In 1949, a Jesuit priest moved to India from Spain. In the 40 years that he spent thereafter in Gujarat, saw him turning into one of the tallest literary figures that Gujarati language has seen. His contribution to Gujarati language, literature, society and even mathematics is unmatched. But one day he surprised his huge fan following in Gujarat by deciding to go back to his native land. Father Valles didn't mind leaving the state, which had shaped a new identity for him. He lived the philosophy of 'Sadhu to chalta bhala' throughout his life. In a tete-a-tete with Paras K Jha, he reminisces his life and times in Ahmedabad. Excerpts:
I wanted to be an engineer like my father, but destiny had something else in store. I lost my father when I was 10. If he had been there I would probably have become an engineer and my life would have been very different. But history played a significant role in my life. When I was 10, civil war in my country Spain started which lasted for 3 years. I was living with my widowed mother and elder brother in Madrid. On one weekend we went to a friend's home some distance from Madrid. As we reached there, the city was separated from that area due to the civil war and we lost our home, everything.
My mother put us in a Jesuit school. Since we didn't have money we had to pass the scholarship exam. We were bright students, so that was not a problem. While studying in the school I decided I would join the Jesuit society and become a father.
Moving to India
I had made up my mind to do whatever work I was assigned. My mind was open. At that time there were Xavier's colleges at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. I had come to India via Madrid-Rome-Tel Aviv-Karachi-Ahmedabad-Mumbai. You would be surprised to know that Ahmedabad had an international airport those days.
After completing my studies at Madras, I was told that a new St. Xavier's College was to be set up in Ahmedabad and I would have to go there and teach. I didn't know anything about Ahmedabad, Gujarat or its language.
Gujarati and maths
I was inclined towards mathematics and was also interested in literature. Initially, I was told to teach Gujarati and for that I had to learn the language for 2 years. My father provincial told me that it was his wish and God's wish that I should teach language. But the next day he came and told me that I should teach maths. Later, I was told the reason. The other fathers thought that Gujarati was not an easy language to be taught by a foreigner.
In the beginning, I found the city very hot. The food was different and spicy; the city was crowded. But I decided to take a vow that I would not leave India. I talked to my spiritual director about the vow, but he refused to approve it. I thank him now, as otherwise I could not have visited other countries. At that time what was known as modern mathematics was starting to be taught in India - sets, groups, rings, fields, vector spaces, matrix algebra. I used to read four mathematics magazines published overseas.
Book on marriage
I was writing a column Navi Pedhine in a Gujarati newspaper. I used to write on things which I have seen, observed and understood over the week.
So I had also written many articles on Gujarati marriage traditions, rituals and philosophy as I would get many invitations to attend weddings. That's how the book Lagna Sagar was published compiling my articles. Many people used to ask me how a father, who has nothing to do with marriage or married life, could write a book on the subject. My reply was, "I am not married that's why I know these many things about marriage!" The book was very popular as a gift for newly-weds.
I thought that I should live with the people and know their family lives. So I decided to do 'Vihar Yatra'. The first family which invited me was living in Jada Bhagat ni Pol in Vadigam. There were 32 members in the family.
Everybody could walk into any part of the house and listen to what was being discussed. There was no privacy. But I see that things have changed. The family members are not living in one house now, but separately.
The heritage of values and culture is missing. I have visited many families during my yatra over 10 years. All the families used to treat me graciously as they didn't have any specific interest in being my host. One day I stopped the practice. I don't want to hurt anybody and I don't have any pain in my heart, but I must tell you that I never received a single invitation either from a Christian or Muslim family to stay with them. I lived in the city for 39 years but I didn't experience hatred in the city among communities, except the Mahagujarat riots. But now, it is painful for me to see the name of Ahmedabad in the newspapers in Spain. The news is always about bad things.
My missionary activities
I am not criticising anybody or saying that what others are doing is right or wrong. I have full respect and love for all. But my missionary work, something he said I was doing unknowingly, was described by Kakasaheb Kalelkar at a public function. He said, "Other Christian missionaries are converting Hindus to Christianity, but Father Valles makes Hindus love Jesus."
Why I left Gujarat
While I was working in Gujarat, my elder brother used to look after my mother. But when my mother was 90, he decided to marry. I received a letter from my mother that she wanted me to look after her. That was the year when I retired. Taking it as God's wish I went back to Spain. My mother lived till she was 101, by that time I had settled down in Spain. My books were published in Spanish and translated in English. I started receiving invitations for lectures in Latin American countries, where Spanish is the main language. Now I write in Spanish and English about my observations of the society there.
Message to young Gujaratis
Move on with your new observations, experiences and understanding but retain old, real values of your family and nation.