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 desired state.
On the 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.
In 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 desire.
When I 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 all started.
In a 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
There 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.
Not that 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.
My 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.
In any 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.
In truth 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.
My 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.
I think 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 soon.
I was 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.
My two 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.
Of the 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 Canada.
My 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.
I am 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 Christian.
Slightly Precocious?
I seem 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.
By the 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.
Though I 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.
But 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 asinine affectations.
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.
It 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
I must 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 time.
In fact, 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.
The body 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.
That was 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 this system.
The 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 words.
I 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 this later.
Sunday School
Despite 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.
The 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.
The 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.
I am 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.
In my 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 of God.
Deacon Petros
Deacon 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.
One day 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.
Deacon 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.
Later, 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
Here is 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 veranda.
I was 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.
We went 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.
The 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 made of?
Tension Builds
Tension 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.
Our 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.
But 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.
My 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.
There 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.
The 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.
Catastrophe Strikes
The 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.
I shall 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.
All of 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 had descended.
There were two things that irked me no end: one was the violence, and the other the social opprobrium.
Father 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.
The 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.
One 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.
My 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.
Cherian 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 tone.

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 bother you.”

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 instrument.

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 conversation.

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 conscientisation.

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 seedling.

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 with suffering.

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 Stoics.

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.