Friday, May 30, 2008

‘My father had a loving nature’

(A series on childhood memories)

Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, on his 82nd birthday on May 29, talks about the events that made a mark on him

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, when Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil was five years old, he could not be found in the house in North Parur, where he was staying with his parents and siblings. “My family, along with some neighbours, began searching for me,” he says.

They looked into every nook and corner, including the compound. Finally, with sorrow in their hearts, they headed towards the pond where the children used to swim, assuming that he had drowned. But they could not locate the body.

The family returned to the house and one of the Cardinal’s neighbours went into the bedroom and lifted the blanket. “And there I was, sleeping peacefully,” says Vithayathil. “I had covered myself completely with the blanket. Since I was small, they thought I was a pillow.”

Cardinal Vithayathil, who turns 82 on May 29, has a far-away look in his eyes, as he recounts the events of his childhood. It is an interesting experience for the leader of the Catholic church in Kerala, who, during a private function recently, said, “I have 38 lakh children to look after.”

In Vithayathil’s family, it was his mother, Thresiamma, who was the strict disciplinarian. And she was not hesitant to use the cane. “I remember, one day, for some reason, I had disobeyed my father and, as my mother started hitting me with a cane, she said, ‘What is the fourth commandment of God?’

“I said, ‘Honour your father and mother.’”

“What do you mean by honouring your father and mother?’”

“I said, ‘If you ask how a pappadam looks like, we can say it is like a circle. But if you ask me what does a circle look like, who can answer that question? So, there is nothing more to say, except that we should honour our parents.’”

These witty retorts would enrage his mother and the beatings would continue. But later, when the Cardinal would go to sleep, she would come to his room and smother his face with kisses.

“At that time, I could not believe this was being done for my good,” he says. “Now, when I look back, the disciplining corrected many faults of mine.”

Vithayathil says he loved his mother intensely and also had a close relationship with his father. “My father had a loving nature and I never saw him in a bad mood,” he says. “He always enquired about our progress in school.”

Vithayathil was a good student, except for Sanskrit, which was his second language. In the first exam, he got 13 out of 100. “My mother got very upset,” he says. “Thereafter, it was decided that I would get tuition from the Sanskrit teacher.”

The coaching helped, because in the next exam, Vithayathil scored 78 and had no problems with Sanskrit thereafter.

The high point of his early education was when he stood first, along with a girl, in catechism during the Class four final examinations. “The girl later became a nun, Sr. Fabiana,” he says. “Sadly, she passed away sometime ago.”

Vithayathil also excelled on the playing field also. During an inter-class football final, when he was nine years old, he kicked the ball from the back and it went soaring over the heads of the players and into the opponent’s goal. “It was an unforgettable memory,” says Vithayathil. “However, we lost the match, 2-1.”

Another happy memory was when his father, Joseph Vithayathil, a leader of the Nivarthanam movement, stood for elections for the Parur and Kunnathunad Assembly seat in 1936.

“We received a telegram from my uncle, Abraham Vadakel,” says the cardinal. “It said, ‘Vithayathil successful, Tharakan second’. So, my father became a MLA for the first time and there was a great joy in the house. It was the turning point in his life and for the fortunes of our family.”

An occasion of great joy for the Cardinal took place recently when he went and saw the baptism register at St. Thomas church, Kottekavu, North Parur. “My name, my parents’ name and my godparents’ name – it was all so clear and legible, even though nearly 82 years have passed,” he says. “I wonder whether government registers can be kept in this pristine condition. I felt proud that the church documents had been preserved so well.”

And the Cardinal looks well preserved, too, despite the advancing years. In retrospect, he says, despite the intense disciplining, it was a happy childhood.

So, what does he think of today’s children? “Because most families have one or two children, they are pampered and get hurt easily,” he says. “When you get reprimands, you develop the inner strength to withstand the ups and downs of life.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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