As an atheist in Modi’s India, I have decided, now, however, to become Christian, a political Christian. Contra Bertrand Russell, I am writing an essay called ‘Why I am a Christian.’ As I see pastors being beaten every day, ramshackle churches destroyed, Dalit and Adivasi Christians (and these communities form the bulk of Christians in India), I know I am Christian. Christian, Dalit, feminist, gay. That’s me. Not a good combination in Modi’s India, writes Ashley Tellis.
My mother was a Roman Catholic from Goa, born in Burma, and grew up in Bombay. She was as white as milk with grey-green eyes. My grandmother claimed to be Brahmin, much after they converted, or were converted to Christianity. My father was a Dalit boy from the Vidarbha region, living on the streets of Bombay, blacker than dark chocolate. How did these two meet?
Through the good offices of my grandmother, who adopted this boy, took him away from his violent slave-owner, turned him from Madhukar Banu Sonawane to Anthony Tellis. She had a Mother Teresa complex. She thought she was doing the world some good and guaranteeing her place in the kingdom of heaven. She was a devout Roman Catholic.
Did my father and mother fall in love? Who knows? They did get married, however, and it was a marriage made in hell. He broke every tooth in her mouth, beat her black and blue, raped her, sodomised her, killed her in the end, though it is not clear whether of the final kick to her chest or of a broken heart. It was a cardiac arrest, for sure.
She had three children, all boys. The first died at six months (my father took him out in the rain without protection; he died of pneumonia), the second was healthy, the third, I, was weak (she had nothing in her body left to give), had her weak legs (she had rickets and could not walk for the first and last few years of her life), her weak hands, her crooked toes and her sharp, creative mind.
My father never told us he was Dalit. He never spoke to me in Marathi, even when I studied it in school and wanted to continue with it. I was not allowed to because the Catholic boys in Bombay always did French and hated the ‘vernie’ language Marathi. He did not put his foot down and let me do Marathi. My mother, when she was high (she was manic depressive and mentally ill all her life), sang ditties about his caste and waited for the blows, which unfailingly came, but I understood these ditties only as an adult. I understood the word she used ‘Harijan’ only as an adult in college doing Sociology, when I learnt that I lived in a country dominated by Hindus. I did not know what a Hindu was; all my neighbours and friends in Byculla were either Muslim or Christian.
Nobody in the community, Christian or Muslim, talked to my father, starting with my own cousins, in my own house. They looked at him like he was vermin and I internalised that look. It became how I saw him and how I saw myself, my dark skin colour. The fact that I hated him made it easy. He beat my mother. I was my mother’s pet. She was my favourite. When he touched me, my flesh would crawl. I hated him, just as everyone did. My mother’s blood brother, bruised from being usurped by this Heathcliff, resented him and us all his life and, scared of him, beat only us in his alcoholic rages.
When I was in the final year of my BA, not yet 20, my mother died and my father disappeared. I never saw him again.
Only now, in my early fifties, did I slowly begin to put the pieces of this story together, get details from my 91-year-old awful Godmother. Ten years before, at 40, I began researching Dalit Marathi Literature. I now wonder if it was because I wanted to engage with that side of my past, my inheritance. I am not an Ambedkarite; I am a Savitribai Phuleite. I do not say ‘Jai Bhim!’, I say ‘Jai Savitri!’
I am interested in the pain of Ramabai Ambedkar, Ambedkar’s first wife whom he treated terribly. I have a picture of her on my wall at home. Ignorant idiots who visit me ask if she is my mother. In many ways, she is my mother. I read mostly Marathi women’s autobiographies. They interest me much more than the men’s stories.
I am an effeminate gay man but men do not really interest me much. They are predictable and violent and boring and stupid. I am a woman-identified gay man. I understand women’s pain as I understood my mother’s and that of her two sisters, all manic depressives, all with oppressive husbands and shitty children, the three loves of my life. They are my Holy Trinity, even as through analysis I know I should not idealise them or women in general.
My Christian grandmother held her daughters down as their husbands pulverised them. She dragged me to Church by the ears. I was baptised, had my Holy Communion, my Confirmation. From a child who doted on her, I began to hate her. I saw what women might become under patriarchy.
I did not believe a word of the Christianity. All I remember from my Holy Communion was that I wanted long pants but we could not afford them. I was the only boy united with Christ in short pants that year. I could not live it down.
As an atheist in Modi’s India, I have decided, now, however, to become Christian, a political Christian. Contra Bertrand Russell, I am writing an essay called ‘Why I am a Christian.’ As I see pastors being beaten every day, ramshackle churches destroyed, Dalit and Adivasi Christians (and these communities form the bulk of Christians in India), I know I am Christian. Christian, Dalit, feminist, gay. That’s me. Not a good combination in Modi’s India.
Stan Swamy is my inspiration. He was a priest but never spoke like one. He only spoke of tribal rights. When in jail, he refused bail on medical grounds (he had Parkinson’s and was an octogenarian) and said he wanted to be absolved of all charges and go back to his people. He did not speak of God and salvation. He spoke of mendacious plants of incriminatory shit on his computer and of Adivasi lives. His was a theology of what Gillian Rose calls the ‘broken middle,’ a belief that does not shy away from the agonistic, troubling, difficult, incommensurable and violent world in which we live.
Ashley Telis is an academic, journalist, editor and LGBH activist.
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