The Mathematician Priest

This week as we celebrated Dr AR Rao, a great teacher of mathematics, it is the right time to make it a double celebration. Coincidentally this teacher of mathematics was not only a contemporary of Dr AR Rao, but also made Ahmedabad his karmabhoomi, and the teaching of math his life’s mission.

He was Father Carlos Valles, a Spanish Jesuit priest whose contribution to mathematics education, as well as to the Gujarati language and literature left a significant mark in both fields. The life and work of Father Valles are inspiring, as well as humbling.

Carlos Valles was born in Spain on 4 September 1925. His father, a respected engineer died when Carlos was only 10. But he left a very strong impression on his young son, who through his life reiterated “My father trusted me. I would never let him down.” Soon after his father died, Carlos’ family lost everything in the civil war that broke out in Spain. His mother took refuge with a sister of hers in a city where the Jesuits had just opened a school, and Carlos and his brother got scholarships to study and board in the school. When he was 15 Carlos joined the Jesuit religious order as a novitiate. This was also when he wrote his first book The Art of Choosing, where he reflected on this turning point in his life—detaching from the family for Christ and a lifetime of service. His next ‘detachment’ was leaving the country of his birth. On his own request that he be “sent East”, he was asked to go to India. As it happened, his Jesuit order was planning to start a new St Xavier’s college in Ahmedabad, and the young priest was given the task of helping to set this up. And so, in 1949, Carlos Valles left his mother country for India, which became his home for the next many decades. As he later wrote “There I went in the fullness of my youth. My father had taught me never to do things by halves”.

He also wrote that right from the moment he arrived, he felt so at home in India, that his Indian friends were convinced that he had been an Indian in his previous reincarnation. It was here that he completed his education with a Mathematics honours degree from Madras University in 1953. For someone who knew only Spanish, the course led him to become proficient not only in math but also in English, the medium in which the course was taught.

Around the same time he was also became convinced that if he were to work and teach in Gujarat, then his teaching would need to be in the local language. As he wrote “English was enough to teach mathematics, but not to reach the heart. The heart is reached through the mother tongue”. He had already studied basic Gujarati but he realised that this was not enough. So he went on to hone his language skills at Vallabh Vidyanagar University in Gujarat, living in the hostel for one year with fellow Gujarati students, immersing himself in the language and culture, until he gained mastery over Gujarati.  This was followed by four years of theological studies in Pune, where he continued to practice writing in Gujarati for two hours every day. Carlos Valles was ordained to priesthood in 1958, in the presence of his mother who came to India for the first time.  

Finally it was in 1960, the year that Gujarat separated from Bombay and became a new state, that Father Valles started his mathematics teaching at St Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad. The story goes that on the train from Bombay, he could not get a seat, and so stood all the way, and when in the melee one of his slippers fell off the train, he also threw the other one out, saying that now there is a complete pair that someone can use.

And there started the transformation from being a student to a teacher who was eager to give his body and soul to his teaching. And Father Valles was not one to take the easy path with tried and tested teaching techniques. He not only devised innovative ways of communicating math concepts, but also took upon himself to coin appropriate Gujarati terms for the concepts. He was also convinced that it was his duty not only to reach the minds, but also the hearts of his students; through dialoguing with them on all aspects that affected their life beyond the classroom. He started by writing a small book in Gujarati. Many publishers rejected the manuscript as they felt that no one would read such a book. Eventually Father Valles published it himself with some money that his mother sent him. The book titled Sadachar went onto see twenty editions in three languages.

Thus began the double life of Father Valles—as a Mathematics teacher and as a writer—both in Gujarati. Father Valles soon became a regular columnist for Gujarati periodicals and newspapers. In his original Sunday column in Gujarat Samachar titled To the New Generation he wrote about a wide range of topics– youth, family, society, religion, psychology, morals and contemporary issues. He secretly hoped, as he wrote, that the old generation would read it first. His writings became hugely popular over the years and were compiled and published as books. He did not ignore his first subject either, and with his colleagues, he wrote a whole series of mathematical textbooks in Gujarati which were used and remembered by generations of students in Gujarat.

But it is not only through newspaper pages that Father Valles entered the hearts of Gujaratis. He was a familiar sight riding on his bicycle across the city with his cloth sling bag. To learn from close quarters about the lives, mentalities, attitudes to life, beliefs and traditions of the people of the city, he lived with families in the narrow pols of the old city. As he wrote, “…so I lived the whole day with them, sharing their two daily vegetarian meals, their floor space on a mat at night, and their family life in all its richness, blessings and problems for a few days till I knocked at the door of another family in a continuous pilgrimage. I cycled daily to and from the college for my classes, but for the rest I lived fully as a member of the family I lodged with for the time. I spent ten years in that happy way. Perhaps that is possible only in India”.

For 22 years, Father Valles carried out his mission with heart and soul, in a city that he thought would be his home for life. However as he wrote, “circumstances shaped new and unexpected paths for me.” His mother turned 90 and expressed a wish for her son’s company. Without a second thought, Father Valles moved to Madrid to be with her until she died at the age of 101. He continued to write, now in three languages—English, Gujarati and Spanish, and travel. In 1999, at the age of 74, with his undiminished passion for reaching out, he bought a computer and started a website in Spanish.

Father Valles continued to live in Madrid, but he could make a trip back to his beloved Ahmedabad in 2015. Ahmedabad had changed much since he had left, but his gentle presence reminded its citizens once again about his life’s mission of bringing harmony. As he once said “I would like the word Harmony to be the summary of my life.”

Father Valles passed away in Madrid on 9 November this year, 5 days after his 95th birthday.

Sadly I was not living in Ahmedabad in the years when he was here, but the heartfelt reception he got on this last visit, made me wish that I could have had the privilege of having met this innovative teacher, prolific multi-lingual writer, and above all, an incredible human being.

–Mamata

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