SUFFERING: KEY TO THE
AGONIES OF AN ADOLESCENT
Suffering, whatever it may be, seems to be something people want to get
rid of, escape from, or simply avoid. Very few people would be willing to
regard suffering as an experience basically good or desirable. In fact our
notions of heaven or paradise or moksha or nirvana seem tailored out of
some notions opposite to the idea of suffering -- such as happiness and
enjoyment. The absence of either the actuality, or even the possibility,
of suffering in any form seems an essential component of that blessed and
other hand, I know people who would use suffering, imagined, put on, or
real, as a way of eliciting other people’s sympathy and love. I myself
often seem to be in danger of doing that. We shall say something later
about the uses of suffering.
I have a medical doctor friend, an Internist, who tells me that a good 60%
of the people who came to his clinic as patients, had no diagnosable
bodily illness. Especially in our Indian culture, where it does not cost
much to go to a public clinic, if you claim to be sick enough to go to a
clinic, the rest of the family has to treat you with special
consideration, a privilege one does not always have. My physician friend
told me that the worst he could do for such people was to tell them that
there was nothing wrong with them. They would simply go to another
physician who would take them more seriously. He usually prescribed some
harmless pills or concoction or both. The placebo worked, as the body did
its own healing of the symptoms.
Buddhism, suffering or dukkha, comes to occupy the center-stage as the
fundamental and pervasive problem of unredeemed human existence. Dukkha
does not mean just what the English word ‘suffering’ communicates to us.
It implies also unrest, sorrow, discomfort, distress, dissatisfaction,
stress, tension, worry, anxiety, unhappiness, pain, anguish, grief, and
misery in all its forms. For Buddhism, dukkha is the invariable and
universal concomitant of all human existence in the condition before bodhi
or satori, i.e., before enlightenment and liberation. The only way to get
out of dukkha is to get to the root cause of it, to eradicate that root
cause, and thereby to escape the bothersome and endless cycle of births
and rebirths by attaining nirvana or true liberation. The root cause or
hetu is always trshna or desire or craving, lust for experience, greed for
a myriad things, desire to get and to possess, yearning to act and to
talk, craving for money and pleasure, for power and domination, for fame
and acclaim, for gratification, desire ever unsatiated; gratification only
enhances the craving in the long run. Once desire is gone, suffering
ceases. And the whole of Buddha’s teaching is about how to get at desire,
through the dharma, or the basic grasp of reality in its true nature,
through the sangha, or the community which practices the dharma, and
through the vinaya or the discipline that trains the bhikku to overcome
was thirteen years old, I knew nothing about Buddhism, and experienced a
lot of suffering. I have often wondered whether, if I had known Buddhism
then, it would have shown me the way out of my suffering. But such
wondering leads nowhere. I should simply try to give you some account of
my suffering as a teenager. For me it was hell, and I could see no way
out, especially since my childhood had been reasonably tranquil, before it
human person’s life, suffering is the most personal and intimate
experience. Descartes definitely took the wrong starting point when he
began with his “I think, therefore I am”. For most ordinary people,
barring the academics, what they could say would be more like: “I think,
therefore I am, I think....”. They would lack that Cartesian certainty
about their thinking activity, which is easier for thinkers far removed
from every day life. Whereas, if he had started with “I suffer, therefore
I am” he would probably have come to quite different conclusions; at least
he would have made more sense to common people. Because my suffering is my
own, in a particularly intimate way, and I can never doubt it, even if
others do not quite see it. The universal I is much more a sufferer than a
thinker. I think Milan Kundera, the Czech philosopher-novelist said that
in his Immortality.
A Tranquil Childhood
are very few childhood memories that stand out. Not too many adventures or
exploits to narrate. Life was confined to very limited parameters. I
cannot even remember the birth of my two younger brothers. Going to
school, going to church, visiting some uncles and cousins who were living
not more than six miles away -- that was the extent of my experience.
Sometimes my father would take me to some Hindu temple festival late in
the evening after supper mainly to watch Kathakali, the traditional Kerala
dance-narrative, done in open air at night, usually beginning at 9pm and
ending in the small hours of the morning. Or it may be to watch the
fireworks connected with the temple festival. No movies, though silent
movies had already come to Tripunithura, my home town.
life was idyllic or something approaching that. Our family was poor though
“respectable”. My paternal grandfather, I am told, was somewhat wealthy,
with house and land and fields and all that. It seems he squandered and
frittered most of that wealth away. He must have taken cash loans from our
neighboring family, pledging the land. In my childhood I understood that
most of our neighbor’s land once belonged to Thadikkal Kunhipaily, my
father’s father. He died before I was born. All I have to go by are a
teen-ager’s memories of what my father and others said about him. It seems
he was profligate and slightly on the licentious side. But he was a leader
in the community, all the same.
paternal grandmother too died before I was born, and I have no way of
making any judgments. Neither did I know my maternal grandfather, Ponodath
Cherian of Mulanthuruthy. I have a vague memory of my maternal grandmother
on her death-bed, since my mother took me with her as a child when she
went to the funeral.
case, unlike Sartre, I had no occasion to be spoiled by any grandparents.
They all left the scene well before, or soon after, I arrived. I have
often wondered whether a bit of spoiling by grandparents is not good for
the growing child, a different and often more permissive, tolerant,
affectionate relationship than one can have with one’s parents or
siblings. Such spoiling seems to help out by providing a way out from
tensions with one’s parents, and also supplying a more indulgent, playful
senior, often with some wisdom gained from experience. In any case, my
brothers and I were not fortunate that way.
I did not even have paternal uncles or aunts. My father was an only child,
brought up largely by his mother. That too is not so good when it comes to
learning to deal with one’s fellow human beings. My mother on the other
hand was an only sister of four brothers, a little spoiled angel. She was
an angel indeed, extremely intelligent, but with only a fourth grade
education. That was not too bad for the rural girls in the nineteenth
century India. She could read and write. One of her brothers was well
educated by the standards of those days. He had graduated from high
school, and became a revered teacher of all who went to school in the
village of Mulanthuruthy. Respected by all as Ponodath Abraham Master, he
was also my favorite uncle, learned and noble of character.
father had discontinued his education with the eighth grade. He never told
us the reason, and we never asked; perhaps because his father was not
alive. He was intelligent and could speak and write better English than
many of today’s university graduates of India can. He became an elementary
school teacher, and was, by the standards of the day, fairly well read in
both English and Malayalam literature. I remember that when I was away
from home I corresponded with my father in English.
my father was thirteen and my mother ten when they were married. That was
the custom in those days, and there was nothing unusual about such
arranged child marriages. What was unusual was the kind of nuclear family
in which they had to bring up their five sons. Every other family seemed
to have at least one grandparent living. It must have been quite a strain
on my parents. We were five boys, but no girls. I have heard that the
first issue was a girl, but the birth was premature and the infant died
the middle child, baptized as Geevarghese or George; both names are
versions of the Greek name Georges, meaning a farmer. In Kerala the
version is “Varghese”, which in turn is an abbreviation of the Syriac
Geevorghese. I was as a child known as T. P. Varghese (Thadikkal Piely
Varghese) and later as Paul Verghese until I formally became a monk in
1975. Then I by my own choice took the monastic name Paulos, partly to
give some continuity with my former name, and partly to honor in one shot,
the Apostle Paul, as well as my late father and eldest brother, both of
whom had been baptized as Paulos and had passed away long before 1975.
elder brothers, Paulos, named after my father and grandfather, and Cherian
(Malayalam equivalent of the Biblical name Zachariah), named according to
custom after our maternal grandfather, found this world of dukkha a bit
too much, and decided to quit early; on that later.
two younger brothers, Jacob lives at home in Tripunithura, quiet,
God-fearing, and unadventurous. He and his wife have two sons and two
daughters and one grandson. My youngest brother, Abraham, of whom I am
particularly fond, six years younger to me, now lives in Vancouver,
Canada, with his Malayalee wife, a former Hindu. He is adorably good, with
a keen sense of humor, very popular. Their son and daughter also, both
Canadian educated, live and work in Canada, in Ottawa and Vancouver
respectively. Both children were born in Ethiopia, where Abraham worked as
a Commercial School teacher for some years, before they migrated to
nephew Paul Abraham, working for Canada’s Internal Revenue Service in
Ottawa, and his wife Jena, a bright and well educated Indian girl, have a
pair of adorable twin boys, Sasha and Roshin of whom also I am very fond.
glad to be a grand-uncle to at least three. But I get very little chance
to spoil them. Both my brothers and their families are unpretentiously
to have been slightly on the precocious side, and went to school early,
just past four. I remember my father, then a teacher in the elementary
grades in the local Boy’s High School, taking me to the Headmaster, for
exemption from the age limit of five needed to be admitted to the first
grade. The headmaster was some Iyengar (South Indian Brahmin), formidable
and forbidding, in a black coat buttoned up to the neck, white turban on
his head, mouthfull of betel-leaf chew. I remember my father also was clad
in dhoti, button-up coat and white turban. The image is very vivid in my
mind today, because it was quite intimidating to a four-year old. The
headmaster thundered, it seemed to me: “What do you intend to do, Piely
Master? Bring him to school every day in your coat pocket?” Well, I was
admitted. I was glad to be out of the headmaster’s office. I was scared.
time I was in the fourth grade, my slight precociousness was being noticed
in the school. My eldest brother’s classmates, six years my senior, would
bring their English textbooks to me, to hear me reading them aloud, often
without understanding the meaning.
was among the best students in my class, some of my Hindu teachers would
take delight in castigating me and making fun of me in class. That was the
style those days. My Malayalam teacher, Mr. Sankara Menon was particularly
offensive and often downright abusive. Sometimes he would say in class:
“How can you shrimp-eating Christians ever learn a literary language like
Malayalam?” It was all coming out of a crude affection, not out of
communal hatred, but it was hard to take for a sensitive boy who did not
want to be ashamed of his allegiance to the Christian faith. After all, a
good third of our local community were Christians, and my family belonged
to the ancient community of the Thomas Christians, pure Indians whose
Indian ancestors had lived in Kerala as Christians for nearly as long as
Christianity has existed in the world, tracing their origin to Thomas, one
of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ.
being abused by teachers in class was part of the game of school education
in that society, and one had to take it all in one’s stride. I was small,
compared to my classmates, and also slightly pale and anemic. So one of
the nicknames that stuck to me was Manhathavala (yellow frog). That too,
one learned to live with. The other nickname, Kottodithalayan (Hammerhead)
was meant to be both complimentary and jeering at the same time with a
tinge of playful envy, I presume. It referred to my small body and rather
longish head. I find it difficult even today to buy a hat that fits my
long head. A 7 1/2 size does not quite fit. I do not think that the size
of my head has anything to do with its content, except that at times I do
seem to have a swollen head!
I had a
few dramatic achievements to my credit; nothing whatever in sports or
arts. The prizes were largely in elocution and essay competitions. One of
these elocutions as a ninth-grader was pure showmanship on my part. I had
managed to memorize a particularly bombastic passage from an Indian humor
magazine and delivered it as my oration. Of course everybody knew I could
not have written it myself. Neither did I claim that. In fact I did not
know the meaning of half the words I pronounced. But it was rather
smoothly delivered. It must have been the comic incongruity between my own
size and the size of my words and sentences that fascinated my judges and
hearers. I still remember parts of it, and with your kind permission, let
me recall some of it here. It went somewhat as follows:
In promulgating your
esoteric cogitations, or articulating your superficial sentimentalities
and amicable philosophical or psychological observations, beware of
platitudinous ponderosity. Let your extemporaneous descantings and
unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility and veracious vivacity,
without rodomontade or parsmical bombast. Sedulously avoid all
polysyllabic profundity, pompous prolixity, psittaceous vacuity,
ostentatious vapidity and ventriloquy verbosity. Let your conversational
communications possess a clarified conciseness, a compact
comprehensibility, a coalescent consistency and a concatenated cogency.
Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement and
It went on like that for a while and concluded with this smart peroration:
In other words, talk
plainly, briefly, sensibly and naturally. Say what you mean; mean what you
say; and do not use big words.
seemed to go over well, better than I had expected. I even got the prize.
My head became a little more swollen.
A Child’s Religion
say a word about my religious or church life as a child, for that was a
major formative influence in my personality formation. My parents were
both regular church-goers, my mother particularly so. All of us children
were also to go every Sunday without fail, as also for all important
church festivals. We practiced group family prayer at home in the morning
and evening and observed all the fasts prescribed by the church. This, I
must say, was fairly normal for the Orthodox Christian families at that
in the Orthodox tradition to which my family belonged, religious
personality formation depended more on the regular observances than on
doctrinal instruction. The family prayers and Sunday worship were central.
It mattered little how much of it one understood. The important thing was
the participation, and the subtle and subconscious ways in which such
participatory experience affected one’s personality structure.
was just as important as the mind in these observances, and not merely
only what the eyes saw and what the ears heard. Seeing and hearing were in
some sense fundamental, even when there was no conscious comprehension.
Equally important, however, were the other senses: the scent of incense in
the church services, the taste of the Eucharistic bread and wine, the
smearing of the oil from the church lamp on your forehead, the kissing of
the cross and making the sign of the cross, the myriad genuflections and
prostrations, the tasting of the bitter vinegar on Good Friday, the
holding of the palm leaf on Palm Sunday, the kiss of peace given and
received during the liturgy by all in the special Indian Christian way
(offering both your hands to your neighbor to interleaf with the two hands
of the other, who does the same to his or her neighbor in turn), the
gorgeous vestments of the bishops and priests, the peals of church bells
and systrums, exercising one’s own vocal chords loudly and spirit-fully,
if not quite harmonious singing of the hymns and chants, the white-clad
deacons, the colorful decorations of the altar. All five senses of the
body were to be involved in worship: sight and hearing, smell and touch
and taste. The body must pray just as much as the soul and the spirit,
with the hands and the feet, the tongue and the lips, the voice and the
breathing, posture and movement.
the system in which we had been brought up. And I must affirm the basic
validity of the system, though much in it could readily be improved upon.
I have dwelt upon this point in my Joy of Freedom. Many of the attitudes
and tastes that I have carried over from childhood to adulthood came from
British missionaries who came to us in the twenties and thirties of the
nineteenth century on a “Mission of Help” tried to tell us that all this
was worthless superstition, and that only pure reading of the Bible and
the Book of Common Prayer (Worship Manual of the Anglican Church) and the
singing of ‘spiritual hymns’ would do. They were just as much missionaries
of the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries as of the
western Protestant gospel. We are still very much under their influence
because that influence is so pervasive in our culture. Too many people
still think that a child learns mainly what he or she is told in so many
believe all ancient religious systems practised something like that. It is
all very well to speak about “pure” spirituality without dogma or rite,
and even to create fresh ones tailored to order. But if any religion has
survived for more than two generations, it has developed some of its own
rituals and dogmas. Even the Quakers are no exception to this. The dogmas
may not be acknowledged as such; the rituals may be more cleverly
concealed. Religion is always a community affair; the idea that it is a
matter of individual choice is a peculiar and mistaken dogma of the
unacknowledged religion of our secular culture. No religious system
propagates itself without a community tradition which invariably includes
a system of teachings and a set of ritual actions. That is in the very
nature of the human being. Even the most godless person does not live by
critical rationality and individual choice alone. I shall write more on
all that has been said above, instruction, it must be stated, can be
helpful, especially when it is given in the context of a symbol-system
that carries subconscious meaning. I myself benefited immensely from
Sunday School is an institution of 18th century origin in England. Though
Christians started it, its original purpose was not specifically
religious, but the general education of slum children. Robert Raikes, the
publisher of Gloucester Journal, not only started the institution for
educating neglected and illiterate slum children through volunteer
teachers (hence on Sunday), but also wrote a very persuasive piece in his
journal about it. The idea caught fire and spread, not only in England,
but also on the European and American continents. In the nineteenth
century, as general education became more widely available in western
countries, the Sunday School began to specialize in religious education,
and that too for all church-going children, from slum or suburb.
institution came to the Christian churches of India also about a hundred
years ago. My parish church, Nadamel St. Mary’s, only half a mile from
home, had started Sunday School with four grades only, and I finished the
four years by the time I was nine years old. A neighboring parish, only
two miles from home, St. George’s in Karingachira, had seven grades, and I
joined as a fifth grader. They had good teachers by the standards of those
days, and I did well. Soon I was asked to teach Sunday School in my own
parish, and I readily agreed to do so, even while I was a student at St.
George’s. This was possible since the two Sunday Schools functioned at two
different times on Sunday. I would go to the liturgy at St. George’s in
the morning, and would stay on for the Sunday School there as student. I
would come home for lunch, and go to teach in my parish in the afternoon.
It worked very well, for teaching is a good way of learning.
very grateful for this experience. At St. George’s, one of the teachers I
remember very well was Punnachalil Chacko Master, learned and inspiring.
There I deepened my commitment to God and to Jesus Christ. As an eleven
year old teacher, I myself became popular; I think I managed to transmit
some of my faith to a few of my own students, who were only a few years
younger than their Boy Teacher.
later years I have often thought about it. These parishes were not what
you would call “aglow with the Spirit”. There was so much intrigue and
petty quarrels going on all the time. And yet, it was in these very
ordinary parishes with very ordinary men and women that I acquired the
rudiments of my present faith. I cannot therefore dismiss the churches as
irrelevant or sub-Christian. Despite all that was wrong, and there was
plenty wrong by my present standards, the transmission of the faith goes
on in these churches. Children and adults come to know God. And is that
not important enough? How can I then despise or dismiss the churches as
ineffective and unspiritual?
Preaching or sermons as such in church were neither altogether inspiring
nor particularly edifying. The preachers were too unlettered and often
downright boring. But listening to the reading of the Scriptures in church
must have made an impact. By the time I was twelve, I had a personal
knowledge of God and a sort of commitment to Christ. In fact I was on
talking (prattling?) terms with God, with Jesus Christ, whom I
acknowledged as my living Lord and Master as also the true manifestation
Petros, MA, BD, LT, a second cousin of my father’s, was one of my
childhood heroes. He later became a bishop in our church, as Mookencheril
Pathrose Mar Osthatheos.
He was a
prominent social worker of those days, working among the so-called
Untouchables of Cochin and Travancore. He was a great speaker, always
itinerant, self-sacrificing, and lived a very simple life, identifying
himself with the living standards of the poor people among whom he worked.
when he visited his ancestral home which was very near to ours, I went to
see him as a little lad. The first person I met as I entered the house was
his eldest brother, Mr. M. P. Varkey, a well - known rationalist-atheist.
He was also on a short visit to his ancestral home. “Whom have you come to
see, youngster?’’ he asked me. “If you want to see God, he is in the next
room; if you want to see the devil, he is right here.” I was slightly
embarrassed by the question, because he was my uncle and in his sixties. I
could not start an argument with him. So I meekly replied that I had come
to see Pathrose Semmasen, and moved to the next room.
Petros received me with affection, and gave me the advice that I should
live simply and serve the poor. He also told me that my paternal
grandfather had been his Godfather. Obviously his grandmother was my great
grandfather’s sister or something like that. Anyway it was an inspiring
meeting. He must have transmitted some spark to me.
when I came back from my first stint in America, I tried to work with him.
Somehow, it did not quite work. My ideas of working with the poor, and of
supporting the workers were different from his. His ways were so rigidly
set, and he would not change. I sought other paths.
Story of a snakebite
a vignette from memory. I must have been ten. The open drains on both
sides of the road in front of our house had flooded, and little
finger-sized fish, escaped from the river, darted about in the drains. The
harvest from our paddy-field had come in, and Pulaya (one of the
sub-castes once called Untouchables, but not untouchable for us
Christians, even those days when Hindus practiced untouchability) women,
who were tenants of our farmland, were threshing the grain on the house
under strict orders from my parents not to step into the flooded drains.
When they were otherwise preoccupied, I stepped out and started trying to
catch the little fish with my bare hands, a rather frustrating experience.
My neighbour boy across the street, aged nine, was watching my activity
with interest, himself forbidden by his parents to step into the water.
“There is a big fish right there. I saw it”, he told me, pointing to a
spot in the drain. I saw the fish or what I thought was the fish, and put
out both hands to catch it. I not only missed the “fish” but on taking my
hands out of the water, found that my middle finger was bleeding
profusely. I had no idea what had happened. I quietly tried to cover my
wound with a finger of the other hand, and tried to slink back into the
security of the home. One of the threshing women, who happened to be very
fond of me as a child, spotted my bleeding hand, and cried out to mother:
“Something has happened to the little master”. Mother came running and
attended to the wound. My eldest brother went out of the house looking for
the “biting fish”, and to my surprise and awe, with the aid of a long big
knife, began examining some of the cracks and crevices in the open gutter.
Out came a big water snake, a full three feet or more long. I suddenly
realized what had happened. The snake was drawn by my brother to dry
ground. I was surprised that it did not run away or try to attack his
attackers. I had the impression that he was saying sorry for having bitten
me. He was lying quietly on the ground. Of course my big brother, with the
help of others, killed that snake then and there. I was watching, with
some sense of regret and confused sorrow, not only at my own plight, but
feeling sorry also for the poor snake.
Neighbors began to gather, as the news spread that Varikipilla as I was
affectionately known, had been bitten by a snake. I was promptly taken to
the snake poison expert, Valappil Varghese Chettan, who lived not too far
down the same street. I was carefully examined and the verdict was given
by the expert. “It is a poisonous snake that has bitten him, and the two
fang-marks are there on his right middle-finger, for everyone to see. But
for some strange reason, the snake has bitten without emptying his poison
sacs, as if biting a frog or something for food.” The Vishavaidyan or
poison-doctor told my parents that there was no danger of death, but gave
us some unguents and medicines to apply to the wound.
home, and by that time all sorts of uncles and elders from the community
had gathered there and were sitting in a circle, in the center of which I
sat on the floor, being administered unguents. Some of the elders, with
singular inappropriateness, kept on haranguing and castigating me: “What
kind of a big catch were you after? a salmon or a cod? You got what you
deserved” and so on. It was painful. I was trying to sort out what had
happened, how I was in danger of death, what could have happened if I had
died, how my parents would have been sorry if I died. On the one hand I
still felt sorry for that snake, which in fact had been rather kind to me,
in not ejecting his venom into me, but had unfortunately been killed. On
the other hand, I was trying to escape any blame for all that happened, by
thinking that my neighbour boy (Baby was his name) was
responsible for the whole thing, for he had pointed out the “fish” to me.
important thing probably was that I as a very young lad had faced the
possibility of death, which I did with some measure of equanimity,
confused, but not scared. As a youngster I realized how close death always
was, to all of us. Is that not the sort of stuff that philosophers are
had been building for some time. My father, who taught elementary grades
in the local High School, was now senior enough for promotion and
transfer. He was posted as Headmaster in some rural Primary School in an
outlying village fairly far from home. If the new station was within
single-bus distance, father could still stay at home and go to work,
though the bus fare had to be paid. The names of the places where my
father worked in those days now escape my mind. One that I remember is
Malayalam school, Thoosam. I have no idea where that place is today. But
some of the places where he had to work took half a day to get to, and he
had to cross highly irregular and unreliable ferries. This meant going off
on foot very early on Monday and coming home very late on Friday, staying
week-days in some thatched hut rented out. The ferry was dangerous in the
monsoon season, and there was no way of letting us know that he had safely
reached his station. This meant high tension for mother, and we the five
sons shared her tension.
poverty was also a source of tension for the family. Most of the
neighboring families regarded my parents as fortunate, and to some extent
envied them. They had five sons, all fairly bright, all prospective
earners, and no daughters. In that society, sons were assets and daughters
were liabilities. Sons, besides earning money for the families, would
bring in a dowry. Daughters, on the other hand, even if they earned money,
would benefit only the husband’s family, and they would have to be married
off with a decent dowry and would thus diminish the family wealth, which
was always held collectively. Human worth was measured of course in
economic categories even in those days.
looking after the needs of a family of seven on my father’s peak salary of
Rs. 28.00 (about U S $ 6.00) per month in the 1930s was quite a strain,
even without having to worry about marrying off any daughters. The only
extra income for our family was a little rice we could harvest twice a
year from our half-acre rice paddy, plus a few coconuts every month. As
the boys grew up, and the eldest was already in college, the strain became
fairly intolerable. We knew what it meant not to have enough to eat, not
to afford new clothes, not to splash on hospitality as our neighbors did.
father had managed somehow to acquire the small house next door to us.
Renting it out was supposed to supplement our income. But if I remember
right, the rent actually was Rs. 2.50 (50 US cents) a month. And the
tenant we landed was a semi-criminal from the Devadasi (temple-prostitute)
community. He not only failed to pay the rent, but also mistreated his own
wife and children, and abused all of us including mother for being
extortionate. There was no way of evicting him, for he simply refused to
leave. That added to the tension no end, especially when Father was away
in his school during weekdays.
must have been other sources of tension which our parents spared us from
knowing. In the midst of all this, mother remained a paragon of charity
and goodwill, always helping those in need to the maximum extent of her
capacity. I remember her kindness to beggars, to the sick in the
neighborhood, to wayfarers, and the destitute. She was particularly
hospitable and kind to poor peasants who came to the market, carrying
heavy burdens of hay or vegetables to sell.
market was a few yards from our house, and the peasants would come to our
house, after selling their wares, to cook a rice-brew for themselves. One
memory is particularly fresh in my mind, of an unlettered Christian
peasant by the name Ethapanos (Stephen). He was in his fifties. With the
few rupees he had received by selling his bale of hay, which he had
carried on his head five miles from home, he had bought a new earthenware
pot and had boiled a cupful of rice in it, with firewood and hearth lent
by mother. When the rice-brew was cooked, in our backyard, before waiting
for it to cool down, with the aid of a coconut-shell ladle loaned by
mother, he was furiously ladling down the stemming hot brew. Obviously he
was frantically hungry. I watched, as a little boy. I was surprised to
find that he was consuming the rice straight, without any curry, side-dish
or relish. At a suitable interval in the course of his furious gulping, I
put him the question. “Brother Ethapanos, how can you eat that rice
without any side-dish?”. His reply I still remember. “There is enough
Kanhi (rice-brew) here to fill my tummy. Why should I need any side-dish?
Besides, I was very hungry.” His bale of hay had probably brought him two
rupees or less, and out of it he had spent quarter of a rupee on that
earthenware pot, which he wanted to take home to his wife, and less than
one-eighth of a rupee on the rice. The rest of the two rupees was what his
family had to live on for many days. That was the plight of the poor in
those days: hardworking, abstemious, dignified even when indigent. I
admired my mother for helping them without damaging their dignity, despite
her own tensions and troubles.
scene is not quite clear in my mind. It must have been 1935, and I should
then be 13. My mother was in bed with a high fever. Suddenly she got up
with a great surge of energy, went out of the house, opened the gate, and
was talking away quite loudly to the passers by. What she was saying made
no sense. I watched in consternation. I could not grasp what had happened.
Only after people had forcibly brought her inside the house, did it dawn
on me that my most beloved mother had gone out of her mind. She had become
mentally ill, manic-depressive, schizophrenic, insane.
spare myself the pain of describing all my mother’s actions in detail. Nor
do I want to dwell on the incapacity of my father and the five sons to
cope with the situation. All kinds of quacks and physicians (mainly
Ayurvedic) were consulted, but to no avail. In her manic phase, she was
virtually impossible to control, and was often violent. Quite frequently
she would disappear from the house, wander over long distances, and after
several days, would return home, distraught and worn out. We never found
out how she managed for food on these long wanderings. We supposed that
she visited her brothers and other relatives because stories were carried
to us from them. Sometimes when she came back, her clothes would be so
dirty, giving us the impression that she had slept on the road. Father
sometimes beat her up, while we sons watched helplessly or pleaded or
struggled to stop him.
us five sons loved her deeply, and this was hard for all of us to take.
Home life was completely disrupted. We had no domestic servants, and quite
often we boys did some minimal cooking, or went without food altogether.
My father, a man noted for his integrity and independence, suddenly went
sour and sullen, sulky and petulant. Joy had gone from the home and gloom
were two things that irked me no end: one was the violence, and the other
the social opprobrium.
was cruel when he lost his temper at mother’s tantrums. He would beat her up,
with the bare hand or with a stick. Mother just took the beatings in her
stride, only becoming more and more abusive. And we sons, who loved them
both, had to watch this, with mounting pain and frustration. One saw no
way out of the suffering. Even today, when I think of it, shudders run up
and down my body.
social opprobrium was even worse for a sensitive teenager. Some days,
especially if father were not at home, mother would go and stand on the
road side verndah to the south of our house, and would stand there, doing
all kinds of pranks and talking all kinds of nonsense particularly when
the road on the south of our house was full of children going to school.
They were my classmates and schoolmates, and I was filled with shame that
they watched my mother in this condition.
memory is particularly poignant. I was preparing for my secondary school
public examinations in 1937. Mother had been ill for some two years now.
She was in a particularly violent phase, the family decided to empty the
kitchen and lock her up in the kitchen room. Mother was protesting loudly,
and asking us to open the door and let her out. I felt sorry for mother,
but had to stay in solidarity with the family decision. I was weeping
profusely. The public examinations had started, and I had to do my
preparations sitting on the door still of the kitchen where my mother had
been locked up. I was weeping all the while, just getting up in time to be
at the examination hall before the exam started. Often I had no breakfast,
for there was no one to prepare it. We often starved, for no one was in a
mood to cook.
eldest brother, Paulos, who had managed to graduate with a BA degree from
Madras university, decided to escape from it all by going and joining the
British Indian Navy as a petty officer. My just elder brother, Cherian,
who had only finished High School and some training in typing and
shorthand, was working in a small firm called the Christian company,
located in St. Mary’s Church House, Ernakulam. His salary was a pittance,
Rs. 10 per month if I remember right.
could stay in the Church House, and get his food from a nearby restaurant.
So I was left at home as the eldest of the three remaining sons, looking
after my two school-going younger brothers in my own clumsy way. The
misery was intolerable. No one to comfort us. One suffered in abject
loneliness. My journalistic sorties to official functions and public
meetings provided only temporary escape.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
After leaving school, I read
voraciously. First it was all detective fiction. When I could get hold of
books, I read also serious English literature. One such book was R. L.
Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I was moved and fascinated by the
book. It was about a scholar-scientist who was a split personality, a good
man (Dr. Jekyll) who could occasionally and without warning turn into a
monster (Mr. Hyde) and go out and do all sorts of wicked things like a
sort of Frankenstein.
The book must have spoken subconsciously
to a trait in my own character. There was quite a bit of goodness in me,
but I knew that a lot of sheer wickedness was lurking underneath all the
time. Ambition could not always be distinguished from love of domination
and power, from the desire for adulation and flattery. Yearning for love
and affection often took the form of seeking glory and honour. I became
addicted to praise and admiration, which was often forthcoming for a
juvenile writer. I loved to see my name in print, in signed articles I
wrote as a youngster. It delighted me to see my own reporting published in
the newspaper and I often showed it to my friends. I loved to be praised,
but I was afraid to be loved, mainly for fear that I could not take it
when the love would be withdrawn. I was once the object of great love and
affection from my mother, but its apparent withdrawal as a result of her
illness was a trauma that I never got over. My personality was
unmistakably dual and unintegrated.
Whether as a form of catharsis or not, I
decided to translate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into Malayalam. I produced a
hundred page manuscript, but did not seek a publisher. I kept it with me
for a long time, with my published texts. One fine day, after having been
absent from home for years on jobs outside, I discovered that my father
had disposed it all off as waste paper. I was stricken with grief.
Exploits of an Under-age Reporter
My dramatic style of reporting once drew
me into an imbroglio. It was a fairly sensational capture of a notorious
con man called Vayalaran Shouri. Shouri was handsome, good looking, well
dressed when necessary, and imposing in stature. He had many striking
stories to his credit, especially in dodging the police. Once they found
out that he was living by himself in a tiny islet in our Cochin
backwaters, in a little hut that he had put up for himself. He was the
sole resident of that islet, not more than 50 feet in diameter.
A posse of Cochin Police, five or six in
number, got into a crude canoe and landed on his island one fine morning.
They encircled the small hut, and shouted to Shouri, who was inside the
hut but could not been seen: “Shouri, you are caught. Be good enough to
come out and get arrested.”
“Oh my masters!” responded Shouri from
inside the hut. “Give me a minute. I am just having my morning Kanhi
(rice-brew). I did not have a thing to eat yesterday. Let me just finish
my breakfast, and I will come out.”
“Take your time, Shourie,” the Police
Officer shouted back into the hut. “But, don’t try any of your tricks. You
haven’t got a chance. You are completely surrounded.”
“Okay, it won’t be a minute,” Shourie said from inside, in a plaintive
Shourie did come out, in about a minute.
But his defiance surprised the Police and took them aback, for they were
getting ready for a meek surrender on the part of Shourie, and on their
part a gentle operation of handcuffing him quietly. As Shourie came out of
the hut, furious looking and menacing with a nine-inch blade sharp dagger
in his hand. “I will chop off your heads like this”, said Shourie,
chopping off a good one-inch segment of his own left middle finger.
The little piece of blood-dripping flesh
flying off Shourie’s knife into the backwaters dazed and bewildered the
policemen. In that half-minute when the police stood aghast, Shourie
jumped into the waters and began swimming and diving at top speed. The
policemen in their neat uniforms did not want to jump into the water, and
so went and got into their little canoe, and began rowing furiously in the
direction that Shourie seemed to have taken. Unexpectedly, Shourie came up
from under the water behind them and overthrew the boat. The policemen,
none of them great swimmers, were frantically trying to stay afloat and
save their own lives, while Shourie quietly escaped.
The story was common knowledge in the
Cochin area because the policemen themselves had narrated it to their
friends. The press had published only a short account of Shourie’s escape,
since they did not want to humiliate the police by telling the story of
their ineptitude and incompetence. Shourie had become a legendary figure
for the public.
So when Shourie was finally captured,
and that too by a woman, it was top news. I got the story mostly from my
Press colleagues and other friends. If it were today, I would have had to
do much more investigation before reporting it as I did in the Malabar
Mail. The prestigious and high-circulation daily Malayala Manorama picked
it up from the Malabar Mail and splashed it on the front page with a
double-column caption: Penpillaisimham. An equivalent in English would be
something like A Lioness Springs. The story I told, within the limits of
my present memory, can be summarized as follows:
A rubber grower in our neighboring hill
country in the state of Travancore had gone to Kottayam to sell his latex
rubber, and was returning home, rather late in the day, with the money in
his briefcase. As he was walking home, a considerable distance from the
bus stop, an imposing and well-dressed pedestrian fell in with him and
started walking in the same direction. They started a conversation and the
rubber planter was soon charmed and impressed. Nearing his home, he asked
the stranger his name and where he was from. And Shourie (that was who the
stranger was) gave a convincing name and locality of origin. Shourie
explained that he was on his way to visit a friend in a neighboring town,
but had got delayed visiting all kinds of friends en route. He had missed
the last bus to the town where he was going. The planter invited the
stranger to stay at his home and resume his journey in the morning.
Shourie accepted after the customary and polite initial “I don’t want to
So they got to the planter’s rather
sumptuous home, and after a bath, was having supper. At that moment a
messenger came with the information that a close relative had died. The
planter was expected to go back with the messenger to the house of
mourning. He fixed a bed for his guest on the outer verandah of his house,
and leaving his wife more or less alone in the house with some housemaids,
had to go on his way to the house of mourning, promising to return as
early the next day as he could.
Shourie went to bed on the verandah, and
the doors of the house were closed from inside. In the small hours of the
morning, he got up and made quite a noise to the effect that he had been
bitten by a snake. As the unsuspecting lady of the house opened the doors
to see what had happened, Shourie jumped inside the house, and wielding
his frightening dagger, told the lady, “Bring me the key to the cellar
door where the money is kept, or I will kill you.” The lady quietly went
into her bedroom, followed by Shourie, and came out with the key to open
the cellar or strong room of the house. Quietly, without saying a word,
she unlocked the cellar door and let Shourie go in. As soon as Shourie had
entered, she locked the door and made him prisoner. Shourie kept shouting,
but she quietly went out of the house at that unseemly hour to call for
help. A Pulaya (once called Untouchable) who lived in a hut in their
compound and was loyal to the family, agreed to overpower Shourie provided
the Planter’s family would undertake responsibility if something happened
to the Pulaya. Meanwhile others had gathered to help the Pulaya, and the
police had been sent for. There were no telephones those days. By the time
the police arrived, the cellar had been unlocked; Shourie had been
overpowered and bound with ropes.
So much for the story as I had reported it, based on fairly reliable
testimony. It was sensational news for our region, for everyone had heard
about Shourie and his exploits. I was not smart enough to wonder why other
reporters did not pick up the story on their own. I had not reported the
details of the earlier raid by the Police of my own state of Cochin and
their failure. I had simply reported the story of the capture, not by
Police, but by an ordinary poor peasant and a smart Christian woman. This
capture had taken place in my neighboring state ruled by the Maharajah of
Travancore, where the Police was notoriously corrupt. Travancore was ruled
de facto by the Prime Minister or “Dewan” of the state, the scholarly Sir
C. P. Ramaswami lyer, who was bent on destroying the economic and
political power of the Christian Community which formed 40% of the
population of that state. To that end he had used some of the methods that
Hitler was using against the Jews in Germany. The police was his main
After reporting the incident of
Shourie’s capture I should have followed it up. I did not, mostly because
I did not have the resources to do the investigating job. It was too
dangerous for a teen-age reporter to meddle with the Travancore police. If
I had investigated, I would have found out that the Police had made him
produce all his previous stolen goods, sharing the booty among themselves
(there was a lot of gold jewels, I heard) and let him go free without any
record of his capture.
I found out soon that I was in trouble.
First it was a Criminal Intelligence Department inspector from Travancore
who came to question me about the source of my information. He must have
been amused by my boyish looks, and was rather kind in his questioning. I
asked him about the source of his information that I was the reporter.
When he told me that it was the editorial staff of my paper, I told him
they had no business to tell him, but did not deny that I was the
reporter. First he asked me for a written statement that I had no basis
for my report. When I refused that, he told me I did not have to give him
anything in writing, but merely tell him the source of my information in
Travancore state, so that he could get a denial from that person. I told
him that that was not journalistic ethics.
Up to that point he was polite and so
was I. We were sitting in a friend’s store and talking very privately. The
inspector now changed his tone and asked me whether I understood that the
Travancore government could take legal action against me. I told him that
I was a citizen of Cochin state, and owed nothing to the Travancore state.
He asked me, ‘‘How old are you?’’ He suspected that I was not old enough
to be prosecuted as an adult. I did not tell him that I was only sixteen.
Instead, I asked, with a smile on my lips, but rather rudely, ‘‘What! Do
you want to negotiate a marriage arrangement for me?” In our society of
arranged marriages, middle men did the negotiating. He said simply, “You
will hear again from the Police on this matter.” That concluded our
I did hear again, soon after. This time
it was a big burly Police Officer from Travancore, Anayadi
(elephant-footed) Padmanabhan Pillai, a notorious Assistant Superintendent
of Police. He came through official channels. It was our local Police Sub
Inspector of Tripunithura, N. R. Subrahmania Iyer, who sent a constable to
my home to call me to the local Police Station. I promptly went. I had
never been to a police station before. Though a bit anxious, I was
determined within myself not to be intimidated.
Anayadi was sitting with our SI in the
latter’s office. “My goodness! So young! You must be the same age as my
grandson. Just answer my questions, and there won’t be any trouble.” That
was his greeting. “Who gave you this information about the capture of
Shourie? We have absolutely no record of any such arrest. We do not even
know where Shourie is now. Just give me the name of your informant, and I
shall save you from trouble.” He was friendly and very paternal.
“I am sorry Sir,” I replied, “I cannot
give you that information.” He coaxed me in his grandfatherly way, and
told me that he was giving me wise advice and that I should not hold back
the information from the Police. I persisted in my refusal, and our local
Sub-Inspector, who knew me well as a journalist, joined in; “Give him the
information; that is best for you.” As I continued to refuse, the SI said
to me, “Do you know that I can arrest you and pack you off to Travancore?”
Cochin was a much less corrupt Princely
State than Travancore. Our police could of course beat me up, but that was
a risk I was prepared to take, trusting in God. So I answered, fairly
boldly but not without fear: “Mr. N. R. Subrahmania Iyer, the laws of our
state do not give you the power to do so. There is no case against me, and
you cannot arrest me.”
The two police officers looked at each
other for a moment. It was Iyer who said to me, “You may go, Mr. Verghese.”
That was the end of the story. I never
heard from the Police again, though I was afraid for quite some time that
there would be a sequel. Nothing happened.
A Teenager’s Political Life
In 1937 and 38, India’s Freedom Movement
was just gaining momentum. Generally speaking, Christians were not very
enthusiastic about it. The majority among them thought that British
imperial rule would be preferable to self-rule. After all, the Colonial
Masters were also Christians! I was not persuaded about this point of
view. Especially in the princely states of Cochin and Travancore, we were
ruled by Maharajahs and not directly by the British. We saw very few
Britishers. They were not part of our social life.
Our own Maharajahs of Cochin, usually in
their eighties, were very benign and God-fearing. The throne was given
always to the eldest male member of a royal family of some 600 members. So
he was usually eighty by the time he inherited the throne, and did not
live very long after that. Our own home was on Hill Palace Road, leading
to the Maharajah’s Palace, about a mile away. We saw him passing in front
of our house very often, without ostentation or fanfare, except on
festival days. As school children, we would go to the palace once a year,
and we would be treated to sweets. Younger members of the royal family
were my classmates, though they were forbidden to mingle with us socially.
Some of the Maharajahs were great scholars, especially in Sanskrit, while
others were quite simple-minded and the butt of many jokes.
One of the jokes went like this. As a
man of eighty, a maharajah was the Chief Guest at a Football (Soccer)
Match. That was his first exposure to the game. After watching 22 people
fighting for the ball, he asked his minister: “Why all this scrambling and
scuffling for one ball? Why don’t you give them two dozen balls, so that
each can have one?”
With such darling dodos ruling us, we
did not feel the weight of British imperial rule. There was oppression and
exploitation in society, many inequalities and injustices, but I was not
very much worked up about these in those days.
Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were
great leaders for us, but we saw so little of them. I heard Nehru once in
my youth, and he impressed me with what he said and how he said it. Gandhi
once came to our hometown and I was impressed with his simplicity and that
toothless smile of his. But one of our people did him a dirty trick.
Gandhi was in the habit of auctioning off everything that was given to
him, and giving the proceeds to some charitable fund. In my hometown, he
was auctioning off the gilt framed address of welcome presented to him.
The one who bid highest was one Krishnankutty, who was a shady character.
I think his bid was over Rs. 40, a considerable sum in those days. Only
later I discovered that he was a dealer in forged currency notes, that he
had offered Gandhi a forged hundred-rupee note and got a good 60 Rupees in
change as well as the framed address!
But the local or state politics was more
interesting to me as a teenager. I began to understand the need for
removing untouchability, for which Gandhi also campaigned. I saw the need
for removing social and economic inequalities as time went on. The
political meetings I covered as a reporter helped the process of my
One day I was covering a large public
meeting addressed by Sahodaran Ayyappan, one of our great social reformers
from the backward Eazhava community. I was impressed by his demands for
social reform, and during discussion time, I asked him the question,
rather unexpected from the press Gallery where I sat: “Why is it that you
leaders do not let someone like me, who is only 16, join the political
party?” His answer was picturesque and still rings in my ears: “We do not
believe in plucking out the seedlings (of rice) from the field and
throwing it to the cattle”. So I knew where I stood. I was only a
But I did become politically active,
whenever they would let me. I took part in the election campaign for the
Congress candidate from my constituency for the Cochin Legislative
Council. My reporting was also often politically significant. But overall,
my political sensitivities were hardly developed until much later. I was
elected Honorary Secretary of the newly created Public Library and Reading
Room in my hometown at the age of 17, if I remember right. That was a
token of adult confidence in a youngster, to which I readily responded by
doing my best to set it up, promote it and run it. I got a lot of my
reading done in that library.
We started this chapter with a
discussion on the meaning of suffering. With all my respect for Buddhism,
I do not see the problem of suffering quite in the Buddhist way. I am more
intrigued with the Greek and Christian ways of understanding and dealing
Among the Greeks, the Stoics stand out
in dealing with suffering. Apatheia, which certainly did not mean apathy,
was their great virtue. Literally, apatheia should be translated as
‘non-suffering’. For them, it was a synonym for happiness (eudaimonia) or
freedom (eleutheria). Apatheia, somewhat more accurately translated as
‘impassibility’, was first applied by Aristotle to things as incapable of
any experience or suffering . The Stoics applied it to God. Apatheia was
an attribute of God. God cannot suffer. He is impassible, beyond
suffering. The ideal for humanity was the same, to be beyond or unaffected
by suffering. The impassibility of God became the ethical norm for the
The Stoics used apatheia to denote
freedom from all feeling, being unaffected by all that happens, a divine
impassiveness, or equanimity in the face of all external circumstances.
The principle, more clearly enunciated by the last of the great Stoics,
the ex-slave-philosopher Epictetus (ca55-ca135), already influenced by
Christianity, was that in order to be truly happy, a human being should
make oneself free from the vicissitudes of fate or fortune, from
responsiveness to or affectability by, pain or pleasure. Our happiness
should not depend on things we cannot control or have power over. It
should depend entirely on one’s own self and one’s own will. Suffering
would then have no power over us. That is freedom, that is happiness; that
seems also, to some extent, to provide the basis for the post-modern
notion of autonomy.
India’s late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi
expressed it once in this contemporary way, presenting equanimity with
nishkamakarma (right action without desire for the fruit of the action) as
the quintessence of Indian wisdom: “Unflappability is the better part of
valor.” That was Indeed clever, whether it is the quintessence of Indian
wisdom or not. We must come to that later.
Freud, in his Civilization and Its
Discontents, gave us the rather simplistic classification of suffering
into three kinds: a) that which is caused by the superior power of nature,
e. g., floods, earthquakes, droughts, etc.; (b) that which is caused by
the decay and eventual death of our bodies, e.g. disease; and (c) what is
caused by the shortcomings of our social relations and institutions. The
first two he thought were insurmountable, though we would say today that a
great deal of it can be prevented or avoided. For the third, he offered
the remedy of a more rational, non-neurotic approach to all questions, and
the eventual elimination of the “illusion’’ of religion. To me this seems
too simplistic and adolescent an approach, not even worth discussing.
We can indeed distinguish between
suffering voluntarily chosen, such as in asceticism, and in a great deal
of parental affection, and in personal sacrifice for the sake of others;
suffering imposed by other human beings either by mistake or by intention
or even because of ignorance; suffering caused by what previous
generations have done to make our inherited physical and social
environment what it is; suffering due to lack and want, including lack of
love and care; suffering induced by compassion for the suffering of
others; suffering brought on by one’s own folly and unwisdom; suffering
caused by accidents, natural or otherwise; suffering that arises from
one’s station in life; suffering caused by the stress and strain of
present living; suffering as anxiety, boredom and persistent sense of
guilt; suffering due to the structures of present injustice, and so on.
What the Christian tradition has taught
me is not to ask for the cause of individual suffering, or to resolve
philosophically the problem of unmerited suffering. My task is to use
suffering that comes my way, for the exercise of self-discipline and
compassion. I do not know why we have to suffer, but I know that where
there has been no suffering there is no development of character. I know
that compassion is learned and taught by entering into the suffering of
others and by letting others share one’s own suffering, to a certain
extent. Suffering seems to be Love’s way, at least in this world.
Suffering does not open the door by
itself. The key has to be turned; suffering has to be transmuted by love.
Hate and despair can turn it into poison. I am grateful to God that
however close I came to despair in my suffering -filled adolescence, I did
not give up. My little faith helped me to cling on in hope.
Suffering is the key to the mystery of
existence in this world. That is why God himself, supposedly free from all
suffering, decided to come and partake of it Himself. Thereby lies the
Grand Mystery. God suffers, in Christ, in us, even today.