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The gospel according to the women: Latha Anantharaman reviews Jeet Thayil’s ‘Names of the Women’

All those stories that consist of many narratives, each recording the same events from a different perspective, seem to trace their origins to the New Testament. In that old, old story, a prophet is born, he preaches the word, and he is killed. Those three events we are sure of. But how, when, and in what order the smaller incidents in between took place — all of that makes for a richly confusing, shifting narrative.

We listen like a jury to various testimonies, building a story that, after all, we understand only partly. Matthew and Mark seem to have squared up their dry testimonies with each other before taking up their quills, but Luke knows how far back to start if you want to catch a reader’s attention, and gradually the picture begins to fill with colour.

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Recording their voices

For centuries, women readers of the scriptures must have hunted for details about those robed, veiled, grieving figures they have seen on cathedral walls. The male disciples of Jesus witness miracles and then swear they believe he is the son of god. But the women take it all on trust from the very beginning. Who were these women, where did they come from, and what were they thinking when they followed the messiah?

In Names of the Women, Jeet Thayil gives us the voices of those who birthed, cooked, washed, ministered, witnessed and testified to the final mystery. His work is itself a testament — the gospel according to Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Magda, Old Mary, Mary of Bethany, her sister Martha, Joanna, Susanna, and many others. Jesus speaks, mostly to Mary of Magda, but also, futilely, imploring his disciples to record the women’s roles in his story.

Golden age

In that golden age, women were enslaved, sold, imprisoned, forsaken, and seldom able to do what they believed in. But when the condemned messiah’s hangers-on have fled, it is his female followers who watch him die on the cross and wait till his body is taken down and laid in the tomb, and a stone rolled across its mouth. Thayil draws us into that age and that world with his first words, and he holds us there long after we have finished reading. In each short, sharp chapter, he shows his ability to create a living soul that walks out of the page, often from raw material amounting to a line and a half of biblical text.

The gospel according to the women: Latha Anantharaman reviews Jeet Thayil’s ‘Names of the Women’

Mary of Magda is the first voice after that of Jesus, as she was the first to seek him after his death, carrying oils and spices with which to preserve the body. Having watched her people kill their long-awaited prophet because he was not what they expected, she begins to understand that they are a people of destruction and vengeance created in the image of a god of destruction and vengeance.

Susanna the barren testifies next. She is the one who led the other women into the tomb to see the emptiness Mary had seen. She tells all this to the gathered people, explaining as if they are the children she doesn’t have. And it is she, not the men walking with her, who recognises Christ when he reappears.

Mary of Bethany speaks, she who sat at the prophet’s feet to listen instead of fetching water and pouring wine for the gathering. She searched the marketplace for something special to give her master, something fit for a man who will soon die, and she found the spikenard with which she lavishly anointed him.

Dangerous as the prophet

Martha of Bethany, who knows that if she and Mary had been born as boys, they would have made better, kinder rulers than the kings they were taught to honour, is the big sister who takes care of everyone else. But when her brother Lazarus is brought back to life and roams around haunted by the horrors of death, she wonders whether it would have been better to have left him dead.

A compelling story within the story is the terrifying dance of Salomé, directed by her mother and queen, Herodias. Together they engineer the beheading of John the Baptist. Joanna, who serves at the banquet and, after its gruesome end, reassembles and washes John’s body and leads his funeral procession, eventually finds her way to Jesus.

In Thayil’s hands they all take shape, along with the woman whose bent back was straightened, the widow who threw in her two mites, and the woman taken in adultery who was almost stoned to death but not quite. Even the most invisible women — Aquila and Bilhah, the maidservants who recognise the cowering Peter as one of Jesus’s followers — were witnesses who questioned why a man who preached love was executed like a dangerous criminal. In that witnessing, that questioning, they became as dangerous as the prophet himself, voices that were silenced as effectively as his, till one writer decided to say their names.

Names of the Women; Jeet Thayil, Jonathan Cape, ₹699

The writer is author of Three Seasons: Notes from a Country Year.

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