About the Book
Othappu is about a woman's yearning for a true understanding of spirituality and her own sexuality. A powerful indictment of the hypocrisy that plagues Christianity in many parts of the Subcontinent, the novel unfolds at many levels to critique notions of class, caste, antiquity, and prestige.
With its strong social message, this novel will appeal to readers of all hues including students and scholars of Indian writing, comparative literature, and translation, cultural, and gender studies.
About the Author
Sarah Joseph is an acclaimed short-story writer and novelist, whose novels include Aalaahayude Penmakkal (1999), winner of both Central and Kerala Sahitya Akademi awards and the Vayalar Award; Maatatbi (2003), winner of the O. Chandumenon Award; Oorukaaval (2008), winner of the Basheer Award; and Aathi (2011).
Valson Thampu is Principal, St Stephen's College, Delhi. A theologian, writer, and peace-activist, he has written extensively on spirituality and religion, politics, and socio-cultural issues.
The desire to be a nun lingers in the flowering-time of every Catholic girl's life. Without this desire, her teenage is not complete. 'Piety' is a haunting passion for a girl from an orthodox background. Surrounded by moral values strongly based on the teachings of family and religion, she wanders in a mysterious world of passion for Jesus Christ.
I too went through a teenage longing to be 'one' with Christ. I too hungered to burn like camphor spreading the fragrance of peace everywhere around me. I was in the vice-grip of a rnelancholy that only Christianity bestows. The fear of God and the fear of sin held me back from the temptations of teenage. Christ was bleeding inside me. Each minute passed me by with the memory of his countless bloodied wounds. I screamed silently. Whenever I was alone in a church, I thought, 'One day I shall be a nun'. But I got no call from God.
My teenage, soaked in such ideals, thus passed by. Youth unleashed a hurricane in my senses. I didn't wish to shut the door against the cravings of my body. Instead, I longed to get lost in the festivals of it. Adoring myself, I grew silently. But life led me through its ups and downs.
Life showed the way. Poor me, I had to follow.
When I was sixteen my parents gave me away in marriage-I had no choice. I knew little of a person's spiritual and sexual life. I was caught between two forces called 'sexuality' and 'spirituality' without any opportunity to mix them. As a woman, I came to know my spirituality through the experiences of my body. My spiritual seeking spread through my desires, sorrows, ailments, labour, weariness, angst, and pleasure. No woman can view her pregnancy, delivery, and breast- feeding as something purely biological. For her, every month's bloodshed is spiritual. The spirituality of a woman lies in the pleasures of sexual intercourse and in the pain of delivering a child.
A woman longs for a life of intimacy where the joys of mind and body might unite. The music of this mystical happiness transcends the mere passion of physicality, She grows numb when her man asks, 'What else do you expect from me? Will you never, ever be happy?' For a woman, sexuality is not a matter of physical or mechanical indulgence. It is absurd to categorize these complicated experiences of the body and mind into opposing, abstract columns called 'sexuality' and 'spirituality'.
'Celibacy' is a way of life that is constantly at war with the body and nature. Inside the confines of the abbeys and Convents, clad in sanctified robes, people fight and gasp, striking out against nature, striking out against their own bodies. The sacred walls of abbeys do sometimes carry the breath of the sad stories of rapes and murders.
Christ was a young man who held children and women close to his heart. There were always women in his company. With bread, perfumes, vigil, and care they stood by him. They were his listeners and followers.
The woman who longs to be a virgin, longs to be the bride of Jesus Christ. That is why she falls in love with Christ. The 'Christ' defined by man is not the 'Christ' defined by woman.
I am not familiar with the sufferings of a woman who steps out of the abbey denying age-old traditions. She is not denying Christ. It is the abbey she denies. The inspiration to write this novel stems from my wish to travel through the life and hardships of a nun who shed her veil and walked out of the Convent. The research I did for this project took me through the history of different Christian denominations in Kerala. The life of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with the battle for power led by the Romans, Portuguese, French, Antiochians, and others. Today, Christian congregations in Kerala are being deformed into institutions of trade. They command enormous economic and political power. Christ did not define such an idea of His Church. While the royal highways led to injustice there were still some bye- lanes that led to the light and wellsprings of life. By following the painful footsteps of those who travelled along them, we meet with characters like Pattippunvalan, Yohannan Kasseessa, Brother Manikyan, and Margalitha.
I owe much to Mini Krishnan of OUP for her dedication, tireless hard work, and meticulous planning. I would like to thank Valson Thampu, who translated my work, especially for capturing the soul and spirit of the original. I treasure' Many Meanings of "Othappu'" , a speech on the book by my friend and reputed Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia. For the Introduction, I am proud to be able to thank Janey James and for her translation of the late Githa Hiranyan's interview with me, Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan. I would like to extend my thanks to each and every person in 0 UP who worked to produce The Scent if the Other Side.
Malayalam, the principal language of Kerala and the Lakshadweep islands, is the mother tongue of more than ninety-five percent of the population of Kerala. It ranks eighth among the languages of India in terms of number of speakers. Diverse views exist regarding the origin of the Malayalam language, the most significant and accepted being that it is a product of the union of Sanskrit and Tamil. Among the Dravidian languages, it is Malayalam which has the greatest affinity to Tamil. Though it is claimed, based on excavated inscriptions, that Malayalam existed as a distinct language in the ninth century, it was the last among the four Dravidian languages to establish its individuality through literary works of its own. The evolution of Malayalam as an independent language went through an elaborate socio-linguistic process extending from the ninth to the thirteenth century. Its contact with several other Indian and foreign languages led not only to the currency of innumerable loan words but also to Significant interference in its structure, particularly due to the influence of Sanskrit. As the language of a small yet thickly populated state, with a history of early enlightenment of the masses, Malayalam is the cumulative product of various regional, communal, occupational, and social dialects, styles, and registers. In addition to geographical and socio-cultural factors, caste and religion are also the parameters of language variation within Kerala, all of which have been creatively used by writers, especially in fiction.
The novel, as a literary genre, appeared in Malayalam as a result of the influence of English literature during the British rule in India. The translation of John Bunyan's Pilprim's Prowess by Reverend Joseph Peet, an English missionary, in 1840, was the first prose piece that appeared in Malayalam that had the semblance of a novel. It was followed by another historically Significant translation Ghatakavadham by Richard Collins, of the novel Slayer Slain (1859) written by his wife Mrs Collins, focusing on the culture and value system of the Syrian Christian community in Kerala. However, the first major Malayalam novel was lndulekha (1889) by O. Chandumenon.
Malayalam fiction emerged primarily from the urge to correct social evils and to present images and descriptions of a virtuous and upright society. Beginning with the first Malayalam novel lndulekba, this has remained a successful and popular trend. The best loved and known novels in Malayalam are also social narratives of which Uroob, Thakazhi, Kesavadev, Pottakkad, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, and M. T. Vasudevan Nair are the all-time greats. In contemporary Malayalam fiction, there is an equally powerful genre-that of psychological fiction. Social realities are deprioritized in such novels in order to expose and analyse the mind of the individual. An inferiority complex pervaded Malayalam fiction from the late Sixties, trying to accommodate the stream of consciousness, the philosophy of the absurd, neurotic self-introspection, and a non-linear narrative strategy. O. V Vijayan, Mukundan, Sethu, and Anand, among others, wove into their fiction some of the most obscure expressions of the thinking head and the passionate mind. Today, social novels have shed the pretence of social satire and are focused on human relationships and the individual psyche. Experimentalism in narration and the design of the novel often blurs the boundaries between fiction and other genres in Malayalam fiction.
The stature of the woman writer in Malayalam has a history of evolution from the conformist, self-expressive mode to the brooding, non-conformist, self-critical, assertive persona. Dissatisfaction with social evils steadily gave way to juxtaposing external realities with the inner storms of the female self. The woman writer's sensitivity to gender based discrimination in society and her courage to name it have given her the identity of the resisting female in all genres of writing. From the eighteenth century poetess Manorama Thampuratty to the contemporary short story writers-Chandramathi, A.S. Priya, and Sarah joseph, or Valsala-it is possible to chart the emergence of the female voice in the domain of fiction. Critiques of gender oppression and inequality filled women's writing from as early as the Fifties. Saraswathi Amma's brave voice against the oppression of women laid a feminist foundation to Malayalam fiction, and assailed male chauvinism even as it challenged the complacent, subservient, and stereotypical woman; Lalithambika Antharjanam, who portrayed the sorrowful lives of Namboothiri women riddled with injustice, advocated feminist activism through a subtly powerful style that rang with authenticity; Madhavikutty (Kamala Oas) who, in poetry, discarded the inhibitions germane to women's writing and charged Malayalam literature with the explosive energy of real life stories; Gracy, who crafts extreme acts of women's liberation within self-mocking ironies; Ashitha, who presents the most emotional female realities in an apparently dispassionate style; A.S. Priva, who exposes the subtle areas of female experiences flavoured by sarcasm; Chandramathy, who uses humour as a tantalizing weapon of women's liberation, together with many other young women writers, have carved out a strong female presence and unique niche in Malayalam fiction. They are powerful short story writers, rapidly moving into English and other language translations.
The contribution of Malayalam women writers to the genre of the novel is far less than their remarkable achievements in short fiction. Most of those mentioned above have tried writing novels. Not many progressed beyond their first attempts. Saraswathi Amma wrote Devadoothi. A8nisakshi by Lalithambika Antharjanam gained national acclaim, thanks to its specifically Indian brand of socio-political feminism. Valsala wrote voluminously, depicting the tribal women of Wayanad in North Kerala. But generally, novel writing in Malayalam by women occupies a low profile. Given this, Sarah deserves special attention for carving out a significant and special niche for herself with her trilogy- Aalaahayude Penmakkal (1999), Maatathi (2003), and Othappu (2005). If Sarah's short stories were geysers of feminist power, her novels unleashed a wave of female energy. The first of the three novels-Aalaahayude Penmakkal-outstanding for its deft interweaving of the Sthalapurana
Introduction by Janey James
Many Meanin8s if 'Othappu' by Paul Zacharia
Sarah Joseph and Githa Hiranyan: A Dialopue
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