Religion and me (1)
How I was brought up in religious surroundings, and how it affected my youth and adult life
Before we embark on this trip, I need to give you some background. I was born the son of a German who had fled the Nazis before WWII to the British colonies, and a Portuguese-Indian mother, in the coastal city of Bombay, India. My father was from Catholic Bavaria, my mother grew up in the very devout Portuguese Catholic colony of Bandra. She and her family there were quite pious, their days were filled with worship of the creator.
Much of my early childhood was spent in Lonavala, a small town on the slopes of the Western Ghats, India. It was a favourite of the erstwhile British colonialists, and we had a very nice house there. I also spent a lot of time with my Uncle Paul and Aunt Trudy Stein, who had an agricultural research facility, some distance outside Lonavala, in the middle of the jungle. My father was a snake expert and had set up a lab on Paul and Trudy’s farm. There we spent all our free time, with me roaming the jungles, Mowgli-style, getting into (and out of) all kinds of trouble. I have written many articles on my father’s migration to India and my childhood in the jungles.
It was a gorgeous childhood, full of adventure. But at some stage the necessity for schooling meant we had to spend most of our time in the city, where we had a very nice flat. I have described in this article. I was put into the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a Catholic kindergarten.
The place was, of course, run by Catholic nuns, with life dominated by their faith and beliefs. We were taught reading, writing, arithmetic—for example the times tables, which have stuck in my mind until today. All of this was interspersed with prayer and religious instructions, much of it surrounding “baby Jesus”, whose childhood was narrated in good fairytale fashion. We were brought up as devout little Christians.
Then came proper school. I was registered in the upper-class European Campion High, run by Jesuits, which, like the convent, is still going strong.
In Campion religious instructions continued. We had regular bible classes and were taught all the common prayers and rituals. We regularly attended mass in the school chapel.
At the age of seven came “confirmation”, one of the three initiation sacraments — the other two are Baptism, administered shortly after birth, and Holy Communion, which comes a few years later.
Schooling meant less time in the jungles. We went there during the holidays, and often over the weekends. Sometimes we spent the latter in Bandra, where my aunt Jessie (third from the right in the picture above) spoilt me rotten. She did not have children and I was ersatz. She cooked the most delicious sea-food meals for me, took me to the beach, to playgrounds, fairs, bazaars — and to the churchyard. It was the burial site for the community, and aunt Jessie would tell me stories about the friends and acquaintances lying beneath the engraved tombstones.
A great deal of society centred around death in the community. If somebody was close to dying, people would quickly gather around — friends, relatives, but even strangers — waiting for the moment of passing. One or more priests would stand around, administering last rites and leading everyone in prayer.
As a young boy I was taken to at least three such passings. The other “spectators” would instruct me to watch out for the moment when the soul leaves the body. Many professed to having seen it. But try as I might, I never succeeded in doing the same.
When my father approached 70, he could no longer take the intense heat and humidity of Bombay. He bought a beautiful house in the “garden city” of Bangalore, located on the Deccan Plateau, around 1000 metres above sea level. For a few years, before we moved into it, I was sent to a boarding school in Bangalore. It was, of course, a Catholic school run by Jesuits, and I was subjected to the final phase of my religious upbringing. This I will narrate in the second part of this series.