The star of fortune has risen for Malayali women, not in this world but in the next. Catholics in Kerala celebrated the canonization of Sr. Alphonsa, a young nun from Kudamaloor in Kottayam district, who passed away after a life of intense bodily suffering and prayer in 1946, as a ray of hope in hard times. Becoming a nun and leading a life of asceticism were never easy choices. That too, for a eligible, beautiful young woman in early 20th century Kerala, born in a small village, whose guardians were determined to see her respectably married. Given to excruciatingly difficult forms of prayer even as a child, Alphonsa resisted her maternal aunt’s plans dramatically by trying to disfigure herself. She jumped into a smouldering ash-pit; badly burned, she climbed out. The family was so taken aback that they gave in to her desire to become a nun. This story is not an isolated one: struggling with one’s family to escape domesticity in the hope of a rich spiritual life and an ‘eternal bridegroom’ in Christ is a story retold by other Malayali nuns, for instance, the well-known poet Sr. Mary Benigna. Breaking social norms in the service of Christ was also characteristic of the story of Sr. Mariam Thresia, the other female candidate for sainthood from Kerala (there are six candidates for sainthood from Kerala now,mostly Syrian Catholics, including Sr Mariam Thresia) — her spiritual life began with attempts to reach out to suffering families across caste.
No doubt, the contrast between the male and female candidates is striking indeed. While most of the male candidates are known to be institution-builders, the women’s hagiographies emphasize their capacity for suffering and subservience. Mariam Thresia’s remarkably active and dramatic life as the founder of the Holy Family Convents, the first indigenous order of Catholic nuns in India who devoted themselves to visiting and aiding distressed families, is, in fact, less emphazised in the hagiographies.The criterion for sainthood is the saint’s capacity to produce miracles. Mariam Thresia’s suffering was literally imitatio christi — it is said that she was given to trances on Fridays,and would bleed with/as Jesus on the cross, driven by such an unseen force that her hands would be pinned on the wall in a crucified position and could not be pulled away.But given her determination to change the lives of oppressed others through walking and working in this world, one could imagine her less willing to work miracles!
Alphonsa’s sainthood is connected with her status as the worker of miracles — she is perhaps the most popular Catholic saint in Kerala, after the mythical St.George, who continues to be worshiped by Christians and Hindus. St.George is no Malayali but thoroughly domesticated, a hybrid saint (Portuguese-Malayali or British Malayali). Even though his historicity was questioned by the Vatican, he continues to have a huge following in Kerala. St.George is domesticated in Kerala mainly through the ‘kinship’ system that exists between Hindu and Christian gods in Kerala. Sibling ties are projected between deities in temples and saints in churches. In my ancestral village, St.George, in the local church, and the Bhagawati — Kali — in the local temple, are believed to be brother and sister bound by matrilineal norms — which means that the sibling tie is really strong. Until a few decades ago, fowl sacrifice was common during the temple festival, and it was believed that the meat was to be treated as a gift to the brother from the sister. The festival procession bearing the idol of the goddess goes along the road to the church, and on reaching the church courtyard, the elephant bearing the Bhagawati’s idol turns towards the main entrance. The doors of the church are left open and brother and sister face each other in an annual meeting. A similar meeting is enacted during the saint’s festival; this time the doors of the temple are left open for the brother-sister meeting. There are many other wonderful stories of Hindu and Christian gods becoming friends; one from Piravam — about god Siva making friends with the Three Magi, when they were traveling along the same route which was long and tiring. The four gentlemen reached the Meenachil river and were unable to cross it. There appeared a kind boatman, Chalasery Panicker,who ferried them across. He saw that these were not mortals and so persuaded them to stay on at Piravam in appropriate residences — the Siva temple, and the Church of the Three Magi at Piravam.The house of Chalasery still receives honours from both shrines during annual festivals. People do not tamper with these traditions of kinship and friendship readily. Such interference is supposed to bring bad luck. In one such village in Kannur, young RSS men persuaded the temple committee to end the ritual meeting of the goddess with her brother (St.Sebastian, in this case) and kept temple door closed during the saint’s procession. Apparently, that was a terrible year, and finally it was reckoned — through the priest and the temple oracle — that the discontinuation of her meeting with her brother had displeased the goddess. The practice has been restored.
Alphonsa’s divine acts are wonderful in that they carry on this tradition of kinship and friendship with the other. She is reported to have healed Hindus, Muslims, and Christians of club-feet. The most exhilarating of such tales is of a young Hindu woman from Thrissur who was cured by Alphonsa. Since she was strongly identified with Alphonsa, the young woman prayed to her for advice on whether to convert and become a nun. The saint appeared to her in a dream, she says, and told her that there was no reason to convert, and besides, she should pray for the souls of those people who may demand such conversion. In the puja room of the family, a large framed photograph of Alphonsa is venerated along with Hindu gods; an oil lamp is lit for the latter; a candle, for Alphonsa. On the wall is pinned Sree Narayana Guru’s dictum — ‘One caste, one faith, one god, for Humanity’. This is a tradition from long; I remember, as a child, listening to a prayer song called the Kanyaambikaastavam — eulogy of the virgin mother– penned by a senior grandaunt who had been cured of eczema by St.Mary of Manarcaud — who is the sister of Kannaki, who resides in a neighbouring shrine. Women danced to this song during Onam.
Strangely, I find tears pricking in my eyelids as I write these wonderful stories. These tales of love, friendship, and sharing have been the bedrock of communal amity in Kerala, I feel — and not ‘rational choice’ by communities trying to maximise their social, economic,and political advantage. The echoes of hate against the Christian faith have struck us too — Hindu fanatics have tried to desecrate many shrines of these saints, these beloved figures, who are so much part of our growing up.The incidents did not multiply. But such hate hurts those of us who have grown up in the warmth of benevolent non-sanskritised and non-vaticanised village deities who resembled grandmothers and grandfathers, and not transcendental beings.
I want to go back to my childhood and pray to St.George and Kali — both adept at slaying monsters — to protect us from the evils of casteists and religious fanatics.