The sculpture on top of the hill was the result of Thundiyil Paily’s European tour. Finished in concrete and painted white, it is modelled on the Pieta. The parishioners didn’t take to it. Except for an occasional passer-by who climbs the hill to take a photo, hardly anyone goes near it. It’s not the climb that deters them but the sculpture or rather its posture — the mother holding her son’s corpse; prayers dry up before such a figure. The parishioners prefer to pray at the grotto further down. The statue there is just how they would like the divine mother to be — atop the globe, eyes raised towards heaven, crushing the serpent beneath her feet — a figure of power — one who can intercede with her son on behalf of a devotee, who can get things done — not at all like the Mariam who watched her son die. I don’t blame them. The consumer has the right to decide what he wants. The figure up there is too much like the real Mariam to be of use to anyone. After all these years, I still cannot see it without feeling once again the dull ache between the shoulders as I sat with the corpse in my lap such a long time ago.
Even when they nailed him to the cross I didn’t give up hope. I waited for the miracle to happen, the glorious transformation. Surely it was not impossible for one who could bring a dead man back to life. But it did not happen. He chose the hard way and I stood beneath — watched him sweat out his life in agony…. Simeon’s words turned out to be so true. Sorrow will pierce your heart like a sword, he said. I remembered those words as I gazed at the dried blood on my son’s forehead, the gaping wound on his chest… strange, I was relieved he was dead — at least, they wouldn’t break his legs like a common thief’s. He had a taste for the dramatic, my son. Hanging there on the cross he made arrangements for my future. To his favourite disciple he said: ‘This is your mother.’ To me: ‘This is your son.’ How quickly he severed the link of the umbilical cord — like a wholesale deal concluded satisfactorily. What did he think? That without a male to take care of me I would flounder like a paper boat?
Do my words shock you — fill you with dismay, bewilderment, anger? I’m not surprised — after all, what do you know about me? — I don’t exist even in your gospels. Mathew — obsessed with facts and pedigree — and Mark the theoretician dismissed me as a womb. Luke the inveterate storyteller got so carried away by the narrative, he forgot he was dealing with flesh and blood beings. John produced a deliciously innocuous history. Sculptors and painters produced their versions of me. I’m not ungrateful. I acknowledge the service Leonardo da Vinci did me when he sculpted Pieta, extracted from stone my agony and pain…. Madonna of the Seas is a favourite of mine; not the mother with her eyes that stare at something beyond the frame of the canvas. The child — asleep on her shoulder, fingers curled against her mantle just the way his used to — lips forming an o… he was a lovely baby, my son. My heart would swell with pride when passers-by stopped to caress him, drawn by his out stretched arms and gurgling laugh….
It was very unexpectedly that drama entered my life. I was engaged to be married to Josef. One day a chance visitor told us that cousin Elizabeth had conceived. We were surprised. Strange rumours followed — an angel of Jehovah had appeared before cousin Zechariah and told him the good news — cousin Zechariah refused to believe — angered by his lack of faith the angel cursed him — he would be dumb till the birth of the child …. It was soon after this that I had the dream. Jehovah’s angel appeared before me — called me blessed –announced that the saviour would be born from my womb. I too doubted — but the angel was more kindly disposed towards me — I suppose even an angel cannot curse the saviour’s mother-to-be…or else I must have realised the impossibility of it all even in the dream and my protest consequently less vehement.
I remembered the dream when I woke up next morning. Of course the story of the promised saviour was known to me but I, carpenter Josef’s bespoken bride, the saviour’s mother! I scoffed at the audacity of my imagination.
The delay of my period did not worry me. If the cursed thing is late by a few days so much the better, I thought. But when days slid into weeks, I remembered the dream and was afraid…. The world’s attitude to unsanctioned motherhood was much more rigid then than it is now. You who celebrate the Immaculate Conception, have you ever wondered about what I went through?
I was hurried off to cousin Elizabeth on the pretext of helping her in her hour of need. Our meeting — Elizabeth’s and mine — was very different from the apostle’s version. Overcome by exhaustion and despair I put my head against her shoulder and wept bitterly…. She stroked my hair, tears pouring down her face as she rued our fate, hers and mine.
I never asked Josef why he married me. I didn’t have the guts for it but our marriage was one of fate’s few kindnesses to me. Caesar’s proclamation was another; it enabled us to leave for Bethlehem quietly before anyone suspected my state. We set out, our few belongings secured to the donkey’s back. I can’t say what hurt me more during that journey, the jolting ride or the sight of Josef trudging quietly beside me….
We had almost reached Bethlehem when I suddenly realized the time had come; knowledge acquired during the stay with Elizabeth. Bare barren land, not a dwelling in sight …we had no other option but to seek asylum in a tumble-down shed nearby. Josef stood outside helplessly as I lay panting on the hay strewn floor. I brought my son into the world — performing all that was to be done with a numb meticulousness, very much like the cattle that took shelter in that shed. I wrapped the child in strips of cloth…. a few shepherds arrived from the nearby hills attracted by the light of the lantern. One of the older ones assured me that the child would become a great man. I wondered what else fate had in store for me.
But the years that followed — the delightful ordinariness of our life in Nazareth were the best years of my life. The baby became everything for us. Josef’s touching devotion to the child put to rest all my earlier fears. A strange bond existed between the foster father and son. The boy would sit and watch for hours as Josef plied his tools; by the time he was four years old, the father had only to lift his head for the son to hand him the required tool. A rare smile would then appear in Josef’s eyes.
But the boy’s strange quietness, his silences worried me even in those worry-free years. I would urge him to go out and play with the children in the neighbourhood only to be silenced by that strange stare. I hadn’t noticed till then how much a look could convey. An appeal to his father brought the invariable answer ‘let him be.’
I soon began to realize that there was a quiet pride in the boy — at times it verged on insolence. He never disobeyed me yet somehow managed to do things just as he wanted. The incident in Jerusalem after the Passover festival confirmed my guess. Panic seized me when I found him missing. His father wandered among the various clans searching for him. Finally, on the third day we found him in the temple — sitting among the rabbis discussing the scriptures. My relief came out as anger — I scolded him for causing us so much anxiety; his casual cryptic reply angered me even more — I would have slapped him there in front of the rabbis but his father quietly put a hand on his shoulder and drew him away.
I think he modelled himself on his father — polite, considerate yet distant. We were the three corners of a triangle together yet apart. Josef, I think, recognized this much earlier than I did. As the boy grew into manhood and stepped out into the world, his father let go gracefully — I tried to hold him back — make him tread a known path. I should have known better.
In the beginning, his popularity among the people thrilled me. Then he left home — began his wanderings — wherever he went, he drew crowds. We now got news about his whereabouts and his activities from strangers…the news that the notorious Mariam Magdalena had joined his group of followers disturbed me a lot but by then I had learned to accept the inevitable. To tell the truth I was scared of my gentle, loving son for I recognized in his impartial affection the ruthlessness of the mountains and the waves.
Finally I did go — when I heard of his triumphant entry into Jerusalem; not to claim a share of his glory but urged by a disquiet I could not quell. I who brought him into the world reached him in time to witness his death.
There was a time when I resented the total denial of choice that had been my lot — but that was a long time ago. Now I know — no one has that freedom, not even my son. You, the consumer decide upon our roles. You create the moulds, fashion our destinies…you do it very efficiently too, with your saints and your neat allotment of portfolios. My poor son is often reduced to a cross that appears at strategic places. Only our thoughts remain our own. Today I granted you a peep into mine…who knows, perhaps some day, some one might climb that hill, go up to that figure and say: it must’ve been terrible…no even that isn’t necessary…just feel — I’ll know.
The story has its twin in Malayalam. Conjoined at birth, cut apart later. Neither can claim translation status; rather they are the offshoots of a gypsy background, which denies the surety of both the mother-tongue and the foster-tongue — where ideas express themselves in a pidgin of the two. The English is the rhythmic breathing of the dancer — trained; the Malayalam is bare, unpretentious like everyday breath. Why bother, you might ask. To lay the ghost of inadequacy that haunts the eternal outsider, I reply.
CATHERINE THANKAMMA. Teaches English at R.L.V. College, Tripunithara. Her special interest is theatre. Has written and directed plays. Frequent contributor to newspapers and journals.