Veiled passions: ‘Othappu’ by Sarah Joseph and ‘Amen’ by Sister Jesme

A  slender thread connects these two very different books: they both concern the story of a Malayali nun who leaves the convent of her own accord. Amen, however, is an autobiography and is the author's first book; though it was first published in Malayalam, it was originally written in English. Othappu in contrast is a novel by an established author, poet, academic and Sahitya Akademi award winner, originally written in Malayalam. It has been translated into English by the eminent writer Valson Thampu, a priest of the Church of North India and principal of St Stephen's College in New Delhi.

Ordinarily, these differences would have been enough to ensure each book its own separate review. But the thread that connects the two narratives is unusual enough to justify examining them together. It is not merely rare for an Indian nun leave the convent, as both books confirm, it is literally life-threatening to all concerned. The whole family and even the village community to which the individual belongs shares the stigma of what is regarded as a betrayal of faith. In Sarah Joseph's novel the father of one of the main characters commits suicide immediately upon being told that his son has decided to leave the priesthood.

Of the two, Sister Jesme's account in Amen is by far the more astonishing one, because it represents the drab, unvarnished truth. In spare prose and with remarkable economy, she narrates her personal journey from genteel young woman to doughty campaigner for intellectual and personal freedoms. Those of us who have gone to convent schools and colleges will feel an anticipatory thrill in being given a tour of all that was hidden behind those familiar veils. Anyone who picks up this book in search of salacious material will be disappointed, however. This is a sober account, written by an intelligent and intensely passionate woman about the 33 years she spent behind the walls of one of the most powerful institutions the world has known – the Catholic Church, here represented by the order of which she was a part, the Congregation of Mother of Carmel.

Church loyalists who have attacked Sister Jesme for supposedly writing a degrading and sexually explicit account only reveal their own naïveté. It would have been much more difficult to believe her story if she did not refer to at least a few indiscretions of the carnal kind. Indeed, her presentation is almost clinical in its lack of spice, a documentation without frills. Sample this disembodied description:

I have read in novels about this but have never seen one with my own eyes. The moment I see it, I remember Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, where she describes it as 'the head of a tortoise'. After a while, he shows me a milky liquid oozing from there and lectures me on the 'thousands of lives' it has.

This is less about sexuality than sexual predation in a locked-box-type situation. Young women barely out of their teens are practically imprisoned alongside dozens of others like themselves, at least a few of whom must be expected to have aggressive libidos or domineering personalities. Priests within the system are perhaps uniquely privileged, within the repressive norms of Indian society, to be regarded as the moral and intellectual mentors of nubile young women who are almost by definition inexperienced about sex. It would be beyond miraculous if at least a few such men did not attempt to exploit their advantage.

As Sister Jesme describes it, the atmosphere within a convent is charged with a type of competitive piety, where advancements within the hierarchy are fiercely fought over, and administrative positions bring enormous and sweeping powers to certain individuals. Of all of Sister Jesme's revelations, by far the most disheartening are those pertaining to the cynical greed with which money is extracted from the congregation, and to the discrimination between novitiates along all-too-familiar caste and communal lines. The most frightening is her description of the campaign waged by her superiors to have her locked away in an insane asylum for being a troublemaker – in fact, a free-thinker who passionately believes in the liberating power of art and literature. In spite of leaving the Church, she tells us that her love for Jesus Christ and her faith in him are incorruptible. It is easy to believe her: nothing else about her middle-class background could possibly explain her extraordinary courage and tenacity.

Fevered prose
Sarah Joseph's novel, in complete contrast, plunges the reader into a jungle of tropical emotions. The protagonist Margalitha's departure from the convent is treated as just one milestone along a socio-political journey during which she frees herself not just of her nun's habit, but also her family and social conventions. Joseph's prose is considered poetic and evocative in Malayalam. But in translation, her descriptions sound a bit overripe:

As you looked from the forest, two awe-inspiring waterfalls could be seen. On either side of the path that led to the waterfalls, bamboos grew thick and copious. They swung and swayed in harmony with the rumbling of the waterfalls … Sparrows, mynahs, woodpeckers and yellow birds are all the owners of the woods. The birds perched on the shoulder, head and raised hand of [the statue of] the Saint. Rabbits played between his feet. Snakes swung on the creepers.

Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why it would appeal to her audience. In some ways, it is an accurate depiction of Indian life. Local news channels and newspapers are evidence of the fact that ordinary Indians throughout the country are capable of volcanic outbursts of emotion and outrage of a kind that many may find absolutely mystifying. It is this temperament that is reflected in Joseph's prose and in the lives of her characters.

Margalitha leaves the convent because she can no longer pretend that the rituals associated with belief are meaningful to her. She has a counterpart in the form of the young assistant vicar, Roy Francis Karikkan, who is also disenchanted with the Church, though his reasons are quite different. On the one hand, he knows that he is attracted to Margalitha in a manner unbefitting of a priest; on the other, he recognises that the Church discriminates between its followers on the basis of caste, community and financial position, and he is disgusted by this knowledge. When Margalitha returns to her family home, her mother, brothers and sisters-in-law are so horrified at the dishonour she has brought upon the family that she is thrown into a virtual dungeon for three days. They are never reconciled with her behaviour, so she leaves to begin a nomadic life. She goes from one refuge to another, from the home of the Kasseessans, a Syrian Christian couple; to the jungle retreat of Augustine, a Christian freethinker and social reformer; to the dwelling of Naasthikan George, an enlightened atheist and travelling playwright.

Karikkan attempts to join her on her path, and for a while they live as a couple – outside wedlock, outside the Church, outside all convention. But Karikkan is too weak, both emotionally and ideologically, to remain by Margalitha's side. He leaves her as soon as he realises that she is pregnant with his child. Meanwhile, she has already been given an orphan child to care for, by Augustine. By journey's end, she is alone with the little orphan boy Naanu and her unborn baby, but radiant with the confidence of a revolutionary who has been willing to go the distance. Shadowing her tale are several layers of Christian parables, including the story of Christ's birth.

Joseph's book also contains notes from the author Jancy James, a leading literary scholar, and an essay by the novelist Paul Zacharia about the shades of meaning in the title word, othappu. Valson Thampu, in his 'Translator's preface', explains "to cause othappu" as "to cause others to stumble or to go astray … The word is loaded with the insecurities germane to conventional morality. The English equivalent is 'scandal' … [which] approximates to 'othappu' only in a limited, lexical sense." At the end, there is a detailed glossary, and also an interview with the author by the late Githa Hiranyan. Thus, in one volume the reader is provided with a rounded portrait of a world that is rarely visible to non-Malayalis.

In both books, what stands out like a beacon of all that is unattractive about the traditional world is the vicious avidity with which people in small communities feed upon one another's lives. More than the authority of the Church, it was the corrosive power of 'family pride' and 'community prestige' that pulverised people in both of these works, fiction and non-fiction alike. The big story, therefore, is less about the apostasy of nuns than about the unimaginable distance that so many millions of Indians (and, no doubt, other Southasians) still need to travel in order to experience ordinary personal freedoms.

~ Manjula Padmanabhan is an artist, cartoonist, playwright and novelist in New Delhi.

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