As a child, he wanted to go to Africa and later to China. He was even assigned to Sierra Leone, but that suddenly changed and he was ordered to go to Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan). To Father Marino Rigon, it was a divine sign. God had wished for him to be in Bangladesh. According to Father Rigon, every decision in his life has had a divine premonition. “There is no reason why,” he says in reply to why he chose the life of a priest. His Bengali, without the unnecessary presence of foreign words, sounds like a sweet soothing song. “At the age of four or five I had declared that I want to become a missionary. You tell me why a child of four/five would say that?” he asks in turn. Yet his father Ricardo’s performance as Jesus in the village theatre of Villaverla, Venice Italy, did influence Fr Rigon. He too would copy the acting while performing at his school play. With time, his love for Jesus grew and soon he went to live with the Xaverian community. In 1943, he became a Xaverian taking vows of discipline, celibacy and simplicity.On March 10, 1951 he received the Priesthood Ordination.
In 1953, at the age of 28, he arrived in the then East Pakistan. “I did not know anything about this country, I only saw it on the map beside India,” wrote Fr Rigon in his memoir. He was first sent as an assistant parish priest to Bhabarpara mission at Kushtia in 1953. There he began to learn Bengali, informally through conversations with local people. “I would listen to what they say and repeat it,” he reminisces. However, Fr Rigon soon realised that without getting familiar with the culture and literature of the country, he would not get a good grasp of the language.
Fr Rigon made his entry into the world of Bengali literature through Sharatchandra Chattyapadhaya’s novel Panditmoshai. He relates how he could not understand anything reading the first few pages and went to return the book to Paul Lalit Sarkar, a schoolmaster at Mongla, who had given him the book. Sarkar urged him to read the book again and again. “I was very inspired by it,” he recalls, giving an extract of the novel where the protagonist of the novel, Panditmoshai, asks God if his only son’s death has another meaning. Fr Rigon goes on narrating the part where Panditmoshai finds his son in the face of all his students and understands God’s will.
“I read about 30 novels of Sharatchandra, then all the novels of Rabindranath, then Bankimchandra,” he says adding that many people advised him not to read Bankimchandra because it is so difficult. “I said whether I understand or not, I will read it. I liked Bankimchandra’s Kopalkundola. It is a very good book. But I was particularly inspired by Anandomoth,” says the Bengali-literature lover. He narrates a part from Anandomoth where the writer through a conversation presents how giving up love is more important than giving up life. “Everybody can give up life. Not only can they give up life, they actually have to. So what is more valuable than life? The answer is ‘bhakti’ meaning love,” says Fr Rigon, with a mysterious complacent smile.
Amar grame jibon chilo ekti bijer beshe
Porey ta lagano hoi sonar Bangladeshe
And love is what he gave to the people of Bangladesh for more than half a century. The small town Shelabunia, in Bagerhat’s Mongla union thrives on Fr Rigon’s love. As we mount the pier to board the trawler to take us to the other side of the Mongla port, Fr Rigon is stopped every now and then by cheerful greetings from the locals. In reply, the 87-year-old missionary, fondly called ‘Dadu’ by the locals, asks after their wellbeing.
On the way to the St Paul’s Catholic Church, we first come across the St Paul’s hospital, one of Father Rigon’s many efforts in the Mongla area. Soon the walls of St Paul’s High School come into view. The school was basically the reason that Fr Rigon was summoned to Shelabunia in 1954. Today with more than two thousand students, it is one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the region. However, Fr Rigon’s contribution to education has not been limited to St Paul’s High School. He has directly or indirectly helped set up about 17 schools in southern Bangladesh.
Three young women from Khulna wait in front of Fr Rigon’s room inside the mission boundary. They say they have come to pay their hostel fees. They are undergraduate students at different colleges in Khulna and they live in the women’s hostel established by Fr Rigon there. “It would not have been possible for poor young women of our community to continue higher education by travelling so far to Khulna if the hostels were not there,” says one, adding that the hostel fees are not mandatory.
As the classes start in St Paul’s, about 10-15 young women wearing veils, enter the mission, to join the computer classes, Fr Rigon’s latest project to promote computer literacy among the young women of Mongla. At the far end of the mission, another group of women, mostly housewives, sit with needles and colourful thread, bringing Bangladesh to life on silk canvases. The sewing centre, established in 1983 by Fr Rigon, not only provides employment to the poor women of the area, but also promotes Bangladeshi Nakshikantha in Italy.
While the culture and heritage of Bangladesh journeyed to Italy through the Nakshikantha, Bangladesh’s vast literary treasure travelled through Father Rigon’s translation. A poet himself, Rigon was attracted to the deep insights of Tagore’s poems. “One day in 1957, I just opened a page, page 112 of Gitanjali that I kept near my bed,” he says reciting the poem that was written there, “I could not understand what it meant and asked myself why I can’t understand such simple words.” His inability to comprehend the verses drove him to study Tagore with zeal. In 1963, when he went back to Italy, his brothers and sisters encouraged him to translate Tagore. A well-known Italian publisher agreed to publish his work and Gitanjali came out in two different editions in 1964. Fr Rigon has translated the works of Tagore, Sharatchandra, Jashimuddin, Lalon and many other renowned Bengali writers.
Amar gram theke jatra arambho korechi jatri beshe
Shei jatrar shesh hoi jeno sonar Bangladeshe
During the Liberation War in 1971, Fr Rigon was at the Baniarchar mission. “On March 25, I switched on the Kolkata radio and heard ‘Amar Sonar Bangla Ami Tomai bhalobashi’. The song struck my heart. On that night, I asked myself ‘Bangladesh, is there anyone who loves you? I do not think so’,” he says, the pain of the night still rings in his voice. He went from house to house and gave reassurance and shelter to the Hindus (Baniarchor being a Hindu majority area), ignoring opposition from the Christian community.
On September 27, 1971, Hemayet Bahini arrived at the mission with a wounded Hemayet Uddin, who later received the Bir Bikram gallantry, and sought medical help at the mission’s dispensary. “He was shot and his entire jaw was hanging loose. There were no teeth inside. Sisters and the doctor said that he would not survive but I said, ‘No, do whatever you can do and then release him.’” Fr Rigon’s wit also saved the village and the guerrilla group led by Hemayet Uddin. Hemayet Bahini had taken position to fire at Pakistani military launches, which would have had dire consequences. Father requested Hemayet to change the order, assuring him that the launches would not anchor at Baniyarchar and firing at those would only reveal their position.
On December 31, 2008, Father Marino Rigon was conferred honorary citizenship of Bangladesh in recognition of his contribution as a freedom fighter. Since then every year on February 5, a three-day fair ‘Rigon Mela’ is held in Holdibunia, an adjacent village to Shelabunia on occasion of Fr Rigon’s birthday.
In 2009 he fell ill and went to Italy, his motherland, for treatment. There he made his family promise to send his body to Bangladesh for burial on death. “I never went into retirement. I am doing more work now,” he says when asked about retirement. “I have decided not to go back to my country. I go there only on invitation,” he says, “Listen, my entire life has been spent here; my work is here. Where else should I go?”
*** the verses are written by Father Marino Rigon.