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.”


Yves said...

My second attempt to post a comment here! Thanks for such a worthy memoir of this man. I have met Dutch priests, often retired, who used to go as missionaries to Sabah, North Borneo. And I went to Mill Hill, a college of that order which used to train the priests ready for them to be sent out to the ends of the earth; and even attended Mass there. Last visit to Borneo, I met a retired priest who was very sick and being looked after by nuns in a convent. though I could not understand his language, and though I think his brain had started to deteriorate, he radiated an extraordinary joy and sense of fun. THough probably dying, he happily received an endless stream of visitors, and entertained them, whether as a clown or a saint I cannot determine. I could recount other stories but this is just to say that I can appreciate what you are saying and it is appropriate to commemorate such a person here.

rama said...

Thank you Yves. I attended Fr Beckers' final service today morning. A very moving, mystical, sanctifying experience.

Best, rama

prantar said...

A thoughtful remembrance of a man whose life can't be described even using millions of words.
I am not a direct student of Babu, but was fortunate to get him as the Vice Principal of St Lawrence High School, Kolkata in 1987 which was a "punishment posting" for him to care of his deteriorating health in the city.
However after a short stint, he moved to Kalna, but his health went on deteriorating. Looking at his stooping posture and altered voice, I was unfortunate enough to diagnose Parkinson's disease in 1996 but his early response to the antiparkinsonian drugs was satisfactory. His vision was slowly getting worse and he had also developed atrial fibrillation ( a heart rhythm disturbance ). In his true spirit, he discontinued the drugs after sometime, saying that if he takes such expensive drugs, how would the poor get proper nutritious food. The fall in January was the worst thing to occur. Unfortunately I had to come to Delhi in Jan 2005 and our last meeting was in July 2006 when I visited Kolkata. Bedridden with bed sores, he still refused to take vitamin syrup, saying that he would not take expensive drugs. He wanted a document proclaiming that "fresh blood does not exist" so that patient's relatives are not unduly harassed! This was Father Beckers (Babu). May his soul rest in peace.
Dr Prantar Chakrabarti. AIIMS

rama said...

Thank you Dr Chakrabarti for sharing this. At Fr Beckers' service yesterday, Fr Matthew said that when he got the news of Fr Beckers' passing away, he thought "He must be with the Almighty now". And further, not being one to accept anything without question, as there are several stations and mansions in heaven, he must surely be having an argument with his Maker, saying the arrangement was not proper!

Blessed indeed are all those who came in contact with Fr Beckers.

Best, rama

James said...

Dear Rama

Thank you for the tribute you paid to Fr Beckers. You were able to capture
so eloquently what I am sure many of us were thinking. I too had the
privilege of knowing this marvellous man and wrote a few words on your page.
I attach a copy for your reference as I am unsure if it actually registered.
Feel free to upload it to the page if you wish if indeed it hasn't
registered already.

Kind regards

Jimmy Redden


I also had the privilege of knowing Babu and and remembering fondly the amazing energy that prompted him to do all the things you have captured so well in your tribute Rama. I called on him last year as I was passing through Kolkata. It was nearly six years since my previous visit when I had my two sons with me. He had a carer and was in the throes of his increasingly crippling disease but found time to make us feel welcome as he did with me last year. Like all alumni who arrogantly think they own the college I walked in unannounced and told the receptionist I was there to see Fr Beckers. She asked if he knew me, I said, "I hope so" wondering quietly if indeed I was being presumptuous. She called his phone and immediately said, "yes Fr Beckers will see you." I wound my way up the stairs and enroute stopped briefly to say hello to Gaston Roberge whom I hadnt met since the 70s. When I got to Babu's room he was already out in the corridor, his frail frame barely supported by his walker,he had shuffled out the door in the stifling heat (The Statesman said it was the hottest day of the century) waiting to greet me. He asked me to move the stack of books nearby, all of which I had no doubt he had read avidly, and before I could sit myself down, he asked me how Ryan and Shayne (my two boys) were. Here was I wondering if he would even know who I was let alone two alien teenagers, and he absolutely astounds me by asking after my children - by name. But that was the essence of Babu. He knew how to relate to everyone on such a deeply personal basis. So as not to come away wondering in my astonishment, I asked him how on earth did he remember their names and immediately the sense of humour kicked in. Breaking into his trade mark cheshire cat smile he said, "you know I had my nephew from Belgium here looking after me for six months and I struggle to remember his name, but somehow I seem to remember yours and your boys." And then he shared with me how he looked back and remembered his life in blocks and eras and that I represented the 70s for him. Why wouldn’t I feel privileged? May the angels receive this remarkable man and take him to his eternal reward and may his beautiful soul rest in peace. The world, Belgium and Kolkata are much better places for having had Babu Beckers walk its paths.

Jimmy R

Anonymous said...

Great tribute to Fr. Beckers! I met him last in January 2006. Unfortunately he could not see me as he had lost his eyesight, but remembered all about me as his student and his colleague in the Chemistry Dept. for 14 years. He was my mentor and inspiration always. May the Lord bless him!

Narinder Singh
PS. Nazes Afroz was my student in Chemistry.

rama said...

Hullo Narinder Sir, thank you very much for your visit and comment. I remember you well - I was studying economics at SXC. You and Mr Gautam Kundu started CineXav, and I immediately became a member of that - the Rs 50 annual fee pinched a lot, but it was definitely worthwhile. You arranged screenings for us of West Side Story, High Noon, Nosferatu etc. Where are you now?

Anonymous said...

Hi Rama,

I was involved in the starting of CineXav and Xavotsav among some other activities with the help of many. Prof. Gautam Kundu is in USA and so am I for the last 26 years. You may remember Suranjan Ganguly, a student of English Honours, who is also here. He was possibly your contemporary. My email address is in case you want to get in touch on a personal level.

Those were the days! Take care.

Aniruddha Sen said...

I have come across your write up rather accidentally and much too late. I had attended St. Xavier's between 1962 and 65, doing my honours in physics, and have had the privilege of being Father Beckers' student in one of my pass subjects. Chemistry had always been my bane and, therefore I think, Father (and not prof. Sebastian who was known for his sharp tongue) used to pick me out. I drew closer to him, eventually, for one right and one wrong reason. Reason one:quirks of faith dumped chemistry on my unwilling lap in my professional life and I had to seek his guidance oftener than necessary; reason two: I was working for vocational adult education in a few Bengal villages and crossed the Father's path several times. After hearing about his sad demise I was full of remorse for not having cultivated and continued the relationship. Such sentiments had never bothered me in my younger days but, now that my days too are drawing nigh, I seem to remember such acquaintances from my callow youth who transcended their stations as priests or teachers - towering large, in my view far larger than the so called philanthrophists who are officially remembered but revered by few. Despite being at the extreme end of political faith, I had seen how highly the ordinary villagers used to regard him ... for he was a truly compassionate person.

Nila-kantha-chandra said...

Thank you for your moving message Aniruddha. On the profile page of this blog you will find my email, I would be happy to communicate with you, we seem to share much in common, Fr Beckers, adult education / rural development ...

Soumitra Kumar Mallick (Rana) said...

May Fr. Beckers' soul rest in peace. He was the closest to the Lord Jesus Christ that I have ever come across. As Fr. Goreaux was closest to Prof. Einstein in teaching Vector Algebra. May the SXC also clear another century in their and others' footsteps.

Soumitra Kumar Mallick, SXC, B.Comm. (1983),HS (Science) (1980)
IISWBM, Kolkata 700 073,