by Francis Baartmans mhm
The Mysterious Trail of the Tamarind
Voices from the Margin
In a recently published book Fr Francis Baartmans mhm presents a fascinating account of the Dalits of the Nagwa Basti in Varanasi, India. Extracts from this study are being serialised on this website over the coming days/weeks. (Instalment 3)
Story of a conversion.
Paul Ramchandra was born on 1st July 1952 in a Chamar family in the village of Passahi, about thirty kilometers from Benares.
Before he was born, his father had gone to Kolkata to find work in the jutemills. He went not only to find work. He also went in protest against the way he was treated by the upper castes in the village, extracting work from him against litte or no pay.They
humilated him. He had left the village against the will of the upper castes.
When Paul Ramchandra was born, his father came from Kolkata to see and welcome his son. Reaching home, he was severely beaten by uppercaste men for having left the village.
Finding no other way to save himself and his son from further harm, possible death even, he took his son and walked all the way to Mughal Serai where they took the train to Kolkata.
Paul Ramchandra grew up there and went to school till class 6. He then returned to the village with his father. Paul Ramchandra's mother had stayed in the village and had only 'bhuja alu' to eat, potatoes fried on the fire, and salt. At times she was forced to beg in the village. In spite of the difficult circumstances, she took the opportunity to go to Chandauli to learn sewing and stitching.
Back in his village, Paul Ramchandra continued with his education in a school nearby. He passed his Intermediate with a third division. Sponsored by an understanding friendly man, Brijendra Swarup Singh, he completed a three-year mechanical engineering course in Chandauli, and received hiscertificate. While looking for work he stayed with a family, but found that he was wasting his time. His sponsor told him: "Go to Benares to the Jagjivan ashram in Shivala Ghat". With help he received he obtained admission to the Banaras Hindu University where he completed a B.A course while staying in the ashram. In 1976, he completed his M.A Sociology at the university. After his studies, he secured employment as an administrative officer in the Diesel Locomotive Works (DLW) in Varnanasi. Paul Ramchandra is now retired.
In an interview I had with him, he said:
"In my village, while I was studying for my Intermediate, we received harsh treatment form the upper castes – my parents, my sisters, my brother and 1. At the time, some people of the Indian Home-crusaders used to come to the village, handing out pamphlets about Christ – the Saviour of the Untouchables. This interested me more and more. Once I was in Benares, I found churches there. I met father Ishwar Prasad in the Khrist Panthi Ashram in Nagwa, a study centre at the time. I did a Bible correspondence course and received a diploma. While studying at the university, I asked for baptism in 1974. But father Ishwar Prasad refused.
He "did not want to convert Dalits", he said. That was his opinion. I was surprised and angry. But maybe, he wanted to test me.
Francis Baartmans mhm with Paul Ramchandra and son
On 11th July 1976, I was baprized by father Ishwar Prasad in the Ganges in Shivala Ghat. Also my parents and my brother and one sister were baptized in 1981 in St. John's Church. My other sister is not baptized. She is married to a Hindu. Once I was baptized, I became very angry with the Church. There was discrimination against people who were low caste. I did not accept the Church, I accepted Christ. I made a serious study of the life of Dr. Birn Rao Arnbedkar, a Dalit who rose to become Law Minister in the first government of Independent India in 1947. Arnbedkar, the icon of India's Dalits in their struggle for equality left Hinduism and embraced Buddhism along with about 500.000 Dalits in 1956. (Mass) conversion has become a ( collective) protest for Dalits across the country, a willing abandonment of what they consider an oppressive hierarchical social system"
Fr Francis Baarmans mhm comments:
After a painful intellectual and emotional struggle, Paul Ramchandra decided to leave Hinduism to become a Christian. The rejection of a system as a form of protest gets reinforced by necessarily choosing one of the available alternative systems. In a society where religious sentiments are deeprooted, leaving one's religion can be a hard choice. In line with Indian tradition, he asked for discipleship and initiation from Father Dr. Ishwar Prasad of the Indian Missionary Society in Christna-
gar, Varanasi. Ishwar Prasad is known for his scholarship of the Hindu tradition, the Sanatana Dharma, the "Way of Life" of Hindus, and the dialogue between religious traditions.
I learnt to know Paul Ramchandra in 1979 when I first arrived in Varanasi. After six months study of the Hindi language in Christnagar, I went to live three months with an upper-caste Hindu family in Varanasi to continue studying the language and to acquaint myself with the day-to-day life in the family, be taught by them and acquaint myself with their rites and rituals. It happened that Paul Ramchandra had rented a room in the house next door to where I stayed. He invited me to come with him to his village. Paul Ramchandra insisted on marrying a woman born a Christian. He was not convinced if a Hindu woman, even in a blissful married life, would fully understand and fathom the reasons why he had left his ancestral religion and tradition behind. He doubted a happy and fulfilling lifelong companionship with a woman not born a Christian. He and his wife who hails
from Kerala have a son and three daughters. They live in greater Nagwa, House No. B. 30/84 KA, Nagwa-Lanka, Varanasi.
Paul Ramchandra was inspired by St. Paul's words in his letter to the Ephesians 3.8: "I am less than the least of all God's people; yet God gave me this privilege of taking to the Gentiles the Good news about the infinite riches of Christ". He chose as his letterhead the words: "Lord, make me little in the eyes of men"
Several times I questioned the choice of these words. Had he not rid himself of his earlier 'Chamar servile way oflife' before his newly found Saviour, Jesus Christ of the Resurrection? Paul Ramchandra resolutely rejects my argument:
"Instead of clasping the feet of but men, I clasp the feet of my Saviour Jesus Christ"