Tribute to a Man of Faith

I believe I am one of the very few people to have addressed my uncle James Chellaraj as James mama. 

James mama was one of a kind, he literally was in terms of his physical appearance. He was the giant in our family. As a child, I remember going for bike rides on his Jawa, a bike that quite rightly suited his personality and stature. I would sit on the tank in the front and my brother (Arun) and cousins (Pradeep and Sujith)—the 85 borns—would sit behind me and James mama. Little did I know that I would be reminded of this image when the four of us stood around his hospital bed on that dreadful day. The moment of holding and clinging to each other, so that we don’t fall off the bike, came full circle nearly three decades later when we were holding on to him so that he wouldn’t slip away. Eventually, he did; but here we are, the four and all of us included holding on to the memories he has left behind.

James mama was a man of faith, and I am glad I don’t have to mean that in a very restrictive and conventional sense. We read in the Bible where the book of James speaks of faith as action, that faith is not what is evident in rhetoric but in action, that love does not merely lie in what is said but in what is done. I believe James mama committed himself to working out his faith through action, for he knew all too well that faith without works is dead. For him, to love God meant to love his neighbor, to be neighborly to those in need, to walk the extra mile, to give what he had, to comfort the bereaved by just being present.  

James mama was like that Good Samaritan we read in the gospel, who did not limit his service to just his own. He cared and provided for those whom most of us would hesitate to go near. And he did not do this when life was normal; rather, he did this and more, to strangers, at a time when fear and death was all around him. He, quite literally, put his body on the line. The love that he demonstrated did not differentiate one from another. The fact that maintenance staff, watchmen, daily-wage laborers, barbers, and shopkeepers could recognize him and remember him is enough to suggest that James mama was a man that walked the dusty roads, taking pride and finding meaning in getting his hands dirty and feet wet. 

Perhaps unknowingly but certainly, he reflected the Jesus that Christianity today has conveniently chosen to forget: the Jesus that loved, cared for, and spent time with the least of these. James mama was an embodiment of the ethic of Jesus that was rooted in faith, compassion, and love.  

There’s a lot more to James mama. He was funny and witty—you kinda had to pay attention to get it; he was smart—he had a thing for dressing fit and well; he was disciplined and systematic—wake up very early in the morning, freshen himself up, water the garden, iron his clothes; he loved outdoor activities—whether it was going for walks or cycling early in the morning; he enjoyed cooking—his biryanis and fried rices were unique to him—; he loved carrying little babies—he was one of the earliest to carry my niece Adeline.

Children and teenagers were fond of him just as much as he was of them—in fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that some of his best mates over the last decade or so were young children; he enjoyed being with relatives and would always take it upon himself to be there when families were hurting and going through a rough phase; he loved nature, his plants, even inspiring many to do so—as Nick, my brother, once said, “Uncle imitated God by creating a Garden of Eden in his house”; he was accommodative—even allowing the symbol of the fish to be carved on the walls of his home as a tribute to us Living Waters; he was helpful—never hesitated to help anyone, even going beyond what he could’ve.

James mama’s care for people reflected respect, love, humility, and utmost sincerity. He had no guile in him. He was straightforward, open-minded, warm-hearted, hospitable, honest, trust-worthy, and devoted. 

I shall end my tribute with these words of assurance. Some of you already know this. The void that James mama has left in all of us—especially in Dora aunty and in Pradeep—is real, deep, painful and forever. This void breaks our heart but is also the source of healing and hope. This void stands barren, yet is filled with memories of joy, laughter, and journeying together. James mama is no more, but exists nonetheless. His absence is what makes his presence immanent. Death may be the end of relationships, but is also the beginning of another.

This evening, even as speak and hear of, remember and celebrate, acknowledge and be grateful for the life and witness of James mama, may each of us preserve and hold on to that void—that sacred space—for that is where he dwells, inside of us.

May his memory live long!

P.S. I was given the privilege to offer this tribute to my dear James mama on the 20th of August, 2021 at a Memorial Service held in remembrance of him.

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