2016-06-30
Growing up in Calcutta, I went to a good convent school--arguably one of the best in the city--where morning Assembly was held at 7:45 sharp. While rows of us girls sang "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me," I would start to squirm as I caught the eye of a Hindu classmate, one of my closest friends.

I steeled myself for her angry post-Assembly outburst against all "your" stupid Jesus songs. She said "your" because I am Catholic--but not a straightforward unapologetic Catholic with a name like Patty Egan or Anna Rodriguez.

Instead, I am something more complex: My father is Hindu, a Bengali Brahmin. My mother is a South Indian Catholic. My first name, Rupali, is very Indian, very Bengali, just like my surname, Ghosh. But sandwiched between all this traditional Hinduism was the hateful baptismal name I went by--Rachel--which sounded absurd to my Hindu friends. I was raised Catholic, and my name told everyone I was different.

Among India's Hindu urban upper middle classes, there is a huge amount of contempt for Indian Catholics, who are stereotyped as being economically disadvantaged and generically lower caste. Catholics, especially of mixed parentage, remain pretty much on the outer rim of society. I grew up in an environment and a society where the bias seeped into our life at home. My Hindu grandmother would often tell me, "When you become 18, you must go to the Arya Samaj temple and perform the suddhi"--referring to a ritual that reinitiates people into Hinduism. At a cocktail party thrown by one of my father's more ostentatious and boorish friends, a gentleman well tanked with imported Scotch told my dad: "If you had to marry a Catholic, you should have at least married a foreigner."


Being branded "Rachel" made me a mixed outsider in the elite circle of my upper middle class Hindu friends. Choir practice, catechism classes, church during school hours every Friday in Lent--all these hateful activities separated me from my Hindu friends, who were exempt from them.

There would be little barbs. "My dadu (grandfather) once said that all Catholics in India are lower-caste people who were converted by the British," announced one of my classmates one day. I ignored it then, but for years, that statement would always make me feel that little-bit-less-than-equal to "thoroughbred" Hindus.

To mask my insecurity, I started being aggressively anti-Catholic. I was still too young to rebel against my family, so Sunday Mass continued. But I began rebelling in smaller ways at school. I'd openly declare my great belief in Darwin's theory of evolution. (Though the Vatican never officially denounced evolution, my school's nuns stuck with the Adam and Eve story.) Once I debated the subject so hotly during catechism class that the enraged Irish nun in charge of us labeled me "the devil's agent." That thrilled me no end and earned me several valuable brownie points with my Hindu friends. Suddenly, I graduated from being just another stupid, brainwashed, converted Catholic girl.

Throughout my middle school and high school years, my Catholic identity continued to be a burden and an embarrassment. "But it is only 50% of me," I would explain to everyone. "The other half of me is Brahmin Hindu."

Once I reached college, I dropped the name Rachel. I refused to use it on any ID. I joined a co-educational college run by Jesuit priests (Christians have a near-total monopoly on India's best educational institutions) but kept my Catholic half a closely guarded secret. I would not attend the mandatory ethics class for Catholics and stayed away from the Catholic students' union.


My first year in college was also the year I stopped attending the Corpus Christi procession, an annual event in Calcutta, where Catholics from all over the city congregate for the huge procession. It is one of the community's most public appearances. "I am not going for that monkey dance with all those tribal Catholics," I told my sisters, referring derogatively to the large numbers of Catholics who came in from the suburbs and rural villages for the festival. I would often make disparaging remarks about tribal Catholics in public (they were the low-caste converts, I wasn't).

When I began my first job as a journalist in Calcutta, I dropped every trace of my Catholic identity. I made it a point to become Mother Teresa's most vocal critic (this despite the fact that some strange impulse led me, for a couple of months, to become a volunteer at her home for the dying), just in case anyone thought I had Catholic affiliations. Around that time, I got involved with a Hindu colleague, and all my Sunday church morality came unstuck. Suddenly, French kissing didn't mean having to go guilt-ridden to confession on Saturday evening, get down on my knees and say, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned..."

I have been working for five years now. For three of those years, I did not see the inside of a church. Then several things happened: The guilt-free relationship disintegrated, and my 5-year-old cousin died, suddenly, inexplicably, of some kind of infection. I also lost my Hindu
grandmother, a close and trusted friend, despite her feelings about my Catholic upbringing. I started to feel the urgent need for an anchor.

A few months ago, I hesitantly re-entered my parish church to test the waters. A Hindu friend, on hearing of my visit, wryly commented, "It's a case of old habits dying hard." Maybe. Or it could simply be a case of growing up, feeling more conviction about who I am and what my roots are. Even if that means accepting low-caste ancestors who were converted by the British.

I am still confused, or maybe a bit rebellious. I haven't yet been able to go back to the once-a-week church routine. But I do go every three or four weeks, and it gives me a feeling of security and balance. I sense my own ambivalence--my Catholic name still doesn't appear on my passport--but there may be a time when I'll find I want it there.

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