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Wages of freedom

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SHREEKUMAR VARMA

A literary and social milestone that needs a place in the thinking connoisseur’s library.

Othappu: The Scent of the Other Side; Sarah Joseph, Translated by Valson Thampu, OUP; Rs. 395.

Breaking out requires strength. That could well be the core theme of Sara Joseph’s Othappu. Breaking out of what? The institution that has protected, disciplined and sustained your existence till now? Or the traditions and beliefs associated with it, the fear of being considered a renegade, the loss of power and contentment? It’s difficult, and the price is steep. What kind of strength do you need to break away: physical, mental, moral? How and to whom do you justify your actions: to others, God, yourself?

Curse of loneliness

The quest for freedom is equated with sin in any jealously guarded system, be it religious, political or academic. Adhering is belonging. When you break away, you defy a higher authority, lose your claim on a known, comfortable way of life and become cursed to be alone.

Othappu means faltering, and thereby causing others to falter. Jancy James, in her introduction, quotes Christ: “If your hand makes you lose your faith, cut it off!” The institutions that grew around his teachings refocused that faith on themselves and their strictures. When the sacrifice and reticence required for the cloister begin to suffocate the very nature of the faithful, they have two options: to stick on nevertheless, or to break away. The strength of their ingrained belief in these institutions decides the scope of their subsequent freedom.

In this case, both protagonists are dependants and, in a sense, prisoners of the Roman Catholic Church and its norms. The story begins with Sister Margalitha’s incarceration in the “dungeon” of her ancestral home, the wages of breaking out. She undergoes mental and physical pain, but retains her spiritual strength, believing in what she does. On the other hand, her lover Father Karikkan cannot sustain that strength in the wake of doubt and despair. It’s clear then that pain and punishment, guilt and release acquire depth only so far as thinking makes it so.

Sarah Joseph, intrepid Malayalam writer and activist, forwards a proposal that shakes the foundations of manmade institutions claiming divine authority. She goes further, questioning the veracity of other institutions like marriage and family. The individual and her freedom to choose her faith becomes the most important issue. Sara questions many variations of the given on the road to freedom. Finally, freedom isn’t just breaking out; it’s the cleared airstrip for your flight, the dumped baggage, the vision.

Interesting characters fill the book. Karikkan’s load-carrying father; Kasseessa whose household is a hotbed of discussion; Rebekka the crazy visionary; atheist George mourning the loss of rationalism; Augustine, the “dog saint”, whose essential religion is humanism; Margalitha’s explosive family. Both refuge and impediment in the couple’s journey, they are literary delights as well as philosophical variations setting right the balance in a complicated debate.

Spirited and energetic

Valson Thampu’s translation is spirited. Its amazing energy in scenes like the turmoil in Margalitha’s house and later during her tragic journey, the awakening freshness in the remote forest and in the painting of character reaches a rough-and-tumble awkwardness in a few places, notably while rendering colloquial dialogue.

The inclusion of Jancy James’ introduction, leading writer Paul Zachariah’s (he’s on the same path, throwing light on a forest of dark beliefs) talk at the book’s release, Githa Hiranyan’s interview with the author and a smattering of photographs add value to the book, offering much-needed perspective. Othappu is a literary and social milestone that needs a place in the thinking connoisseur’s library.

E-mail: varma@shreevarma.com


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