Review: Carpenters and Kings by Siddhartha Sarma and The Churches of India by Joanne Taylor
Amidst India’s ongoing telescoping of political power into unprecedented dominance for the BJP of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, some of the most intriguing subplots involve parts of the country where Christians constitute significant proportions of the electorate. The most recent relevant episode occurred in high drama last month in my home state of Goa, when 10 seated Congress MLAs – only two were Hindu - decamped en masse to the ruling party. Now, 15 of the 27 members of the state legislature representing the supposed “saffron party” are from the 25% Catholic minority population.
Such scenarios appear outlandish for those accustomed to easily comprehensible dualities. But not so much in India, which continues to confound any simplistic cultural, social or political calculus. Yet, as Siddhartha Sarma writes in his impressive new book, “an attempt is being made to create an idea of India which has never existed. This ersatz India is based on the denial of legitimacy to faiths such as Christianity and Islam. As this book shows, this is not a new idea, and has been tried before in other parts of the world. But wherever… the core principles of a society, such as the natural multiculturalism of Indians, are at odds with such revisionism, these attempts have either failed or caused catastrophic and irreversible discord within the society or faith. The Hindu Right can only pursue its policy of bigotry and revisionism at the peril of India.”
Sarma has wide-ranging authorial preoccupations. On my shelves are his Sahitya Akademi Bal Puruskar-winning 2009 novel The Grasshopper’s Run, set during the epochal Japanese assault on the Naga hills during WWII, as well as the rather funny East of the Sun: A Nearly-Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land describing a 2008 road trip through Assam, Nagaland and Manipur into Myanmar. Last year, he published Year of the Weeds based on Odisha’s Niyamgiri flashpoint, when Dongria Kondh Adivasis battled against mining giant Vedanta. The new Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India is another leap altogether, an idiosyncratic deep dive into the early history of Christianity, pursued with great attention to detail, citing 44 primary sources in several different languages (Persian! Latin!) and another 89 secondary readings.
We don’t have enough books like this, diligently reconsidering important aspects of world history with an eye for implications to the subcontinent. Some good examples exist for the 20th century, notably Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, but no one has undertaken anything quite like Sarma in this bravura investigation of the cultural history of the Silk Roads networks between the Mediterranean Sea and China, with an emphasis on the traffic in Christianity to India. It is a compelling account of ancient interconnections, starting from 483 BCE when “an Indian contingent of bowmen, clad in cotton clothes and armed with reed bows and iron-tipped arrows, was present with Nubians, Scythians, Egyptians, Persians, Judeans and Phoenicians at Thermopylae during the invasion of Greece.”
Sarma possesses boundless enthusiasm for antiquity’s minutiae, dwelling with glee on Arianism and Nestorians, Manicheanism (whose third-century Iranian prophet-founder is known to have travelled in India) and the astonishing tale of Barlaam and Josephat, which leaped from Mahayana Buddhist stories about Siddhartha Gautama (in Sanskrit) to Arab Muslim tradition (via the 8th century Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf) into the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. By the 16th century, when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope heading to Calicut, “there was hardly a European of passing scholarship who would not associate India with Barlaam and Josaphat, and there was considerable curiosity about what the Indians themselves had to say about their most famous saints.”
Most of Carpenters and Kings dwells on pre-colonial times, before Portuguese, British, American (and sundry other western) missionaries set about evangelizing different parts of the subcontinent. This inevitably leaves out major aspects of India’s contemporary Christian landscape (such as the tactical conversions of the huge majority of citizens of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya). But that’s understandable given Sarma’s goal: “the treatment of Christianity in India has remained problematic. As the political climate changes, as the Hindu Right extends its political dominance into the intellectual sphere, and as revisionism becomes a key tool for reimagining Indian history through a very narrow nativist and bigoted lens, it has become increasingly necessary to examine the history of Christianity in India and to set the record straight.”
If much of Sarma’s endeavour is bringing Christianity’s hidden histories to light, Joanne Taylor’s breezy illustrated survey The Churches of India showcases the religion’s most obvious legacy – its built heritage. This is avowedly an impressionistic book, about which the author writes, “It would be impossible to record all of India’s churches. The goal here has been to present a diverse collection.” Still, here the absence of the north east’s wildly flourishing church cultures is even more glaring, with the only mention a rather dubious and borderline offensive description of Nagaland as “a remote tribal state.”
Nonetheless, despite the limited focus on Kerala and Goa (roughly half the book’s contents) and the Raj-derived cities of Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi (there are also snippets from Puducherry and Chandannagar in former French India), there’s much of interest in Taylor’s selections. I appreciated her inclusion of Charles Correa’s challenging 1970s era ‘Portuguese Church’ in Mumbai, and especially enjoyed her portrait of Chennai’s “Queen of Scottish Churches in the East” - “The Kirk” of St Andrews - which stands witness to a once-massive presence: “by 1792 approximately one in nine Scots were employed by the British East India Company, a third of its officers in India were Scots and one in eleven of its soldiers too. During the 18th and 19th centuries Scots were also deeply involved in many ways including trade, manufacturing, and the founding of railways throughout India.”
Read more: Review: Ink of Dissent by Damodar Mauzo
Taken together, Sarma’s inquiries and Taylor’s homages outline an Indian Christian landscape as rooted and diverse as any other aspect of subcontinental heritage. Carpenters and Kings concludes in stirring language: “The Hindu Right’s idea of India is based on the fondly nurtured fiction that there was a single identifiable entity called India at some point in the past, and this entity was Hindu in faith and created solely by ‘indigenous’ people. No civilization has been built by the people of a land in isolation. The strongest, most enduring cultures have been those which have internalized ideas from elsewhere, being enriched in the process. India has always been connected to the East and the West, and there were always people and ideas arriving in the subcontinent to contribute in small and large measures. Christianity, which has been here for 2000 years, is as Indian a religion as any other…This has never been a land for a single people, or culture, or religion. No community has ever been exiled from the subcontinent at any point. No people have been delegitimized or have had their history here denied. If the Hindu Right succeeds in doing this, it might arrive at its own perverted idea of India. But it would not be what India truly is, and has always been.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival