Skyline, Winter - 2011

By Diane Pendola

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On November 25 Yakshi and I arrived in Goa, on the southern coast of India. We had been invited by the inter-faith theologian and colleague of Raimon Panikkar, Fr. Francis D'Sa, to be among the friends gathered to celebrate his 75th birthday. We were some of the first to arrive and he and Clemens Mendonca, who had lovingly arranged so many aspects of this Festschrift in honor of Francis, were obviously pleased to be welcoming us to this beautiful place on the sea that they had taken such care in choosing for their friends. Francis greeted us by thanking us for coming and saying, "as you will see these days, friendship for me is the highest form." Then he and Clemens honored us with an Indian feast in the cool breeze of the resort's open air restaurant, with the ocean sounding in our ears.

Thus commenced my 3 week immersion into India, begun in the communion of friendship and a shared meal. And this is what I return to now as the over-arching symbol of my time in India. What stands out for me, in the midst of that crowded and impoverished country, are these points of light: people of deep faith and their commitment to incarnating love in the world.

An interview with Francis D'SA

I met Francis D'Sa in Australia in June of 2010 when I had the opportunity to present the Lioness Tale Prison Project at a conference honoring Raimon Panikkar. Francis had been the key-note speaker and was impressed with the LiT-uPP project. He invited me to talk about it again at the celebration of his birthday as part of a multi-cultural discussion. The Goa conference assembled an array of people from all over the world: thinkers, writers workers and activists. Francis said he had wanted to call his friends together from all different levels and walks of life so that we could inspire each other and experience communion with each other, a communion of shared love, life and light.

Francis shared with me in a brief interview what it was about LiT-uPP that moved him to invite me to the Goa conference. Here are a few things he said:

Here is a movement that is not just inspirational but liberative. And these are the two things that every human being needs and wants in life: inspiration to live and liberty to live for something… Freedom comes in the heart first. The heart must be free and then we will be able to put up with anything… We all need something to live for. We need something inspirational that despite all kinds of bondage in the external sphere, we have an oasis of freedom. And that has struck me. For that I would like to thank you.

And this he said directly to the LiT-uPP prisoners:

What should give you great pride and consolation is that you are becoming a point of inspiration for us. For us who are outside the prisons but still within the prisons of our hearts and ideas. So if you keep deepening this movement and expanding universal freedom you will reach the furthest shore, not only of humanity but of the human heart. I really want to thank you.

Sr. Jaya

On my day of departure from Goa I bid farewell to Yakshi who was leaving that day for Spain. I just happened to be sitting with Sr. Jaya during breakfast. And coincidentally (providentially?) I just happened to mention that my flight to Pantnagar, which would take me to Jim Corbett National Park and Tiger Preserve, had been cancelled. Now I would have to take a train to Ramnagar. Sr. Jaya perked up: "Ramnagar, that's my town! You must come stay with me."

What a gift to visit the simple and beautiful community of Sr. Jaya. These pictures speak a thousand words.

I was received by singing children, honored with flowers and aarati (fire blessing), greeted by village women who have been empowered as group leaders. As Sr. Jaya translated from Marathi to English, they took turns informing me about their work of educating, teaching literacy in the impoverished villages and liberating women from prisons of domestic violence and abuse. Two village children danced an Indian classical dance for me and then a beautiful woman, who was their teacher, also performed. After this stunning and totally unexpected reception, Sr. Jaya took me for a walk through one of the villages where she and her group leaders work. Children followed us, every tiny household invited us in for tea. Hugs and smiles and friendship were everywhere extended to me through the loving and beloved presence of Sr. Jaya.2

Tihar Prison

Arriving in Delhi was shocking. The city is chaotic, full of extremes, unregulated with smog so thick I was genuinely concerned if I would be able to breath. Street kids gather alongside roadways jammed with rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, cars and busses. They gather in little groups, building fires out of plastic and garbage to keep warm through the night. At one point, in the midst of this amazing cacophony a tiny little girl was crossing over five lanes of this haphazard traffic. I looked out my car window and there she was, this little tyke, alone, crossing the street in the middle of all that speeding insanity! And it was just normal. No one even noticed, let alone rush out to rescue her!

When I saw the inside of Tihar Prison I expected to be horrified but everything inside seemed very human and more humane than the slums around Delhi. Of course there is an impenetrable barrier around the place like a medieval fortress and guard towers and guards carrying rifles. It's a 400 acre walled compound with nine separate jails inside. The great majority of people inside are still awaiting trial. Some might waits years in Tihar for trial in the clogged court system just to finally be found innocent and released. I did not have the opportunity to visit the women's jail but both men and women are dressed in street clothes, are not locked up in cells or dormitories for most of the day, are free to roam the compound, to work, to pray according to their own religion, to study. There is vocational counseling and prisoners get a living wage that they can send out to their families. There appears to be more freedom and less regimentation inside Tihar prison than what I have experienced in U.S. prisons. It seems that in India, being deprived of one's liberty is punishment enough, whereas in America there is a pervasive punitive attitude that erodes human dignity on a daily basis.

Now, Tihar was a dungeon and a filthy, miserable stink-hole before Kiran Bedi became the inspector General of Tihar Prison in the mid-nineties and instigated the reforms that are still evident there today.3 So things have not always been like this. But from the little exposure I had, it seems that real reform and rehabilitative policies have taken root in the last 15 years in Indian prisons.

I was able to visit Tihar through "Prison Ministry India"4 , as guest of Fr. Joseph Kavalakatt and Sr. Inigo Joachim. While in Delhi I enjoyed the hospitality of Fr. Joseph's simple community formed by himself and two brothers, Philip and Praveen. They have begun an organization called "Sanjoe Society for Prisoners," completely dedicated to the welfare of prisoners, their families and also the families of victims.

I felt humbled by all the dedication, fidelity and surrender that I witnessed in the people at the Goa conference, in the Sanjoe community, in Sr. Inigo, as well as in Sr. Jaya's community and of course the Maher community which I will speak about in a few moments. Travelling in India allowed me to truly see from another window on reality and let go –a little – of my own, self-centered view; unraveling a little more of the knot of ego so I could experience more deeply my unity with all of humanity. Humility was the dominant experience. Humility which affirmed my own place and contribution while at the same time freeing me from the ego need to "save" the world. Humility which frees from guilt, judgment and criticality. I am only one among 7 billion. And those billions are very evident throughout India. Each of those billions is an icon of the divine and unite me with the body of God. So, I relax. I love. I show kindness. I re-commit to my work here at home. I surrender to the Source of it all. I know peace even in this world of trouble, suffering and misery. It is so paradoxical.

Maher means Mother's Home5

I met Lucy Kurien at the conference. She invited me to visit Maher which is an amazing movement to provide secure and loving homes for battered, exploited, destitute women and children. Sr. Lucy Kurien is a force of nature, and so is Hira, who has been with Lucy since the beginning of Maher. Smiling and gracious Hira greeted me when I arrived at the airport in Pune.

Over 20 projects have been created and nurtured by Maher and I was taken to visit almost each of them, each a loving home for children, for abused women, for unwed mothers, for mentally ill, for destitute elderly...and at each home I was personally greeted by songs of welcome and smiles of joy. I'm not exaggerating. The joy was palpable.

On the way to Vatsalyadham, home for mentally disturbed women, we suddenly pulled over in the midst of traffic and Hira jumped out of the vehicle. I thought that we were picking someone up who had been waiting for a ride but the woman who climbed into the back seat of the car was young, ill, disheveled and disoriented. This was the stretch of hiway that Maher had adopted. Whenever they saw a woman or child in need they stopped to pick them up and take them to one of their safe houses. This is no small feat where women and children are left to beg, even to rot, alongside busy roadways.

Maher is a symbol of what is possible in a land of apparent impossibilities. Maher embraces women of every religion, every ethnicity and social standing to bring love, compassion and wellness to India and beyond. I cannot do it justice. Please read and order the book about Maher, written by Will Keepin who I also met at the conference.6 Or, better yet, visit for yourself. You will be stunned and overwhelmed by your welcome.

I call you friends

"Friendship, for me, is the highest form," Francis said to us as he greeted us in Goa. Friendship was the parting gift Raimon Panikkar gave to me, which I wrote about shortly after his death in August, 2010. What stands out from my time in India is the simplicity and profundity of friendship: the extension of friendship by so many; the mutual respect and support of friendship; the mutual inspiration of friendship; the loving kindness, hospitality and gratuitousness of friendship. " I no longer call you servants but friends." Jesus said. Friendship. Community. Respect for diversity, for differences, for the richness that comes from a variety of world-views, perspectives, colors, languages, religions, cultures--- a rich tapestry, not a homogeneous monochrome but a rainbow of interests, points of light on the spectrum of Reality. Friendship: talking to one another, sharing with each other, enriching each other. This is what stands out from my travels in India.

Simple friendship will change the world. Enjoying each other's food; listening to each other's stories; singing each other's songs; joining in each other's dance; praying together, addressing the names of our personal God in our hearts from the silent ground that unites and transcends every name. Friendship: a shared meal; a shared conversation, a companionable silence; not necessarily agreement but common interest, curiosity and openness to each other. Yes, you might call it love, the love that is healing the world.

Blessed Christmas, dear friends, and happy season of dawning light and the new year,


PS: I did see a tiger. I did ride an elephant!!

2Sr. Jaya Victor, Sister of the congregation of St. Anne,
3Kiran Bedi, It’s Always Possible: One Woman’s Transformation of India’s Prison System. With a Foreword by the Dalai Lama (Himalayan Institute Press, Honesdale, PA, 2006)
4Prison Ministry India: email:
6William Keepin and Cynthia Brix, Women Healing Women: A Model of Hope for Oppressed Women Everywhere (Hohm Press, Prescott, AZ, 2009)


©Diane Pendola, Winter 2011. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or sharing with interested persons as long as the copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not print it in any other publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without express written permission of the author.

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