Sunday, December 10, 2006
Farewell Fr Beckers
Yesterday evening, while on the internet, I clicked some link and came upon this picture. It is, of course, a familiar image. I had this as the wallpaper on my computer for a time. My friend KT Ravindran, architect and professor, had once told me that this was Jesus the revolutionary, the image preferred by the liberation theologists.
It is an image that is dear to me. I can go on gazing at it, and become immersed in thoughts, feelings and awarenesses. Yesterday, once again, I looked at this image for a while. I remembered Fr G Beckers, sj.
Today morning, I read in the newspaper that Fr Beckers passed away yesterday evening. He was 82.
I am filled with sadness, and flooded with memories.
Gerard Beckers, a Belgian Jesuit, had been a lecturer in chemistry at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, since 1960. He joined the Jesuits in 1944. He obtained his DSc in Chemistry in 1953, and came to India in 1954. He was ordained a priest in 1958. He became an Indian citizen in 1978.
I first saw him in August 1976, when he let my mother and me into the college when we had gone to check the college admissions list on a Sunday morning. I joined the college as an undergraduate. You couldn’t miss Fr Beckers. Tall, well-built, erect, rugged face, aquiline features, a sharp beard, always dressed in white khadi kurta-pyjama, and rubber flip-flops, often on his bicycle. Speaking perfect Bangla, albeit with a slight accent, in his deep, rasping, lilting voice, and his ever warm, kindly, caring bearing, and the twinkle in his eyes. It was difficult not to be drawn to him, like a puppy, and simply look up to and love him.
Besides his classroom chemistry teaching, Fr Beckers was a towering figure in social service in Calcutta, West Bengal and eastern India. He had helped to found, and was associated with, several social and activist organisations and initiatives. As coordinator of the college’s National Service Scheme, he organised numerous flood relief, rural reconstruction, literacy and blood donation programmes. When I was a college student, we had blood donation camps in college every few months. Learning that Fr Beckers had donated blood over 200 times, we too made it a point to donate blood every time. Out of the money given by the Central Blood Bank for the donated blood was the Students' Health Home in Calcutta built and supported.
He was affectionately called "Babu" Beckers, meaning "dear one". He was a source of inspiration for thousands of boys, over several generations of students. He brought many into the fold of social concern and action, moulding committed and thinking activists at an early age. (I just spoke on the phone to Meghnath, in Ranchi. He was my contemporary, and a shishya of Fr Beckers. He is a grassroots activist, working for the rights of the indigenous peoples in the Chhotanagpur region of eastern India.) Fr Beckers had been a source of succour and support to many very poor students from humble backgrounds, whom he helped in various ways to complete their education and stand on their own feet with dignity. He was friend-confidant-counsellor to so many students in their troubles and confusions. Fr Beckers was adored. A giant of a man in every respect, and a most gentle one.
If Jesus Christ needed a living example, an ambassador, Babu Beckers was one.
Calcutta, West Bengal and India were privileged to have been home to Fr Beckers. He was another in a long line of European Jesuits who made themselves one with the soil of India and served the people of this land, a land where the gospel of Christ was first brought by St Thomas himself, two millenia ago, where Jesus Christ himself is believed to have come and lived and travelled. How rich one is simply to have passed through the portals of St Xavier's! He was another of the legendary, awe-inspiring figures of this college. (Fr Goreaux, a mathematician and associate of Einstein, was also a beloved professor here when I was in college.)
I taught (economics) at St Xavier’s College for a while (in 1984-85). So now I became acquainted with Fr Beckers as an adult, as an activist and intellectual, as a colleague. After I quit the job, contact with Fr Beckers came to a close. But I would run into people from time to time, to whom he had been a guru.
A few years ago, I began visiting Fr Beckers once in a while, at his room in St Xavier’s College. I was urged to do so by Fr Huart (another Belgian-Indian-Bengali, who was the Vice Principal during my college years) when I bumped into him during an out-of-the-blue visit with my sons to Outram Park, near the college, a special haunt of mine.
Fr Beckers was long retired. We would chat, we shared books and articles. We talked about so many things! I remember telling him about my travels in the Holy Land, and my favourite place, the Dormition church in Jerusalem (where Mother Mary is supposed to have gone into her final sleep).
Fr Beckers was old and frail, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, and almost blind. But his fire and spirit, though mellow, was still very much alive. He could still think, talk, joke, laugh, reflect. And he was full of his natural loving kindness. How glad I am that I also took my son Rituraj with me once.
Fr Beckers told me about his student Najes Afroz, now a BBC journalist, my contemporary, who had stayed in touch with him. His wife is singer Moushumi Bhowmick. Living in London, Najes and Moushumi's son Arjaan had written an essay in school, on something like "the person who has inspired you the most", about Fr Beckers. He had learnt about Fr Beckers from his father. Arjaan's teacher had been very moved by reading his account, and had written a comment in the note-book lauding such positive parental upbringing. Najes had given Fr Beckers a copy of Arjaan's essay pages, and he shared this to me.
In early 2004, Fr Beckers' 80th birthday was celebrated in Asha Niketan, a mentally challenged persons’ home in Calcutta, an institution he had long been a mentor to. I was there, with photographer Achinto, who had lived and worked in Asha Niketan in his youth. My son Rishiraj was also there. What a beautiful, happy occasion that was!
Being fixed in a groove of daily routine and various preoccupations, I had not visited Fr Beckers for a long time. But I remembered him off and on. Like I did yesterday evening.
Fr Beckers suffered a fall in January and had become bed-ridden after that, his condition progressively worsening. His end came peacefully yesterday evening. His suffering comes to an end, he leaves us to meet his Maker. That is something joyous, yet we grieve his departure. But he will live forever, in the hearts and minds, and through the work and lives, of all those whom he touched.
Fr Beckers had donated his eyes and also pledged his body for medical research. His body will be kept in the college chapel from 7 to 10 am tomorrow morning. A prayer service for him will be held at St Xavier's College at 10 am tomorrow.
I am reminded of the tribute paid to another great guru, Patrick Geddes, by one of his students at Bombay University (where Geddes taught in the 1920s):
"He inspired you; he brought the best out of you; he re-kindled the creative spark in you. It is as a Teacher that he will live in our hearts and memories.
Assuredly there have been very few like him - they hardly come once a century. He just set you on fire with love of this earth and with desire to cleanse it, to beautify and re-beautify it, to build and rebuild it.
What was the secret of his amazing activity? What was his inspiration? It was, we believe, an unbounded love for the humankind with all its faults. No poet, prophet or theologian has regarded man as veritably created in the image of God with a clearer perception, with more absolute certainty of conviction than him."
Farewell, beloved Fr Beckers. Our very grief will once again inspire us to devote ourselves, completely and endlessly, to the service of the people.
“Thy people bless and praise that he may feast in Paradise with Thee.”