First South Indian who wrote fifty books in Gandhiji’s language

It was a challenge for a Malayali to venture into another north Indian language to express his thoughts. Yet with that typical missionary zeal, Varghese Paul in his writing mission spanning 60 years, proved that it is possible. The fifty plus books he wrote in Gujarati is a monumental witness to it.

First South Indian who wrote fifty books in Gandhiji’s language

By Joe Palathunkal

With the death of Jesuit Father Varghese Paul Chollamadam in Baroda, Gujarat on 10 April 2021, Gujarati language and literature lost a dedicated writer in Gandhiji’s language and India lost a cultural bridge between two peoples, the people of Gujarat and the people of Kerala, in these difficult times of Indian history when we need more cultural bridges whereas “narrow domestic walls” are being built on a fast mode defying everything that Rabindranath Tagore envisaged.

This is where a man like Varghese Paul Chollamadam matters who was born at Avoly village, Ernakulam district, Kerala, on 31 May 1943 and joined the Jesuits of Gujarat on 8 June 1964 and after his long years of Jesuit training, intense intellectual formation, and theology at Gregorian University, Rome,  he was ordained a Catholic priest at Gesu, Rome on 21 June 1977. With his studies in journalism at London School of Journalism, London and training in journalism in USA, when he returned to Gujarat, he found a vocation within his vocation to write in the language of Gujarat, the language that gave the inspiration for India’s freedom struggle through Mahatma Gandhi. With graduation in Gujarati along with Sanskrit coupled with his personal study of Gujarati, Varghese Paul was well-equipped for his new vocation to be a soldier of pen in the language of this north-western Indian state. He had several role models from Jesuit history to get inspiration for his new mission and some were right there in Indian history too – Joseph Beschi, Robert de Nobili, Arnos Padiri, Thomas Stephen, Padma Bhushan Camille Bulcke and  in Gujarat itself Spanish Jesuit Padma Shri Carlos Valles.

But it was a challenge for a Malayali to venture into another north Indian language to express his thoughts and views with ease and fluency. Yet with that typical missionary zeal and the Jesuit motto of AMDG – for the greater glory of God, Varghese Paul in his writing mission spanning 60 years, proved that it is possible if you have a heart for the language and the people who speak it. The fifty plus books he wrote in Gujarati is a monumental witness to that heart which had the typical commitment to the people who felt and thought through this language. When he took charge as the editor of the 110 year old Gujarati monthly Doot, the oldest monthly in Gujarati, his heart for the language came to the fore during the 14 years he was editor and single handedly be brought the paid subscription to 5000, indeed a feat for a Catholic monthly in a state where the number of Catholics is a minuscule.

Sober in nature his writing style too concurred with his gentle demeanor, without any boisterous flamboyant expressions yet he took on issues that needed a hard blow on a firm manner especially issues related to social justice, communalism, human rights and human dignity. About the entrenched misogynic attitude of Indians he writes: “If 40 lakh women missing in comparison with men in our more than one billion population, the major reason in my view is the mentality of considering women inferior to men. This anti-woman mentality becomes clear in the daily words and actions of many men.” Then he gives some typical misogynic expressions from Gujarati language to buttress his observation: daughters are burdens, daughter is a stranger’s property, a daughter is somebody else’s capital, daughter and the cow go wherever they are led. By alluding to the typical anti-women expressions in Gujarati language Varghese Paul the Gujarati writer made a bold and perspicacious critique of Gujarati society where gender ratio has hit the rock bottom pushing the boy-girl ratio to 1000: 700 in some districts of the state.

He had strong opinions about social evils of India and especially of Gujarat, and he expressed them in his writings without reticence and reluctance. In his essay Social Justice to the Downtrodden, he writes about a camouflaged and vicious way of exploitation in India: “It is unbelievable how these three forces, NGOs, fundamentalists and politicians, have joined hands in exploiting the unsuspecting tribals.” Father Varghese Paul’s concern for social justice is evident in several of his writings and he reminds that a housemaid is not a slave girl: “Those who ask me on the phone to recommend a housemaid, I ask them for minimum wages for her, one day holiday in a week and an independent room to stay.”

This concern for social justice became a predominant strand of thinking in all his writings because he was deeply rooted in that core Christian value of love for your neighbour and the gospels are replete with love for fellow human beings based on their human dignity. The mere title of some of his books in Gujarati is a clear indication of it: Premne Rasthe, Premni Sanskriti, Premnu Ojas, Manasne Manas tarike Juo, Prem ane Prasannatano Pravah. All these books explicitly tell us about the love and human dignity Jesus lived and preached. Besides these books, his numerous articles in the three top Gujarati newspapers – Sandesh, Gujarat Samachar, Divya Bhaskar – reflected the same ethos directly or indirectly.

By writing in Gujarati Father Varghese Paul achieved a feat of sort by bringing Christianity and the Bible to a language for which it was almost an alien and to a people who did not look at it favourably though the greatest Gujarati Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi christened as Mahatma Gandhi was a great admirer of Jesus Christ. In his book Isu Mari-Tamari Najare (What does Jesus Mean to You and Me?) Varghese Paul quotes Mahatma Gandhi regarding the Beatitudes: “But the New Testament produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to my heart.” About Gandhiji and Christianity, Varghese Paul has this to say: “He has also publicly acknowledged the influence of Lord Jesus and the Bible in his life.”

A state like Gujarat where there is an obvious socio-psychological resistance to Christianity, there Varghese Paul the Malayali turned Gujarati writer succeeded in creating an abode for Jesus and the Biblical vision through his ever living Gujarati writings. In this direction his 2003 published Biblena Patro (Personalities of the Bible) and the Navo Karar Biblena Patro (Personalities of the New Testament) brought out in 2012, two large volumes published by the top Gujarati secular publisher are books which have no peers in Gandhiji’s language.

Apart from writing books in Gujarati, he also translated books from English and Malayalam to Gujarati and thus became a cultural bridge between two languages and two peoples. While translating Perumpadavam Sreedharan’s Oru Sankeerthanam poley into Gujarati, he had a hard job after living away from Kerala and Malayalam for such a long time. He asked me whether I could lend my Shabda Taravali Malayalam dictionary and I most willingly did it. Finally Perumpadavam Sreedharan’s masterpiece found its way to the Gujarati readers through the painstaking efforts of Father Varghese Paul SJ turning it into a bridge between Malayalis and Gujaratis. Another challenging work he ventured upon was the translation of the poetry collection Winged Reason by his friend and well known poet Dr. K. V. Dominic. Translating English poetry into Gujarati is much more demanding than the translation of the prose, yet Varghese Paul succeeded in it.

Apart from his unforgettable contributions to Gujarati literature, Father Varghese Paul did yeoman service in media especially journalism. Through South Asia Religious News (SAR) which he founded way back in 1981, he encouraged several young Catholics to be in the field and some of them who worked with him in those days as part of the SAR are doing well today as media personnel. Besides, he has been active in Indian Catholic Press Association, and International Catholic Union of the Press; he was the founder of Gujarat Catholic Press Association, and Catholic Information Service Society (CISS). He was also an Executive Committee Member of GIEWEC – Guild of Indian English Writers, Editors and Critics. It was through him Gujarati Lekhak Mandal, an organization of secular writers in Gujarati got a boost and in its annual meeting almost all the Gujarati writers participated. In this meeting I could witness the high regard these writers had for Father Varghese Paul. So it is not a surprise that the Delhi based media organization National and International Compendium bestowed on him in 2017 the Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding achievements in media.

A passionate writer missionary he did not back out from his mission even when his health was very precarious and the proof is his last article in English on the encyclical Fratelli Tutti by Pope Francis for the International Journal on Multicultural Literature (IJML) which he wrote on the insistence of the editor Dr. K. V. Dominic and sent him a month ago. The article will be published in the July issue of IJML. Writes Dominic, “He has been suffering from urinary problems for more than a year and it was with much difficulty he completed his assignment. I feel extremely sad that he is not with us to see the paper published.”

That sadness will linger on in several hearts who are familiar with Father Varghese Paul SJ and his writings. The first south Indian who wrote more than fifty books in Gujarati and won several accolades for his Gujarati writings including the Gujarat Sahitya Academy Award will ever live through his vibrant writings which have an abiding message of mutual love and social justice, much needed for India of our times.

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