The bright industrial grade lamps mounted on the ceiling high above the milling crowds cast a Dickensian light on the faded carriages of the train we were trying to board. A railway station anywhere in India is always an assault on the senses, and Sealdah Junction in Calcutta was no exception. The heat and humidity of a tropical summer, the indistinct and constant babble of the crowds, people jostling each other as sweat poured from their bodies and soaked their cotton garments, random dogs and sometimes a cat who would join in the melee – it was a scene beloved of film directors who want an effective opening shot for their movie, a frame that promises a bounty of action to follow.
With my fellow students from St.Xavier’s College I managed to squeeze into the crowded compartment of the train that would whisk us north through the night towards Murshidabad, the once glorious capital of a kingdom of Muslim rulers in North Bengal. There was not a single seat vacant in the unreserved compartment. The tall white man dressed in a white kurta pyjama whom we were trailing looked around, pulled out a few sheets of old newspaper and laid them carefully and meticulously on the floor of the carriage. The attention to detail was second nature to this professor of Chemistry who also happened to be a Jesuit priest. Since I was not a student of chemistry but a “gentleman of leisure”, as the Rev. Lewis (another of the Jesuit professors who taught us English Literature), referred to those of us pursuing a degree in the liberal arts, I had never seen the Rev. Beckers in the laboratory. Now, surrounded by a sea of brown faces who looked on curiously at this well built foreigner from Belgium, he began to converse with them fluently in Bengali. As he spoke with a twinkle in his eyes the ice was broken and smiles filled the carriage and no one was really surprised when he sat down on his bed of newspapers and prepared to sleep on the floor of the carriage. I followed suit after rummaging for a couple of sheets of newspaper as well.
The guard leaned out of his carriage at the rear and blew his whistle, waving a soiled green flag, the steam engine hooted in the front and with a menacing display of hissing steam and billowing black smoke, it pulled us into the night and into a different world.
It was a fitting introduction to the world that the Rev. Gerard Beckers, S.J. inhabited. He was born in Belgium in 1924, joined the Society of Jesus when he was 20 years old, obtained a Doctorate in Science from the University of Louvain and arrived in India in 1954.
In 1972 my life’s compass had gone haywire when I quit the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla (near Pune) which I had joined in the hopes of ultimately becoming a pilot in the Indian Air Force. What was I to do with my life now? Frankly, I was without a flight plan.
Physics as a subject did interest me, but my poor showing in the math department in High School deterred me from applying for that. An easy solution was to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature since I found it fairly easy to navigate the waters of the Queen’s English!
And so it came to pass that I became a student of St. Xavier’s College in Park Street, Calcutta. In the portals of that hallowed institution I met Babu Beckers for the first time when he made a little presentation about the National Service Scheme of which he was the coordinator. He persuaded me to join their summer work camp in the village of Sherpur where student volunteers would help build a school while living and interacting with the local youth. My rudderless life suddenly found a focus, even if it was to be short lived and temporary.
Over the next three years Babu Beckers became like a father figure to me, helping me to find accommodation in the hostel in the college premises, which saved me from the painful and time consuming commute from Liluah where I used to live. His integrity and passion for empowering the disenfranchised sections of our society was never in any doubt. His commitment to the cause of the youth of Bengal led to the founding of the Student’s Health Home in Calcutta, a landmark achievement during that time. The medical facilities at the Health Home (staffed with volunteer doctors and nurses for the most part) even came to my rescue when on my second stint at the work camp in Sherpur a brick fell on my foot and the wound became septic.
Babu put me in a cycle rickshaw which brought me to Murshidibad railway station from where I hopped on to a train for Sealdah Junction. Once in Calcutta I made my way to the Health Home where doctors promptly and happily attended to my infected foot!
When I completed my university degree and began applying for jobs he was kind and generous enough to provide me with any amount of character references that I needed. Even though he might have hoped in his heart of hearts that I might take up a profession in which I could become an effective agent for social change, he never once let that get in the way of his wanting me to succeed in whatever I wished to pursue. For him it was enough to have planted the seeds of critical thinking and social analysis in a very practical manner. Some of my fellow students who also came into contact with him during that time would go on to achieve great things to effect real change in the institutions that they worked in and to slowly change the way the social fabric draped our different lives from different layers and strata of Indian society.
I moved to Bombay in 1977 in search of greener pastures and slowly began to lose touch with Babu, but certainly not enough to prevent him from officiating at my wedding in 1981 held in my grandfather’s village of Barutola in what is now Jharkhand. He felt at home in this Munda tribal village – he already had a great deal of experience working with the Santhal tribals in the district of 24 Parganas in West Bengal.
When he retired from active teaching in the college he moved to a Santhal village and spent many fruitful years with the people he probably loved the most.
I met him once briefly in 1993 in the little town of Gudalur in the Nilgiris at the house of Stan and Mari Thekaekara – two of his disciples who he had every reason to be extremely proud of – who have over more than three decades made a radical difference to the lives of the erstwhile hunter-gatherer tribes that inhabit the wide swathe of wilderness encompassed by the Bandipur and Mudumali wildlife sanctuaries and the adjoining areas. He was still tall and strong and wearing cotton kurta pyjamas and his feet were shod in a pair of cheap rubber sandals. He greeted me with a twinkle in his eyes and the years melted away. At night he changed over to a lungi to sleep in and I recalled the dark green lungi he used to wear in Sherpur while studying the Koran in Sherpur….. nothing had changed! His commitment to India was never in any doubt – he had given up his Belgian identity and devoted his life to learning and adopting the language and culture of the people that he worked with. He never ever preached religion and this endeared him to people of other faiths where his admirers numbered in the hundreds – he was a true man of God and his actions were enough to convey his spirituality.
More than 10 years later, in 2005, I climbed the stairs to the floor where his room was located at St. Xavier’s college to meet him – he had been advised to move back to a room in the residential part of the building as his health had been fading rapidly in the last couple of years. When my older brother Niral and I passed through the wooden slatted swing half-doors to his room I was more than a little shocked at what I saw.
Babu was propped up on his bed, a shadow of his former robust self. Whatever had been ailing him had taken a physical toll and he was looking gaunt and feeble, not at all like I remembered him. A lump formed in my throat as I greeted him. I said my name aloud to him and in a split second recognition dawned on his face and the wrinkles creased in that familiar smile. The decades of separation seemed to magically melt away and it seemed I was back in college as an eager scholar with my whole life ahead of me. Babu chuckled as he talked at great and detailed length about all the people we knew in common. He updated me on their various lives and professions. He talked about the giant strides of progress made in the village of Sherpur, how the little seeds of change that we had planted through the work of the NSS had borne bigger and better fruit. His memory was acute and he surprised me by dredging up details about my family members that I could hardly expect anyone to remember!
As we talked the late afternoon light was fading outside his room, slanting sun rays illuminated his animated blue eyes which he had already pledged to donate when the time came, and I sensed that I was witnessing the slow fading away of a life which had touched and changed the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who had come in contact with Babu.
Soon the time came for an attendant to dress him up for the evening mass to be held in the chapel on the ground floor. We said our goodbyes to Babu as we went down in the old elevator. With the help of a walker Babu made his way slowly to the front row of the chapel to sit among his fellow priests. As the chanting of prayers began to fill the church and the murmur of the faithful assembly rose up to fill the rafters, I could just about see the back of Babu’s head from where we sat in the rear pews. His silver hair reflected the dim lights above him as he bowed his head in reverent contemplation. It was the last I saw of him.
In December of 2006 I received word of him having passed away. A life well lived had ended, leaving a vibrant legacy of social change through the many dynamic souls whom he had inspired.
In the words of Shakespeare, these lines from the speech by Marc Anthony sum up Babu’s life perfectly :
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man”
Further reading : the following book, published in May 2011 can be ordered from
Goethals Library & Research Center, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata 700 016, India.