Above the roar of the rain outside, I hear Father Bout’s steady shuffle, as he is led into the parlour at Citadel, the Provincial House of the Salesians of Don Bosco in Chennai.
In Kilpauk, where until a decade ago, Fr Bout walked the tree-lined roads engaging with students, passers-by and children, he is seen as a jolly priest whose humour and affable nature are strengthened by his spirituality. The deep pockets of his white cassock held sweets, rubber lizards and small plastic toys that little boys and girls, especially from the slums, helped themselves to unabashedly, in the years when the world was a kinder, gentler and less-judgemental place.
In 1940, Fr Bout joined the Salesian Society founded in the late 19th Century by the Italian priest John Bosco, that works with youth, especially the poor. Most of Fr Bout’s active years were spent in the field of education — as headmaster of the Salesian schools in Vellore, Madras (St Gabriel’s and St Mary’s), Katpadi, Mumbai and Mannuthy (Kerala). “I had a tough time keeping snakes away from the boys, and vice versa, in the green environs of the school,” he says, in a voice tremulous with laughter.
Born Cedric Anthony Bout on Armistice Day — November 11, 1918, that marked the end of the First World War — in Kapu, near Mangalore, he is the first in the Salesian community in India to touch the centenary milestone. Father Bout hails from old Anglo-Indian stock in Tangasseri (Quilon), his childhood with his five siblings coloured by the customs of British India. “My father John Henry Bout was an engineer in the Directorate-General of Lighthouses, maintaining lighthouses in India, Burma and Ceylon. My earliest childhood memory is of living in a house near the sea in Muttom, South India, when I was two-and-a-half years old. My father was posted there, and I remember running down to the shore and then running all the way back in terror because I saw a snake. It was an adventure that ended in tears — I hurt myself on an iron railing. I wanted to go back — my baby brother is buried there — but never had a chance,” he says wistfully.
As Fr Bout grew up, Roman Catholicism was as binding a part of family life as the lighthouses that light up his earliest memories. He started school at St Aloysius, Vepery, followed it up with St Joseph’s, where he gained a double promotion, and completed his education at the Salesian-run St Mary’s. “The Bout family tree is scattered with priests. Attending daily mass was routine,” he says, admitting that when he decided to become a priest, there was no epiphany. “When I graduated from Loyola College in 1938, I wanted to join Madras Medical College.” But, in a quirk of fate, his parish priest introduced him to Fr Carreno, Rector of the Salesian House in Tirupattur, who was in Madras at that time. Fr Bout packed his belongings in a trunk that belonged to his sister and left for Tirupattur, a long road that ended when he was ordained a priest in 1949. “I still have that trunk,” he says, adding, “I was the only graduate among the novices there. Most of them were Italians; some were interned by the Government during the Second World War. I prepared many of them for the graduate exams conducted by Calcutta University. When I first went to Tirupattur, my duties were to water the garden and empty a tank of used water. It was a place full of monkeys which stole bananas.”
Father Bout learned to play the violin and once ordered sheets of music from the US, something he could ill afford. “I paid through money order from money saved from my bus fare. Once, when I defaulted, I was issued a legal notice,” he chuckles.
With a steely determination to get a good deal for his students, Fr Bout used to pay a man to travel from Madras to his school at Katpadi to screen films loaned by the US Consulate. Today, Fr Bout spends his day at mass, reading both spiritual and secular books, and playing Solitaire on his computer. He is also a discerning gourmet. “I love hoppers and stew and Iruttukadai halwa,” he says, breaking open a packet of the famed sweet from Tirunelveli. He offers me some, and long after I’ve turned the corner on the quiet corridor, I can hear the crackle of the foil.
(Source: The Hindu)