by Zain Awan
He has lived in India under all its prime ministers, right from Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru.
Four months after K Asif’s magnum opus, Mughal-e-Azam, hit the silver screens, this man, then a teenager, landed in India.
As his plane descended into Dum Dum Airport, the air-conditioned atmosphere of the cabin was crushed by the heat of Calcutta. A hot start! And the experience has remained hot and cold since then.
Seventy-eight-year old Brendan MacCartaigh is one of the last Irish Christian Brothers in India.
“After a loveless childhood from which I had fled to join anything – by chance it turned out to be the Christian Brothers (CB)– at the age of 14 I went through the normal CB training period, which included meeting with great men along the way,” recalls Br Brendan.
So, an Irishman made a beehive, called Calcutta, his home, undertaking a journey not just on the maps but also an inner one- deep within indeed. “Motives purified from Escape to Commitment, and for three or four years after training I taught in Irish schools. Then at age 22 I was posted to India, flying to Kolkata on December 6 1960,” says Br Brendan fondly.
“Crowds” was the first thing that caught his imagination as he arrived in the city of rickshaws, trams, trains, Ganga and Howrah from Rathmines.
“But no ‘culture shock’ – just “different”. Warm – was wearing Irish anti-cold clothes,” says Br Brendan, adding that, “I remember being surprised when someone saw me reaching for the fan-switch and shouted, Don’t!!”
But that couldn’t deter Br Brendan from switching on to a different life and surroundings altogether.
“Most of my colleagues at that time were Irish Brothers, so community was a sort of oasis of Irishdom in the middle of Kolkata. But very soon I got to like Indians. I didn’t know for a while that no Indian would call her/himself Indian within India, they would say Bengali or Bombayite (then) or Khasi or whatever,” remembers Br Brendan.
The Congregation of Christian Brothers is a Roman Catholic lay congregation founded in Waterford in 1802 after a wealthy businessman of south-east Ireland, Edmund Ignatius Rice, devoted his life to educating the children of the poor and downtrodden.
His piety, over the years, yielded visible results and such strong was the impact that the congregation, in 1820, turned out to be the first Irish order of men to get a formal charter of approval from Rome.
In 1844, businessman-turned-philanthropist ascended to heaven. But like snooker balls, each distinctively different yet identical in purpose, Christian Brothers continued to spread across the world- more often working for the faceless and the voiceless.
At the request of Pope Leo XII, four of Irish Christian Brothers set up their mission in Calcutta right after the Christmas of 1889.
More than a century later, Br Brendan, followed the footsteps of those four brothers. “When I left I expected to be at least 10 years without a home break, and I learned that some of the great heroes I came to live with were as long as 20 years without that break,” tells Br Brendan.
And then.. Br Brendan and India embraced each other.
“As my love for this country grew, and as I also developed a huge respect and regard for Mahatma Gandhi particularly, I decided to wear pajama-kurta instead of the usual European clothes. Ran into quite some flak for that – “Going native, eh?” “why the disguise, think people will mistake you for a brownie?” etc,” the septuagenarian brother remembers clearly.
“Anyway, I’ve stuck with Indian dress comfortably ever since – even though some school-boys have asked in curiosity “Brudder, do you ever wear pants?,” quips the Dubliner.
He criss-crossed India for the Christian Brothers but has spent the majority of his time teaching children in Kolkata near Mother Teresa Home.
“I tried hard – and I mean hard – to learn Hindi, but I have a clinically defective memory that no efforts to improve could heal,” the educationist tells without hesitation.
“Some years later I tried to learn Bengali, for which I paid a lot of money to excellent teachers and went for immersion months and all that. But my memory was by now even more perforated, and it has all seeped away. Even my Hindi, which having been tackled earlier had a better grip, has now narrowed down to comments on the weather and whether the train will be late”, quips the brother.
Amidst the heat and dust of the busy metropolis, the Dubliner, with the zeal of a teenager, continues the legacy of Edmund Rice, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1996
In an era when several young Indians move abroad for greener pastures, here’s a man who never looked back at Ireland just because the call of duty whistled incessantly into his ears.
“Now I am an old man, and though I kissed death twice in my 70s, God decided I hadn’t done enough to earn eternal rest, so here I am still in excellent health, DG, recognizing that old age is given not to rest in but to help others through,” tells Br Brendan as his eyes spark out with passion.
“In practice this has meant helping to run SERVE, an NGO committed to trying to alleviate the suffering of students in India, the horror of the exams every year and the astronomical student-suicide rate in the country has provoked that choice. I have trained in counseling in the USA, and I use that where I can, and I have put together a few books on Stress, on Relationships, on Teens and a few others,” says Br Brendan, who also writes poetry and even composed a song in Gandhiji’s honour, presenting it onstage in Nainital.
Br Brendan is a history unto himself, who has witnessed several changes and turbulations.
Yet, like a true Christian Brother, he never budged from the vision of The Blessed Edmund Rice.
The vision was noble. Challenges.. many- the challenge of empowering the economically poor and socially marginalised youth, through the medium of education- irrespective of caste, colour and creed.
“I recognize the centrality of the atma, God, Yahweh, Allah, Sri Ram – call the deity by whichever title you prefer – in all lives, and I promote that in various ways, firstly within my own heart. A tiny factor I am proud of in this religious thing, where there is so much cultivated hate and rejection, is that I was awarded the Ram Rahim Ekta Manch certificate some years ago in recognition of my efforts to build bridges instead of ramparts between our various persuasions,” says the instrument of love, peace and harmony in a world torn with strife, hatred, bigotry and violence.
However, brighter the sunshine, darker the shadow.
The Brother, in detail and rather emotionally, speaks about the challenges being faced by the Congregation of Christian Brothers.
But, like a true Edmundian, optimism does not, even for a moment, dodges his thoughts and sentiments.
“We are at the moment trying to forge a new identity, of being available to poor people anywhere, for anything, and not just class-room professionals. So communities of our men – all Indian nowadays of course, and great men they are – have found residence in distant poor villages as a presence, ready to help out – not take over – wherever the local need is identified by the villagers themselves. The impact of this mission is predicated on the love that the community – not less nor more than five – have for each other. Disharmony is simply not on, and that level of love is nourished by a lot of prayer and thought and exchange. Yes, our numbers are shrinking, and at a logistical level that’s a problem, but for our meaning in this country – and throughout the world – it isn’t really important,” affirms Br Brendan.
Anyone, who has known or seen from up close an Edmundian, can tell that Br Brendan is an epitome of The Blessed Edmund Rice Ignatius.
“Preach and practice all the variations of love – forgiveness, acceptance, acknowledgement, acquaintance, fidelity, helping, encouraging – all that. Encourage students and whoever else to keep contact with their deity and the associated scripture, if any, on a regular basis,” says the man who has become Indian without losing his own identity, adding that “Edmund Rice has set a mighty high bar.”
Looking back, Br Brendan, surrounded by children, books and some music instruments, seems to be a happy man, who chose India to carry the torch of his congregation, and whom the country also chose.
He might have had a “loveless childhood”, but has grown up to give out love and compassion- in abundance.
Today, Br Brendan can well be termed as a rich man. As The Blessed Edmund Rice Ignatius said, “were we to know the merit and value of only going from one street to another to serve a neighbour for the love of God, we should prize it more than silver and gold.”