Religion can destroy people. It can make frauds out of people even without their knowledge. The essence of religion is likely to remain beyond the understanding of most believers. The person who tries to live his/her religion sincerely will in all probability be ostracised in the name of blasphemy, heresy, or some such thing.
Sarah Joseph’s novel, Othappu, brings out this theme eloquently. The novel was originally published in Malayalam in 2005. Penguin India brought out an English translation a few months back, keeping the Malayalam title unchanged. The word, othappu, is difficult to translate. The novelist writes in the preface to the Malayalam version that scandal may be the apt word in English.
The protagonist of the novel is Margalita, a young woman who chooses to quit her life as a nun in order to live her life to the fullest. She is also in love with a priest, Father Roy Francis Kareekan. Kareekan is a coward, however. He is initially unable to accept his passion for Margalita. He is also afraid of the consequences of leaving priesthood. Finally when his passion (rather than love) overcomes him, he casts aside the priest’s habit and goes to live with Margalita. All hell breaks loose among the faithful. They cannot bear to see a priest and a nun living together as husband and wife, that too without actually marrying. That is an insult to their religion. That is a grievous scandal.
Kareekan’s father commits suicide unable to bear the burden of that scandal. The cowardly Kareekan is stricken with guilt. It is not just cowardice, however, that prevents him from confronting the harsh reality that the merciless society weaves around him; it is rather an ominous lack of self-understanding. He says he is ready to accept the ‘path of the cross’; that is, a life of struggles and hardships. Yet when hardship comes, he chooses to run away. He runs away to become a sweeper in a distant church where nobody knows him. The kind of guilt feeling that religion breeds can break a person totally. Kareekan is destined to remain a broken man unless he acquires both the courage and the self-understanding that will raise him above the religion imprinted in his soul by forces that remained beyond him in his childhood.
Margalita rises above the religion that was taught to her. She has both the courage and the self-understanding required to forge her own religion, though her new religion is highly romantic. No wonder, she is left alone with Kareekan’s baby in her womb and another child entrusted by another priest who is a maverick and is called “dog-saint” by the people. The dog-saint knows how to live among the underdogs in the society, live like them and for them. But that is not Margalita’s concept of life. For her, life is a passionate affair. There is no separation of the body from the soul, as far as she is concerned. Yet she is far from being a sensualist. [Margalita is the real ‘othappu,’ though.]
The novelist succeeds eminently in portraying a woman’s travails as she tries to break out of the shackles imposed on her by a patriarchal society and equally patriarchal religion. Sarah Joseph also succeeds in bringing out the spiritual hollowness of most religious believers including the priests. But the alternative that the novelist seems to envisage in the character of her highly feminist protagonist seems to be too romantic to survive in the contemporary world. The alternative is to live a “simple and humble” life which demands absolutely unconditional love from human beings. The novel suggests that it is only the orphan child left by the dog-saint who can provide Margalita the kind of love she is craving for. But that child too will grow up!
I read the novel in its original Malayalam version when I was in Kerala during the last fortnight. I found it an eminently enjoyable book, especially because of my familiarity with the Catholic church in Kerala and its ridiculous ways. But the conclusion left me devastated. I am not romantic enough to accept Margalita’s vision of life. However, I accept her desertion of the traditional religion. I adore her exercising her freedom with courage and determination.
At one place in the novel it is said that God speaks through the rains and storms, the leaves and dew drops. Each person interprets God’s voice in his own way and each interpretation leads to a war. Margalita’s interpretation leads to a dream, a romantic dream.
[I have added the picture of the cover of the Malayalam edition because I like that cover more than that of the English edition.]