Lord Ganesh surprised me
it was a Sunday evening, some 47 years ago, I was returning from the College Church after prayer. The magnificent Church of the St. Joseph’s College, Trichy, dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, decked in Gallo-Catholic design, from neo-Gothic spires to anguished scenes of the sufferings and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, painted inside, was adorned with the icon of Virgin Mary, garlanded in Hindu flower necklaces in the spirit of inter-religious dialogue.
As I passed the main gate of the 175-year-old first Jesuit College in India, I saw a foreigner at the gate and rightly guessed that he would be a priest. I struck up a conversation and was certain that he was a Jesuit priest, a pleasantly cheerful man in his late forties. He politely pointed to the rock temple across the college road and said in a gentle voice, “My little friend, have you been to that rock temple? I want to visit that.” “I will take you Father,” I said to him reverentially and left. “Hey, my boy, what is your sweet name?” I responded politely and was off for my studies.
Next day, I was all excited; I put on my best clothes and entered the Jesuit Residence filled with awe and expectation. I knocked on his door and to my surprise; he welcomed me immediately as if he was waiting for me. He introduced himself in his resounding voice, “I am Father Raymond Pilette, a Jesuit priest from Calcutta. I am a Belgian, but I have spent more than 40 years in Bengal and in St. Xavier’s College.”
We walked together; we didn’t speak much, except for my respectful directions as his guide. We climbed the flight of 344 steps to a height of 217 feet, carved out of rock, and reached the entrance of the temple. The Hindu Ucchi Pillayar Koil as it was known, and dedicated to Lord Ganesh, was said to have been built in the Dravidian architecture, atop the Rock-fort in the 7th century.
To our disappointment, the welcome board at the entrance read: “Dogs and Christians are not allowed inside the temple.” He looked at me perplexed. A voice from within said to me, “I am an Indian, let me go ahead.” I gathered all my courage and pulled his hand and entered the abode of Lord Ganesh.
We had the darshan of Pillayar Swami and returned freely and cheerfully. The elephant god, said to be one of the two sons of Lord Shiva, was benevolent to us, I believe gods have no religion. My guest was astonished. “How could you do that?” “It is all Lord Ganesh’s blessings Father,” I said.
While we were walking back along Teppakulam Road towards the college, he asked me whether I had been to Calcutta. My meek answer was, “No Father.” He continued in his arresting manner, “You are welcome to visit the City of Joy. I shall be your host; you can visit Mother Teresa and also familiarise yourself with our Jesuit work among Bengali people. They are a gifted people. Bengali is a madhur bhasha, I mean sweet language. Let me know when you decide to come.” On reaching his room we exchanged addresses and I was gone.
The thought of visiting the City of Mother Teresa, the land of the world poet Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, the birthplace of my another hero, Swami Vivekananda, and the cordial invitation of my new Jesuit friend kept me often mentally preoccupied. A month later, I received a few lines of thanks from Father Pilette. He had reminded me about his invitation to Calcutta. He confirmed my thoughts that the Jesuits were extraordinary spiritual men and loyal apostles of Christ.
I had heard about the Jesuits. I had read the lives of John de Britto (Arulanandar as he is known in Tamil Nadu), my childhood hero. I had read Sauliere’s Red Sand innumerable times and was deeply moved by Arulanadar’s heroism for Jesus and His Kingdom. I cherish that I am a Britto Christian. My love for St. John de Britto was the reason why I named the Jesuit Residence at the St. Xavier’s University, Calcutta, as Britto Residence.
I had also read the lives of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier. Francis Xavier was to me what Ignatius was to Xavier at the University of Paris, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” Xavier easily shed his destiny for academic success and sailed to India to set the East on fire by laying the foundation of the light of education and enlightenment.
With my mind clear and my heart at peace to embark on the long journey, I narrated my story and placed my future plan before my affectionate parents. My mother, a transparently devout lady with simple faith, was thrilled. She was overwhelmed with joy. She was like Mary, the Mother of Jesus, praising God for the wonderful things He has done in her life: “God has blessed our family and we have found favour in His sight.” She began preparing for my journey not knowing of course, the long 2,200km journey of her son and the physical separation.
When my train reached Howrah on a hot summer day in June 1973, my good friend, Father Pilette was there to receive me. He was attached to St. Xavier’s College as prefect of the Higher Secondary section and taught Greek, Latin and French.
For the next few days, before I left for Patna for my Jesuit training, he took me around the City of Joy on his Bajaj Club. When my Hindu brothers and sisters celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi, the birth of Lord Ganesh on September 2, I remember the fond memories of this great Jesuit who laid the foundation for two-third of my life in Bengal.
The writer is the vice-chancellor of St. Xavier’s University, Calcutta.