COME October 27 and India, nay Asia, will have its first woman bishop. The Reverend Dr Katakshamma will be consecrated as Bishop of the Good Samaritan Evangelical Lutheran Church, Badhachalam, a well known temple-town on the banks of the river Godavari in the Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh. This soft-spoken sexagenarian describes her new role as "a great honour to be entrusted by God with the task of serving the poor and the needy". And she brings the confidence of a self-made woman to her new job, along with an awareness of its challenges.
From pastor of Arakur (a small town in Khammam) to Bishop of Badhachalam, Dr Katakshamma has indeed come a long way. Many eyebrows were raised when the news of her appointment broke out in the local press; and the Christian community’s reactions were less than lukewarm. The only kind of statement that was made was a rather cynical—"this is not possible among Catholics, for sure!"
Though she would have liked to be entrusted with the job earlier, Dr Katakshamma feels that nothing will dampen her enthusiasm to serve the poor. "As a servant of the people, I have to obey the orders of the Almighty," she says. Along with her husband Paul Raj, also a pastor, she runs five high schools in Khammam. She also conducts an adult literacy campaign, holds tailoring and embroidery classes for tribal women and imparts relief measures during natural calamities.
"Working among tribals is great fun. My appointment as the Bishop should give them immense pleasure and confidence, especially women. Some people may be surprised, but many are happy," she says, negotiating a flurry of congratulatory calls from various parts of India and abroad.
Concentrated in the southern parts of the country (apart from a significant presence in Calcutta), the Lutherans form a sizeable section of the Christian diaspora in India. With their headquarters in Germany, they are considered among the more progressive in the many Christian denominations in India. In appointing Dr Katakshamma as the Bishop, their Church seems to have taken a conscious decision to set an example for the others by adopting an uncompromising stand against "male chauvinism".
Dr Katakshamma was born in Renigunta (Tirupati) in Chittoor district and did her early schooling there, before graduating from the Women’s Christian College in 1956-57. She took up her first job as a high school teacher and received her postgraduate certificate in theology from the New York Theological Seminary in 1968, at a time when opportunities for women to study such subjects in India were extremely rare. Her tryst with academia continues still—and only last year, she was awarded a doctorate from St Paul’s College in Minnesota (US).
Meanwhile, does she treat her present job as a challenge? "Yes and no. Yes, because the whole world will be watching how I handle this new phase of my life and career. And no, simply because I have been engaged in similar work for the past four decades," she says. "Yet again," adds she, "as I have the same duties as the men to look after the welfare of the Lutheran Churches, I feel it is challenging in that sense."
She certainly knows that being a woman in a position of eminence can work both ways. "If I discharge my duties faithfully, as the messiah of God to serve the poor, then I can be considered as a role model. If something goes wrong somewhere, then many accusing fingers will be pointed at me. As if to say ‘we knew that this would happen’."
With her breadth of experience, she is taking no chances. Nor has the honour gone to her head in any way. "I have been honoured in the past," she says, cryptically. And hopes that other religions will follow the example of the Lutherans in encouraging women to see themselves as equals.
S. Sivanand in Hyderabad