A Church of Their Own

Migrants from Kerala build church and community in Mumbai

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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On the heels of a busy December weekend that included the consecration of a cathedral and early Christmas celebrations, this Monday morning brings no rest to the weary Father Francis Eluvathingal. As chancellor of greater Mumbai’s Eparchy of Kalyan — to which some 100,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics belong — he keeps a tight schedule to say the least.

Rushing to a wedding ceremony outside the city, the priest jumps into the driver’s seat of his hatchback. He swiftly attaches his phone to the center console, fits the accompanying headset in his ears and backs the car out of the narrow driveway of the bishop’s rectory.

Powai, the suburban community on Mumbai’s northeast side where Father Eluvathingal lives, has developed rapidly in recent years, becoming one of the city’s most upscale residential and commercial hubs. Yet even in this relatively posh corner, the streets look and feel like any other in this city of 21 million souls — chaotic and filthy.

Sanitation workers sweep trash into large heaps, kicking up clouds of dust. Goats share the crowded sidewalk, which doubles as a gutter, with people from all walks of life, from panhandlers to well-dressed students of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay nearby.

His cellphone vibrates, but he ignores it. Father Eluvathingal instead recites a Hail Mary and an Our Father and makes the Sign of the Cross as he nears the main thoroughfare.

“There are no traffic rules, as in Europe or the U.S. You won’t find a system here,” he laughs. “Driving’s very, you know, everyone’s got his own rules for driving.”

He arrives at the intersection, stops the car and points to the noisy, bumper-to-bumper traffic. Cars, trucks and rickshaws jam the road at all angles. Fearless pedestrians dart among the vehicles.

The priest inserts a cassette tape of devotional hymns into the car’s stereo and waits for an opening. He spots one, slams his foot on the accelerator and speeds into the melee. Once on the road, he races through the traffic, passing another driver one moment, only to slam on the brakes at a sudden standstill the next.

“I’m a fast driver,” says the priest. “There are many things to do and very little time to drive.”

The priest’s dynamism mirrors that of his flock, most of whom have ties to the southwest state of Kerala. They or their parents migrated north to Mumbai, where the majority now prospers.

Keralites first came to Mumbai shortly after India obtained independence from British rule in 1947. The post-colonial government allowed for unprecedented individual liberties, including the freedom of movement.

The state of Kerala embraced the new democracy with enthusiasm. In the 1950’s, its Marxist-led government initiated pioneering reforms in public education and health care, quickly making its population the best educated and healthiest in the Indian subcontinent.

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Tags: Kerala Cultural Identity Migrants Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Thomas Christians