Book Review: Making Anew My Home

Making Anew My Home
By Mathew Zachariah (FriesenPress, Victoria, BC, Canada, 2013) Pages: 226+xii

It is rarely that a book is at once an account of the religion and culture of a traditional community in India as it is an introduction to the cosmopolitan academic life of North America. This book is in part autobiography, family lore, and also, reflections on topics of serious debate in religion, culture and social transformation. Few others are as eminently qualified to handle these diverse and complex issues as the author, Dr. Mathew Zachariah. Born in India, he lived in Borneo, India and the United States before reaching Canada in 1966 where he has been living ever since. Making Anew My Home in nine chapters outlines these major phases in his life. The book discusses the author’s “roots in India”, how he “branched out in America” and, in the end, flowered in Canada. With a rare perceptive eye, Zachariah analyses traditional practices of his own cultural background. For instance, in the first chapter, “Names, Naming and Me”, he discusses the labyrinth system of naming children – boys and girls, according to their seniority -in the Christian community of Kerala, following a traditional practice that a Kerala Christian would take for granted but which would be news to a Westerner.

Autobiographers, in general, tend to gloss over any lacunae or blemishes in their own personal life or families and focus on presenting a sanitized version of their life-story. Not Mathew Zachariah. With the precision of a detached academician, he sets out before us, in the pages of this book, a transparent account that includes tensions and trauma at home as he grew up and his own erroneous judgments as an adult that landed him, at times, in awkward situations. For instance, based on his own experience of two marriages – one, a “love marriage” in which the couple, in accordance with the Western culture, decides by themselves to get married and the other, an “arranged marriage” in which the marriage is arranged by friends or family, as per the Indian culture – he reflects on the advantages and disadvantages of both these practices (Pages 53-57). As a culturally “dual citizen”, the author reflects also cross-culturally. Indians who have settled down abroad tend to either romanticize the “glorious Indian culture and tradition” or bemoan their motherland’s backwardness and inability to catch up with the West. Again, not Mathew Zachariah. With objectivity and honesty, he remains alive to the potential of India but does not also hesitate to point out where changes are possible.

As one goes through the pages of this book, it becomes obvious that the author has a deep insight of the social, religious and political changes in a variety of contexts. For a person who has been living in the West for close to half a century, he is well informed about the rapid changes taking place in India. For example, even though he is a Christian in the St. Thomas tradition of Kerala, he questions many of the popular assumption about the arrival of St. Thomas in the first century and the supposedly “Brahminical” heritage of the Kerala Christians. With sound arguments (pp. 62-65), he suggests that the early Christians in Kerala inherited their culture and values from diverse sources, indigenous and foreign. In the same vein, the author also acknowledges that while the Indian Christians participated in the Independence struggle, “they did not choose to protect their Dalit (so-called untouchable) brothers and sisters” (66). Even during his long physical absence from India, Mathew Zachariah has, indeed, kept abreast with the rapid changes in social movements back “home” which include an awakened Dalit consciousness in recent years.

Even as a “detached” academician, the author was deeply involved in some of these changes. In particular, the sabbatical year he spent at the Center for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram and the way he was involved in the work of the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP, the People’ Science Movement of Kerala) demonstrate that he had a personal commitment to social transformation that went beyond mere academic work. He followed the ups and downs of KSSP and, along with his research assistant, wrote a book which remains “the only comprehensive, objective, yet sympathetic account of the organization in the English language” (166).

The book, Making Anew My Home is well brought out and carries some rare photos that throw light on not only the family of the author but also his high profile acquaintances, which include Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the Republic of India, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former President of the Soviet Union and Paulo Freire, the eminent Brazilian educationalist. A few personal documents and letters, attached as Appendix, add to the value of the book. The Name/Subject Index makes reference work easy. While all autobiographies are slices of history that need to be cherished, this book also presents a rare account of cross-cultural insights that are, in parts, genealogy, academic study and direct involvement; a valuable treasure-trove indeed, for any student of cross-cultural studies.

~ JMA

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