ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Staying Connected

Keralites keep their traditions alive in New Delhi

It is 9:30 p.m. when the mobile phone rings in the living quarters of St. Clare Hostel for Working Girls – a home in New Delhi for young single women from the Indian state of Kerala, some 1,500 miles south of the Indian capital.

Luby Thomas and seven other women, with whom she shares a three-room apartment and use of the phone, jockey for position around the chirping device.

All compete to catch the first glimpse of the number on the phone’s display. The din of their voices reaches a feverish pitch.

Finally, Ms. Thomas connects the flashing number to a real person. She lets out a screech in her native language, Malayalam, grabs the phone and bolts to another room for more privacy.

For most women in their early 20’s – living for the first time away from home in what can be an unforgiving metropolis – a call from mom or dad is just what they need to get through another day.

But for this crop of Keralite immigrants, members of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches, their dream call tonight is not from a relative or friend in Kerala. Rather, it is from a potential date, perhaps a handsome colleague or an accomplished man listed in a church marriage bureau registry.

Ms. Thomas, who at age 22 has already earned a master’s in business administration, describes the outlook of her Keralite girlfriends. “All the girls here are single,” she says frankly. “After marriage they will have to stay with their husband’s family, they will need to be at home. So now we are trying to enjoy our independent life.”

Independent life for them does not entail remaining in Kerala, where opportunities are scarce, the pace of life, slow. Instead, it means exploring the world, developing a career and saving up for a dowry.

“Even a rickshaw driver,” says one of the young women, “demands a dowry of 1 lakh [about $2,000].”

For these young women, their adventure begins just as their neighbors back in Kerala advised them, with a safe landing at one of the nine hostels in New Delhi run by religious communities for women.

The sisters, who like their tenants hail from Kerala, understand the pitfalls facing these women and have established a support system to guide new arrivals. For 550 rupees ($12) a month in rent – less than half the market rate – a single girl from Kerala receives a place she can afford and, more important, a place to call home.

The value of the sisters’ support is not lost on Ms. Thomas. “New Delhi is so different from Kerala,” she says. “Here I have to take care of myself in a place I don’t know, with people I don’t know and in a system I don’t know. The sisters’ help is needed. Here at St. Clare’s we are best friends. If I stayed with people speaking a different language, I would be homesick, but everyone here speaks my language, so I don’t miss home.”

Restless in Kerala. Today, both Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics are flocking from Kerala to New Delhi in numbers that would make any pilgrimage organizer proud. Except in their case, the reward they seek is economic, not spiritual.

Kerala’s predominantly agrarian economy is stagnant. Annual household income hovers near $400, barely enough for a family to live on. Chronic unemployment has reached 35 percent among the educated, with 15- to 29-year-olds suffering the most.

Considering that Kerala has the highest literacy rate of any state in India (91 percent) and an army of well-educated but unemployed youth with job skills in high demand elsewhere, small wonder the migrant trail is so well-worn.

While thriving economic centers closer to Kerala, Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune, have lured their share of restless Keralites, so too has New Delhi, with its many job opportunities. An estimated 45,000 Syro-Malabar and 7,000 Syro-Malankara Catholics reside in the capital.

Father Abraham Vettuparambil from the Syro-Malankara New Delhi Mission claims that only 300 Syro-Malankara Catholic families lived in the city in 1978.

Keralites first settled here 30 years ago, while others have just recently disembarked at the New Delhi train station. Some have arrived with large families. Others, such as Ms. Thomas, came unmarried.

Some plan to remain in New Delhi. Others, like the Keralite nurses who fill a staggering 85 percent of all nursing positions in the city’s hospitals, will use this stop as a springboard to the Middle East, United Kingdom and the United States, where an acute shortage of skilled nurses persists. Still others, a tiny minority, hope to return to Kerala with a financial nest egg.

While their job prospects and ambitions vary, these Christians all share a common tie – a Keralite culture and spiritual heritage out of step with New Delhi society. Together, they face the challenge of preserving their identity amid a Hindu majority, a stiff caste system and a lifestyle in the capital that more closely resembles that of the West than Kerala’s.

Cultural ties. K.J. Devasia, a Syro-Malabar Catholic who has lived in New Delhi for 25 years, looks forward to his Friday evenings. After a long week at his government post, he and his wife, a nurse at a government hospital, waste no time getting to their neighbor’s home in central New Delhi for the prayer meeting with eight other Syro-Malabar Catholic families.

The meeting begins with the men passing out prayer sheets. The women mingle, looking radiant in their brilliant colored saris, a welcome departure from the Western-style clothing many of them wear to work. For the next hour and a half, they sing and pray together the same way they would back in Kerala.

As is the trend across many neighborhoods in the capital, this group of Syro-Malabar Catholic families has united in a manner beyond faith. Mr. Devasia explains the dynamic. “It’s not like we’re not friendly with neighbors from other places,” he says, “but with our Keralite neighbors there’s a deeper level of trust, understanding and selflessness. If a family needs financial help, we provide it. If someone is sick, we take him to the hospital. Honestly, our closest friends are mostly Keralites.”

Nevertheless, the influence of New Delhi society on their lives is pervasive. Mr. Devasia and his wife see its effect on their children. “My daughter will not wear a sari,” says Mrs. Devasia. “She wears jeans, because in New Delhi the young all follow Western fashion.”

To help preserve their Keralite identity, neighborhood groups have started to organize and take action. In an east New Delhi neighborhood, Keralite residents recently formed a Malayalee Association to bring together Keralites of all faiths, strengthen communal ties and look out for one another. Another group has formed the Kerala Education Society, which has already established four elementary schools to instill Keralite values and teach Malayalam.

Beyond Sunday liturgy. When Father Sebastian Vadakumpadan, the first Syro-Malabar Catholic priest assigned to the New Delhi region, arrived here in 1991, he found a disconnected faith community.

“For many years there was no proper Syro-Malabar pastoral care,” he says. “Our people were taken care of by the Latin Church. They got used to the existing system and began to lose their identity. From the start there should have been people trained in their own rite to help them keep up their traditions; it is easier to live the faith in one’s own tradition.”

The increase of Syro-Malabar Catholic clergy in New Delhi is evidence that the priest’s message has been heard. Today, 17 priests and 150 sisters work here, quite a change from when Father Vadakumpadan blazed the trail 13 years ago.

Syro-Malankara Catholics have undergone a similar transformation, adding five priests to the region in recent years.

Syro-Malankara Catholic lay leaders have organized 14 prayer groups, established a summer camp for children to learn about the Bible, spirituality and the liturgy.

In 2001, they inaugurated Baldeep. “This organization is for children born and raised outside Kerala for whom it remains a challenging task to adhere to their traditions and heritage,” says Rinci Babu, president of Baldeep. “In this fast moving world, temptation is always there to cling to a new way of life and gear up according to the pace of the world.”

Father Vettuparambil is sensitive to the complexities of life for his flock in New Delhi. “The longer they are here, the harder it becomes to preserve their traditions,” he says. “So if we don’t adapt to local custom, we fear we might lose them.”

With that in mind, Keralite clergy have made important adjustments and taken creative measures to keep their church relevant. For example, Syro-Malankara Catholic priests now celebrate the liturgy in the national language of Hindi, not Malayalam, so that youngsters, who do not speak the local Keralite language, are able to follow. They also teach catechism in Hindi, with textbooks in Hindi.

Father Vadakumpadan has discovered a more unusual role to serve Syro-Malabar Catholics in New Delhi: the long-practiced Indian tradition of matchmaking. It is not the most obvious function for a church to play, but not entirely surprising given the tough task Keralites in New Delhi have in finding a compatible life partner.

“We have a marriage bureau here with 50 or 60 registered names,” the priest says as he flips through the registry book. “For many girls coming from conservative families in Kerala they don’t easily go out and find a boy. So we try to help them.”

Hardships and solutions. Despite the progress they have made in New Delhi, both the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches face serious handicaps in their work.

Neither community has a true parish to call its own; instead both use Latin parishes for their activities.

For Father Vadakumpadan, this is a concern. “We depend on the existing infrastructure and good will of the Latin parish,” he says. “While we have the freedom to conduct two or three services per week in our own rite, we very often don’t get prime time. So our people often attend the Latin liturgy.”

Still, the priest is hopeful. “We should be able to buy some small pieces of land on the periphery of New Delhi for our own use – Sunday liturgies, catechism, a nursery, a chapel to house the Blessed Sacrament. That way we could take care of the pastoral needs of the people.”

Syro-Malankara Catholic priests face the same problem. To hold services in the neighborhood of Vasant Kunj, they have converted the living room of their three-bedroom apartment into a chapel. Each Sunday on the ground floor in this tenement building as many as 200 faithful pile into the dim, cramped apartment.

Back at St. Clare’s, Ms. Thomas and her roommates exhibit a similar level of commitment, having made curfew after another day in the frenzied world of New Delhi. Between rings of the phone, Ms. Thomas reflects on the life she and her roommates lead so far away from home.

“Determination brought us here. We could have stayed at home,” she says, “but now all of us are here together like friends and sisters and mothers to one another.”

She pauses and points to a woman cleaning dishes in the kitchen. “She is like a mother to me. When I’m studying at night, she’ll make a pot of tea for me. We are always helping each other. That way, we won’t miss home.”

Peter Lemieux is a frequent contributor.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español