This post comes after a long break. Partly because I was busy with 'home affairs' and partly because the Muse was playing truant. Well, she's back now. And a book review it will be.
I had planned to review 'Aruna' Story' - a non-fiction account of the rape of staff nurse Aruna Shanbaug written by Pinki Virani. But when I trawled the net, I found several reviews already in place. And since most of the opinions expressed were similar to mine, I canned the idea. Instead, I am, reviewing - 'AMEN: The Autobiography Of A Nun'. Originally published in Malayalam, it was translated into English and published in 2009 by Penguin Books.
At the outset, I should clarify, that I still have one chapter to go before I complete reading the book. However, my opinion on the book is already formed and I doubt that the last chapter will do much to alter it.
The book is a personal account, rendered by Sister Jesme, of thirty three years spent in a convent. Sister Jesme is a nun belonging to the Congregation of Mother of Carmel. She holds a doctorate in English literature and has served as Vice Principal and Principal in two Catholic Colleges in Kerala. In August 2008, she left the Congregation.
In her book, Sister Jesme, writes an anguished account of her experiences as a nun. She raises the very important issue of the status of women within the Catholic Church. She questions why nuns are treated different from priests particularly in the matter of the Vow of Poverty.
Then there is the issue sexuality which has caused a lot of public outrage against the book. According to her, homosexuality and lesbianism are realities within the convent. Though never spoken of, it happens and is known by myraid names like 'special love'. The book also hints at sexual exploitation through an incident where Sister Jesme has to deal with the advances of a priest.
The book also highlights petty politics and groupism which were faced by the author. It also hints at class based discrimination between nuns hailing from affluent and those from poor families. Being set in the mileu of college life and academia, the book includes in its chapters the author's opinions on poor administrative practices and bending of rules being practiced by the colleges where she served.
The book is a brave attempt by Sister Jesme, who seems to be a lone crusader. It takes a lot of guts and gumption to go against the establishment, particularly one as powerful and revered as the Catholic Church. All the issues raised by her in the book are important and deserve to be brought into the public domain. Sadly, the Church has closed ranks against her. It maybe a long time before it will be ready to bring these skeletons out of the cupboard.
At the same time, I find many parts of the book confusing. For eg. There is a chapter where, during a retreat, some nuns complain to Sister Jesme that the priest they confessed to had asked their permission and kissed them. The same priest asks to kiss her too when she goes for confession. She refuses and informs him that the other nuns had found his act distasteful. He replies by saying that he did it with permission and quotes passages from the Bible. She counter quotes. At the end of all this quoting, I'm left feeling baffled. So? Did he make a mistake or didn't he?
Without sounding like I'm belittling her problems, I must say that at times, it feels like Sister Jesme suffers from a persecution complex. One feels empathy with her trials and tribulations. But at some point, it seems like the whole world is her enemy and she is the only blameless one. This is particularly true when she is describing the problems she faced during her tenure as lecturer, then Vice Principal and then Principal of a college. In fact, when I discussed the Malayalam version of the book with some Malayali Catholic colleagues, one of them remarked, that the book was all 'I'm OK. You're not OK'.
Finally, the book could do with some tight editing. It rambles in places and events do not seem to be well connected. The language is heavy and gets tedious to read. But I would not blame the author for this. A first time writer and writing on so bold a theme, she should have been provided with better editorial support by Penguin.
As regular, serious and practiced readers, I would recommend that we put aside the flaws in the book and read it, to get an insight into the issues raised by Sister Jesme. Judge for yourself whether her story is real or imagined (as you can see, mine is not an unbiaised opinon). And think of the lives of women in religious life, belonging to other religions also. I'm sure there will be many similarities.
- Welcome!Blogging is a form of self expression for me. I find it a wonderful, democratic space. So often in life, our articulation and expression are controlled by environment-like relationships or work place. Here, it is only about me and what I want to say. I write about anything: books, movies, issues, rants...anything which strikes a chord in me or makes me think. Life's lighter moments, highs and lows, causes, opinions. Anything. I follow no structure. It is all about self expression - a form of empowerment if you like.
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