Today is my dad’s 101st birthday. February 13, 2017.
In Vedic thinking, odd numbers are more desirable than even ones. I wrote a tribute for his 100th birthday, but the 101st calls for it in equal measure.
Some time in approximately 1958 and 1959, my father, in his ever-activist, ever-innovative mode, embarked on a mission.
He challenged the youth members of the Chepad MarThoma Church (I don’t recall if there were any age constraints as such) to memorize Paul’s Letter To The Romans: Chapter 8. (Paul as in The Apostle and the Letter is the one he wrote to the early church in Rome.) The whole chapter. ‘Roma Lekhanam, Ettam Adhyayam’, as he called it.
In return, anybody who masters this inscrutable piece of scripture would receive from him personally, the gift of a Bible that he would purchase with his own funds, from the CLS Book Depot in Thiruvalla.
A Bible in those days cost five rupees.
If there is anything, you have to read this narrative in the context of ‘5 rupees of 1959’. Trust me when I say, it was ‘a lot of’ money. It was roughly one twentieth of my dad’s monthly salary. And this is from someone who was reluctant to buy my sister and me any fancy clothes for fear it’d spoil us from being studious. whatever.
So the contest commenced.
To the unanticipated discovery of both my parents, a staggering number of the church youth paraded to him one by one, over the course of days, weeks, or months, and walked away with this coveted Holy Book. To the point it exhausted his funds.
We have to realize that many, if not all, of them were attempting at this unique contest for the sole purpose of owning a Bible. Such was the fervor then.
At that point, instead of casually pulling out of the initiative altogether and leaving the kids feeling let down, he added a condition, that the passage had to be recited without a single mistake. He had not been strict about it prior. even that didn’t stop the eager learners. They kept coming.
Then out of mild desperation, Papaji stipulated a deadline by which the task had to be completed.
Meanwhile, I came home from the Nicholson (Boarding) School, finishing what was then called First Form (equivalent to today’s sixth standard), for what I anticipated would be my lazy days of summer, unaware of the ongoing undertaking. Amma mentioned it first with a great deal of admiration for the venture, and Papaji subsequently extended this most unwelcome challenge to me.
I had already owned a Bible, (a gift from the said parents), a leather-bound one with my full name, Mercy Mariam Oommen, engraved on the front. The School had mandated that we arrive with our own Bibles. This Bible is still proudly displayed on our coffee table.
So ownership of a new Bible would not be an incentive for me to memorize Romans 8.
For one, Papaji just simply wanted me to learn Romans 8.
Secondarily, he wanted to make certain that I could do what any of those youngsters were putting their hearts and souls into. I was barely ten.
extremely reluctant at first, even resistant, I eventually set about the task as if it’d be a piece of cake. After all, rote memorization was my forte, right?
Wrong. And wrong. It was anything but sweet.
A reader, I was. A reader of Paul’s long letters to a bunch of newly minted Christians in faraway Middle Eastern churches, I was not. Tedious in language and cryptic in meaning, this was also without any intrigue as in fairy tales. ‘Boring’ would be another word.
In English, we have countless Bible versions: The KJV, The Revised Standard, The Good News, The New International, The Children’s (wish we had those), to name some. In Malayalam, there was and is, still the One Version. Boy, was it ever a pain?! Torturous, actually.
Summer days were coming to a rapid close. The rains were beckoning from the moisture-swollen Western Ghats. Along with it, Second Form at Nicholson. and I went to papaji to recite. And suffered through the recitation with one or two errors. And was pretty proud of the feat. and even more so, was very sure nobody had done it better.
I mean, how could they possibly?
To my utter dismay, I saw my dad for the first time in my life that I can remember, being a tad disappointed in me as I had never seen him before. I made one or two mistakes. (It may have been more than just two, but hey, who’s counting?) What is the big deal, right? I don’t recall where and which ones. All I remember is my sadness in making him be not proud. I distinctly remember that part.
It came down to this. He considered me the recipient of some privileged schooling, (and I was), in a way most church kids were not. And he simply expected more. And this exercise meant so much to him.
Let me come to the point.
I don’t remember any longer a single verse from Romans 8.
Except this: the words that have stuck all these years: ‘maranathino jeevano, doothan-marko, vazhchakalko adhikarangalko, ippol-ullathino varuvan-ullathino, uyarathino azhathino, karthavaya kristhu-yeshu…’
“for I am certain that nothing can separate us from His love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below-there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Verses 38-39
Thus, I may go astray, I may neglect to attend church regularly, I may forget to pray twice or even once daily, I may occasionally question the Eucharist for how it has evolved over the years, and for the current form in which it is practiced (for my take, I believe what Jesus intended for us was, to sit in a semi-circle, share a meal and treat each other as family, but what do I know?), I may go visit Matha Amrithanandamayi (I have – more than once), I may go to the Sri Lakshmi Temple (been there), I may visit the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple (done that), I have trod the red tiles inside the Jama Masjid, heck, I may even go to Kashi some day and set my foot in the Ganga – something I really want to do in fact,
But nothing, none of it, will separate me from the love of Jesus Christ.
I do not know if scholars will concur on the essential meaning of these lines, nor do I presume to know what Paul Apostle had in mind. It doesn’t matter. (I’ll happily entertain any alt-theories).
And this is my wish. I hope dearly that all those youth leaguers who took heart of these much-quoted verses all those years ago, (and there were so many of them), now in the golden or diamond years of their lives, will also be reminded of the same.
And that they’ll remember my dad with fondness.
Happy Monday the Thirteenth…