Rebels and Outcasts: A Journey Through Christian India by Charlie Pye-Smith (Penguin paperback, pounds 7.99)
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The Independent Travel
Rebels and Outcasts: A Journey Through Christian India

by Charlie Pye-Smith (Penguin paperback, pounds 7.99)

Setting out to find the Christians with an "Asian face" in places such as Simla, Pune, Delhi, Goa and Kerala, Pye-Smith successfully describes a colourful assemblage of personalities which make up the living institution of Christian India.

In India, not even one in 200 is Christian. Those who have switched to Christianity have not always had an easy time of it. For example, while Hindu Dalits, the former "untouchables", are able to take advantage of the government's policy of positive discrimination in the job market, Christian Dalits often cannot.

Indian Christians do not always treat their fellow Christians with brotherly love. In the 19th century, Indian Christians who wished to worship at Christchurch in Simla, a church frequented during the summer by the British Raj, were often turned away by people hired to stop Indians of insufficient social standing from entering the church.

Despite the unequal treatment received by poorer or lower caste Christians, many communities that Pye-Smith interviews still cling to their Christianity. Poor Catholic fishermen from Vizhinjam, despite their poverty and persecution from their Muslim neighbours, insist on building a church tower as an expression of their collective faith.

Syrian Christians are often justifiably condemned for their contempt of Christian Dalits. In Trivandrum, Kerala, Syrian Christians attend a separate church as they refuse to belong to a local diocese whose members come from the low-caste Nadar and the Dalit communities. He also describes the Syrian Christian Mar Thoma Church in Tiruvella, Kotayam, with 15,000 Dalit members and a mandate that states that a quarter of all jobs within the church are reserved for Dalit members. Through research, Pye-Smith is able to describe the individual characteristics of various sects, thus avoiding dangerous stereotypes.

Pye-Smith verges on proselytising on occasion. At one point he attributes the peaceful expression on a women's face to "the peace of God which passeth all understanding". But these lapses are few, leaving readers impressed with the eclectic and inspirational array of individuals.

Suzanne Fisher