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The Least Of These

The Least Of These

I respect all “self-made” people, though the term is an oxymoron as nobody can succeed without the support of another person or persons. Everybody has such a person in his or her life. Victor Abraham had just $60 in his pocket when he reached the US as an immigrant.

He found that his call was in travel services. His business did not take off until an elderly white American lady found in him a trustworthy businessman in whose business she could invest a substantial sum. 

He never looked back as he earned consecutively for 13 or more years the prize Air India gives for selling the maximum number of tickets.

However, that is not what endeared him to me. He built a hotel very close to the Dallas airport in Texas state in the US. When the hotel was ready for opening, his friends in business advised him to take the liquor licence without which the hotel won’t take off.

Abraham took a firm decision. Come what might, he would not sell liquor. Many thought that his hotel business was doomed. Soon word spread that his was a no-liquor Hotel. It became the hotel’s unique selling point. Teetotallers and elders, wary of boozers, found it the safest hotel to stay. 

Thanks to their patronisation, the hotel was chosen the best among the 120 or so hotels around the Dallas International Airport. When I heard him, I remembered a hotel at Kaziranga in Assam which advertised itself as “technology-free”. It meant that there was no calling bell or television in the room. To make a call, one had to go out of the hotel to a telephone booth.

It was at a conference in New Delhi that I met Victor Abraham. The star speaker at the conference was Krish Dhanam who quipped that the reason why Victor Abraham did not sell spirits was because he was full of heavenly spirits. As the businessman confessed, he had his priorities right. First came God, second his family and third everything else.

The highlight of the conference, organised by my friend Dr James Joseph of Chandigarh, was the screening of a trailer of a movie Victor Abraham was busy producing. He spoke about the heavy investment required to produce a Hollywood film and how he would not let any lack of money to stand in the way of the movie.

When I saw the trailer, I realised that it was slickly produced and it would appeal to the general public. Many years ago, Navodaya Appachan had held a meeting at YMCA New Delhi where he showed the trailer of a television serial based on the Bible he was planning to telecast.

I had the audacity to tell him in private that it would not appeal to the audience the way the Ramayana had because there was little in the Bible that appealed to the spectator’s imagination except scenes like the stick becoming a snake, Moses dividing the sea and the mongoose and the snake and the deer and the tiger living happily in Noah’s arc.

Victor Abraham’s movie was on the martyrdom of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his teenaged sons Philip and Timothy. He did not give a clue on how he would depict the story.

I had to wait for two long years to know how he dealt with one of the most tragic events in modern India’s history when the father and the two sons were burnt alive in their vehicle where they were sleeping for want of a better place in a forest area in Odisha.

I would rate it as one of the most shocking incidents I heard in my career as a journalist of 46 years. When, soon after the killing, Gladys Staines, his widow, pardoned Dara Singh and others who perpetrated the grisly act, it was something which few could believe. No, she did not ask for retribution or revenge killing. With that one statement, she won the hearts of one and all.

No, there were some who continued to believe that Graham Staines was guilty of converting people. One of them is the Governor of Kerala who in a judgement as the then Chief Justice of India questioned the Australian’s bona fides. The judge created history when he was forced to make some changes in his judgement after it was signed and delivered.

He might have removed the most offending remarks against Graham Staines but there are still many who do not know what conversion is. Victor Abraham’s film titled “The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story” released worldwide last week will provide an answer to all their questions.

I had a little role to play in the Graham Staines story. When it happened, the then Union Home Minister LK Advani, sought to give a clean chit to the Bajrang Dal whose foot soldier Dara Singh was. Advani was also good enough to appoint a former Supreme Court judge Justice DP Wadhwa to inquire into the killing.

The judge did not take much time to submit his report. Delhi-based publisher Media House took less than a month to publish a critique of the report, edited by Supreme Court lawyer MP Raju. I contributed to the anthology by doing a quick research on Graham Staines.

It was a pen friendship that brought the Australian to a Godforsaken place in Odisha where he realised that his call was to serve the leprosy patients. The place has a beautiful name but the leprosy patients there were treated as castaways.

It had always been like that. While I was a primary student, I was in the excursion that the school organised to Nooranad where a leprosy sanatorium was located. 

It had a beautiful campus where the inmates spent their spare time cultivating banana and tapioca, besides vegetables. We were a little scared of even eating the banana for they were grown by the “lepers”, as they were derisively and contemptuously called.

There, I also saw one of the most unbelievable sights. Two Catholic nuns — they were foreigners — cleaning and dressing the severest wounds. It was the first time I came across the habit-wearing nuns. I wondered why they came to India to do this “dirty” work.

I never visited the sanatorium again. When the 1967 film Aswamedham, in which Sathyan, Prem Nazir and Sheela acted, was released, I could see the sanatorium again for it was shot there. It was a successful adaptation of Thoppil Bhasi’s play by the same title. 

The story was about a girl who contracts leprosy, is admitted to the sanatorium and is completely cured of the disease. Yet, neither her family, nor her lover accepts her, forcing her to return to Nooranad to serve the leprosy patients and thereby redeem her life. 

I did not know at that time that over 90 per cent of the leprosy hospitals in the country were run by the Christians who constituted a little over 2 per cent of the population. It was many years later when I visited the Little Flower Hospital at Raxaul in Bihar that I learned that what a cured leprosy patient expected was a shake-hand, not the namaste in the Air India style.

Today there are not many leprosy patients in the country, according to the Union government but those in the field like the associates of the Leprosy Mission say that there are areas from where fresh cases are still reported. The government continues to be on the denial mode.

To return to The Least of These, it is the story of an intrepid journalist who reaches a district headquarter in Odisha with his young, pregnant wife to take up a challenging assignment. The Editor is convinced that Graham Staines’ primary purpose is to convert the people into Christians. He loans him a camera to bring evidence that he has indeed been converting people.

He sees an adult baptism and captures it in his camera. He thinks that he has got the evidence. The young woman who was baptised turned out to be the daughter of a Christian mother and she did it of her own volition. The reporter is encouraged to convert to Christianity with inducements like more money and perks so that he can become a fifth columnist and get evidence against Staines.

The Editor and his bosses who want to expose Staines as nothing but a converter do not realise that they were themselves guilty of “conversion” under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act in forcing the reporter to convert with inducements. 

When the reporter does not find any evidence of Staines acting against the law of the land, the conspiracy turns diabolical with the entry of the Dara Singh-like character.

The dark forces of hatred, represented by the Editor and his patrons, certainly knew in advance the plan to “cut the head of the snake”, a euphemism for killing the Australian missionary. There are many twists and turns in the story which I do not want to reveal for I would like the readers to watch the movie and learn them the way I learnt them, i.e., by going to a nearby theatre.

My wife and I had a unique experience watching this movie. I could hear Christian expressions like “Praise the Lord” and “Hallelujah” when something dramatic happened in the film. 

Like, for instance, when the journalist congratulates Staines’s son on his brilliance on the cricket field and tells him that he could play for Australia. The boy tells him that he wants to play for India like Sachin Tendulkar.

When the journalist reminds him that he is from Australia and he should go back to Australia, the boy retorts: “I am from dust and I will return to dust”. I consider it as one of the most dramatic dialogues which induces a cacophony of Praise the Lord and Hallelujah.

Why did it happen? An overwhelming majority of the viewers were people from the Northeast. The actor who played the role of Gladys Staines was superb. I was also happy to see Victor Abraham twice in the role of a conspirator.

What does the movie say? It highlights the fact that nobody can force a person to convert. The Wadhwa Commission report also exonerated Staines of the charge of conversion. 

Staines worked among the leprosy patients and his aim was not to make them Christians. It was to serve them. Why? One of the most popular quotations from the Bible is, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the  least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me". Small wonder that the title of the film was derived from this quotation.

Neither Mother Teresa, who was fond of quoting this verse from the Book of Mathew, nor Graham Staines was a social worker. When the mother picked up a dying person from the gutters of Kolkata and Staines served the leprosy patients, they saw in them Jesus who, they believe, died for the sins of mankind. 

Does that mean that no conversion happens? Conversions do happen. Nobody touched the man called Sundar ever since he contracted leprosy. When Staines touched him, he was no longer the “leper” he was. He was instantly converted into a man with a curable disease. No, Sundar did not think it necessary to undergo a baptismal ceremony, informing the government his decision to become a Christian.

What Staines did was to bring back into the mainstream the castaways and that is what the Dara Singhs could not understand, let alone appreciate. The first anti-conversion law was enacted in Madhya Pradesh when Nehru was the Prime Minister.

There are many states where such a law has been enacted. But till today not a single Christian has been punished for fraudulently converting a Hindu. 

It is a film that tells us that conversion of the heart is what matters. Like Sundar, the journalist, too, undergoes a conversion and is able to write the truth, not the falsehood that the Editor forced him to write. The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story is a film that will do proud all those associated with it. Congratulations, Victor Abraham!

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 8th April 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 15)