The many intolerant and closed communities of India stand ready to condemn just about any individual venture. A person decides to earn unconventionally, marry according to his own desires, or stay unmarried, and his family and friends explode. Add religion to the mix, and the fur will fly.
In this novel by Sara Joseph, Margalitha walks out of her convent one day and returns to her parents’ home, where her brothers lock her up at once in a dark room and leave her starving, thirsty and unwashed for three days. Even in an intolerant and closed community, their brutality is breathtaking. It is a wealthy family, and they worry not so much about the morality of their sister’s action as about her legal right to a share in the family property. At that point, the only act she has committed is leaving the convent, but it is enough. Outsiders gather to gossip and condemn, until the wandering preacher Rebekka, Margalitha’s aunt, frees her.
While Margalitha is condemned as a whore if she cannot be a nun, the young priest Roy Francis Karikkan is treated very differently. He too has his doubts and near-heresies, but he is counselled with affection at best and corrected with cynicism at worst. But the tragedy of Karikkan permeates the very framework in which he lives and works. By his superiors’ advice, he is bound to inaction, he is reminded to feel responsible only for an ever-shrinking fraction of humanity, “our people,” and to disregard the sufferings of the rest. His calling is diminished to the puniest possible mission. A life in the church is weighed as a government job would be. He will be fed, clothed and sheltered, and he can never be sacked.
Any spiritual movement is corrupted in that way when it becomes institutionalised. But Sara Joseph’s story concerns human feelings above all. It reveals the unending horrors of a society in which there is no familial affection and equally no bond between brothers and sisters. The only character who lives a Christian life is Augustine, a hermit priest who lives among forest tribes and ministers to them. Augustine takes Margalitha in without question and shows her a path higher than the one she is stumbling on.
Only then do we slowly understand what Margalitha is, rather than what is done to her. Margalitha is not a brave rebel. She left the convent not because of a high-minded crisis of conscience but simply because she did not believe. She could not surrender her life to the church. When she returns, she is not so worldly as to expect her share in her family’s property. She wants only to come home and teach at her father’s school. Even that is too much for her brothers to grant. But Margalitha also rejects the dirt and chaos surrounding her rescuer, Rebekka. After nights and days of wandering, in passages strongly reminiscent of Jane Eyre, she finds refuge with Augustine, but she will not serve the people directly, as he does. She cannot bring herself to wipe bottoms or bathe the sick. Rather, she wants a job with a salary that will feed her and then she will consider how to serve the people.
The relationship between Karikkan and Margalitha is dissatisfying from the first to the last. He is cowardly, unable to render the slightest support, moral or financial, and when he faces social ostracism for having moved in with an ex-nun, he suffers a moral collapse and flees. Her love for him is unconvincing. How can a woman who has at least some courage put up with the tepid desires he offers instead of love? And how can a woman who loves her own comfort not leave him when she is offered a teaching job on that condition?
Still, Margalitha is ultimately redeemed by a higher love, one in which Karikkan can have no place.
Sara Joseph has expressed here a miscellany of ideas about the church, the deeply misogynistic society of Kerala, and the relationship between man and woman. Her story is littered with many interesting characters. But it unravels in a confused manner, as if it emerged from true events and was insufficiently assimilated into art.
Valson Thampu’s translation is surprisingly clumsy in places, and the language in an OUP publication should have read more fluently. The novel is preceded by a bulk of introduction and explanation and followed by an essay and a long interview with the author. Nothing much is said that is not in the novel itself and it all adds a rather medicinal taste to the book. It would take a very well crafted novel indeed to stand up to all that academic churning.
Othappu-the scent of the other side
2009, pp 336