The Milagres Church in the heart of Mangalore
At last, Christmas. Open air Midnight Mass. Gloria in Excelsius Deo thrilled from thousands of silk-saried women, and smart-suit-and-tied men. And at my grandmothers, we drank traditional post-midnight Mass homemade wine, adult and child alike, with traditional Christmas fruitcake.
My father’s sisters arrived the next day with “potato chops” and minced beef “cutlets,” croquettes, freshly prepared by their cooks for their mother. And small gifts for me. “She prayed for good Christmas presents all last night,” my father laughed, while I hissed “Pa,” as embarrassed as his richest sister, who gave me a single chocolate bar, a gold-foil-wrapped Five Star with a pink ribbon tied around it. I showed it to my father, frowning. My father chuckled, “Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘The rich are the rich because they spend less money.’ ”
A sacrosanct tradition probably borrowed from the Portuguese: Visiting all one’s friends and family in the twelve days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany on the sixth of January, celebrating the Visit of the Magi to Bethlehem–the official end of the season.
Nuns first: we visited my great-grandmother Alice Rebello’s siblings–Sister Columba at the Apostolic Carmel, a mainly Mangalorean teaching order; Sister Marie Agnes at the Cloistered Carmel; and the eldest, Sister Marie Therese of the Little Sisters of the Poor, at whose growing decrepitude my father was, each year, appalled.
“She looked terrible–wizened,” he’d report. “Those nuns don’t look after her. All her teeth have fallen out, and they haven’t got her dentures. How can she eat meat?” His mother, and the old ladies who sat with her in the evenings, listened–with prurient avidity.
As one ages, the arena of competition shifted from beauty-spouse-wealth, to one’s childrens’ plummy college-spouse-career, to “the one who dies last wins”—and beneath the rapid-fire questions and veneer of concern with which the ancients enquire about detached retinas, open heart surgery, deafness, diabetes, aneurysms, you hear a note of schadenfreude (why doesn’t English have a word for it?); and pride–“I’ve escaped;” and fear–“for now.”
* * *
A benevolent Virgil, Sister Marie Therese escorted us, visitors from a sun-bright world, around the wards and grounds, pointing out, thumb-nail sketching the inmates–old, sick, destitute or disabled. My expected smile felt as awkward as I did. And then, dreaded Pew, the blind man, the Sisters of Charity’s living sermon.
He sat on the floor in shorts, spindly legs crossed. “Sing, Joseph,” they told him, “Sing.” He obliged, his head tilted at an unnatural angle, the pupils of his eyes rolling, singing in a high-pitched, nasal, slightly cracked voice: When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,/ When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,/ Count your blessings; count them one by one/ And it will surprise you what the good Lord has done./ Count…
I knew what I was being set up to think, and, slightly irritated, I thought it: “Look at this poor blind man counting his blessings, though he has so few. And how much more should I…”
And then, customary culmination: my father took out his checkbook. The Superior was summoned. The nuns surrounded us, beaming at me. Our benefaction had bestowed sudden swan-feathers, gilding, absolution.
“How much, Pa?” I asked on our way home. “Two hundred rupees.” “Pa! Two hundred rupees. And Ma said I couldn’t have those high-heeled mirror-worked, embroidered Rajasthani sandals.” “Be quiet, Anita,” he said. “You don’t need high-heeled, mirror-worked, embroidered Rajasthani sandals.”
“Didn’t you hear Granny tell us how Grandpa gave money away especially when he needed it? Don’t you read the Sermon on the Mount? It’s a promise. ‘Give and you shall receive, full measure, pressed down, flowing over.’ Measure for Measure. A law of life.”
“Okay,” I said, “Okay.” Though I still wanted the high-heeled shoes.
* * *
My great-aunt Sister Mary Agnes was the (first Indian) prioress of the Cloistered Carmel Convent whose nuns, cloistered for life, bound by vows of silence, somehow knew much of what went on upstairs and downstairs and in my lady’s chamber in all the houses of the town, from the least to the greatest.
The town could, of course, pray for itself; professionals were inessential, but somehow people trusted the prayers of professionals more than their own. So, supported by honey brought by worker bees to the heart of the heart of the hive, the nuns lived as birds, bees and lilies do, on faith, hope and love, a economy which works for those with the guts for it.
And the town was unusually prosperous: many successful citizens, its families close-knit, generous with loans, jobs and shelter to their weaker members, so who knows?–those invisible bees probably did produce palpable sweetness.
* * *
They had prayed with and for my parents though their seven year struggle to conceive; through the birth of a son, that greatest blessing; through Gerard’s death three days later; and my birth a year after that: “the child of their prayers.”
As tidings of my visit swished through silent corridors, a collage of brown-swathed faces formed around the grille. Sister Gabrielle, a jolly, fat French nun whose particular prayer project I was, corresponded with me in idiosyncratic Franglish for years. “Sister pray, I’m dieting. Again.” “Yes, but promenade.”
In my soulful phases, I replied with soulful musings, which were the truth, nothing but the truth–I was God-fearing—but, of course, represented the best, most ethereal side of me—so, a partial truth. I read her reply in flourishes and capitals to my father, “You are the Pearl of the Orient,” then regretted the showing off when he infuriatingly, persistently, dubbed me “Pearly”.
The Cloistered Carmel was the repository of the town’s secrets and I, unworthily, satisfied my idle curiosity once I learnt the cryptology of the face: the quizzical glance, the faint ironic smile, the double-underlining of names and phrases, a language of intonation and implication common to religious people. “Pray for X; he really needs your prayers, ” thus signifying that all was not well in the life of X. And when you bared your soul, if you could think the unthinkable–that you might not be more special and beloved than everyone else who desperately asked, “Sister pray for me,” you might reluctantly make an inference.
The portress alone had relatively untrammeled access to the outer world. (My great-aunt who joined the Cloistered Carmel in 1903, aged eighteen, left for the first time to attend a Convention of Cloistered Carmel Prioresses in 1954, riding in a car to the train, neither of which she’d seen before!) In my last visit before I left India, the portress, in a startling reversal, startled mewith her whispered advice, “Never marry a foreigner; they are like dogs running after a hundred bitches”–the wild west of nunnish fantasy.
My grandmother Josephine’s sister, Catherine, now Mother Ambrose, a Good Shepherd nun, had blood-boiling accounts of the indignities of colonial convents. The white nuns made the Indian nuns wear different habits, sit in a different section of the chapel, undertake the menial chores, the kitchen, the laundry, much like lay brothers in medieval monasteries. I think of The Last Battle, Lewis’s final chilling Narnia novel, about the exploitation and suffering inflicted by those who claim to speak for Aslan, on the trusting ones who love Aslan, and so endure them for his dear sake.
Start Date—August 27th, 2012
Completion Date—August 31st, 2013
Word Count Goal-120,000
Words per day Goal—500 words a day
Progress (Aiming to write 6 days a week, excluding Sundays)
Day 28—15053 words (53 extra)