Reverend Father Cherian Veranani died. When the information was conveyed to me by my father many years ago, it did not evoke any feelings in me.
Father Veranani was the headmaster of St Sebastian’s School, Vazhithala, where I studied from class 6 to class 10 in the first half of 1970s. There was no higher secondary school (classes 11 & 12) in those days. Now St Sebastian’s is a higher secondary school, but Father Veranani is not there to head it.
Whenever I remember Father Veranani what comes to my mind is a slender, flexible cane which he used to carry all the time with him. His silver hair dashes into my mind almost simultaneously reminding of the picture of the god I had seen in some catechism books.
Vazhithala was a nondescript village four-and-a-half kilometres from my home and it is yet to make any mark in the history of Kerala though many new institutions have dotted its landscape now and a few more buses have started plying the only one main road passing through it. But St Sebastian’s Vazhithala was a popular school in the vicinity of our village in those days. There were other high schools at more or less equal distance from my home and they too were government-aided ones run by the Catholic Church.
Father Veranani’s popularity in our village was such that my father would put me only in St Sebastian’s Vazhithala as he had done with my elder brother and sister and as also he had not done with my younger siblings.
Looking back now I know why my father fell in love with St Sebastian’s. It was because of Father Veranani. It was because of Father Veranani’s slender, flexible cane. It was because of the Catholic Church.
By the time my younger brother had to join class 6 (our local primary school was only up to class 5) my father became a little more practical. He put them in another school. That school was also four kilometres away from home but there were buses running in that direction. Like my elder siblings, I had to walk 9 km every day. It contributed much to my robust health, I think.
My father was very fond of punishing his children. I cannot recall many instances of my father pouring affection on his children. But I can recall innumerable instances of his wielding the stick (broken from the nearest tree) on his boys’ thighs. The girls were mercifully spared such ordeals. We were four boys and six girls. I used to joke in my youth that our women were as fertile as our land.
The Catholic Church was absolutely opposed to birth control methods. Father Veranani with his swishing cane was a commanding symbol of the Catholic Church. Today the cane has disappeared from the schools and the faithful are no more loyal to the Church’s policy regarding birth control.
I can recall only two instances of Father Veranani’s cane burning through my bones.
The school had a fairly good PA system. Father Veranani’s voice would occasionally be amplified through the loud speakers fixed outside every wing of the school. If there was no teacher in the classroom the announcement would be drowned in the usual noises made by the students. The teachers being no less dreadful than Father Veranani commanded a lot of silence from their students.
On that fateful day, when I was in class 7, there was no teacher in our classroom when the loudspeaker blared Father Veranani’s announcement. It was just before the last period ended. The Catholic students had catechism classes and the non-Catholics had moral science classes after the last period for half an hour. Since Father Veranani’s announcement was drowned in the noises of the class, I asked a companion what it was. He was mischievous enough to mislead me.
I was naive enough to be misled by people almost all through my life.
My companion told me the announcement was that there was no catechism class that day. I didn’t wait a second longer to verify it. Pulling up my bundle of books, I homeward plodded my weary way. There were many other students too plodding their own ways, weary or not. Nothing looked amiss to me as I pulled out the book I had pilfered from my father’s library and started my usual reading as I walked along the four-and-a-half kilometre stretch.
But there was something amiss. The next morning Father Veranani came to my classroom, the cane dangling ominously in his hand, and pulling me up asked me to stretch out my arm. I had bunked off from the catechism class on the previous day. He did not accept my explanation about the announcement. The cane landed three times on my palm and etched a scar in my soul. I was, however, grateful to Father Veranani for not reporting the matter to my father.
The school organised a retreat for the Catholic students when I was in class 8. A ‘retreat’ is a series of tedious religious sermons preached by an untiring priest from morning till evening with brief intervals in between. During the morning interval the students, as usual, had retreated to their classrooms. I was talking with some of my friends in my classroom when Father Veranani called all of us out to the veranda so that the punishment would serve as an example to other students too who would see it from their classrooms or outside. Our crime? We had broken the rule of silence. All through the retreat we were supposed to maintain absolute silence.
The furious swish of Father Veranani’s cane on the palm of my companions rattled my bones though my own palm had tasted it less than a year ago. When my turn came I involuntarily pulled my palm back a little and the cane swished through the air to hit Father Veranani’s cassock with a loud noise. He caught me by the edge of my khaki half pants (the uniform) and fired half a dozen salvoes on my slender thigh.
Later on when Father Veranani was staying somewhere near my hometown as a retired priest, my father asked me many times to visit him. Father Veranani was supposed to have built my character along with many other priests and nuns at different times. I always found an excuse to postpone the visit.
When I was told by my father that Father Veranani was dead I did not feel any emotion. There was neither love nor hate. There was neither joy nor sadness. It was as if some stranger had died.
What was Father Veranani’s contribution to my life? He was a good English teacher. He taught me only in class 10 and I loved his classes. He laid the foundation of my English knowledge. I can still recall (35 years later) some of his English classes. I am indeed grateful to him for that. But that gratitude is not touched with any emotion. It is just a memory carried by the neurons in my brain.
Punishments don’t achieve any purpose, I think. At least not the kind wielded by my father and his generation. Yet I am not opposed to punishments altogether. Physical punishments are often meaningless. They seem to carry only the anger of the person who uses them. Punishments given out of anger serve no purpose whatever except the gratification of the anger of the one who punishes. Punishments should be given only to make the student understand his fault and help him to correct it. It should never be given out of anger or even annoyance.
Father Veranani belonged to a generation that believed in the maxim: Spare the rod and spoil the child. The rod was his gospel. So he did not spare the rod at all. How many children were spoilt or made by that rod, I don’t know.
He did not punish in anger, however. He looked indifferent as the cane rose and fell in his hands. He looked liked a serene crusader for discipline. If I can blame him anyway, it would be about the self-righteousness that his cane symbolised. But the Church is the most self-righteous institution I have ever come across so far and Father Veranani was a man of the Church.