Cordileone’s pilgrimage to India
Discussing world issues
Day 17: Sunday, Jan. 15
On this last day of my visit to this fascinating and
intriguing country, I said good-bye at breakfast to my travel mates for
the previous four days, and spent a quiet morning in my hotel room packing,
catching up on e-mail (trying to, anyway) and reading.
In the afternoon I was met in the hotel lobby by a very kind retired gentleman
by the name of Joseph Chaco who, at the arrangement of Father Paulson
Mundanmani of St. Mary Parish in Walnut Creek, gave me a tour of the highlights
of Delhi in the afternoon and evening, before heading to the airport to
catch my flight.
The first place he took me to see was the “Lotus Temple,”
a house of worship of the Baha’i religion. It takes its name from
the shape of the structure. I have found that the theme of the lotus flower
is one which recurs frequently here, especially in a religious context.
As I was told, the lotus flower represents purity, because it grows in
the mud yet remains above and out of the mud, and so retains its pure
white color. As the temple was basically a large auditorium on the inside,
it was this external design of it that was its most interesting feature.
My highest priority on our itinerary was our next stop: a visit to the
Mahatma Gandhi Memorial. It was quite a simple tribute: a slab of marble
containing some of his ashes (the others having been strewn in the Ganges
river and some in the Himalayas), with a flame above it.
To the side sitting on the grass was a group of about 40 people singing
some sort of a hymn. Joseph told me that this was a favorite prayer of
Gandhi’s, which invokes God under different names asking unity of
all peoples. He told me that these were “anti-corruption”
protesters, part of the movement to rid the government of what, he explained
to me, is deep and widespread corruption.
The topic of government corruption and other such problems in the country
took up a good portion of our conversation during the day. According to
Joseph, the system operates on brides at all levels. There is little that
is actually accomplished for the poorer classes by the government.
This is even true with public hospitals. India has a two-tiered system
of health care: government provided health care is available to everyone
at no charge, but people also have the option of availing themselves of
the private health care system, at least, those who can afford it.
The allegation, though, is that the government system is far inferior
(I heard the same thing said of the school system). It is even necessary
to bribe the hospital officials for one to be admitted.
He told me the story of a poor woman who could not afford the bribe and
so was not admitted, and ended up dying a few days later. And he also
mentioned to me a story, which I had seen in the newspaper here a few
days earlier, of a paralyzed man in a public hospital who was bitten by
Joseph also had a different take on the religious-moral life of Indians,
including in his native Kerala. He said that while there is much outward
religious devotion, it does not have much of an effect on the way people
live their lives and conduct their businesses.
He spoke of a decline in moral values in general, and lack of discipline
among children and young people, beginning at home with the failure of
the parents to be watchful of this. At the other end, people are no longer
attentive to caring for their elderly parents, preferring to keep them
in assisted care facilities rather than care for them at home, and this
after the parents have donated all of their worldly goods to their children.
However, from my observations as an outsider, things did not seem so dismal
to me. I definitely saw families who cared for their elderly parents and
grandparents at their home, and the social mores certainly place strictures
on the way people are to behave in public, especially with regard to the
opposite sex, although not oppressively so.
Perhaps this is just a matter of the perspective from which each of us
views the situation, I looking at it from the angle of the post-modern
American society in which we live and he seeing it in comparison to how
Indian society was when he was a young man.
After the Gandhi Memorial, we made a quick tour of some of the other notable
sites: a tomb of one of the Mogul kings on the scale of the Taj Mahal,
although not as well preserved or elaborate; a view from the street of
the India Gate, considered to be the “Gateway to India” and
site of the tomb of the unknown soldier; and the central area of the city
containing the government buildings, including the parliament.
As Joseph explained to me, this area was built by the British in the 19th
Century; this is easy to believe, as it is marked by buildings of European
architectural style, wide and well maintained streets, and open spaces
with well-manicured lawns and trees.
In fact, this entire area of central Delhi, where many of the government
officials live, is set apart in this way from the rest of what I saw in
Our last stop was a visit to the cathedral. Here we were invited for coffee
by Father Britto, who was visiting from the outlying missions of the Archdiocese
of Delhi. He explained that he is responsible for the Church’s ministry
in 120 villages of these outlying areas, where there are no Catholics.
This is a first evangelization, which the archdiocese is seeking to accomplish
through social work and other such services, especially to the poorer
Our conversation veered into the direction of the caste system, which,
although officially outlawed, is still deep in the culture. He said the
higher caste in his area does not object to the Church helping the poor
people, as long as they don’t become a threat. There is a problem
in empowering the poorer people to improve their lot in life, as it could
cause those of the higher caste (in his area, this is the warrior caste,
not the highest caste, the Brahmins) to lose their exclusive claim to
power and prestige.
He went on to talk about how this caste mentality even affects the thinking
of people in the Church. He himself is from a poor fishing family in Tamil
Nadu, and entered the seminary for the Archdiocese of Delhi in the north
because back home he was not considered qualified to study to be a priest.
On the other hand, he said that it was precisely the Church’s school
system that allowed him to develop the intellectual capacity to pursue
seminary studies. And he is not the only one in this situation.
The discussion continued, covering many other topics on the economic and
social issues in the country, and how to fix them and how not to –
one of those “solving the problems of the world” discussions.
After our lively conversation, I paid a visit to the cathedral church,
said some prayers, and then we headed to the airport. Joseph mentioned
something about going to dinner; I thanked him but declined. This is the
one downside of gracious hospitality: it was 7:30 p.m., and even though
I didn’t have anything to eat since breakfast, with all the eating
I’ve done the last two weeks I still felt full!
We said our good-byes as he dropped me off at the airport, and I thanked
him with all sincerity, assuring him that he added the perfect finishing
touch to my long-desired visit to India. I was moved by his kindness to
me, giving up the better part of his Sunday to show me, someone he had
never met or even knew existed, around his adopted home town.