|Don Bosco (16 Aug 1815 - 31 Jan 1888)|
In Catholic parlance, which flows through my veins in spite of myself, today is the Feast of Don Bosco. My life was both made and unmade by Don Bosco institutions. Any great person can make or break people because of his followers. Religious institutions are the best examples. I’m presenting below an extract from my forthcoming book titled Autumn Shadows to celebrate the Feast of Don Bosco in my own way which is obviously very different from how it is celebrated in his institutions today. Do I feel nostalgic about the Feast? Not at all. I feel relieved. That’s why this celebration. The extract follows.
Don Bosco, as Saint John Bosco was popularly known, had a remarkably good system for the education of youth. He called it ‘preventive system’. The educators should be ever vigilant so that wrong actions are prevented before they can be committed. Reason, religion and loving kindness are the three pillars of that system. Though the term ‘preventive’ sounds negative, the system was in fact a highly positive one that sought to provide to the youngsters the conditions suitable for goodness to flourish. When goodness flourishes, evil is prevented.
Don Bosco envisaged the system not so much for seminarians as for the youth in the lay society. It is quite easy to practise Don Bosco’s system in seminaries because the seminarians are generally motivated enough to be good. There were no serious aberrations. Homosexuality was a problem, but I think it was not very serious either.
Don Bosco would not tolerate any deviation from the strictest practices of chastity. No seminarian was even allowed to touch another as physical touches contained the danger of sensuous stimulation. No seminarian was even allowed to have too close a friendship with any other seminarian. ‘Particular friendship,’ as it was called, was deemed a sin. One of the major duties of those who looked after the young seminarians was to watch out for the emergence of particular friendships and nip them in the bud. Once I assigned two boys under my charge to clean up the stage. They had to work behind the curtain in a dark area. One of the Fathers saw them there and I was immediately asked to put one more boy there. “What happened, Father?” I asked. “How can you put two boys alone in such a place?” He asked and explained to me that homosexuality could develop in such places. He told me that homosexuality was more common in the seminary than I was probably aware of. It was my duty to prevent every possibility of homosexual attachments by not putting two seminarians alone in dark places.
It is true that I too felt drawn to some of the handsome boys occasionally. But I could never bring myself to any physical intimacy. The inbuilt sense of guilt was so strong, especially about sex, that even touching a boy with any affection would be a sin to be confessed. Hindsight today makes me wonder whether I had any affection for anyone at all. In fact, I hated physical touches; I thought they made me unclean. I had a perverse sense of cleanliness.
Probably I was asked to do my practical training in an aspirantate precisely because my superiors too wondered whether I was capable of any affection and wanted to find it out by putting me with youngsters. That is a pure guess on my part. I do not wish to cast aspersions on the Provincial who was a very kindly person. I am sure he was doing his best to help me discover myself. He too wanted to understand me more; that is what I think.
I think my sexuality was repressed right from my childhood. I grew up listening to stories about Eve’s betrayal of mankind and the consequent evilness of all women. Boys and girls in my village would not even dare to look at each other. Such looks would have been gravely censured not only by the priests and nuns but also by teachers and parents. Moreover, I had somehow imbued the notion that sexuality was the foulest depravity of mankind. Don Bosco reinforced that idea powerfully when I was told that he would not even look at his own mother in the face. Women were to be kept far away from the Salesian institutions, according to Don Bosco’s injunctions. Chastity was one of the greatest virtues for Don Bosco.
The Virgin Mary occupied a special place in Don Bosco’s spiritual practices, however. I think Mary was Don Bosco’s way of sublimating sexuality. Yes, man needs the love of a woman; so you take the love of the Holy Virgin: that seems to be what he had in mind while giving a prominent place to Mary in Salesian worship. He called Mary “a great support and a powerful weapon against the wiles of the devil” and asserted that it was “impossible to go to Jesus unless we go through Mary.” The “purity” of the Virgin became the absorbent of all potential impurity of the Salesians. The Virgin was the best preventive system of Don Bosco.
Hail Marys and the rosary, along with my natural aversion to human touches, helped me preserve my chastity while I guided the young aspirants at Mannuthy. A more banal truth is that my job kept me fully engaged; so engaged that there was no time for committing sins. It was one of Don Bosco’s proven strategies to keep people always busy. He asserted time and again that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop and exhorted his followers to keep themselves busy all the time.
The hectic schedule of life in the aspirantate kept me away from myself. I had little time to think of myself. Though there was a half-hour meditation every morning, I fell asleep frequently because of tiredness. I lived more like a robot in that one year. One advantage was that my ego ceased to be a problem. The disadvantage was that I didn’t discover myself any better.
Robots don’t make relationships. When the one year of ‘practical training’ came to a close I realised that I was going to leave that ‘House’ (as seminaries are called in the Salesian system) without having anyone to say goodbye to. I was asked to go to Don Bosco, Vaduthala in order to do my undergraduate studies during the next three years. I was happy with the new assignment especially because Vaduthala held a unique charm for me. It was the same House where I began my association with Don Bosco in 1975 and also from where I did my Pre-Degree course from 1976 to 1978. Moreover, it was going to be a small community of just a few Fathers and Brothers and nobody else. I hoped I would make better relationships there. Which was not to be. My ego would return with a bang.
When I left Don Bosco, Mannuthy nobody came to say goodbye. Suddenly I realised with a horror that I had meant nothing to the people in that House. I remembered how the others were seen off by the members of the community. Everyone was missed by someone. Everyone had someone at least to show that he was going to be missed. No one missed me. I left the House with a pang hitting my heart. A few days before my departure, when the aspirants left the House for their vacation, they too didn’t bother to show any sign of affection for me. The indifference did hit me like an electric shock.
Apart from my clothes and personal accessories, the only things I carried with me to the new place were two books: Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and Illusions, both by Richard Bach. They were my Christmas gifts from the House that I was leaving unceremoniously. The practice in that House, like in many others, was that every member could choose his Christmas gift within a fixed amount of money. I asked for the two books which I had already read as a student of philosophy.
PS. What I never could imagine at that time was that I also carried another baggage which was thrust upon me by the preventive system of Don Bosco. The panopticon that is a synonym of the preventive system. Some Don Bosco people created that panopticon in my life observing whatever I said and did. They knew how to use me against me. That’s religion. Using people against themselves. I laugh at myself today for having been a member of the Don Bosco system for so many years. What a fool I was! But Don Bosco never meant his preventive system to be a panopticon. His followers made it one. That’s just how religion works. Look at how Narendra Modi uses Hinduism today, for example.