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The Seed Leaves
These stories are suffused with many disparate elements from my own experience - as a migrant, as a worker in Her Majesty’s Prisons, as a misfit, at odds with even her own background; they deal with the agonizing impossibility of ever going “home” , the anguish of belonging nowhere.
Revatee Soren’s son was bawling, screaming and squeezing out every drop of sound from his lungs. Moses Soren. An otherwise happy-go-lucky, dark little boy exuding a healthy glow. Later in the day, an exasperated Revatee gave excuses to the Mother Superior: “Questions, questions he asks all the time!” he snapped. “When food and drink were presented as the body and blood of Jesus at mass, and the Priest said ‘Drink the blood of Jesus!’, this fellow goes, ‘Why would we do that? Are we Jesus-eaters? Are we witches or something?’”
Mother’s face was faintly concerned, yet composed. A lukewarm smile was lightly smeared across her cheeks, cobwebs of age shrouded the pupils of her eyes — yet they were lambent. “A goddess in person” is what Revatee called her behind her back. “I’ve asked this question as a child too,” said Mother, with a fond smile, “He is yet to understand how Jesus’ body provides us with lifelong nourishment, and he’s still very young. Children are precious in Lord Jesus’ sight, don’t hit Moses!” she added. Revatee gave a nod of assent, his face covered in innumerable pockmarks from smallpox. He headed off to his hut. Other than that tiny instance of screaming, no other sounds were heard at the monastery. If one listened intently, one could probably hear the fruit ripening in the heat of the sun and the bees buzzing among the crops.
The monastery was named Aradhana (Adoration); it should’ve been Perpetual Adoration, said Mother. It was an assemblage of endlessly devout priestesses, constantly absorbed in prayers. Did Revatee himself, or even his father, understand adoration? For all of their lives they had had just the one singular adoration — to appease the hunger consuming their insides like hellfire. Revatee didn’t ask that many questions, had never done so. Even after his wife Agnes had eloped, questions didn’t occur to him, as if he somehow always knew that she would depart at some point. He knew that a different kind of hellfire had been flickering in Agnes’ heart recently; she’d often made a face at Revatee and said, “Pockmarked as a flat stone mortar, your face … can’t look at it!” However there are plenty of moments in a marriage when one needn’t look at the other’s face. Hence, they were somewhat happy for the few days they spent together. At least in Revatee’s book that chapter could be titled “Happiness”.
Why on earth did they name their son after the one who constantly argued with God— Moses? He should’ve been named Solomon; one who could exchange feelings with the birds that frequented this imperturbably tranquil place. People mistook Moses for Revatee’s grandson, just as they had mistaken his wife Agnes for his daughter. Ah, what did it matter what others said! Revatee tilled the land with a trowel, pulled out the weeds from the flowerbeds, and planted giant ferns with curly fronds like someone cocooned in his own work.
The Sisters Maria, Cecilia and Lucia had peerless gardening skills. Work was also a form of adoration for them. They mixed cow dung with mustard husks, broke clods of earth, hand-pollinated the pointed-gourd flowers. Ten female pointed-gourd creepers mingled with a single male plant and blossomed gloriously. Under the soft sun, glistening white stripes appeared against the green plumpness of the fleshy pointed-gourd. Black ants wandered busily all over them. There had once been a shallow tube well beside the vegetable garden; the piston released a creaking moan and the water would chortle out of it. Before the tube well, there used to be a well, its water sweet and cool. The well had been sealed off after an accidental death.
To be fair, the high-pitched wailing of Moses was not the only sound reverberating around the compound. There were other sounds too. Revatee scared off thieves with a loud cry, thumping his stick on the ground. Thieves entered the garden quite often. They stole anything and everything. On the nights before the Bengali New Year or International Mother Language Day, they would pluck the Tajmehal roses, dahlias and sunflowers, branches of casuarina. Not only did they steal basketfuls of fruit, flowers and vegetables from the garden, they also stole the Sisters’ clothes from the washing line. When Revatee’s father Sunil Soren had worked here, not many people lived in the surrounding area. The church and the monastery were surrounded by thorny henna bushes that worked as a fence. No neighbour’s goat could come through that thorny bush to sample Sunil’s vegetables. The fence had been demolished to build a wall; later it was apparent that a six-foot wall was not enough. After the Archbishop’s visit, the wall was made three feet higher with poles, and shards of broken glass were cemented on top of it.
The Priory school children learned stories of the consequences of men who stole grain from the pigeons’ nest. Spring never visited the garden of the selfish giant. One afternoon, a puffy-cheeked Moses thought and thought for a long time, and then asked, “If someone takes a teeny-tiny bit from God’s garden, why would it be stealing? Didn’t everyone have the right to the flowers and grain that grew on God’s land?” Mother Superior smiled placidly, but Revatee just gave Moses another beating. There was no mother to snuggle Moses on her bosom, and recite: “Who grazes jumping across the fence/ Child, you dare ask what mother says?”
A lot of questions didn’t have answers; you just needed to bind the heart in such a way that the bound heart would get used to not knowing the answers. Mother knew that, so did the monastery Sisters, and the Novices.
Outside the high walls of the monastery lay everything. The crumbling small town huts, a thriving Poushkali Fair on the temple premises, posters advertising tantric manipulation glued to the walls, a water faucet where women clustered and quarrelled more than they washed dishes, a radio that had outlived its era and played in the launderette, the pharmacy that sold Yunani tooth remedies, unhusked Paijam rice grain mounds covered with woven baskets on the cemented floor of the rice mill, rumbling trucks carrying sugarcane, a pond covered by elephant-ear bushes, small town houses bearing the artistic incontinence of the masons’ hearts. Workers would return from the glass factory, their brows covered in silvery ash, their hands dark. The waazim from the mosque preached in a tearful voice, “O, lift the troubles of the sky back into the heavens, bury the troubles of the ground back into the earth!” As a child, Revatee would hear the sounds from Jatra, the village theatre, during the winter nights: “Dearest daughter-in-law, take care of my last born Sahadev, feed him with your own hand!”
All this clamour and tumult belonged to the world outside the church. Once one entered the monastery walls, those became background noise. Inside, time stood steadier than the stagnant pond full of elephant-ear bushes. The rows of time-flower surrounded the churchyard, the local perennials – calendula and lantana – blossomed beside those. A small shrubbery of gardenias, white oleanders and cotton rosemallows darkened the church entryway and an orchard kept the side of the monastery obscured. There were Kheershapati mango trees, a Madras lychee tree brought from the gardens of Kantanagar, and a rose-apple tree, while a few jackfruit trees kept the place groaningly shady. Beyond the dark patch there was the vegetable garden. Winter vegetables were planted in straight lines. Beans, gourds and pumpkins on the trellis. Revatee had green fingers. The monastery didn’t even buy potatoes or papayas from the market. Little Revatee used to follow his father to get dung from the frail horses of the zamindar’s stable. The zamindars had not been the landlords for almost a century now; the District Commissioner now resided in their old palace. These days, Revatee collected manure from elsewhere.
There was a rectangular box fitted against the church wall to store piles of booklets that helped one to understand Christianity. Biblical scenes carved by the dumb kids of Dhanjor Priory School adorned the wooden main gate: Jesus giving sight to the blind, saving the leper. Mother disliked the word “dumb”. Moses gazed at the wooden relief and thought, “If someone loved humans as Jesus did, why would His Father make someone dumb or blind or give anyone leprosy?... Why would He sculpt Revatee’s face like a chisel on a flat stone mortar for hours?” To avoid getting spanked, Moses went to Mother with the questions. Mother Superior replied, “Come now Moses, shouldn’t there be exams in school? Shouldn’t the headmaster see who passed and who failed? So God puts us to the test just like there are tests in school.” Moses asked at once if that meant his father had failed forever, as the smallpox scars would never go away? Mother said lovingly, “It’s not easy to understand the tests of God as easily as we understand the questions in school exams, one has to be devoted for a long time. Only then will an answer come.”
Nobody had used the tube well since arsenic had been detected in groundwater. Though sometimes, when Revatee pondered hard on a quiet day, he could hear the water gushing through it; it sounded like the full-bodied laughter of a gleeful woman, as opposed to the huff-puff of the municipal tap. At the tube well, Sunil Soren had used to rub mustard oil vigorously on his body, and then splash a bucketful of water over himself and Revatee. The then Mother once called Sunil and told him not to take a shower out in the open like that, as it was a monastery of nuns. From that day onwards Sunil and Revatee had bathed privately. Moses had to be told this story too, to explain why he should not take shower in the wide open, and splash a lot of water around. The boy was distracted by the question. How broad was the broad daylight? Once the sun rose, everything was in the open, wasn’t it? Subsequently, he got spanked again.
The western sky was smeared in powdery gulal then; evening sunlight hit the treetops, the bushes darkened, and long purple shadows fell on the eastern side of the garden. Birds were chirping among themselves from the Indian plum trees at the bottom of the garden where they had begun to grow wild and unkempt. A number of coral trees held that place in a tight embrace, blue flowers grew on the wild butterbeans. After supper at six, Mother came to sit in the semi-covered balcony overlooking the endless world bathed in the amazing grace of God. (Though she could never pretend that the world beyond the walls was not running wild and ugly.) Rather, to keep the sanctity of this little island-like church and monastery compound, she had to be endlessly, tirelessly vigilant. However, the sound of the birds chirping in the garden reminded her of a certain kind of bird that used to visit this garden before the war of 1971. Its wings were like short sickles, it had a sharp tail and a colour that could easily blend with the earth and dust. Naughty boys would climb the walls of the church and shoot these birds with airguns. Aslam, the Bihari who used to take Mother to Jagarani Dharmapalli, her religious retreat, in a rented car, told her that the bird was called Kuhar. How sweet was its call! Where had that bird disappeared to? Had it become extinct? It had just stopped coming. Generally, just after sunset, the miked sermon from the mosque would begin. The waaz used to take place in winter at Mominpura Jaame Mosque only. These days it was arranged throughout the year, in every field and every alley, blocking roads. A big bull bound to the lamppost awaited its own slaughter, to be cooked for the after-sermon feast. Mother understood some words from the sermon; Aslam’s son had taught her. But it was so loud, and it echoed so much on the facades of densely packed houses, that one could only decipher the shouting, not the words that reminded people of their afterlives. In any case, patience was the last word in the Monastery of Perpetual Adoration. To experience each moment as a glimmering pearl bead and remain devoted to it amid chaos was their resolution; to be as calm and still as St Clara, who had devoted herself to prayers for forty years in St Damian’s monastery. The waaz hadn’t started yet, so one could hear the sermon of the birds instead.
From four till quarter past five in the afternoon, the Sisters were allotted work. They spent that time preparing for the evening meal, tidying up, doing the dishes and wiping the series of windows separated by tracery. Those were the things that kept them busy. Though the Sisters wouldn’t let her do anything regarding the preparation of meals, Mother still insisted on taking some work from them. Life went on as long as one’s hands worked. While chopping some vegetables, she thought of the time when she could see the pigeon-pea fields from the rooftop of the church, surrounding the church like an ocean of green; how the passage of shadows of the clouds bobbed on that ocean.
“Large flocks of weaver birds used to descend on the cultivated fields. Further away, there was the glass factory and the aluminium factory — like two brother giants standing side by side,” reminisced Mother. That was a long time ago. Now just houses that covered the horizon.
“Too many houses with too many antennas on their rooftops; too many people on those rooftops with too many binoculars in their eager hands,” sniggered Sister Cecilia from East Kerala. Those people were too quick to believe all the gossip and hearsay about the strange, sequestered monastery. Everyone seemed interested to know if the monastery Sisters really cried all night long, if they really dug their own graves all night … whether they shaved their heads under their veils or wore bras under the long cotton chemises, if their shrivelled bodies looked like other girls while changing clothes, if they read erotica secretly … where did they go in a trance after drinking wine? … Did they sleep with the priests? ... And a hundred other unsolicited questions like that. They had preconceived answers to these questions too, and even the parents of the Priory school children were insatiably curious. This espionage clearly annoyed the Sisters, but they didn’t think much of these things, so said Sister Cecilia. Mother replied, “If you don’t pay heed to their questions, how will you know where they stand? If you don’t know where they stand, how will you reach them? How will you get closer to people? Jesus has asked us to remain close to people, to reach them!”
Sister Cecilia sighed, “This stone church has stood in these fields for so many years; the door to enlightenment is flung wide open, people can come and experience it, yet their made-up stories never cease!” The word ‘open’ reminded Mother again of the fields and weaver birds seen in past times from the rooftop. Calmly, she said, “Maybe it is our fault somewhere. They won’t come to us; we’ll go to them. Maybe that’s what we haven’t been able to do yet.”
Sister Cecilia had quickly finished up the kitchen work and settled down to knit winter clothes. She was the seamstress of the monastery, the one who made the nuns’ habits. Her sharp chin had a few curly hairs that came with age, her skin dark as ebony. Wavy, short-cropped hair bordered her forehead. She quickly scratched her back with a knitting needle, and then raised the issue of the broken statue of Mother Mary at the Sisters’ Chapel. The sisters were really concerned after the incident regarding the statue of Justicia. That summer, far away in the capital city Dhaka, the Tawhidi fundamentalists had raised a hue and cry about the presence of the female statue of Justicia before the Supreme Court. This cry against idolatry had reached the church too. A month ago, some people had jumped over the wall one night and broke Mother Mary’s neck and breasts in the chapel. The priestesses loved their tiny statue of the Madonna. When the elderly Mother saw the broken stone breasts in the morning, she felt the culprits’ hands grabbing her bosom. Sitting beside Sister Cecilia and listening to the issues she’d raised, Mother had a moment of recollection, which furrowed her brow.
At seventeen, she had entered a monastery at Islampur Road, initially to experience this life for three months. Six months later, she became a postulant. Outside the monastery, a fuming Dhaka demanded its rightful state language, Bangla. Did their young bodies feel the heat in the air? There was a roadside stall right beside the monastery that sold jilapi. How stoically the girls resisted the temptation of the piping hot jilapis, felt the heat of the coal-fired oven on their thighs as they entered the monastery! The Sisters’ shrill voices rose and sang from Tagore, “Partings char. Yet peace, yet peace, yet the infinite stir”. But what had her ideas of that life been before entering the monastery? What had that girl asked of herself while taking the oath every year? How scared she was of the ghosts at the convent! Serving breakfast after the communion of priests had been a mess that year, she remembered! Later, when the priest went to the hospital to have his chin stitched, he told the doctor he had slipped on the church stairs. Never did that predatory priest return to remind the girl of her oath of allegiance; never did the girl forget the predatory paws of that priest that had desecrated her seventeen-year-old body.