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Keeping the Faith in Bangalore

Sean Sprague and Mahesh Bhat look in on Kerala’s Christians transplants

by Sean Sprague and Mahesh Bhast

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Almost 20 years ago, Jolly Sebastian decided to leave his home in Kerala, a state in southwestern India. He had no job, though he used to help his parents who eked out a meager living farming. An uncle lived in Bangalore, India’s fifth-largest city and the capital of Karnataka, the state just north of Kerala. Figuring he might have better luck in the big city, Mr. Sebastian secured a small bank loan there and bought a minibus. Today, he has a fleet of five in his taxi service and has created a comfortable living for his wife and three children.

“Life here is okay,” he said, “though I miss my friends in Kerala.”

More than 10 percent of Bangalore’s 6.5 million inhabitants hail from Kerala; like Mr. Sebastian, most came for work. After India achieved independence in 1947, Bangalore emerged as a major manufacturing center. More recently, it has become the hub of the country’s booming information technology industry, accounting for about 35 percent of India’s software exports. The city is now known as “the Silicon Valley of India.”

In contrast, very few major corporations have chosen to operate in Kerala, which since 1956 has been ruled by a series of Marxist and socialist-inspired governments. While their policies have pushed literacy rates and advanced public health and other social indicators well above the Indian average (advances that should also be credited to Kerala’s many Christian social service institutions, such as hospitals and schools), they also have buttressed a heavily unionized economy, holding economic expansion in check. While its per capita gross domestic product of $291 is higher than the national average, Kerala’s unemployment rate, which economists estimate between 20 and 35 percent, is India’s highest.

Thus, many Keralites look for work outside the state’s borders. Traditionally, they find work overseas, especially in the Persian Gulf. (About 20 percent of Kerala’s GDP comes from overseas remittances.) But the great urban centers of India are another draw, and none is more so than Bangalore, the subcontinent’s fastest growing city.

Many of Bangalore’s Keralites are Christians. In Kerala, 20 percent of the state’s 32 million inhabitants are Christian — a substantial and influential minority. Many of Bangalore’s Christian Keralites have settled in the southeastern suburb of Bomanahally. This has proved to be a challenge to local priests who, with limited resources, are charged with pastoring a growing flock in an increasingly expensive neighborhood.

“Our parish church in Bomanahally is filled to capacity and the congregation stands in the street outside,” said Father Thomas Kollamparampil, C.M.I., who also hails from Kerala, the heartland of the 3.8 million-strong Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. “There is great need of expansion.”

Land prices are high. Father Thomas hopes to enlarge the church vertically, adding a story as funds become available. The parish also has purchased a small adjoining piece of land, but has yet to develop it in consideration of Hindu sensibilities. Hindus, who account for more than 84 percent of the state’s population, have come to revere a small anthill on the property, adorning the mound with marigolds and other ornaments.

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Tags: Emigration