The red carpet was laid out on the tarmac of the Safdarjung Airport in Delhi on a November day in 1956 when Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia came for a three-week state visit to India.
Personally received by President Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Ethiopian monarch, who was one of India’s greatest foreign friends, had a soft corner for Malayalis and was eager to visit different parts of Kerala. By that time, he had developed a particular fondness for a teacher from the state who he met in 1949 at the Agricultural College in Ambo - Paul Verghese.
The Tripunithara-born English and maths teacher impressed the emperor in Ambo when he acted as Mark Anthony in the school’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Following the play, Verghese made in a speech in flawless Amharic. Haile Selassie was shocked that an Indian, who had then only been in Ethiopia for a year and a few months, could be so fluent in the country’s language. “For me this encounter with one of my childhood heroes was a moving experience. I had seen so little of the world, and this recognition by the Emperor was a great thing for my natural vanity,” Verghese, who later became Bishop Paulos Mar Gregorios, wrote in his autobiography.
After this meeting, the emperor called for the teacher to be transferred from Ambo to the prestigious Haile Selassie I Secondary School outside Addis Ababa. He was asked to teach Amharic, despite not being a native speaker.
Malayali teachers started moving to Ethiopia in the 1940s, thanks to Robert N Thompson, a British academician who was impressed with the quality of the education system in Kerala, and the English-language skills of those who completed their matriculation in the state.
Building a modern education system
The African country was set back by decades after a disastrous five-year occupation by Fascist Italy that ended in 1941. After the end of the Second World War, Emperor Selassie made it a point to build a quality education system in Ethiopia.
“You could say that he was the first Ethiopian monarch, who devoted a lot of his time and also the resources that Ethiopia had at that time to modernising the country,” Asfa-Wossen Asserate, great-nephew and biographer of the emperor, said in a documentary titled What the emperor saw on a morning drive. The emperor handled the ministry of education himself right through the 1950s.
“I think our relationship with India starts because the Indian teachers had the two components that were needed at that time,” Asserate added. “On the one hand they had a good English education, and many of them - not all, also had the plus point that they were Christian Orthodox teachers.”
The fact that the Malayalis and Ethiopians shared the same faith also influenced the emperor when he decided to set up a theological college, preferring the Kerala Orthodox Christians to Jesuits from Europe or Methodists from the UK.
“Thompson was appointed by the emperor to find out efficient teachers from India, especially from Kerala, to bring them to Ethiopia and to teach there, to involve them in the schools in Ethiopia,” Jossi Jacob, a professor at the Holy Trinity College, Addis Ababa, said in the documentary. He also noted that thanks to an influx of Indian teachers, the Indian community is still widely respected across sections of society in the country, and not seen as a business community like in Kenya and Uganda.
The Emperor in Kerala
On his state visit, Haile Selassie went to Cochin, where his arrival was celebrated by members of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (Indian Orthodox Church). The emperor stayed at the Bolgatty Palace.
The emperor also travelled to Kothamangalam and addressed students of an engineering college. After that he went to Kottayam, where he met the head of the Indian Orthodox Church.
The monarch naturally visited Trivandrum. When he was in Trivandrum, Haile Selassie laid the foundation stone of the Centenary Hall in the Christ Church premises.
Pursuit of the Malayali teacher
Haile Selassie had not forgotten the Malayali teacher he first met at Ambo. Verghese, who left Ethiopia in 1950 for the United States for further studies, had by that time returned to India, where he was running a meditation and retreat centre for Christians in Aluva. The emperor initially tried to dissuade him from leaving Ethiopia in 1950 and had even visited the Indian teacher at Princeton, asking him to come back to the African country.
During his 1956 state visit to India, the emperor requested Nehru to persuade the teacher to return to Ethiopia and work as a part of his personal staff. When a representative of Nehru asked Verghese to consider the emperor’s request, the humble teacher replied in a manner that shocked the Indian official: “I am deeply honoured by His Majesty’s offer. And I thank the Government of India for communicating it to me. I regret I am not able to accept it. I am a simple worker of the Christian Church. I am getting a salary of Rs. 75 per month. And I am quite happy with my salary and my work. I would like to continue in that work.”
Verghese would reject the Ethiopian monarch’s offers a dozen times before agreeing to go back to Addis Ababa. He returned to India in 1959 and two years later, was ordained as a priest. It was in 1975 that Verghese was elevated as Bishop Paulos Mar Gregorios. He took care of the newly-formed Delhi Diocese of the Indian Orthodox Church until his death in 1996. It was his dedication to his job as a teacher and understanding the language and culture of the Ethiopians in the 1940s that brought him to the attention of Emperor Haile Selassie. This paved the way for several Malayalis and other Indians to move to the African country as teachers. Between 1947 and 1991, one in three teachers in Ethiopia’s secondary schools were Indians, with a large number of them being Malayalis.
Haile Selassie, who passed away in 1974, remained a close friend of India and openly supported the country during the 1962 India-China War. At the time of the war, the emperor also managed to mobilise support for India across Africa, with messages of solidarity coming in from Kenya, Nigeria and several West African countries.
In 2021, with opportunities drying up many parts of the world such as the Persian Gulf countries, it’s perhaps time for Kerala to once again look at building a strong relationship with the country, where Malayalis still enjoy immense goodwill.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)