Old communist comrades ask me why I wear a rosary and attend Sunday Mass. I have compromised a lot, they say. Such questions never bother me, as I am among thousands of Catholics in Kerala who find that Christianity and Communism compliment each other. As a Catholic, I was taught to find God in my neighbor and as a communist I was trained to fight for the silenced. Only when I find God in my neighbor can I fight convincingly for the voiceless. And this lesson I learned from the gutters. I met Maria in 1983 at a night kiosk in Aluva, Kochi, that I used to frequent whenever I ran out of money for dinner. The kiosk owner was a communist worker who served university students cheap dinners on credit. He also loaned students money. I met Maria several times at the shop, but was never bothered about her being a street sex worker. People called her “Blanket Maria” and made filthy jokes about the stocky and dark woman with curly hair. Policemen on night patrol beat her whenever they saw her. Although unwanted at other times of the day, Maria was the most sought-after person at night. One particular night, I approached the kiosk owner with a friend for some money to pay his exam fees. We needed 100 rupees (US$20 then) and the deadline day was next day. We had only 25 rupees. The kiosk owner also had no money and my friend started crying. It was then that Maria appeared suddenly from the shadows and looked at us with contempt. The kiosk owner told her about our problem. She took out some soiled notes – all one and two rupee notes. She then gave us 72 rupees. We reluctantly took her money, as there was no other way. Noticing our embarrassment she said, “Pay your fees and return the money when you have it. I’ve no children and can make some money at night,” she said, her eyes shining with kindness. My friend paid the examination fees and when we got the money, we went searching for her, but she was missing. We went back a week later and found her with a swollen face. She was down with viral fever. When we returned the money, she asked us to keep it, as we needed money more than she did. When we insisted, she took the money, but paid for our tea and dropped a bombshell that altered my life. “I’m also a communist and there is great happiness in sharing whatever you have,” she said. I just could not believe what I heard. She sounded like Pelageya Nilovna Vlasova, the Russian mother who stood with her revolutionary son in Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother. I regretted the times I had treated Maria like a leper. When I tried to thank her, she silenced me with a hush and walked away. Maria taught me something that I have not learned from books – compassion and kindness for fellow humans. She also taught me that there is joy in sharing. In fact, her lesson shaped my ethics in journalism. It made me always align with leftist ideology and understand my religion better and learn to listen to God. When I became a journalist I left active politics. My ideology was a problem for my career initially. Similarly, my religion was a concern for party colleagues. When my comrade friends remind me about my fiery speeches during college days, I just smile but offer no explanation for my change. Because I have learned to deal with everything, even contradictions, with a warm smile. Over the years, the Communist Party has become strong in Kerala and comes to power at alternative elections. Many friends became legislators, parliamentarians and ministers. They are pragmatic and clever leaders who have replaced old ideologues in the party and rub shoulders with the neo-rich and bargain for power. I meet them at airports and in air-conditioned train coaches talking enthusiastically about China’s breathtaking development. However, they purposely avoid mentioning China’s endemic corruption. For them, corruption and development are now two sides of the same coin. I feel sorry for Maria, who died of a venereal disease years ago. The friend she helped became a manager of a bank and I have lost touch with him. For me, the sea of kindness and compassion I saw in her eyes that night 29 years ago still guides my life. If she were alive, she would not have remained a communist. She would have become neutral; the safest way to exist when one loses all that one holds dear. Red salute to my guru, the gutter saint! Jeemon Jacob is South India bureau chief of the daily newspaper Tehelka
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