How often does the passing of a Catholic priest receive a mention on PM Modi’s Twitter? Seldom. Therefore, perhaps, it is worth talking about the recently deceased Jesuit priest Fr. Carlos Gonzales Valles, whose demise was noted by Modiji with a glowing tribute to his monumental contribution to India. Although a Christian missionary by vocation, Fr. Valles transcended several socioeconomic, cultural, and religious boundaries in a passionate pursuit of his avocation.
He distinguished himself as an outstanding mathematician, essayist, and columnist and made a mark for himself not only in Gujarat, but also around the world. In a way, PM Modi’s tribute expresses the gratitude and affection with which the people of Gujarat looked up to Fr. Valles for nourishing their intellectual, literary, and spiritual curiosities for well over five decades. A closer look at his life and mission might provide us an important insight into several little-known yet transformative ways in which Christian missionaries continue to serve India in our times.
Born in Logrono, northern Spain, on 4 November 1925, Fr. Valles grew up in hardships because of the Spanish Civil War. He entered the Society of Jesus at 15 to become a priest and commit his life to prayer and service. That decision brought him to India, where he studied Mathematics at Madras university in the 1950s. He then taught the subject at the newly founded St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, from 1960 to 1982.
However, that is only a part of the story. Alongside teaching, Fr. Valles wrote extensively in Gujarati to reach out to thousands of readers through his books and columns. After over four decades in India, he returned to Spain but remained in touch his beloved karmabhumi Gujarat through his writing, regular visits, and correspondence. Fr. Valles will be missed not only by the Gujarat Sahitya Parishad but also by his countless fans who always counted on the comforting presence of “Father Valles”, whose multi-faceted personality impressed one and all in varied ways.
It is not an exaggeration to describe Fr. Valles as an intellectual giant. In spite of barely knowing modern mathematics by his own admission, he secured a First Class in 1953 and introduced new mathematical concepts in Gujarati curriculum for the very first time in the state. Along with his colleagues at St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, Fr. Valles developed a Gujarati terminology for modern mathematics in the 1960s. He was also instrumental in starting Suganitam, the first mathematical review in an Indian language.
Several of his books and scholarly articles on the latest development in the field of mathematics contributed immensely to the development of modern math in Gujarat. Not surprisingly, he was hailed as an outstanding teacher, someone whose text books are highly sought after by students and scholars alike even today! Such a monumental contribution in an unknown field could have come only from an intellectual giant. Fr. Valles was without a doubt one.
Landmark as his work in the field of mathematics was, Fr. Valles endeared himself to a whole generation of Gujaratis through his writing! Despite being a Spaniard, he chose to write in Gujarati to reach the hearts of all those who he loved and served in Gujarat. A perfectionist by nature, he spent two years leaning Gujarati, living in a hostel in a town in Gujarat, eating Gujarati food, and speaking only Gujarati! His exemplary commitment, sharp mind, and love for the people and culture of Gujarat helped him master Gujarati to be able to both teach and write in the language with ease.
Even though Fr. Valles had to publish his first Gujarati book Sadachar on his own, by the time he left India to return to Spain, he had published over 70 books on youth, family, society, religion, psychology in Gujarati, Spanish, and English. However, it was a Sunday column called “Navi Pedhi Ne” (To the New Generation) in a leading Gujarati daily that endeared him to thousands of readers, who instantly fell in love with the lucidity of his style and the depth of his thought. Through newspaper articles, Fr. Valles found a permanent place in the hearts of Gujarati readers across the world.
The several accolades he received for his literary contribution to Gujarat, such as the Kumar Suvarnachandrak in 1966, and Ranjitram Suvarnachandrak in 1978, bear witness to his literary genius. Having said that it is, perhaps, his numerous readers and fans – who almost revere him for transforming their lives and shaping their characters – that remain the best testament to his literary colossus.
If Mathematics and language set the stage for Fr. Valles’s indelible imprint on education and literature in Gujarat, his labors at promoting interreligious dialogue and harmony took him physically and emotionally closer to the people from all walks of life. In order know people from close quarters, Fr. Valles became an itinerant pilgrim, cycling from house to house in Ahmedabad’s crowded walled-city localities, begging for hospitality for a day or two, staying with a family and moving on to the next.
His experiment was a huge success as most people readily opened their doors to him and shared their joys, sorrows, and wisdom along with hospitality. These decade-long wanderings took Fr. Valles much closer to Hindu, Jain, Parsi, Muslim, and Christian families, and offered him great insights into people’s mentalities, attitudes, and beliefs. In turn he, too, enriched the hosts with precious hours of his undivided attention and company.
It was recognized as a great initiative for harmony and peace, for which Fr. Valles received two awards: Achrya Kakasaheb Kalelkar award for Universal Harmony in 1995, and Ramkrishna Jaidalal Harmony Award for promoting mutual understanding, appreciation, and unity among people in 1997. Needless to say, Fr. Valles treasured these two awards as they symbolized the essence of his mission.
Although circumstances pressed him to return to Spain in the 1990s, Carlos Valles remained in constant touch with India, making it a point to visit his friends, fans, and readers in Gujarat on a regular basis. Moving away from India only heightened his longing for a people and culture he loved so ardently. Just over a month ago when an old Spanish Jesuit friend of his, who had also spent many years in Gujarat, tried to strike a conversation with him, Fr. Valles failed to recognize him at first, owing to a gradually developing Alzheimer’s. Yet when the friend played his trump card and reminded Carlos of his days in Gujarat, his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.
He instantly recalled his name and spoke uninterruptedly for an hour! All about the people of Gujarat, his books, his work, and his undying love for India. Such a legendary figure breathed his last on 9 November at his residence in Madrid, Spain, only five short of a century. Certainly, his passing leaves a great vacuum in our lives, but his teachings and memories will continue to guide us on the way of moral uprightness, harmony, and selfless service – the themes that defined his life and work.
Sunil Macwan SJ
St. Xavier’s College