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Friday, Oct 18, 2019

47 years of Searching and Service in Unity, this youth chaplain carries on the mission, Two by Two in Pune

For the last 47 years Fr Cyril Desbruslais fought for the youth of Pune; predominantly Christian, but always with a strong presence of other faiths as well

pune Updated: Sep 22, 2019 16:45 IST
Roopesh Raj
Roopesh Raj
Hindustan Times, Pune
Fr Cyril (right) during the rehearsal of the theatre production, Two by Two, at the Gulati hall in Camp on Friday.
Fr Cyril (right) during the rehearsal of the theatre production, Two by Two, at the Gulati hall in Camp on Friday. (Shankar Narayan/HT PHOTO)

At 12 noon in the residential area for priests on the St Vincent’s High School premises, colloquially referred to as the “Fathers house”, all the noise is from the school - an inter-school environment programme has just ended. It is mayhem, in the happy schoolchildren kind of manner.

Inside Fr Cyril Desbruslais’ room, it is peaceful and quiet. Which is needed. Fr Cyril is speech impaired and more than once during the conversation we need to lean into him to understand what he is saying.

At 78-years old, Fr Cyril is fighting. This time for his health and his life.

For the last 47 years, however, Fr Cyril fought a different fight - he fought for the youth of Pune; predominantly Christian, but always with a strong presence of other faiths as well.

That fight has taken place in the form of a youth group (18+) called, the SSU - Searching and Service in Unity.

Fr Cyril founded it in 1972, and has since been its chaplain, non-stop, through the decades. Even when three years ago, Fr Cyril suffered a stroke -- hence the speech impairment -- the SSU remained in his care, and cared for him as well.

“Thanks to the SSU, I am able to speak today,” Fr Cyril says of his post-stroke experience, adding, “I travel to Europe for three-month stints and conduct various sessions, like Bible studies.”

As we try and gain perspective on what the SSU has evolved into being and its future, Fr Cyril is sanguine. “The idea has always been for the SSU to be a community of love, sharing and forgiveness - all through searching and service in unity,” he muses.

That search and service has taken the form of a once-a-year theatre production. Every year. For 47 years. Each play directed by Fr Cyril. Thirty-three of those written by Fr Cyril.

Within the Christian community of Pune, plays like Inigo (St Ignatius of Loyola), Boy and Girl (secular inspiration) and Escathon (story of Jesus), have been iconic statements of faith viewed through the dynamic lens of youth trying to understand who they are, what they believe and where they are headed.

“We have always had a play and a residential camp as our two outreach programmes to let Pune know we exist and that we are available to serve,” says the Kolkata-born priest, who moved to Pune to study theology in the earl 1970s, and has been here since.

This year, on October 5 and 6, the SSU will stage ‘Two by Two’, a play based on the Biblical narrative of Noah and the ark, but reinterpreted for 21st Century India, by the priest himself.

“All my plays have casts of 20 and above. All speaking parts,” Fr Cyril points out, explaining that the plays exist as much for giving a message, as for giving youth a chance to get on stage and perform.

“All my messages have been humanitarian,” he adds, not shy to reach out for a pen to scribble a word we may not hear clearly. “Actors of other faiths, who know nothing of the Bible, have been able to grasp the message clearly,” he claims.

The message of ‘Two by Two’, ‘Heal the world’, is Fr Cyril’s response, “It’s a topical play; a sign of the times.” The play is a musical, with song and dance routines included.

Fr Cyril directs the play. He has two “helpers” by his side to shout out directions if his voice cannot the travel the distance of the Gulati hall in Camp, where rehearsals are taking place.

The data points on a vocation of service spanning 47 years are staggering; not least the experience of directing hundreds of youth over five decades. And then when the final curtain has fallen, helping the same youth negotiate life while being of service to society.

Proceeds from every play are donated to charity.

Apart from the SSU, Fr Cyril Desbruslais is a Jesuit priest, teacher and author of philosophy. Yet, despite 43 years teaching at the Jana Deep Vidyalaya (JDV) seminary in Pune and seven books on the subject later (the latest, Macht Krach, in German), when he speaks, there is little evidence of an “all-knowing” being that decades in the library could have clothed him with.

All he knows now, is that the SSU needs someone to “take it up”, after him. “Or it will die,” he says.

SSU members today span the globe. “Canada, the US, Australia, apart from India, is where ex-members are today,” says Fr Cyril.

On October 5, before the play begins, Fr Cyril Desbruslais will take the stage with a “speaker” by his side. Fr Cyril will deliver a five-minute “introduction”, is how he is putting it to us. We have a feeling it could be pivotal to the future of the SSU in Pune.

Reach and connect

Insiya Lokhandwala is the classic example of the reach and connect that the SSU brings to youth networks in the city.

A friend of Lokhandwala suggested she audition for Two by Two, given her interest in the Arts (pianist by hobby).

The 23-year-old Master’s student of Psychology had seen an earlier SSU play, Giddiyap, Gideon - so had some idea what the deal was.

“I went for the audition and even though most of the SSU members are Christian, I did not feel like an outsider at all. They accepted me for who I am,” says Lokhandwala.

That a priest, Fr Cyril Desbruslais, would helm the project also did not really matter. “Noah exists in the Koran; he is referred to as Noor Nabi. It was a childhood story I grew up with,” says Lokhandwala.

When the curtain goes up on October 5, Lokhandwala will take centre stage as Miriam (Mariam in the Quran), Noah’s wife.

“I have never acted on stage before this. Learning the lines and getting into character - facial expressions - has been a challenge,” she adds.

What is her view of the SSU given she is in the thick of the action now? “They are really committed to making a difference,” is Lokhandwala’s answer.

What: Two by Two

Written & directed by Fr Cyril Desbruslais, SJ

In aid of: Ashakiran Rehabilitation Centre

Date: October 5 & 6

Venue: Gulati hall, St VIncent’s High School, Camp

Time: 7pm

Donation passes: Call 8446768605 / 954299367

First Published: Sep 22, 2019 16:43 IST

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