“Rosaries at the Grotto” A chapter from my memoir, “Rosaries, Reading, Secrets”

My First Holy Communion

Rosaries at the Grotto

During May, “The Month of our Lady,” Father Jesus Calvo, the Spanish parish priest, corralled the entire Catholic community of Jamshedpur at the grotto of St. Mary’s Church: a cave constructed of rocks and mortar, overplanted with rambling roses, built because the Virgin appeared to Bernadette at a grotto in Lourdes. There we recited the rosary.

“Hail Mary,” “Holy Mary,” the words rose and fell, hypnotic as the sea, fifty repetitions of Hail Marys punctuated by the mini-relief of the Glory Be, and, at last, the Memorare, signalling the glorious end: “Remember, Oh most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided.”

My mother bowed over her rosary, her long-lashed eyes closed, an image of fervour. My father prayed rapidly, head down, frowning, as if his rapidity would hasten the conclusion. I suspected he disliked saying the rosary as much as I did.

Decades later, adults reminded me of when I slipped away, climbed to the top of the grotto, and squatted there, like a wise monkey, surveying the crowd. Giggles rose.

On hearing the giggles, my father looked for me. It was a reflex. And there I was, on top of the grotto, the eyes of every Catholic in Jamshedpur on me.

“Anita, come down,” my father hissed. I remained there, grinning. Despite my bravado, I was terrified of heights.

“Anita come down,’ he stage-whispered between clenched teeth as children giggled and adults chanted, laughter in their voices. Finally, my dignified father, senior management in that company town, fifty-two years old to my six, squeezed through the crowd, past the amputee Mrs Watkins, past Mr D’Costa, who owned Boulevard Hotel, and Mrs D’Cruz, who owned a nursery school, scaled the grotto, then inched down, half-carrying me, while around us the chuckle-flecked rosary rose and fell, “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

* * *

My Uncle Father Theo Mathias, S. J., my sister Shalini, me and my father

Catholic social life in Jamshedpur revolved around the Parish Church of St. Mary’s, the Mangalorean-Goan Association, and the Catholic Family Movement, introduced to Jamshedpur by an American Jesuit, appropriately called Father Love. It brought together Catholics of the same socio-economic class, an insular tight-knit group.

There were the Fernandezes, the Saldanhas, and the Diases, who had six children whose names all started with D—Denise, Dany, Diane, Dougie, Denzil, and David. There was an Anglo-Indian family, the Thompsons, whose green-eyed daughter, Paula, my sister Shalini adored down to her freckles, lily-white skin, and long, brown ringlets. My father claimed Shalini’s private litany went “Paula most pure, Paula most amiable, Paula most admirable!” (And when I misbehaved, my father would say of Paula’s handsome brother (who later became a priest), “Anita, Anita, if you’re so naughty, Jeff will never marry you, but he would marry Shalini instantly.”)

The adults gathered for spiritual instruction, about which we felt no curiosity, while the children played in the host child’s bedroom until everyone clustered around the potluck, an innovation of the American priests. The Indian way would have been for the hostess to say, “Oh, please don’t worry about bringing food. I’ll just prepare a little something,” and then spend a week planning, shopping for, and magicking a lavish near-banquet; most women prided themselves on their generosity, hospitality, and culinary repertoire.

Everyone competed to produce the most delectable dishes, savoured the offerings, and then asked for the recipe, ultimate compliment. Unless the dish was brought by Blanche, wife of the local Mangalorean doctor, Bert Lasrado, who, like my father, had been to England for his professional education. Blanche was the first woman in town with a free-standing freezer; its potential exhilarated her. While other women brought freshly cooked aromatic dishes, she gleefully announced the provenance of her offerings–prawn balchow: three months old; chicken indad: six months old; pork vindaloo: eight months old. And appetites withered.

The adults had Bloody Marys, while we had “Virgin Marys”–tomato juice, after which what we considered “western food” was served. As a student in England, to my surprise, I rarely found the supposedly Western food I had grown up with: “potato chops,” mashed potato croquettes stuffed with spicy minced beef, pan-fried in a batter of egg and breadcrumbs, or “cutlets,” large, flat burgers, cooked with onions, green chillis, coriander and mint; or “meat puffs,” crisp hot filo pastry stuffed with spicy curried minced lamb.

After dinner, Dougie Dias or Benny Fernandez produced guitars and led us in “Jamaica Farewell,” “Old Man River,” “Banana Boat Song,” or “Polly-Wolly-Doodle.” How we loved them–“Oh my darling Clementine,” “Silver Dollar,” “Country Roads”, or “Una Paloma Blanca.” The lyrics were mysterious, but we sang along, Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,/ Poor boy you’re gonna die; John Brown’s body is a-mouldering in the grave, or with greater gusto, Oh bloodee, oh blood-dah, that chorus striking us as deliciously naughty. The sun so hot, I froze to death; Susannah, don’t you cry. What did the lyrics mean? Who knew? But it all felt magical…Daylight come, and I wanna go home.

* * *

We once rented a beach house in Puri, Orissa, with the Diases, Thompsons, and other CFMers, one of whom brought his gun and shot doves, pigeons, and even sparrows, which we roasted over an improvised fire of bricks and sticks; the deliciousness lingers in memory. Their young son was allowed to use the shotgun, and I, aged six, seeing it left unattended, picked it up, looked through the sight, and, inspired by books and movies, pulled the trigger. The safety catch was off: Bang! I was startled and thrilled, though I did not shoot a bird (or myself). The father ran out and cuffed his son, and I felt scared, sad, and guilty, for it had all been my fault.

* * *

Shalini and me with our Easter Eggs

The Catholic Diocese of Jamshedpur was a missionary project of the Jesuit Maryland Province in Baltimore; it was run by hearty, good-hearted Irish American priests: Father McGauley, Fr. MacFarland, Fr. Guidera, Fr. Keogh, Fr. Moran, and Fr. O’Leary. There were other priests from the worldwide fraternity of the Jesuits–Father Durt, a Belgian who built St. Mary’s Hindi School for underprivileged children, and, on loan from the Spanish Gujarat Mission in Ahmedabad, Father Arroyo and Father Jesus Calvo, a kindly Spanish priest, who helped me develop a magnificent stamp collection by asking all the Europeans he knew to send me stamps.

The Jesuits were respected, even loved, by Jamshedpurians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, for they ran Loyola School, which turned out achieving boys, as well as the prestigious local Business School, Xavier Labour Relations Institute, XLRI, at which my father later taught, which had sought-after courses in Business Management and Industrial Relations which drew students from all over India, Asia, and the Middle East.

We had the American Jesuits over for meals and parties and were invited to dinners at the Jesuit residence. My father was amused to be told that, among Irish-American Catholics, one son became a priest, one became a cop, and one a criminal! My father marvelled when Father O’Brien told us of his father, the butcher, who distilled and sold moonshine in Baltimore during Prohibition. “Can you imagine, Anita? Father O’Brien is a butcher’s son!” (Indian Jesuits were, then, largely upper-middle or middle-class). “And his father, though a pious Catholic, had no compunction about breaking the law and making bootleg liquor!”

* * *

The priests returned from furlough with American brands—packets of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup, Smarties, Betty Crocker cake mixes, Danish Butter Cookies, squeezable tubes of icing sugar, or flavoured Primula cheese, coveted because foreign. These they gave their favourite Catholic housewives who compared their bounty, apparently carelessly, “Oh Father MacFarland is so sweet; he got me lovely Devil’s Food Cake mix,”–happy if their loot was the most bountiful and secretly cross about Lola or Deidre’s Angel Food Cake.

From America, too, came boxes of lightly used clothes collected for “the poor in India.” These the priests sold at jumble sales to middle-class Catholics, using the proceeds for the poor. Some of my favourite clothes came via America—my fuchsia winter coat and a red plaid coat with a fur collar for my Himalayan boarding school; a shimmering white silk blouse with pearl buttons that I passed off as boarding school uniform; a pale blue silk dress, and red goloshes.

From boxes of donated books shipped from America, I acquired books which, in my late teens, changed the course of my faith–and life: Catherine Marshall’s Beyond Ourselves and Something More, David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, and Nicky Cruz’s Run, Baby Run. The American priests, inexplicably, gave us boxes of old American magazines: Chatelaine, McCall’s, Family Home Circle, and Good Housekeeping, in which we found the recipe for brownies, chewy, cocoa-laden, and bursting with walnuts, adding a new much-imitated item on the party circuit. I leafed through the glossy pages, coveting dolls that walked and talked, dollhouses, and walkie-talkie radios that one could receive by just sending in a postcard–glossy magazines of dreams, never gratified, though my Jesuit Uncle, Father Theo Mathias, always bought me a Barbie doll on his annual trip to the States even into my early teens, when makeup was more exciting than dolls!

* * *

Goa and Mangalore, seacoast communities, were colonised by the Portuguese. Four hundred years later, traces endure–in the names: Mathias, Coelho, Lobo, Rebello, Pinto, Saldanha, Mascarenhas; the imported religion: Catholicism; and the language, Konkani: only spoken by Goans and Mangaloreans, a patois of Portuguese and the Kannada and Marathi spoken by the indigenous communities before colonisation. (I have never learnt Konkani, nor did my father who, as the son of an upwardly mobile surgeon in British India, was only taught English.)

Goan-Mangalorean food is distinctive–sarpatel, archetypal Mangalorean delicacy, small pieces of pork beneath inches of fat and chewy, rubbery rind, simmered in a sauce of spices, wine and the pig’s own blood and liver, eaten with sannas: fluffy steamed rice cakes, fermented in toddy. Kube, a curry of clams or cockles, was breakfast at my paternal grandmother’s house. Fish cooked in coconut milk was ubiquitous while, at afternoon tea, people ate patolio and patrade, dumplings and pancakes stuffed with fresh grated coconut and jaggery, unrefined brown sugar, and steamed in plantain leaves.

At the Mangalorean-Goan Association dinners, people danced the waltz, one-two together, one-two together, we murmured under our breaths, or the foxtrot and polka to Engelbert Humperdinck, Elvis Presley, or Jerry Lewis. If I spotted my parents waltzing together, I flung myself between them in a frenzy of jealousy, trying to drag my father away. They continued waltzing…laughing.

  • * * *

The Catholics from Mangalore, Goa, and Bombay traditionally visited all their Catholic friends during the twelve days between Christmas Day and the sixth of January, the feast of the Epiphany, the official end of the season.

Weeks before Christmas, my mother began creating traditional Christmas treats, kushwar in Konkani, offered to visitors, and given in little boxes to my father’s colleagues, nuns, teachers, priests, and friends. We made chocolate nankatis, mouth-meltingly soft, buttery, sugary cookies; light, crisp meringues; and crunchy coconut, chocolate, or cashew nut macaroons. Kulkuls were another Mangalorean speciality, dough curled on the tines of a comb into shells, deep-fried, then dropped into a thick, simmering sugar syrup, which lumpily congealed around them. Sitting together around the dining table, we hand-crafted marzipan fruits and moulded “milk toffee,” made from condensed milk, sugar, and butter in our buttered red rubber seashell mould to create wentletrap, shrimp, cockles, mussels, seahorses, oysters, and snails.

* * *

How foreign Christmas was when I was a child, how imported! We lopped the top off one of the two scraggly fir trees in our garden, hauling it indoors to deck it with cotton wool or popcorn snow, topped with a little pinecone angel with a wooden mothball face, flaxen hair, a gold wire halo, and little gold paper wings that I brought back from boarding school in Nainital, in the Himalayas. (And each year, my mother said of this durable angel, “I can’t believe you paid five rupees at the Fun Fair for that rubbish some child made.”) We sent each other Christmas cards of robins in snowy fields and sleighs in an entranced Snow Queen landscape, though the wintry sun shone all December, as it might have done in Bethlehem. We carolled outside all Catholic homes: “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer;” “Freddy, the Little Fir Tree;” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “Jingle Bells”—a Nordic Christmas transplanted to the tropics.

At midnight mass, congregations, not all of whom spoke fluent English, sang a full-bodied Gloria in Excelsis Deo in Latin. I shivered with pleasure. And then we returned home to eat Christmas fruit cake, crammed with crystallised cherries, candied peel, raisins, and nuts, and to drink the very sweet homemade wine made from Jamun berries and mulberries from our garden that we never considered alcoholic.

And what did all this have to do with the sweet, humble birth in a manger? Generations of Europeans had transported the husk of Christmas to Indian homes while its glory lay obscured here as elsewhere. Still, Glor-ooo-ooo-ooo-reeaa in ex-cel-sis Deo, we sang lustily, though we might have been nonplussed if asked to translate.


© Anita Mathias. First published on

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