Over a half-century in India, love has never failed
Traveling is a rare privilege in life. Last month, in order to attend a post-wedding reception hosted by our new son-in-law’s family in India, I got to fly halfway around the world – about 8,200 miles – to Pune, which with a population of 3.7 million makes it only the eighth-largest city in India.
Forget for a moment that the entire state of Louisiana has 4.65 million residents. Pune’s 3.7 million – living in 260 square miles – qualifies as a veritable rural outpost when compared to Mumbai’s (Bombay’s) 16.3 million, Calcutta’s 13.2 million and Delhi’s 12.8 million.
One of the most striking visuals in Pune (pronounced POO-nay), particularly for someone helicoptering in from the other side of the planet, is the way in which a teeming human populace shoehorns into a street grid squeezed by vendors selling everything from okra to electronics to curry-laced fast food.
Cars, scooters, bicycles and “auto rickshaws” – anything with two, three or four wheels – weave in and out in choreographed chaos. Sitting in the back seat without my hands on the steering wheel or my foot on the brake, I reimagined myself as a boulder in whitewater rapids.
White lines on the asphalt are mere suggestions. Turn signals are incredibly optional equipment.
Kind of made me homesick.
Even more striking was the total nonchalance of it all. Except for the constant beeping of horns – just to let your car paint know it should protect itself – blood pressure remained remarkably stable.
One scooter told the story: Three young women, sharing the seat, showcased their gymnastic balance. The woman in the trail position held onto the girl in front of her with her left hand while carrying on a cell phone conversation with her right.
Catholics comprise about 3 percent of the population in Pune, which makes for a special bond among those who fervently practice the faith. Our son-in-law’s father Ashley Fernandes, who is Catholic, introduced us to Sister Valerie Siqueira, who leads the ministry of the Missionaries of Christ Jesus (M.C.J.) in Pune.
Sister Valerie gave us a tour of the community’s convent, a former residence. The chapel where daily Mass is celebrated each morning has floor pillows for kneelers, no pews.
For the last 20 years, Sister Valerie has worked with marginalized women, who previously had been victims of loan sharking, to form their own banking circles. The women collectively save their rupees, and they organize and disperse small loans to other women members for tuition, home improvements and other major necessities.
Instead of paying 15 to 20 percent interest to loan sharks, the women pay 0.5 percent interest to the women’s circle bank, and their lives have been drastically improved. Sister Valerie said it took many years for the women, most of whom have no formal education, to trust her plan of pooling their savings.
The only people upset by the self-help program have been the predatory lenders, who wonder what those Catholic nuns are up to.
Sister Valerie is very careful not to step over the line by proselytizing in a heavily Hindu and Muslim country, but she says her sisters are spreading God’s love by helping women of all faiths lift themselves out of poverty. It was an amazing encounter with an amazing woman.
The second amazing moment came at our daughter’s reception on Feb. 21. Ashley and Neela, our daughter’s new in-laws, introduced us to several of Ashley’s former classmates from St. Stanislaus School in Mumbai.
Because Ashley contracted polio at age 1 after drinking tainted water, he always needed assistance to get to and from school. One day, the man who was supposed to pick him up got sidetracked and couldn’t make it, meaning Ashley had to miss a day.
“When I came back to school the next day, the priest asked me why I hadn’t come to school the day before, and I told him my story,” Ashley recalled.
Then, without Ashley knowing it, the priest quietly asked for students to volunteer to bring him to and from school every day and help him up the stairs with his books.
“About five or six boys signed up,” Ashley said. “The idea was that they could rotate the days so that the responsibility wouldn’t fall on one person.”
That was more than 50 years ago. At the reception, every boy who was a part of Ashley’s transportation team – the ones who put him on the front of their bikes and carried him up the stairs – showed up and gave Ashley a big hug.
Love never fails. You can read that in Corinthians. You could experience it in Mumbai and Pune.