Soon after India got its independence, a young Spanish missionary arrived in Ahmedabad to teach mathematics at the newly inaugurated Xavier’s college. This guy was Father Carlos Valles, a young post-graduate in mathematics, who had become a Jesuit noviciate at fifteen. Valles was a soft-spoken and gentle missionary, open to ideas rather than orthodox. He did not know English, Hindi, or Gujarati when he arrived in India. At the age of 97, he is one of the most famous living authors in the Gujarati language.
Father Valles has published more than 28 books and a short autobiography entitled Atmakathana Tukda (A piece of my life). His father was an engineer, and his last work, a large dam in Ortigosa de Cameros, now bears his name. He was known for the thoroughness of his work and integrity in his life. Carlos’ maternal grandfather was the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Spain. When Carlos was ten years old, his father died of angina. Six months after his father’s death, civil war broke out in Spain. The country got divided into two, their home remaining on one side; they lost all they had. His mother took refuge with a sister of hers in a city where the Jesuits had just opened a school, and he and his brother got scholarships to study in the school and stay at the boarding. At the age of 15, he was initiated in the Jesuit sect of Christianity as a noviciate and was sent to India as a missionary.
Carlos did not know Hindi, or even English, when he came to India. But he chose to study mathematics and passed the B.A., and M.A. in mathematics with honours in English medium from Madras University in 1953. He was chosen for teaching Xavier’s college. He had realised that English, however much extended in the academic field, was a foreign language in India. It was enough to teach mathematics, but not to reach the hearts. The heart is reached through the mother tongue. In his region that was Gujarati, which also was Mahatma Gandhi’s mother tongue. Hence, he spend two full years in Vallabh Vidyanagar near Anand, studying Gujarati in his white cassock and faulty speech, unmindful of the uncertain future. His father had taught him not to do things by halves. Those two years changed his life.
He started his mathematics teaching in Ahmedabad in 1960. It was the era of teaching modern mathematics, and he introduced it in the Gujarat University, coining, as he went along, new terms for new concepts. “Set” was” “gan”, as Ganesh is the god (ish) of the clan (gan); and “ring”, of course, was fittingly and tellingly “mandala”. The terms have stuck. He also proposed to call a “one-one relation” a “Sati-sambandh”, and a “one-many relation” a “Draupadi-sambandh”, indicating how deep an understanding he developed of India and her culture. He started the first mathematical review in an Indian language, “Suganitam”, to every issue of which he regularly contributed an article on current research; co-authored the volume on mathematics in the official Gujarati encyclopedia “Gnanganga”, and conducted seminars and summer courses for mathematics teachers all over Gujarat. He represented India in world mathematical congresses in Moscow, Exeter and Nice.
In 1960, he published a little book in Gujarati, named “Sadachar,” addressed to the modern college student in India, with the cherished idea of launching a person-to-person dialogue with his students beyond the classroom. He became his publisher for this book with monetary help from his mother. The book has to this day seen twenty editions in three languages! Shortly after that first book, the editor of the family monthly “Kumar” asked him to write for his magazine, and at the end of the year, he was elected for the “Kumar Price” for the best contribution to the best magazine. Since then, he combined his mathematical and literary activities. He wrote columns in prominent dailies of Gujarat, which later came out in volumes as books. He received the Gujarat government’s prestigious literary prize in five consecutive years, till the government brought out a law by which no author could get a prize more than five times. More important was the “Ranjtram Gold Medal” granted to him in 1978, as this is the highest cultural award in Gujarat, for the first time awarded to a foreigner. As a teacher and a writer, he wished to be closer to his readers, and hence he lived with them, begging for hospitality from house to house in the traditional area within the city walls of Ahmedabad. Indian hospitality opened doors to him, and he thus spent ten years in that happy way. A truly ascetic man, people welcomed him as a Sanyasi, although a jolly one! This domestic wanderings brought him closer to Hindu, Jain, and Parsis, and gave him a chance to spread love and brotherhood among people without changing their religion.
Prejudices grow through a lack of contact. Father Valles always cited a story told by Chesterton of a Catholic family that came to live in a Protestant neighborhood. The Protestant neighbors frowned when passing in front of their house and said under their breath, “God knows what they must be eating in there!” One morning a Protestant boy had to knock at their door to retrieve a ball that had strayed inside. He saw the family at the breakfast table eating, came out clutching the ball and shouting through the street, “They are eating porridge! They are eating porridge!” He was excited and happy that just like any other British family, they too were eating porridge. Citing this story, Father Valles always tried to build bridges and love people.
In 1995 he received in New Delhi the “Acharya Kakasaheb Kalelkar Award for Universal Harmony”, and in 1997 the “Ramakrishna Jaidalal Harmony Award” for his lifework in favor of mutual understanding, appreciation, and unity between people of different languages, cultures, and religions. The word “harmony” is in both citations, and that is the summary of his life. He always believed that official dialogue between followers of different religions is fundamental for mutual understanding, and for world peace, it has to flower into a personal friendship. The famous Gandhian Kakasaheb Kalelkar appropriately described his missionary work at a public function. He said, “Other Christian missionaries are converting Hindus to Christianity, but Father Valles makes Hindus love Jesus, without changing their religion.”
With his God-loving Spanish roots and identification with rich Indian culture, he has found harmony in his life, living two successful lives in one. Like Gandhiji, this is another Gujarati whose life is his message.