Was blind, but now I see.

1 : 3 January 2002




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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


A Dilemma for the Third-World Christian Writer?

(J. Harris. Pasiyaa? Paasamaa? (Hunger? Or the Binding Relationship of Love?). The Christian Literature Society, Chennai, India. 1994.)

Cover illustration of 'Pasiyaa? Paasamaa?' by Kumaraswamy. Courtesy: The Christian Literature Society.


Are you a global Christian? Are you interested in people around the world even as you love your neighbor who lives in your own country? The Lord Jesus Christ commanded,

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew28: 18).

The Apostle Paul says,

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" (Romans 10:14-15).


The "beautiful feet" that bring the message of Christ to communities around the world face enormous challenges. They need to make personal adjustments to the cultures and languages of the communities they adopt as their own. They also need to initiate the essential process of contextualizing the Gospel of Christ to their adopted community. In the process, not only are the lives of people transformed, but also the cultures and languages are revised or find rejuvenation by the best from within their own cultures to meet the new and challenging needs of the community.


New literary forms have been one of the "new things" in many cultures around the world that have come about as a result of receiving the message of the Christ. Even a classical language like Tamil had room for transformtion in the hands of those missionaries who learned it. Tamil is a vibrant language spoken by over sixty million people, with an amazing unbroken history of at least two thousand years. Until the advent of the Christian missionaries, a major part of the literary activity was carried on through the form of poetry. Prose was recognized and even used, but only to a limited extent, in creative writing. Christian missionaries were instrumental in developing prose as the most preferred form of written communication. As a consequence, the native writers in Tamil developed literary genres such as the novel, short story, drama, travelogue, prose poems, and essays with great alacrity. Christian writing rejuvenated these languages, but, in most Indian languages, for example, the practitioners of other religions soon adapted themselves to these forms and made very significant contributions in terms of creative writing.


Christian creative writing, in multi-religious pluralistic societies, such as the ones we find on the Indian subcontinent, faces problems that are unique. These linguistic communities have literary conventions that may or may not be in harmony with the Christian view of what literature should be and do. The focus of Christian writing is to reach out to all, not to any one exclusive social or economic class. Since written language or the style adopted in traditional non-Christian literature may be geared to the enjoyment and use of literature for certain privileged classes, the Christian writer is forced to adopt a style and idiom that may be commonly used and understood by all classes of people. As far as possible, the Christian creative writer seeks to use that style that is instantaneously understood by all. He or she tries her best to shun those forms, the understanding and enjoyment of which requires some special preparation. And, at the same time, he or she has the compulsion to adopt the standards of the language to some extent. The Christian writer's choice of dialect, style, idiom, metaphor, and even theme is conditioned by the reality from which he or she is writing within a multi-religious pluralistic society. And the style and language he or she uses is pregnant with meanings from the past. He cannot strip the words, phrases, and metaphors already in use of their original meaning and intent. He can certainly try to impose his own meaning into the words, sometimes with instantaneous success, often with some strange consequences. But it is possible for him to overcome these problems with devotion and discipline.


But the greatest problem that he would face is not in the realm of language and style choice, but in the realm of content. Inevitably, a Christian creative writer in these multi-religious societies is a writer of polemics. He wants to communicate the Gospel of Christ to the community around him, a community that is largely non-Christian. His market for Christian literature is relatively small, and he has themes that may be appealing to the community at large.


A Christian writer should, I think, write for a larger audience, taking the trends, forms, and themes of literature as a commonly shared discipline in his environment into consideration. At the same time, he cannot overstep the boundaries set by his multi-religious society. He cannot and should not exercise too much freedom, but should exercise it very cautiously to criticize or condemn what he thinks about the non-Christian world around him in value terms. Explicit condemnation of the non-Christian values will create only some ill will between the national Christians and the people practicing other religions. He needs to show understanding and love for his own non-Christian friends and society. When he describes the non-Christian multi-religious pluralistic society of which he is a member, he should exercise abundant caution. He should remember that his own Christian worldview is still a minority worldview in his multi-religious community. He is called upon to perform a leavening role in that society. He wields his pen in such a way that his creative writing has certain merits that would make it an attractive work for even the non-Christian readers. That is, he should choose themes that are of common interest to the community at large, and present them in a form that is acceptable to and easily understood by all. In essence, he is not writing for a Christian market. He is writing for a common market where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, and people with belief in a variety of sects and creeds come to interact with one another. This is the reality that a Christian reader in a largely non-Christian nation has to come to terms with.


J. Harris' book, Pasiyaa? Paasamaa? (Hunger? Or Binding Relationship Of Love?), is a thin book of 19 short stories that try to engage the non-Christian as well as the Christian readers with subtle suggestions and references to the abiding love of Jesus Christ. Each short story is not more than 3 or 4 pages long, but within this short space, the author narrates a lot of events and introduces the characters with a fine narrative skill. He sees the social and theological deficiencies in the Hindu society around him, but he would rather deal with it in love and understanding. He introduces us to some Muslim characters as part of some stories and talks about the oneness of humanity under the Gospel.


For example, the first story in the collection is a graphic description of a hospital ward with patients. An upper caste rural woman gets mad at the poor woman who gave water to drink to her (the upper caste woman's) husband on his death bed. That was polluting her purity. The Christian nurse had to intervene to tell her that a hospital is a public place where such discriminations could not be accommodated or tolerated. If the woman was willing to let the polluted nurse to give the medicine to her husband, she should not really criticize the poor woman who simply tried to help the upper caste woman's ailing husband.

Another story narrates the plight of a young Hindu widow with an infant who was rescued by a Christian woman nurse. This Hindu widow was not willing to become a prostitute, but the hunger and that of her infant drive her to commit suicide by hanging herself in a tree. Ruth, the nurse, takes the young woman to her home and employs her as domestic help. But the widow comes from an illiterate family with not much awareness of hygienic practices. Ruth's daughter, Julie, a young girl, is always mad at this widow. A situation is created in which the widow either had to give up her job in Ruth's home and live on the streets or give up her infant for adoption. The widow chooses the latter course and the child is put up for adoption to a Muslim family known to Ruth. The solution appears to be normal and the best for everyone. The mother herself feels that it is more important for her child to have a good future life than to live with her in utter poverty.

In another interesting story, titled "Thorny Fence Around Mother's Love," James and Julie become proud parents of a male child, but their joy is cut short with the news in the hospital that Julie is a prime candidate for leprosy. The doctor prescribes a certain code of conduct for Julie: She should not breast feed the baby, and, if she really cares for her baby, she should avoid physical contact as much as possible. It is in infancy that the child could contract leprosy more easily from physical contact as a contagious disease. Julie wonders how useless it was that their families looked to the guidance of their horoscopes before they arranged their (Christian) marriage, rather than looking into her and James' physical fitness. The doctor explains that neither Karma nor sexually transmitted disease nor the generational deficiencies was responsible for her condition. It could be cured if she takes proper medication in the early stage itself. It was a shock to her that she could not hold her baby nor could she breastfeed her own baby. A thorny fence surrounds Julie's motherly love. She develops self-control in dealing with the situation. Unfortunately, the story is narrated more as a secular story than as a story in which the individuals draw their strength from God's love.

On the other hand, in another story Harris narrates, an old Brahmin priest is evicted from his home by his own children. He is penniless and has no place to go. He sleeps in the verandah of Jones' house, and is invited into the home for food and clothing. The old priest realizes that he had once driven Jones out of the temple garden because the Christian boy was trying to pluck some medicinal flowers for his mother's treatment. He also burned the wrist of the boy with the camphor offered to Hindu gods in the temple. Overcome by remorse for what he did, the Brahmin priest seeks the forgiveness of Jones. To err is human.

Because Johnsi, the twenty-two year old daughter of Saminathan and Sharada, was dark-skinned, she was not married yet. She had a dazzling beauty about her, but the complexion of her skin was black. Families that came to see her for a possible wedding with their sons always asked for larger dowry and other privileges. One day a family came to see her to negotiate a wedding for their boy. The boy was lame, and had a disfigured face. Johnsi was willing to accept the proposal. But the conversation slowly turned towards the marriage arrangements, such as the dowry. Johnsi demanded that she would marry him if they paid her dowry on behalf of their son, half the price they demanded from her parents as dowry!


The description of social and economic injustice, and love of humanity, irrespective of social and economic differences, generally dominates the writing of Harris, and other Christian creative writers in India. The psychological conflicts imposed on people because of social and economic disparities, rituals, and non-Christian religious conditions also receive focused attention. While Harris is not really very critical about his own fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, other "progressive," and leftist writers coming from a Christian background are very critical of the established Church. The love of Christ is mentioned, but dealing with social problems dominates their works.

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J. Harris. Pasiyaa? Paasamaa? (Hunger? Or the Binding Relationship of Love?). The Christian Literature Society, Chennnai, India. 1994.

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