The hotel manager was politely incredulous. Wouldn’t I like a car or an auto rickshaw to take me on a tour of Thanjavur’s rural areas? No, thank you. As a Peace Corps volunteer, albeit returning after 40 years, I was determined to get to my village in the traditional way — by bicycle. And in my village garb: a brightly coloured lungi.
A few minutes later, I took off on the best bike the hotel could find, a rickety Raleigh that might have dated from my Peace Corps days.
The old path through the rice paddies was now a motorable road, but with only the occasional motorcycle or tractor to disturb my peaceful ride into years past.
Reality soon intervened. About the time the bike pedal fell off, a light rain began to fall. I was four miles short of Sholapuram, my destination, and the only shelter nearby was a Catholic church in the middle of the fields.
Walking my bike through the gate, I met some young men painting what looked like decorated ox carts in the churchyard.
In my halting Tamil, I explained my dilemma. In their equally minimal English, they told me the church was “Our Lady of Refuge,” and promised me a ride back to the hotel on a motorbike. I could come back to pick up my bicycle tomorrow, they assured me. But, when I returned, they said, I should also visit Father Johnson, the village priest, who had recently returned from the U.S.The ‘American priest’
The next day, the hotel manager — without even the hint of an “I told you so” smirk — arranged an auto rickshaw for me to pick up the bicycle. I headed back to the church. But first I needed to call on Father Johnson. There was no problem finding him; everyone knew the house of the “American priest.”
He answered the door and the contrast was striking — he was a distinguished Tamil gentleman in a starched casual shirt and creased trousers; I was in my T-shirt and lungi. But his first words, in unaccented American English, made it clear we were more alike than different. He told me his life story — a village boy, educated in Catholic schools, consecrated as a priest in the Diocese of Kumbakonam, and finally called to minister in the wilds of New Jersey, U.S. He had been there for 13 years and had returned to his village to visit his aged parents and attend the annual church festival.
He gave me the cultural context I had been seeking. The village was about 80 per cent Catholic and life revolved around the 100-year-old church. Most of the villagers were farmers of the Vanniyar Padayachi caste. The village was reasonably prosperous and benefited from remittances from some men who were working in the Persian Gulf. The minority Hindus in the village and Muslims in the surrounding area were friends and neighbours who shared a heritage and even some cultural traits (I later found some Hindu villagers lighting candles to “Our Lady of Refuge” after the Catholic mass.)
He urged me to come back Sunday evening to see the church festival. What time should I come? “Anytime,” he said. “It lasts all night.”
The quiet village was buzzing when I returned at 9 p.m. on Sunday. Father Johnson introduced me to his father and siblings, and plied me with Tamil hospitality and some Johnnie Walker scotch to fortify me before we left his tranquil home and headed into the crowd. As we walked towards the church, my friend was accosted at every turn. “These are all relatives,” he laughed, as he chatted deferentially with an almost-toothless elderly man — his uncle — and joshed familiarly with young men and women — cousins, nieces, nephews.
A troupe of drummers from Dindigul was performing at ear-shattering volume. The houses were festooned with lights. The main street was lined with carts selling sweets and toys. And the church had been transformed.Cultural borrowing
The carts I had seen being painted two days ago were now strung with lights and garlands, and occupied by icons of Catholic saints and the Virgin Mary. They were being pulled around the village by worshippers in the familiar style of a Hindu temple car festival. Father Johnson readily acknowledged the cultural borrowing, and pointed out that some of the children being lifted up to receive Our Lady’s blessing were Hindus as well.
Over the noise, I asked Father Johnson whether he could envision his parish in New Jersey coming together on a community festival as lively as this one. He sighed, and said no — there were too many other things happening in people’s lives, and too many other forms of entertainment. He was happy just to get his parishioners out of the house and into church.
As we walked back to his house, the fireworks display began. For a village of 2,500 people, this was an awesome display. I asked Father Johnson how a fairly small church could put up such a lavish festival. He explained that every parishioner was assessed Rs. 600. I’m pretty sure they got their money’s worth.
(Donald Camp was an American Peace Corps volunteer in Thanjavur District from 1970-72. He was subsequently a U.S. Foreign Service officer in the Department of State and in the National Security Council.)