FR AMALRAJ SEBASTIAN SJ (1949-2014)
One Leg In Heaven, The Other On The Move-In The Service of The Lord
(Snippets on the life of Fr Sebastian Amalraj, s j)
The news that Fr. Amal had passed away at three am that night, was on the community notice board when i got to the dining room for breakfast on the 13th of September. Curiously he was born on the 13th too but in the month of December, 1946. Three months before he could turn 68 he was gone.
Two photographs went up on the community notice board during the course of that morning. One of ‘Joaquim More’ vintage taken in his novitiate (perhaps before his accident) and the other capturing him in more recent years. Both photographs carried the bright beaming smile one would receive when one greeted him. In both photographs the smile was indelibly the same. The ups and downs of the years did not dim it. Coupled to that smile and equal to it was his full bodied laugh, merry and loud and pouring out invariably from his insides. A number of his friends and companions would mischievously evoke it from time to time over meals or during recreation by reminding him of a sentence he never carried out “i will take the first bus
back.” It was a sentence that was uttered in more innocent years, when he was easily scandalized by the unacceptable utterances of a more hardy companion coming from more urban and less traditionally entrenched background.
Amal himself landed in Ahmedabad, from Kalladithidal, in Ramnad district of Tamilnadu, after completing his
pre University studies, and joined St Xavier’s College as an economics student in the F Y B A in june 1968 for a year. He would return thirty five years later to the Xavier Residence on campus as Rector, and would work at the Behavioral Science Center (BSC), currently christened Human Resouce Development Center (HDRC). When he joined the novitiate in 1969, I was a junior at Premal jyoti, and remember vividly, the unfortunate accident and its aftermath that forced him to interrupt his noviceship. The response to rally around was characteristically remarkable, more so because the recovery was prolonged and made
him endure much. By far the largest part of the years he was appointed to the Xavier Residence Community were spent in leading us, as Rector of the community. One aspect of the leadership he exercised is reflected in the three edifices on the college campus, that came up during his tenure.
All of us recognize that he had a major, significant part in setting them up. They stand in ample proof that he had the will to lead and lead, he did. He had consultations, took the decisions, shouldered the responsibilities that follow-up required, and was ever willing to implement if there was nobody in the community to follow up. Where better endowed Jesuits chose to block with a “why”, Amal, preferred to circumvent and overcome with a ‘why not’. Not every one appreciated this trait, but it must rank as a singular one that everybody cannot lay claim to. When I was appointed principal of the college in October 2008. I especially enjoyed this side of him that encouraged my work, rather than curtailing it. His basic calling as a Jesuit drew him to the social action apostolate. He loved writing and implementing projects to the extent that he once conveyed in a conversation to me, that he was good at it, good enough to get them funded.
During his stint at the BSC and earlier at Ashadeep and at the social center in Surat (essentially three places that he worked through his Jesuit life) he did have several projects funded. I am not in a position to say if all the proposals he made or conceived, actually got funded. The ones that were funded do however vouch for the talent he claimed. One must appreciate this talent in him, especially today when the province is looking keenly for, and promoting project writers! Unfortunately, however, there were fellow social activists who were not always comfortable with his outlook and approach. Perhaps his optimism crashed into
their realism....pessimism?? He faced their music dourly!
In the very first year of his superiorship he had to take up the challenge of the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Xavier Residence. On paper it sounds like one of those, “so what’s great about that?” task. In practise it meant shepherding a community that ranged from men in their eighties to some in their thirties, across to Premal Jyoti for at least six months, and then back to a more liveable renovated residence. Several among them had been entrenched at the residence for years!! In emotional terms the response to that project carried on many months beyond those six months and spanned the positive and the negative. In all my interactions with him, i sensed that he never let the negatives influence his interactions at the day
to day level in his duties as a superior. When he had to put a member of the community in his place, he did. Me too!! Others who deserve to be mentioned may not want to be!! As if to balance his first years as rector, the latter phase of his superiorship was involved in erecting the two angels on campus: the XICA building, and the college golden jubilee block. Getting these buildings going meant cutting through bureaucratic red tape and straddling administrative hurdles. Whether it was a thick skin or the virtue of humility, God alone can tell, but no inimical official managed to stop him. Thanks to his tenacity and support the foundations to
the two buildings were laid on the 31st july 2010. By the time the buildings were nearing completion he was asked to move back to vidyanagar, to Ashadeep from where he had come to the BSC. Circumstance in the organization decreed that a new leadership was called for. Amal went, left without rancour.
With the smile and beyond the laugh, lived a Jesuit who knew suffering and pain in their stark reality. The trauma of the accident that occurred in the novitiate when he was on his cycle for his weekly catechism apostolate at the Sabarmati power house, he would confess many years later in a community sharing never left him. By dint of the circumstances and events surrounding that tragic happening, Amal lived an important rule of our way of proceeding that we had to commit to memory as novices. According to that rule a Jesuit must be ever prepared to be on the move. An unforgettable image of him for me will always be of him tucked in, in the front seat of his vehicle, with his driver next to him ready to hit the road. So comfortable
was he on the move that he could be sound asleep in that vehicle. Many will of course attest to his ability to sound so loud in his sleep that the rest (pardon the pun) of his neighbours would be disrupted.
His handicap never stopped him. He went on to take his first vows after returning to the novitiate in 1972,
completed his formation, got ordained, studied law and did special studies to equip himself for the social action apostolate. His Jesuit outlook on his apostolic calling took him to the West Indies, Columbia and Ireland, while the rehabilitation of his limbs took him to Spain, more than once. He coupled these visits at times with visits to funding agencies in Europe. Projects at the BSC took him tirelessly up to far points in kutch. He was unstoppable.
In fact in the last couple of years before his transfer he experienced a heart problem requiring the insertion of a stent, and some of us advised the provincial to ask him to live at the residence, for better personal care. Further it was suggested that his travelling should be curtailed heavily. He pleaded with the provincial saying “if you stop me from moving i will die. It is the thing that brings me life, and energy.” The provincial relented. I guess he knew that this one Jesuit was one who was not afraid to go. The eulogies at his farewell Eucharist testified to this.
At the cemetery as we were waiting for his body to be interred, a fellow Jesuit asked me whether his artificial leg was in the coffin. My answer was no, it could be of service to someone else in need. But then my mind went back to the days after the accident. In those days i was a junior and then a linguist at Premal Jyoti. We visited him often at the Civil Hospital, confined to his bed, supine, waiting to be mended and healed, never suspecting that the limb that had the lesser injury was actually deteriorating. That was a difficult time for him and for those to whose care he was assigned. In the end that limb had to be severed, but he rose above the resentment that the pain and trauma brought with them. According to the custom of those days the amputated limb would be given burial honours. At that moment, in reflecting back, it struck me that since
those days Amal had one leg in heaven already. Two rough, flat, big, black stones lie fixed to a crude wooden frame with four legs. It is a table whose appearance is deceptive. If you bend down and peer at the underside you will find smooth granite surfaces bearing inscriptions that contain the name …. By the Rector, Fr Sebastian Amalraj, sj….. as a part of them. They are the foundation stones that were blessed to begin work on the new buildings (i have christened them the two angels, because on a quiet moonlit night, their off-white veneer shimmers, and it seems like seraphs have descended to the ground ) on the campus, and were blessed by Amal. Ironically, that wooden frame lay on my daily path to the research center. It lay there for over two months before it disappeared. I had often thought of moving it and saving it for some good purpose. Before i could get down to action, one day it disappeared, and a few days before he died, the stones and the wood found use to become that table...... and Amal having vaulted over with his other leg to meet his maker, looks at the table and smiles that unmistakable smile, and breaks into that roaring laugh and shouts “why not?....everything is possible”. The ugly, the bad, the good. I had to reverse the order, for in life in interacting with him in many a bleak moment, his choice to be optimistic carried the day. Requient in Pacem, Fr Sebastian Amalraj.
By Fr Vincent Braganza, sj.