Strolling through a South Asian supermarket in Ottawa, the label on a bag of rice caught my eye. Despite being a resident of Canada for nearly two decades and having eaten most local and ethnic dishes, absence of a rice dish three or four times a week would be considered an incomplete meal. The aisles of various grocery stores in major cities in Canada are stocked with various rice varieties. But what grabbed my attention was the variety of rice that was unique to Kerala, a tiny state in India, tucked away in the southern peninsula, far away from the bustling metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai. The matta rice is fatter than its prettier, slim and slender cousin, basmati, that is well-known, even among the non-Asian folks. The reddish white matta rice is claimed to be healthier as it is unpolished and therefore retains essential nutrients. While the rice is certainly a gastronomical delight, particularly during festivals, the sight of this rice invokes images of green paddy fields spreading several hectares, dotted with bunds, wells, pumps, farmers, and laborers either ploughing or planting the next crop. Rice, the staple of the region, remained the backbone of the economy of Kerala, until the Middle-East-Gulf region opened its gateways to laborers for the oil fields, construction and health care, flooded Kerala with petro-dollars in the form of large homes, cars, and very importantly gigantic churches that predominantly served the female congregation of a society, whose male members toiled in the hot sands of the desert, building the Arab King’s penchant for the tallest tower, or drilling for oil from the depths of the land to serve the car-loving American and Canadian folks. Churches form a pivotal social hub, where alliances are made or broken, education is built, and festivals are celebrated with pomp and splendour. Born tasting curry flavored-Catholicism is akin to pancake-sausage combos at the Stampede in Calgary, or Montreal Smoked Meats or Nanaimo Bars or Maple Syrup-coated everything. Catholicism imported from Kerala to the vast expanses of Canada cannot be washed off, neither in the cold waters of the Bow river nor the clear water in Tobermory. The religious few gather in makeshift churches fashioned from old schools, or rented from various dioceses, considering that church attendance has plummeted. Money, to many an immigrant, is a scarce commodity that pays for heating in winter, cooling in summer and to meet living expenses. Yet, observing the faith that binds 4 million Kerala Catholics through Sunday masses that bring kids and adults under one roof, every week is important enough to budget for the tithe that the Church expects.
Kerala, bordered on one side by the Arabian sea is dotted with palm trees that supply not only toddy, the inexpensive, omnipresent alcoholic beverage, but also the leaves that are fashioned into leafy crosses, or just waved every year when the faithful welcome Jesus on his fateful one-way trip to Jerusalem, more than two thousand years ago. Recreating biblical scenes is a passionate affair and the involvement of the church in the daily lives of the Christians in Kerala is mostly welcomed, considering that several families have at least one member who have entered religious life, either as a priest or a nun.
An organized religion such as Catholicism, whether it is of an eastern rite, as practiced in Kerala, or one that follows the Latin rite, as in North America, requires funds. The Catholic Church is the spiritual home to 1.1 billion people around the world, and as of 2015, had $8 billion in assets. Sainthood comes at a cost. Canonization costs run in the range of quarter to half a million dollars, and the costs vary depending on the length of the process, the evidence required to be collected, publication material and travel costs. Canonization brings with it a revival of not only souls that were sent to purgatory, but also the economy of the region, where the saint lived, preached and died. This can be best captured in the small town of Bharananganam or B-nam, to help our readers, where the first woman to be conferred sainthood from the Kerala church, Saint Alphonsa, lived a saintly life. Religious tourism has transformed B-nam into a major pilgrimage center, with scores visiting the saint’s tomb. The region around B-nam is referred to as the land of lakes, letters and latex, owing to the backwaters that cater to tourists, its record of being the first fully literate town in India, and rubber plantations that dot the land. In a land of more than a billion people who are affiliated with some form of religious beliefs, sainthood is a rare event and naturally an entire tourist industry has spawned around the saint. An increasing shortage of religious clergy has resulted in a surge in the number of saints from Kerala, with the hope that more faithful renounce worldly pleasures to enter religious life. However, the observation that the list of potential candidates for sainthood consists of very few lay people, but mostly religious clergy including bishops, priests and nuns point to the business interest of the Catholic Church because the families of these candidates will have no claim over the income they generate. Compared to 53 million Catholics in Italy that produced 255 saints over the last two thousand years or so, Kerala with 4 million Catholics produced six native saints during the same time.
Driving through the neatly asphalted roads of B-nam, I cannot but help wondering how many more saints of the future lay waiting behind the walls of huts with broken doors and thatched roofs, and lavish homes painted green and pink and funded by husbands and wives living abroad. Each time, I carry a bag of matta rice to the boot of my car in Ottawa, my thoughts go back to B-nam, the throng of worshippers at the church, and a potential saint amongst their midst.