'India is your introduction': Recalling the legend of Don Bosco

The COVID 19 lockdown recall continues. In 1990 I was sitting pondering at my misfortune of having landed the job of looking after the material requirements of a large naval dockyard when in breezed the pint-sized ex gunnery officer of a missile corvette we had commissioned together in the (former) USSR  in the late seventies

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The COVID 19 lockdown recall continues. In 1990 I was sitting pondering at my misfortune of having landed the job of looking after the material requirements of a large naval dockyard when in breezed the pint-sized ex gunnery officer of a missile corvette we had commissioned together in the (former) USSR  in the late seventies. He had made his choice, left the Navy and had graduated to becoming the pint-sized Master of a large merchant marine vessel.

“Pondy”  he said, using an epithet I have tried to live down, then ignore and finally accept as the name I would  be known by in spite of being christened by my over-ambitious parents as ‘The Lord of the Universe’.   “You are going to Rome”, much in the same tone that Caesar’s mother said “Julius! You are going to Rome”.

And, so in due course of time, hastened by my eagerness to leave the murky scene of arranging material for the dockyard,  which ranged from bottom paint for ships ( a dirty chore ) to saris for lady workers and brooms for the unemployables, I received instructions to demit office and prepare to leave the shores of my homeland for unseen, uncharted lands.

And so it was, that one afternoon in Mumbai  (then Bombay), as I daydreamed of holidays on the Italian Riviera and making casual conversation with Sophia Loren, in walked Cdr Benny Lobo.  A word about this interesting gentleman.

Apart from the fact that he was an ardent Roman Catholic well known in the Bombay Parish, he was also old enough to have been my father. Cdr Lobo had retired from the Navy in the years when I was just wetting my toes in the service, and a legend in his own way. In those days, woe  betide the DSC (Defence Security Corps)  sentry who dared stop this ‘Ancient Mariner’ at the Lion Gate and ask for his identity! He literally had the run of the place and in a manner that even the Admiral Superintendent of the dockyard envied!!

Well, in walks this legend and asks in an imperious tone:  “Have you been to call on the Cardinal, young man?.” Now, my religious preferences are a bit shaky but anyone could say that with a christening like mine I had not much choice from the day I was born, and it thankfully did not require me to spend my day of rest engaged in earnest work in the confessional.

“No, Sir”, I timidly ventured wondering how a visit to the representative of the papacy, formed part of my duties of looking after the material requirements of the dockyard.

“Well, come on then. “What’s come of the Navy! Here, you are going as the representative of the Armed Forces of India to the land of the Pope and you have not even called on his man in Bombay!.

And so off he took me to meet Cardinal Pimenta in the nearby Cathedral at Colaba. Commander Lobo was a formidable man, one who could walk into any office and assert his right to be heard. It was obvious that he was well known to the Cardinal, who dropped whatever he was involved in, and asked the Commander as to what brought him to the Cathedral.

“Your Eminence,” he said, “I want you to bless this young friend of mine, who is going to Rome as the first Indian naval attache with independent accreditation to the government of Italy. The cardinal looked towards me, while I fumbled with introducing myself.  The Eminence smiled gently and told me “Son, you should go and meet Father Aurelius Maschio at the Don Bosco School in Matunga, He will tell you all about Italy and having been born there, is much better placed than me to brief you on Italy.  

So off we went to the Don Bosco School in Matunga to meet the remarkable  Father Aurelius Maschio.  A legendary priest member of the Society of St Francis de Sales (Salesians of Don Bosco), missionary in India, pioneer of the Salesian work in Mumbai, founder of Don Bosco High School (Matunga),  Aurelius was  the sixth child of eleven children, born to Giuseppe Maschio and Orsolina Della Cia in  February 1909 at Vazzola, Treviso, Italy. The family was well to do and ran a famous winery.

Revered as  the patriarch of the Salesian Province of Mumbai, Father Maschio  had spent his entire adult life in India, having expressed a desire for the priesthood at the tender age of 10. He joined the missionary expedition at the Salesian Mother House, Turin, in 1923 when he was only 14 years old.   In  November 1924 he set sail from Venice to Bombay, and thence to the Northeast, where he learnt and became proficient in Khasi, the local language.  Fr Maschio later came to Tardeo in the erstwhile Bombay presidency in February 1937 and by  October 1941, he shifted the Don Bosco School and boarding to Matunga.

In 1990, when I met him he was 81 years old, bent, ill but still worked a full day at the Don Bosco School.  In the evenings he would go for a walk through the poor neighbourhoods of Matunga, his pockets full of sweets which he would distribute to the  groups  of little children who would gather around him.

By this time, we had reached the Don Bosco School in Matunga. Led by Commander Lobo I made my way, to the open first floor, which served as the administrative office, We were directed to an old man, bent over a typewriter, with obviously severely challenged vision, with arthritic fingers pressing the keys deliberately. He was also hard of hearing and it took some time for him to absorb the introduction by Commander Lobo. It ended with a request that went something like this: “ Father you must give this young naval officer necessary introductions in Rome.”

Fr Maschio beckoned to me, and whispered in my ear.  I could barely make out his weakened voice  and  his  words that set the tone for the next four years of my life  have remained with me ever since.  

“Son, he said, “ I was born in, and come from an ancient land, an old civilisation, but I have lived my entire life in another even more ancient land, with an older and even greater civilisation, India.  Remember one thing, when you go to Rome, or wherever life takes you, you require no introduction, anywhere. Remember, India is your introduction.” He was tired, paused for a moment and blessed me.    

Fr Maschio died in Mumbai on 9 September 1996 and was buried in the shrine of Don Bosco's Madonna that he built. He had earlier refused an offer to return to his family and be cared for in the land of his birth. A journey of piety that began in Italy found closure in India. 

(The author, a retired Indian Navy officer, can be contacted at viswanathanpk@gmail.com. The views expressed are personal)

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