The experience of the theologian president of the Centre for Dalit Studies

Teaching lessons
in the slums

30 April 2022

This article was published in the July 2020

I was born into a Catholic family in Kerala. I belonged to the Syro-Malabar Rite, one of the three Ritual Churches in India.  I am the third child in a family of ten siblings, five girls and five boys. One of my younger brothers is a priest in the Epharchy/Diocese of Ujjain. I had a normal upbringing in a joint family with my paternal grandparents. My grandfather was a pious and spiritually oriented man. Every evening he led the family prayers. He regularly went to mass and the days he could not go, he used to recite all the prayers of the Eucharist at home.  As a child, I remember waking up early in the morning hearing my grandparents praying the Rosary.

My mother had a strong faith in God and had special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She ensured that all her children grew up in that faith. During Advent and Lent, she encouraged us to go for mass daily. She observed fasting and abstinence on Wednesdays and Saturdays besides the season of Advent and Lent. She inculcated the values especially of truth and honesty in her children. It is from my home upbringing that I picked up kindness and compassion to the poor and the suffering. I remember that at the age of fifteen, my aim in life was to become a medical professional in order to serve the needy and the suffering people. I had no desire at that time for married life and family. Yet I did not want to join a convent and become a religious.

Even as a teenager I had a certain awareness of religious life and it was in the light of that understanding that I found that many of my religious sisters were not living up to the calling. I had close contact with religious sisters especially during my pre-university studies and I was not at all impressed by their life and values.

However, it was God’s plan that I was to choose the religious life so that I would have better opportunities to serve those in need. When I was doing my first year pre-university classes, my cousin sister who is a Presentation Sister working in North India visited my home. As usual, I began to criticize the way religious life was lived. She was rather fed up with my criticism and at the end she said, “Presentations are not like that.” A year later, when God brought me to a crisis like situation when I had to choose my future course of action, my cousin sister’s words suddenly flashed across my mind and that was a ‘Eureka’ moment for me. So it was crystal clear to me that God wanted me to join the Presentation Sisters in North India. When I learned about the charism and mission of the Congregation, which was started by Venerable Nano Nagle, I was sure that I was in the right place.

First female president of the theologians. I am a member of Indian Theological Association (ITA) and was its first woman president from 2014 -17. Though there are many religious women who have completed their theological studies -even up to PhD levels-, most of them are not found in the public sphere. Once they are entrusted with certain responsibilities within their Order, very few are seen undertaking serious academic activities like presenting papers, writing research articles, giving lectures, etc. There are a few religious women who are members of the ITA but only very few are regularly at our yearly meeting and seminar. As a result, the contribution from women’s or feminist perspectives is rather limited in our country. We have very few laywomen who are trained as theologians.

Being a feminist. A feminist is the one who is aware of the oppressive situation of women and who takes some steps to make a change. It was while doing my degree in Theology that I became aware of the secondary position of women in our Indian society and the many atrocities that are being carried out against girls and women. The majority of men and women in India have internalized patriarchal values and have thus ‘normalized’ the oppression and subjugation of women in society and in the church. Through my teaching and writing, I continue to raise this awareness especially among those who are studying for priesthood as well as among religious sisters.

Research on Dalit Catholic women. Currently, I am the chairperson of the Centre for Dalit Studies (CDS) in New Delhi. (This Centre was been doing very well until the sudden death of its founder and first director Dr. James Massey a few years ago. We are trying to revive the activities of this Centre but are faced with many hurdles at present). Dalits are the former untouchables of Indian Caste society and they number approximately around 200 million. Their situation even today is devastating. They are discriminated against at every level. A few years ago Rohit Vemula, a PhD student from Hyderabad committed suicide and in his suicide note, he said that his birth was his destiny. His only fault was that he was born as a Dalit. At one time, there was a large number of Dalits who converted to Christianity. Since Christianity does not uphold the caste system, and instead treats all humans with respect and dignity, it was natural that some Dalits converted to Christianity. Nevertheless, I must admit that Indian Christians too are not fully free of the caste mentality and therefore the Dalit Christians are made to feel that they are of secondary category in some places.

My research was among Catholic women of Dalit origin in Thiruvallur Dist., Tamil Nadu. I studied their religious-cultural practices from the perspective of empowerment. Besides the Catholic religious practices, they also practice different cultural rituals such as celebrating the first menstruation of the girls, a first pregnancy, widowhood, etc. I found that some of these body-affirming rituals help the girl/woman to have a positive sense of body and thus contribute to their overall self-confidence. Since they are deprived of their human dignity as Dalits, there is a strong yearning for self-respect. Even though most of them are poor, they like to celebrate rituals and spend a lot of borrowed money in order to gain that self-respect.

The Centre for Dalit Studies (CDS) under the leadership of Dr. James Massey undertook the project to write Biblical commentaries of all of the Bible’s books, and the completed series contains 20 volumes. I have contributed two volumes (Vol. 6 and Vol. 20). This Dalit Bible Commentary series is the first of its kind in India. The overall aim was to read the Bible from the perspective of a Dalit reality and to find ways of empowering them. Henceforth, I focused on Dalit women and their situation while writing the commentary on the Ruth, Ester and Judith books. I gave emphasis to the agency of Dalit women as the three Biblical women were shown as taking initiative to save their people.

With the students in the slums. Vidyjyoti College of Theology where I have taught since 1999 gives importance to contextual theology. Therefore, the first course for the first year students is titled an Introduction to Theology and Socio-Cultural Analysis. I have taught this course from the very beginning. As part of this course, we provide exposure programs to our students within Delhi. So far, we have not lived in the slums, but I take the students to the Delhi slums, especially to show them the people who earn a living at the dumping site. We climb the mountain like structure that is nothing but a heap of waste. When we reach the top, of that hill, what hits you hard is the sight of animals and humans struggling and fighting in search of things that they can lay their hand on as the fresh heap of waste is being unloaded from trucks. It is a terrible sight. The stench emanating from the waste is unbearable. Yet one can see men, women and even children staying the whole day in such a place to earn a living. We also visit some of their houses that are situated at the base of this hill. No words can describe the misery in which they live. This experience makes a deep impression on the students about the plight of the poor in our country. Moreover, that becomes our reference point for our theological reflection thereafter. We also take them to Jantar Mantar, a place in Delhi where people can come and protest against various grievances they may have. The students interact with those people who may stay there for weeks and months demanding for their legitimate rights from the Government to be recognized.

(text collected by Francesca Lozito)

Who is she

Shalini Mulackal, of the Congregation of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was born in Kerala, South India, and lives in New Delhi. She was the first woman president of the Indian Theological Association.

She has published numerous articles with a focus on the empowerment of women in the Church and society.

She speaks at national and international seminars mainly from a feminist perspective. She is very interested in social issues affecting the poor in general and women in particular.