In Love with a Pagan

 A review of Lata Pimplaskar's Light of Lights

by Koenraad Elst


Lata Pimplaskar, based in New Jersey but with roots in Maharashtra, India, is a professional interior designer as well as a novelist.  Her latest novel Light of Lights relates the love affair between Tony, an American Roman Catholic lay missionary in Maharashtra, and his native housemaid Maya.  The story features a number of poignant scenes highlighting socio-religious problems such as the way Catholic priests deal with their stringent vow of celibacy, the incomprehension of Hindus and even converts from Hinduism vis--vis Christian exclusivism, the resistance of a traditional society against the less restricted modern mores, the increasing doubts about the whole missionary endeavour among contemporary Christians, and of course the struggle between religious divisions and romantic attraction.  Apart from the thematic angle of Hindu-Christian interaction, the novel also contains a good and sufficiently complex human story, with characters who are more than mere parable icons conveying an ideological message.


Lata Pimplaskar's description of the sociology and psychology of the Western missionary in India is realistic through and through, far more than I would have expected from a Hindu.  Usually, Hindus speaking about Christian missionaries tend to lapse into either one of two extremes: fawning sympathy or angry antipathy.  In this case, it will be no coincidence that in her note of thanks, the author mentions a few people who have their feet in both worlds and whose feedback has helped her in fine-tuning the characters, particularly the Christian ones.  The reviewer, being similarly placed in between Christian and Hindu cultures and being familiar since childhood with the missionary phenomenon (two uncles of mine and quite a few family friends being or having been Catholic priests or, specifically, missionaries), I can only confirm the realism in the accounts of missionary Tony's convictions, doubts and conscience problems. 


Since many Hindus picture missionaries as a monolithic army of grimly determined warriors against the native religion, it is especially the element of doubt which deserves emphasis.  Once missionaries get personally acquainted with the flock they are expected to convert, many of them aren't so sure anymore whether destroying inbred religious beliefs and attachments is all that desirable.  Some give up the missionary project altogether, many more settle for the compromise of doing social work and just hoping that some of its beneficiaries will spontaneously feel attracted to the Christian message.  As a nun, an old schoolmate of my mother's, once told me: "I went to India in order to convert people.  But it is India that has converted me."  Not that she became a Hindu, but she integrated herself into Hindu society all while doing social work in Mumbai.  In this novel, we see how one of Tony's supervisors is familiar enough with this accommodative tendency, warning him against it.  For that is the orthodox position, still alive and vigilant: don't let your personal sympathy for individual Pagans degenerate into a sneaking sympathy for Paganism itself.


It is easy, and a guarantee of applause, to describe and ridicule the petty-minded quarrels which may erupt in a Hindu Brahmin clan over the intricate rules of ritual, most hilariously if it concerns a funeral.  That is what was done in U.R. Anantha Murthy's novel Samskara, where a Brahmin family is all in a quandary about whether and how to properly dispose of the dead body on a relative who had strayed from the path of orthodoxy.  Though written by a self-critical Brahmin, the Marxist-Missionary combine in Indian and American academe has exploited the novel Samskara to the hilt for the purpose of ridiculing and denouncing Brahminism.  In Light of Lights, in one of its more hilarious scenes, the tables are turned, and we see how Christians are all in a panic when having to decide whether a baptised Hindu convert deserves a Christian funeral, given that with his dying breath he had invoked the Hindu gods.  But the scene is by no means one of hard sarcasm.  Indeed, the author is full of empathy when describing the exasperation of Christian missionaries confronted with the Hindu mentality of having Christ coexist with the older gods rather than seeing the need for a choice.


As far as I can see, this novel is thematically the first of its kind.  Throughout the colonial period, numerous stories have been published, often autobiographical ones, by Western Christians about their experiences in the mission: as successful or failing converters, as doubters and renegades, or simply as observers of the native societies in their transformation under the impact of colonialism and the cultural penetration of Christianity.  On the Hindu side, there are essays and pamphlets, and not more than a few serious studies (most of all Sita Ram Goel's History of Hindu-Christian Encounters), but little or no literary elaboration of this topic.  So here at last we have a good story that takes the reader through some real-life human implications of the missionary presence in India, the greatest stronghold of what many Christians still call "idolatry".  Though Lata Pimplaskar seems to have a very modest attitude about her own literary ranking, this novel is entitled to a mention in future histories of religion-related literature.



Koenraad Elst, Ph.D.






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