Book Review: Othappu
‘The wind blows this way and goes. The same wind blew yesterday. After wandering about it will return as the wind of tomorrow.’ – Father Roy Francis Karikkan
Tucked away in a corner in crossword, the book with a blemished female face and the yellow round patch declaring it as the winner of ‘Vodafone Crossword Translation Award‘ of 2009, the book had made its way to the collection more than two years back. Amidst all the other wonderful word journeys, this one originally written in the tongue of Kerala, Malayalam and translated to English by Valson Thampu had been kept waiting, for its sheer appeal as a serious read – After all not everyday do you come across a book dealing with the other side of the Christian faith written and translated by followers of the same faith.
On the surface, Othappu is the journey of an impulsive young nun, who gets into the wrong vocation and then walks out of it, of a focused young priest who is clear that his priesthood is his family’s only monetary escape route, of a mad woman who calls herself receiver of the Holy Spirit, of a wayward priest who lives in the jungle and of a family that is too illustrious to receive an ex-nun even if she is the only daughter of the house. But cutting though the superficial cream layer, the narrative jut’s into the ivory shell of complexities, complications and conventions.
As Sarah Joseph in the author’s note very rightly puts, ‘the desire to be a nun lingers in the flowering time of every catholic girl’s life’, Margalitha Varkey was no different from that desire. Her loving family of mother, father, an elder and a younger brother support her desire and she takes the next obvious step. She joins the habit, becomes a nun. But misunderstood desire is what it was – she wanted to serve humanity at the core, she found spirituality with her body against the notions of the church, she was too aggressive to be a docile nun and so for the peace of her soul, destroying everything that the society reveres, she walks out of her ascetic life. Meanwhile the only person she asks for some help before leaving is the young, aspiring, mildly flirty – assistant vicar Father Roy Francis Karikkan. Karikkan is the hope of his family, and unlike Margalitha has seen deprivation up close. But he is torn between serving humanity and a section of humanity (Catholic believers under the church ONLY) and his completely balanced world, endures an earthquake with the realizations his heart come up with, concerning Margalitha. While her family completely shuns her walkout first by shutting her in a dark room in her house itself, and later by disallowing any right she may have on the inheritance, even on an employment that would have allowed her to live respectfully. On the other hand Karikkan and the church try everything within the circle of their powers, from counseling to meditation sessions to promotion as Vicar, in order to not let him walk the forbidden path, but he against his own judgment goes out seeking her like a love struck teenager. And then begins the long haul – an ex-nun and an ex-priest having walked out on the faith decide to live together. The very society that had revered them shunned them now, even roughed them up. Shelter-less, homeless, moneyless they are social degrades, their doom on public display.
Only till they had given up their rights of being humans, of being sexual beings were they respected. The moment they decided to live their rightful life they were outcasts, beings deserving to be spitted upon. No one had anything to do with them except a wandering atheist and the family of a Syrian priest who was son to a Syrian Christian father and a Roman Catholic mother. The clash of faiths did not affect the support for the church offending ex-nun and priest but the wagging tongues sure did. Brothers drunk on family honor, a father who commits suicide to escape social humiliation and unbearable money interests, an ex-assistant to a atheist turned miracle healer, a priest who conducts mass for the tribals, minus the vanity of the church, with water as wine and tapioca as flesh of Christ – only add to the troughs and ups of the journey of the offenders and to top it Karikkan’s guilt ridden conscience doesn’t make things all rosy and love-filled too.
Othappu is based in the Christian community of Kerala and as a divine intervention, the book travelled with me as I went backpacking to the land of backwaters, to where Vasco De Gama and his associates brought their belief to this country, to where it all strated (though I hardly read much during the trip.) The author though chose to narrate a story based in a particular community; it is a comment on the society and its patterns as a whole irrespective of religion, community or region. Some important questions are raised, answers are seeked and the reader journey’s into the cynicism that only religion can provide.
On the down side the translation is abundantly spewed with Malayalam terms which makes the reader nearly regret not being able to read the original text. Though the glossary adequately provides for those terms, referring the back pages while engrossed in the story is never a good option. A wonderfully written, deeply provoking journey of Sister Margalitha and Father Karikkan after they renounce their citations is also stringed back a bit by the lagging pace of the narration.
Not a racy ride but definitely one with notion questioning triggers to it.
Part of South Asian Challenge 2012
Title: Othappu: The scent of the other side
Author: Sarah Joseph, Valson Thampu (Translator)
Publisher/ Imprint: Oxford University Press
Genre/ Sub-Genre: Fiction/ Drama
Rating: 3.00 of 5.00
Reviewed for: Personal Copy
Read the reviews of other books rated 3 star by Team TP HERE
Want to read? Buy a copy: