Almost a year to the day, a woman walked out of a Catholic retreat house in Delhi and wrote an understandably horrified account of the pre-marriage counselling Catholic couples, or anyone wishing to marry a Catholic person, are compelled to attend before they are allowed to marry in church.
This young woman was not Catholic but we nodded bemusedly at the piece. Only recently, close friends on the verge of marriage had wanted to walk out of such sessions themselves. But as Catholics, they had to carry their cross of dissonance until the end of the seminar because not getting married in church was not an option for them.
Despite admitting her motive was mostly the “dangling carrot of church bells, white dress and bridesmaids ahead”, the writer lost me at, “The idyllic option does not exist – one of a Catholic priest solemnising a marriage on a Goan beach to the seductive sound of waves and acoustic guitar.”
The clichés about Catholics
The Indian Roman Catholic communities I am intimately familiar with have a few distinct peculiarities or qualities.
To begin with, they have, over the years, been inured to being reduced to a set of clichés and motifs by Bollywood, people unfamiliar with them, and more recently for social-media-fluff anthropologists. They are used to being regarded as all a little bit of Anthony Gonsalves – English-speaking, happy-go-lucky people who wear western clothes and love dancing, their girls with crucifixes hanging down to their cleavages.
In those ubiquitous Indian conversations about ethnicity that for everyone else entails listing villages, castes, states, they are used to being reduced to just Catholic.
They don’t even notice when aspects of their religious culture are treated as generic western cultural imports. For instance, non-Christian kids sporting crucifixes as fashion accessories or tattoos, or exclaiming with a “Jesus H Christ!”. Or, as white wedding-dress makers will tell you, the increase in the number of wedding sangeets for non-Christian brides complete with the trappings of a Christian wedding – bride in white, bridesmaids, a person playing the role of a preacher, throwing of the bouquet, the works.
The Jesus Theme Park, like the churches, schools and spaces, is open to all.
There is another peculiarity to this Indian Catholic community. They are used to balancing their scriptures and the church’s diktats with a quiet pragmatism. This is why despite the Vatican’s archaic views on contraception and abortion (to which grudging nuance has only recently been granted) the community’s fertility in India has remained steady. This is why even though the Pope did not come right out and say being gay is okay, the festival of the church of St Andrew in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra featured a Nana Eugene, a tranny granny. This is why, when I told a priest, as a teen, that I felt a deep disconnect with his sermon at Mass, he sat me down and told me “unofficially” that I could define my own relation to religion. This is why on the ground, talking about things to each other, many Indian Catholics are rarely offended by perceived slights. Their take on religion is celebratory, inclusive, personal, dynamic, open to criticism.
At least, until now.
Voice of the community
The protests against the play Agnes of God in Mumbai last year were slightly surprising, with many in the community tut-tutting about how “these things” have no impact on their beliefs. A few months earlier, calls for All India Bakchod to "apologise to Christians" after some Christians took offense to jokes made by the group at a comedy event were met with private embarrassment and mumblings of disassociation from this “insecure, lunatic fringe element” behaviour.
But equally, there are sections of the community in Mumbai, who have recently begun to worry that they have no voice. Many of them, indigenous to the city, sit on immensely valuable real estate that has resulted in a push-pull as demographics in the old neighbourhoods change along with values and ways of life. For instance, in a startling change, the pool in a Catholic club in Bandra now has gender-segregated swimming lessons for children. On the other hand, several of my immediate neighbours have refused to join the trend so visible around them by hiring security guards or raising the height of their walls.
Local politicians eager to show their connection to the community will sponsor Christmas crib contests and sports tournaments, but, by and large, these are cosmetic efforts.
So now, when someone calls for a protest because the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has decided to knock down one of the crosses that dot the landscape, or widen a road through a cemetery, or mark a gaothan (literally, a village site) as a slum, there is a sense of some relief. “Someone” is out there looking out for the community, even if they do not agree with them all the time.
In poor taste
The case last week of Goregaon Social, a pub in suburban Mumbai, which offended some Catholics for using Christian religious imagery in its décor, is peculiar. The pub's interior designers, the Basrai brothers, have spent some time promoting the culture of Catholic indigenous people to Bandra and the local architecture. However, there have also been complaints that the Basrais’ understanding of Mumbai history is cursory at best, and aimed at the pockets of social-media anthropologists. That is why the private jury is out about whether the representations of saints on stained glass panels in the pub were offensive. There have been debates about whether the image of the prophet Moses holding what seemed to be a “tablet” is a good pun or a bad one.
Mumbai's Catholic community is used to being the source of motifs and cultural aspirations, even if these are sometimes viewed as being in very poor taste.
While most commentary and WhatsApp forwards by the community seem aghast that a criminal case has been filed in the Goregaon Social matter, it is the use of a replica of a sacred tabernacle to store alcohol in bottles marked with crosses that has come across as ignorant at best, nonchalantly callous at worst.
“They should have known. Did they know?” is what I have heard, over and over again.
The Indian Catholic ecosystem
There are deep flaws in the line of argument that says European churches are often repurposed as clubs or homes for atheists. For one, the Goregaon pub is in a mall. The pub had been converted to resemble a church by a management and design team that obviously did no homework about whether quotes from the Bible and tabernacles were up for grabs from the Jesus Theme Park.
Also Indian Catholics do not identify with a religious mothership in some other land. Many will not have been privy to the range of passionate, over-the-top devotion of the religious, and the irreverent mocking of those who have outgrown the religion, in the West. They would have no opinion on whether a cathedral can be an Electronic Dance Music venue or the home of an atheist. What is it to them?
Sure, many travel on pilgrimages to Israel or to the Vatican, in Italy, but they consider themselves very, very Indian – Mangalorean Catholic women wear mangalsutras (and the community follows an unofficial caste system), East Indian Catholics consider Marathi to be their mother tongue, and say the word “food” and the Goans will jump into the fray as well and fight to their last sausage about whose cuisine is best, whose culture is most genteel.
More than a decade ago, a political leader’s suggestion that “Roman Catholics go to Rome” was received with much laughter. For so many in the community, it would have been their first trip to Europe, that legendary place where churches are made into discos, and wine, pork and beef are all available, served by monks and nuns no less.
But we are here, in India. Along with the shocked whispers and debates at home, mostly disapproving of taking something like this to criminal court, but still alarmed at the use of something quite private and holy in such an offhand way, there is a rising discomfort. That while being treated as quaint, jovial, and a source of motifs, the community is being turned into nothing more than a set of caricatures. Eventually the Jesus Theme Park will be repurposed too into something more commercially viable – maybe even a disco.