exclaimed so when she met Elizabeth. I wonder whether in the lent and celebration that follows, we as a church have forgotten that we are celebrating the birthday of the torch bearer of protest in our society? Every day during this eight day lent thus becomes not just a time to be quiet and submissive but a time to take stock of what needs to be done in our society and country. Our lent in that sense should be for thinking of how God turns the tables on the proud and the rich and will fill the hungry.

We are losing people and figures we can look up to during this era of corruption and injustice. But we also forget that some of these people are right before us, it is just that we have never chosen to see them that way. As we lose our energy to fight against all odds, this lent should remind us that St. Mary invites us to protest. She bore witness to the greatness that followed, but she also bore protest as her legitimate right of existence. Shouldn’t we then get all excited and energised during this ettu nombu (eight day lent)? It is indeed our mother and her life of protest that we celebrate.