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A most extraordinary man

India
Father Claude D'Souza
Father Claude D'Souza. Photo: Abhishek Krishna

The privilege of having had a living saint, in the truest sense of the word, in our life, to mentor and inspire us, is something I treasure and cherish deeply. Father Claude D'Souza, who died 7 July, leaves a huge void in the lives of hundreds of people he motivated to work for (in his words) ‘the least, the poorest, the excluded, the oppressed, those shunned by society’.

I first met Claude soon after my 18th birthday, in December 1972. It was a national convention of the Aicuf, the All India Catholic Students Federation. He was a Jesuit and the national chaplain. I was at an age when mainstream society – read, most people over 30 – seemed hypocritical. We were listening to protest music; reading about unjust wars; about the effects of colonialism and capitalism. ‘Imagine no religion’ was appealing, even to a young, sheltered Catholic kid, brought up to go to Mass every Sunday. As a child I’d heard the screams, stories of dying Muslims and Hindus, as riots raged in Kolkata. The fighting, provoked by religious leaders and politicians seemed so terribly wrong. So futile. So unholy.

My dad died a year later and religion seemed even more shallow to me. I hated the platitudes and meaningless sermons delivered by unworthy priests with all my heart – as only the very young can.

Then I began to meet Jesuits, particularly charismatic priests who believed in Liberation Theology, something I’d never heard of before. ‘Thy kingdom come’ was Christ’s demand for a kingdom of justice. Christ didn’t say people will get heaven after life. Being Christian means fighting for the poor and oppressed, fighting for dalits, adivasis, women, children. Trying to take away the hell on earth that is generally assumed to be the lot of the poor. Fighting for justice, essentially.

This message came at us like lethal bullets. For many of us, wide eyed and innocent, the words lodged in our hearts and in our brains. We fell for it. Later I would joke about Jesuit brainwashing and how we succumbed to the Masters of the Game. But these priests were giants. Intellectually, and as mentors and teachers. Claude was one of the greatest. He had a post-graduate degree from the US. He was ordained a priest in Italy. He spoke Italian and French besides several Indian languages. He could have gone on to become a Bishop or even a Cardinal. Instead he returned quietly to India, unassuming, unsung. But, with no fanfare whatsoever, he worked his magic.

As national chaplain, he often had to listen to diatribes from his Bishop that the Aicuf was leading students astray, making them communists, leading them into slums and villages, detracting from their studies. He stood his ground. He’d lock himself into his room and pace the floor, smoking endless cigarettes. But the struggle continued.

My husband, Stan, spent a year working full time with the Aicuf. We both grew to love Claude deeply. When we decided to work with adivasis – or India’s indigenous people – relatives were aghast. Stan had the option of studying at Harvard. But he chose Bihar. In 1984 with a one-year-old child and a baby on his way, we were urged to be responsible parents; to go to America, save money and come back and follow our youthful dreams (follies). It was Claude who quietly put 800 rupees (10 dollars) in Stan’s hand. To feed us for our first month in the Nilgiris until Stan received his first salary. Claude mentored us personally and got us our first funding. He chided us like we were his children. ‘When will you start a school? Education is essential. Each year you delay is a generation lost.’ He was our conscience keeper. Bringing us back on track always.

Simplicity was a value. He identified with the poor. Never ever owned more than two inexpensive pairs of trousers and two shirts.

Stan described Claude as a thistle. A slight gentle breath dispersed those seeds. They scattered in the wind and came up in the most unimaginable places. He was our guru. His chelas – or disciples – spread out all over the country and abroad. Claude’s beloved students scattered after college to work with dalits, adivasis, streetchildren. Became lawyers to defend human rights and start workers' unions. Started schools and study centres, homes for orphan kids. One student worked with children born in a jail near Chennai. Claude educated and paid personally for thousands of poor kids, mainly dalits, to study, to finish university.

Born to wealth and privilege, Claude could have been anything. His brother was a Minister in the government. Claude was blessed with charm, exceedingly good looks and had a smile that lit up the room, warmed our hearts. He was loved by thousands whom he personally helped and worked with. But the work, the education and human rights battles, touched the lives of a few million possibly. Nobody ever knew the scope of his work. He shunned personal publicity.

His legacy however, will live on because Claude was one of a kind. A most extraordinary man.

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