N Jabamalai leads the way up the old, narrow spiral staircase to an ageing loft from where one can catch glimpses of the three bells that ring at St Francis Xavier's Cathedral. "Once in six months or a year, we go up that to grease the bells," he says, pointing to a fixed metal ladder going up from the wooden loft where we are standing to one just below the bells. The climb seems steep but 59-year-old Jabamalai talks of it as an ordinary task, just as he simplifies the physical rigours of his responsibility as the bell ringer at this cathedral.
For nearly 20 years Jabamalai has been up much before 5.30 am to ring the bell as a call to prayer. "It's three sets of three rings, with a minute's rest between each set. Then I end with a long bell which is about 30 rings one after the other," says Jabamalai. He does this again for the 12 noon prayer and at 6 pm. "I also ring the long bell for the first mass at 6.10 am and the second at 6.45 am," he adds and denies ever feeling too sleepy or cold to step out of his residence on the Cathedral's premises to make way to the bell tower inside the church.
"There's another office help, Arokia Swamy, who takes over if I am very busy or ill, but I never miss otherwise," he says.
Jabamalai can get very busy. As the man looking after the administrative paper work at the Cathedral, it is to his desk that requests for forms ranging baptisms, wedding, funerals and even marriage annulments reach. His current office is stacked with registers, some dating back to 1870. The first church of St Francis Xaxier was built in 1851. "The handwriting is beautiful in them," he says of the cursive style that notes the baptism of the 'English' and 'Indians' two centuries ago.
A modern front office is being readied in the next room, until then Jabamalai must take precious care of history lying around him before it is put away on the new shelves. Of course, every now and then he has to step out to tug at the thick ropes of the bells.
"At the beginning of a wedding ceremony and just as the 'Mangal Sutra' is tied, I ring a long bell. For funerals, it is 10 to 15 rings with five seconds of rest between each when the body is brought in for mass," says Jabamalai who credits his calm demeanour to being near the presence of God.
It is what steeled him to the death of his wife Theresa Vinolia last year. "Faith and work have helped me heal," he says of his decision to stay on at his quarters than move out to either of his children's homes in Lingarajpuram.
It is faith that came to his rescue time and again. Jabamalai was only six months old when his lost his father.
Youngest of eleven children, his mother and a few of his siblings had to leave the family home in the mining town of Kolar Gold Fields when he was still a child. "There were skirmishes with an older brother and his new wife, so five of us left for Salem. We were brought up at a convent orphanage where my uncle was the headmaster," recalls Jabamalai as if it was only yesterday.
Father Mervyn Coelho, then principal of St Germaine's School in Bangalore, employed him as a laboratory assistant in 1976. By 1990, Jabamalai found job with the Cathedral right next door. "At first, I looked after the community hall, then oversaw the typing institute which had to be wound up as computers got popular," he says.
Jabamalai says he was eager to join the seminary himself, but couldn't ignore his family responsibilities. "Any time I get the chance, I sit in for a mass at the church. I don't enjoy being anywhere else. Peace is here," says Jabamalai, after decades of being an invisible companion to the faithful in merry and sad times.