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Friday, December 18, 2009

A Tale of One Man & Two Countries

Tushar Bhatt

Two Countries, One Life—Encounter of Cultures, By Carlos G. Valles, published by Gujarat Sahitya Prakash,PB 70, ANAND 388 001,Gujarat, printed pages 246, price Rs.150.

It is the cover page of the book, with its title, Two Countries, One Life, in soft yellow that catches the attention first and then the interest is quickened by the sub-title, Encounter of Cultures. A thought comes to the mind: Oh, no! Not one more learned thesis on terrorists, terrorism and clashes of civilizations.

Mercifully, it does not turn out to be so. On the contrary, it is a story told by a soldier of peace, a teacher and preacher who has spent 50 years of life in India, enjoying and spreading joy all around. Till a few years ago, going around on a bicycle, he was so familiar a figure for the people of Ahmedabad that even a child would win a quiz by spotting him as Carlos G.Valles, SJ, better known as Father Valles.
Even at the risk of being dubbed a member of the complementation society, it should be stated that the Gujarati language has been enriched a lot by super Gujaratis like Kaka Kalelkar and Father Valles.
Father Valles, who has been prolific in Gujarati, comes now in his 74th year with his first offering in English. The 246-page book will attract a lot of attention among the Non-Resident-Indians because it tries to resolve the identity crisis of those who have gone away. The author takes a down-to-earth look at the question of Who Am I? It is so simple and direct a discourse that it ignites his readers’ minds too. You need not worry about anything else since Father Valles does not seek to imply anything about religion. He comes across convincingly because of this secular trait.
It is quite reassuring to discover that the identity crisis just does not haunt Gujaratis, or Indians, alone. Even a person like Father Valles faces the same dilemma.
He began exploring his on mindscape after having been away from his homeland, Spain, for half-a-century, lending a maturity to his narrative. At the same time, it debunks the argument that the identity crisis is yet another form of home sickness, something akin to sea sickness or jet leg. Time does not heal the identity crisis; perhaps, with the ticking away of the clock and days turning into months and years, a lifelong feeling of rootless ness bothers some people even more.
What sounds as merely sentimental at home, hits as mighty nostalgia abroad. When ghazal singer Pankaj Udhas sings abroad a nostalgic number, Chitthi Aayee Hai Watanse Chitthi Aayee, a whole lot of the aged in the audience sob and shed tears. A very few of them are abroad against their own wishes. Most of them went there willingly, in search of greener pastures.
Father Valles’s own experience when he was planning a visit to Spain, the land of his birth, gives a valuable insight in this phenomenon. He was chatting with late Umashankar Joshi, poet and an icon of all that is civilised in Gujarat.Father Valles told the poet, “ I am planning to go abroad.”
The poet : “ Do you mean you are going to Spain?”
FatherValles: “Yes.”
The poet: “Do you notice how you have said it?”
Father Valles: “What do you mean?”
The poet: “ Do you notice how matter-of-factly you have pronounced the word abroad?”
Father Valles: “ Well, I suppose so.”
The poet: “ You see you are a Spaniard, you have now been in India for a number of years, have learned the language, have identified with the people and now that you are going to your own country, you say you are going ‘abroad’. And you say it so naturally that even you have not noticed it.”

The poet continued: “ No Englishman posted for duty in India under the British Raj would have said,’ I am going abroad’ when he was going back to England on furlough, whatever the number of years he might have been in India.”

For Father Valles India had now become his home.

For how many of our NRIs, the place away from India where they have lved for years,has become their “home” as it has happened in the Spaish monk’s life—not a consciously made decision but an automatic change of which even he was unaware till Umashankar pinpointed it for him.

Father Valles frankly conceded that he had spent 24 years in Spain, and double that number in India. In India and in Spain he had felt something in common. He felt at home in both the countries.

This is at the root of the entire book, an exploration reportage that takes on a mystic aura every now and then as the good Father, as if engaged in a very private dialogue with the reader. The reader feels convinced that the book was especially written for him/her.

The style of writing is simple,direct,chatty and without any literary pretensions. It has brought Father Valles a huge readership for his Gujarati books. He has meticulously stuck to it in his first English volume.

Perhaps, Father Valles has a natural gift of being able to view a mundane matter with a hidden spiritual eye. That eye does not report to his mind, but his heart, and leads to a spontaneous flow of words. His heart, it would appear,transfers words on to the paper, with the hand acting as a stenographer and the mind going into silence.

The entire book, divided into 39 chapters, is easy on the eye but making profound impact on the mind and heart of a reader. Each chapter is hardly 3 or 4 pages long, which the pundits say is the preference of TV spoilt modern readership.

Skilfully interwoven into the basic fabric of the book is the story, or at least a good helping of Father Valles’s own life. But he is so good a story teller that he succeeds in making the reader believe that Father Valles is not the hero, focal point of the book, but only a sutradhar. A sutradhar’s nearest equivalent in English could be compere or anchor, but somehow neither word seems adequate.
Calling people like himself immigrants, Father Valles takes the reader on a guided tour of the issues involved. He puts several dilemmas before the reader, imagining him as an immigrant. Who am I? This is the first question a new immigrant might pose to himself. Do I belong to the country of my origin or of adoption? What should he do, for instance, where he finds the two pitted against each other on a battle ground or even a play ground? Such a situation is commonplace in the UK when Indian cricket team play against England. What language, mother tongue or the other tongue is now an immigrant’s? The same tests are for culture and traditions.
Father Valles says the first generation had a clear idea who they were because they had newly arrived with green memories of their roots but the second generation immigrants are on the horns of a dilemma. The were unsure of their identity. They were more remote from their past and were yet to establish in their present.
The author notes that their split allegiance might cause confusion, pointing out that terrorist attacks in recent past were at the hands of second generation immigrants.
However,Father Valles is not a standard-bearer of gloom. He swings to the positive side. There are plus points too in the double allegiance—two languages, two backgrounds, two cultures, two countries in one life. The immigrants, in fact, are uniquely placed. They have the rare opportunity to lead two lives in one life time. “If we find out how to weave them together, how to make the old timers and new comers have a better rapport, immigration can be a good thing.”
This is an enticing promise for a socially, culturally, emotionally better integrated life. It will truly be a blessing of immigration.
Presently, immigrants face a personal identity crisis which has begun to find expression in public explosive situations. That will be a threat posed by immigration.
It is in our hands to make a choice between avoiding the threat and embracing the blessing.

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