The two-line e-mail from my sister was matter of fact, but in one swift jolt sent me hurtling back to hot summer-school days in Calcutta, India. I felt the crisp, cool, buttery sunlight of San Francisco fade away, and I was a small boy with quaking knees in a white school uniform. Father Bouche was on the prowl, checking to see if our hair was too long. It must be the dreaded hair-check day.
Fr. Camille Bouche was a pink-faced Jesuit priest from Luxembourg who made St. Xavier’s Collegiate school—a missionary school in Calcutta—his home since the 1950s. As the prefect of the school, he was the terror of many a schoolboy—generations of them. Sometimes, both fathers and sons had gotten a taste of his whistling cane. With his thick, Gallic-accent-laced Bengali (he even wrote short stories under the name of Kamal Basu, a very Bengali-cized version of his name), his heavy bunch of keys jangling against his cassock, the ever-present cigarette dangling between his lips—for many of us he was St. Xavier’s.
Terror that he could be, he was also the warmest man I had known. He called me “little mosquito,” because I was a puny little boy with a sharp tongue. We spent hours hanging out in his room, rummaging through his books, begging him to show us the bullet wound in his knee—a relic of World War II, when he was fleeing the Nazis. When his health started failing, we thought he would retire and go back to his native Luxembourg. He did, but then returned. St. Xavier’s was the only home he had known.
The last time I saw him, he was sitting in an old, worn vest in his hot little room in the priests’ quarters. It was summer vacation, and the playgrounds were dusty and empty. I knocked on his door, and his gruff voice said, “Who is it?” As soon as he saw me his face lit up. It had been over 15 years since I left school, but it felt like it was yesterday—”How are you? How is your sister?”
Father Bouche seemed indestructible to us, in the way that children always view the world around them as permanent. His whistling cane and cigarettes would probably raise shocked eyebrows in America. A teacher blowing second-hand smoke on his students! But he fashioned us out of mud and bruised grass, gave us a sense of worth and guided us out into the world to become men. He stayed behind with the debris of our adolescence — the tattered uniforms, the prepubescent mustaches, the well-thumbed textbooks.
In America now, I come to terms with his death. His death and the death of so many others over time. Family members. Parents of friends. Friends. An old housekeeper. There is nothing quite like the loneliness of long-distance sorrow. The guilt of not having been there—even if it was only to fluff a pillow.
Sitting in his small room in the priests’ cloister in the humid Calcutta heat, Fr. Bouche had kept track of his extended family as it scattered around the world. Every now and then the tide would bring one of them back—now a colonel or minister or business tycoon, holding the hand of his nervous little son. “Dear Father, how are you?” he would say. “This is my son. I would like him to go to my old school as well.” And the cycle would begin again.
Every day when I open the newspaper now, I read about yet another sex scandal involving Catholic priests and children. As more and more lurid details tumble out, I cannot but remember this man with a hot temper and an even warmer heart, roaming the dusty playgrounds of my childhood with shrieking, giggling children hanging onto the sash of his cassock. And I cannot but be thankful that this priest, whose story will never be front-page news in any newspaper, was a part of my growing up.
Sandip Roy is host of “Upfront” – the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.