STORIES

Extract from “Woodsmoke”

The black-suited professor moved slowly up the steps onto the podium.  The students shuffled in their chairs.  Behind the professor, a panorama of tigers, bison and elephants strolled across a canvas.  The goddess of wisdom, Saraswati, presided over beasts and boys alike.  The man behind the lectern was middle-aged and energetic. He scanned each face in the college assembly hall, smoothed down his jacket and cleared his throat. Only then did he permit himself a small smile.

“Gentlemen, congratulations on another successful debating season. You have done well. I have seen your confidence grow and observed you use the knowledge from your degree studies to strengthen your arguments.”  He rubbed his glasses across one sleeve.  “But remember,” he said, pointing to the inscription in Sanskrit blazoned above the stage, “truth alone conquers, never falsehood. The skills you develop as debaters are only preparation for life beyond this college. Whether you are studying science or philosophy or literature and history, it is part of the great Jesuit tradition that you should complete your degrees and return to the world to contribute to public debate, public life.  Your apostolate as young Catholic men is to contribute to the greater good of all society.”

The professor paused and peered out into the hall.

“What is our College motto?” A pause. “Burn and shine. Yes, burn with charity for your fellow man and shine with the truth. However…” He paused, and this time he smiled mildly, “you have heard me say this many times.”

Chuckles wafted through the hall.

“– and you have also heard me say this before: we live in historic times. Our great country is moving towards becoming a new nation.” He adjusted his glasses.

You are part of a new India – you, Sir.” He looked over his spectacles directly towards a student in the front row. “And you, Sir,” he said pointing to a student at the back of the hall. “You cannot avoid the new India, even if you do sit in the back row here.” Laughter.

“You will graduate at a most critical time. With the unique opportunity to influence the emergence of our nation. You have the responsibility to make sure that the new India is a place where all Indians, including Catholics – Muslims too – can feel at home. Ad Maorem Dei Gloriam, for the greater glory of God. Never forget that.”

The group sat silent. If anyone could speak with authority of historic times, it was C. J. Varkey, Professor of History.

For the full story, see Kerala Naadam, 2016

 

Extract from “The Meeting”                                           

Soni squatted before the fire outside her hut. She combed and braided her hair as she watched the lentils boiling in the blackened pot. Her hair in place, she meticulously cleaned under each finger nail.  Then, with her personal preparations for the day complete, she served a bowl of the warm gruel with chapattis before her husband where he sat cross-legged on the ground against the wall of their house.

“The foreigners are coming for the meeting today,” she reminded him.

Charu was her second husband and she watched him as he ate.  The morning light showed creases of age down his cheeks and silver stubble along his jaws. Charu had taken her as his wife despite the gossip. Having a husband – especially when it was your second husband –  made a difference in a village like this. He was bony-thin and seldom spoke to anyone, including Soni.  In lots of ways, his silence suited her. They kept mostly to themselves and had built their hut on the edge of the tightly-clustered colony. When they talked with their neighbours, it was in a hotchpotch dialect which had developed over the years from the stew of languages used in the settlement.

After he had eaten, he left the bowl on the ground, stood, slowly wound a turban on his head as protection against the day’s heat and without a word left for his work in the fields.

*  *  *

Some 200 kilometres away, in the large town of Cuddapah, Colleen Austin bathed and dressed, enjoying the waves of freshness eddied around by the overhead fan. She looked forward with curiosity to the unknown of the day ahead.

“I can’t believe we are here in India,” she said for about the third time to Joe. “Trust me to have the good luck to marry a man who inspects well-digging in exotic places.”

“Don’t get your hopes too high about the exotic part,” her husband laughed. “This is not like a drive into the Flinders Ranges.”

“But, just think,” Colleen persisted. “If I were back home, I’d be rushing out the door on my way to bring enlightenment to the unwilling in an Adelaide school. And, here we are – ”

“ – about to get ourselves into our jeep right now.” Joe swung into action as a khaki-clad driver appeared in the doorway.

Three hours after they left Cuddapah, the driver turned the vehicle off the sealed road onto a narrow dirt road. After bumping along for a numbingly-slow fifteen kilometres, they came to a village – Thukunta, according to a faded signboard. Here, the thatched dwellings pushed forward, reducing the way to a narrow track. The driver edged the jeep along, giving children and chickens plenty of time to scamper aside. “About ten more kilometres,” their guide said as they left the village. They drove largely in silence, lulled by the heat and the rocking of the vehicle.

The road became two faint tracks which climbed steadily upwards, hardly discernible on the rocky ground. In places, deep gouges had been cut by floods and the vehicle lurched  through these at bizarre angles. They crossed a river where the water washed strongly over the jeep’s cabin floor and then edged up again from the river bed over shale which resisted the grip of the wet tyres. The further they went, the slower became their progress until they were travelling as slowly as a bullock cart.

“People have to walk this in the wet season,” Joe explained. “There’s no way even a four-wheel drive would get up here.”….

The full story was originally published in Kerala Naadam, 2012.