In his seventh year at the seminary, when theology was the main subject of study, Brother Jovial had his solitary day. Earlier that day, Father Abel or “Abelachan” offered him a plastic Aquafina bottle, filled with the taste of the well, and advised:
“The Son of Man overcame the three temptations of Satan after fasting for forty days and nights. Here, we are demanding just a daytime’s fast from you. You should restrain your soul with just a litre of water, from six in the morning to six in the evening. As you are aware, one should descend the mountain only after offering a twelve-hour fast to the heavens.”
Since he had heard much about the subject from the other theological students who had undergone solitary day, Brother Jovial did not learn anything new from Abelachan’s words. A hill, proffering an invitation for solitude and smug in its lordliness, was waiting for the deacon arriving from the west and the sun rising from the east. As Brother Jovial traipsed to the back of the house, with both bottle and book, Brother Edwino appeared through an open window.
“All the best. Don’t forget what I told you.”
Brother Jovial felt as if he was hearing the hissing of the serpent who came to lure Eve. The one who was flesh of flesh and bone of bone had every right to tempt.
But the scriptwriters of the Holy Book had not yet revealed what right Brother Edwino – who had made his way there from the Vayanadu hairpin curves – possessed to waylay Brother Jovial’s body and mind. It was nothing but sin’s claim over the body. Pictures, which would enflame the heart as if pouring melted butter, and touches, which one wished to evade, yes, Edwino was the ambassador on earth of the serpent in Eden. The serpent was not just a metaphor, but a tangible embodiment.
Brother Edwino’s solitary day had taken place seven days earlier. He shared the details of how he spent the solitariness with his roommate Jovial. Edwino reiterated many times, like a new age philosopher, that hunger and lust were nature’s gifts, and that spiritual search should not manifest itself as a censure of these.
“No God is going to be pleased if you were to starve without food or water in a garden full of luscious fruits. Ripe guavas, rose apples, ripe cashew fruits...papaya…spread across acres like the garden of Eden. I ate my fill…”
Brother Jovial had stared disdainfully, as if at a disbeliever, at the one who had gone against the tenets of faith by touching the forbidden. It was a stain of sin which could not be removed, even after wearing a sack cloth or smearing oneself with ashes.
It was meaningful that Abelachan had asked them to be mindful. Solitary day was one where the conscience alone stood watch. Until the day drew to a close, the creation should converse only with the creator, and spend time beneath the natural roof formed by the boulders in the side of the hill.
One could drink water when needed. Minimal usage was desirable. One was to immerse in solitude until silence found a floodgate to enter within, from without. It was through silence that god built a bridge for taking a leisurely saunter. Only those with alert inner ears could catch His footsteps. The observations had to be jotted down in a notebook, which was to be handed over to Abelachan in the evening.
When he read Edwino’s daily routine, Abelachan’s face beamed with beatitude. He did not speak a word, but simply patted him on the back. Abelachan looked as pleased as if he had found an ambassador to do God’s work.
At night, Brother Jovial had furtively queried his roommate:
“Did you actually hear the Lord? In truth, did you experience the Spirit’s call? How delighted Abelachan looked!”
Brother Edwino laughed unconstrainedly, as if God had touched him.
“Spiritual experience…everybody babbles about such exploits! I just built a residence using fantasy’s stones. Naïve Abelachan trusted me and was electrified. The guava in the garden is very sweet!”
After travelling for fifteen minutes through a barren area, red berries began to appear before Brother Jovial too. He was moving towards the opposite side of a thousand-two-hundred-acre area of land, including a hill, which had been purchased by an old, visionary missionary. Since the whole land was bordered by briar fences, encroachments were few. There were hordes of trees, as well as the gushing Periyar in the eastern boundary, and these obstacles had to be surmounted before an intrusion was possible. There was a sky-high compound wall with glass splinter spikes on one side.
The plants blossomed, lush and intoxicated, having satiated themselves on the fertile soil. Except for rice, nothing was purchased from outside the seminary. Poultry, buffaloes, goats…all thrived within its four walls and were cooked with finesse in clarified butter in the kitchen. The tiled roof of the shack – where the pigs were housed – was clearly visible. They ate, mated, and gave birth to thousands of piglets. Jovial saw a sow as big as a small elephant, with swollen breasts on which many offspring suckled. Some were dozing off after drinking the milk, and others revelling in the mother’s body warmth.
Rabbits were scampering around fearlessly, soon to grace the dining tables during special feast days. There were a variety of mango trees around: Alphonso, Banganappally and Malgoa. There were Rambutan, rose-apples, orange trees, and even a couple of apple trees. It was amidst this abundance that one was required to renounce food, limit one’s water intake, control one’s words, and hold a discourse with the soul.
“Your actions were not appropriate! You shouldn’t have eaten the fruits.”
When Jovial pointed his finger at him with the innocence of a lamb, Edwino had simply laughed, without the merest hint of repentance. Then, as if he wished to provoke the Biblical messiah, Edwino declared:
“This seminary is just a foothold for me to conquer life. I am very true to myself. See, I have been able to study freely since I joined. I have enough to eat! Until I finish my post-graduation, I shall don the deacon’s robe. When they offer us the choice at the end, I shall say that I haven’t received God’s calling, and that I am not suitable for priesthood.”
“That’s betrayal,” Brother Jovial was discomfited. “Death is preferable to befriending falsehood.”
Edwino guffawed again.
“The omniscient Lord knew that the man he created would eat the fruit of the ‘Tree of Life’ and would be banished from the heavens. Was there any period of time in the Bible where only goodness and purity reigned? And you speak of such in Kali yuga?”
Jovial felt that the feet on which he stood were burning, and that his body, which held itself erect, was blistering.
“Will you betray me?” Edwino asked.
“In a circumstance which demands the truth, absolutely…”
“Well, I shall turn into a murderer in such a circumstance!”
Although Edwino was grinning when he said it, Jovial felt that the distance between an angel and a devil was so minuscule that an ant could leap across it. Jovial would argue with the heavens at times, asking, “Dear Lord, why did you choose Edwino to share my room?”
Edwino’s presence was that of temptation – sinful settings, which spoke of surreptitious sharing. But Edwino would nudge Jovial, whispering that there were secretive pleasures in such dalliances.
“Why condemn food, drink, and sensory pleasures? The body is the focal point of ecstasy.”
Jovial was terrified that fire and sulphur would rain down from the skies, when ways of bodily ecstasies were presented to him, overcoming his weak protestations.
“Idiot,” Edwino grinned, “you are a lamb in reality! It was a missionary who came to deliver his speech on Good Friday who declared that Edwino the altar boy had God’s calling. Even now, if I feel like a good confession, I catch a bus to Kanjirappally!”
Muttering “Jesus, Jesus”, Brother Jovial clambered up the small pile of rocks at the southern end of the compound. He could see the entire vast land from that vantage point. Above the wall he could glimpse the curves and sudden bend of the river Periyar. All around him, was a celebration of solitariness. In the solitary day, this was the perfect place to surrender one’s soul.
To ease the exhaustion wrought by the climb, Brother Jovial took a sip of well water from the Aquafina bottle. He had to utilise the water stringently, to make it last till the evening. He decided to free his body for a while and sit gazing at the universe around. On remembering that words were forbidden in all circumstances, the temptation to mumble became fervent. Every law became a provocation for breaking it.
While he gazed at the greenery, leaning against the boulder, moistness weighed down on his eyelids. Since nobody had forbidden dozing off, he did not resist the heaviness and began to slip into a pleasurable nap, when he heard the thud of something heavy hitting the earth nearby.
A sack had been dropped inside the compound, over the boundary wall. Then, two slender hands and a head appeared on top of the wall. In the next few moments, a body crawled up and was clearly visible. It was a girl. Jovial wondered how she had managed to creep on top of the glass spikes. Her wet dress and body were testimony to the fact that she had crossed the river Periyar, flowing by the boundary. The girl resembled a drenched bird; its feathers all stuck together.
Jovial watched her cast an alert bird’s eye inside the confinements. He grew attentive, as if uncovering a stealthy plot. The girl was unaware of the observer, who had almost merged with the rock. After ensuring that no danger was around, the girl leapt down from the top of the boundary wall. Brother Jovial heard a shriek. It was as if the impact of a comet striking the ground reverberated in the area.
Since there were thick shrubs all around, it was impossible to perceive anything. A stifled groan emerged from the spot. Abelachan’s cautionary warning, that one should be indifferent to any incitement, forced Jovial to sit still. Ignorant of the girl’s identity or her intention, he remained seated, as her groans grew louder. Though his mind pulled him back, his legs dared to disobey the inner dictates. Hurriedly, Brother Jovial descended the rocks and reached the place where the girl had fallen.
Her knee had been bruised badly in her attempt to jump down from the wall. The girl’s face filled with terror on sighting the saffron robed shape. Though she tried to flee, she could not move, due to her helpless state.
She was a slim girl, perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old. Her face was that of the angel who graced the grass crib during Christmas; the one without a body. The moist dress showed the fragile ribs of her chest clearly. The angel had tucked the skirt up to her knees and was blowing at the wound. Brother Jovial felt a shock, as if he had gazed at something forbidden.
He sternly reminded himself of the unwritten law of not speaking until the evening, and silenced his tongue, which yearned to ask, “Who…who are you child?”
“Don’t do anything please…I will go away!” The girl pleaded fervently. She looked as if death had come calling on her, dressed in a deacon’s robe.
Brother Jovial gestured questioningly whether she could get up. When she tried, and almost fell down in the attempt, he helped her up. Her slender hands were soft and weak.
“Why did you jump across the wall?”
As soon as the words emerged, recollecting the breaking of his vow of silence, Brother Jovial felt a jolt pass through his chest. Murmuring “Oh Jesus!” Jovial drew the sign of the cross, circling the source of discomfort. The girl’s desperate glances darted from Brother’s face to the ripened guavas and mango trees. Like the baby rabbits which were reared to be cooked on Easter, her breathing had grown frantic. Brother felt that there was no point in relinquishing the opportunity to question her, since his vow had been broken unwittingly.
“Out stealing, eh?”
The girl stood like an inmate of some silent hermitage, not voicing either yes or no. It was as if she was the one carrying out the solitary day customs. There was a Scapular attached to a black thread circling her neck. Seeing the Pieta in one square and the Crucified One in the other, the pictures rather sodden and dirty, Brother Jovial asked:
“Are you a Christian?”
“Hmm,” she nodded.
“Didn’t you study in Sunday class not to violate the Seventh Commandment?”
“Does that mean one can violate all Commandments till six, and anything after seven, Brother?”
Brother had never expected such a retort from one who had been ensconced in silence till then.
“No Commandments should be violated. You are not studying the Bible well.”
“I used to win prizes in Sunday school till seventh standard. Then even on the Sabbath I had to indulge in forbidden work and had to stop going to the church classes.”
Hiding the wound that suddenly opened up within him, Brother Jovial asked:
“I have heard about thieves over here, back in the seminary. I will tell them it was you!”
“Won’t that cause you to break your solitary day?”
“How do you know about the solitary day?”
Apart from that languid, elusive reply, the girl did not bother to give a clear answer. The welt on her knee seemed to have subsided a bit.
“I shall go now. Well, it is the first time I am not stealing anything. Your garden is called Eden, right?”
“In Eden, nobody needed to steal anything. Everything belonged to everyone.”
“You are a trespasser in reality! Trying to justify your thieving by quoting the Book of Genesis?”
“No, my Valiyammachi told me before her death that we too have rights over this property.”
“Our great grand fathers were tenants of this place. When the land was purchased and walls raised, we were banished from here.”
“Well, the seminary purchased the property, it belongs to it now. There are documents.”
“Man-made documents, not the decree of God, is it? Will you ask for documents from the mice and snakes around? From the birds?”
“Smart cookie,” Brother ruminated. He could not have expected such perceptive words from a girl of her tender age.
“Are you a revolutionary?”
“Not me, my Appan. That’s why he was buried in the pauper’s grave, Amma said. Let me go now. My three younger siblings are waiting for me by the river side.”
Brother remembered that the Bible began with the painful stories of those who were exiled. He felt uncomfortable becoming a cherub which safeguarded Eden from the presence of human beings. Who was it who said that there was no revolution bigger than starvation?
“How will you climb the tree with your hurt knee?”
“There are so many fruits which have fallen down…that would be sufficient.”
“Even dogs eat the crumbs from their masters’ tables,” Brother felt the quote leaping out from the Bible. When he crushed a few leaves of the Communist Pacha on her bruise, she instinctively pulled back her stinging knee. Jovial noticed the rosy, fleshy fruits hanging on the nearby guava tree. Ever since he had fallen and hurt himself in childhood, while scaling a tree, he preferred to enjoy the sight from a distance. A new youthfulness filled him, and Brother Jovial tucked in his loose robes without hesitation. Embracing the guava tree with both hands, he planted a loud kiss to entice it. The branches seemed to lower themselves. He violated the seventh commandment by plucking a ripe fruit. Then, another. The girl spread her skirt and gathered the raining fruits. In the old sack she had brought with her, rambutan, papaya and mangoes jostled for space.
Biting a red-hued guava, the girl offered one to Brother Jovial too. Its bloody hued innards were reminiscent of the holy heart bleeding. Pulling his hand back, Brother Jovial murmured:
“Today, it is a forbidden fruit for me.”
“What about helping a thief?”
“I will pay back with a confession.”
“Look at the good fortune of us Christians! We can repent any sin by undertaking confession! We can keep sinning and confessing. Is God a fool whom we can trick through false confessions, Brother?”
“Hush, don’t speak against the Lord.”
Though a normal Christian would have been perturbed at his words, the girl smiled openly.
“Brother, have you seen God?”
“Has Abelachan or the Bishop seen God?”
“Even if He stands in front of them, they will not see Him.”
“How come you are speaking like a theologist?”
“What’s the need to study theology for this?”
“I was naked; you did not clothe me. I was hungry; you did not feed me. I was a stranger; you did not accept me. When you did not do, to the least of my brethren, you did not do to me…” As Brother Jovial stood stunned, imagining this accusation on the Day of Judgment, there was a rustle in the nearby creeper. It was a serpent, almost like the tempter of Eden. Brother Jovial screeched in terror, but the girl laughed fearlessly.
“Now, it has truly turned into Eden!”
“Aren’t you afraid of snakes?” Brother Jovial asked, his gaze unshifting from the slithering serpent.
“What’s there to be afraid of? I am Eve. Brother, you are Adam. Then, there is the snake. I have a half-eaten guava in my hand too! The only change is that we are fully clothed. I wonder why the serpents don’t dress like human beings after all these years! Why are humans clothed, anyway?”
“Tut, tut!” Brother Jovial felt a nakedness in the very conversation. “Aren’t you ashamed to speak like this?”
“Sin is shame. Shame means clothes. We learnt all that by heart back in Sunday classes.”
The girl had reached the edge of the wall by then. The snake, too, had found a hole to hide its body. Before going back, she asked:
“When is the next solitary day? I will come then.”
“Oh no!” Brother Jovial cried, “Jesus!”
“What… what happened?”
“I forgot silence. I forgot to write… forgot everything!”
“Ha ha! Call the Angel of Words to help you. The words will come flying! You know what, Brother! I had called the guardian angel before jumping.”
“You are a dunce! Don’t you know that there is a guardian angel with every person?”
Brother Jovial felt ashamed that a mere chit of a girl should remind a deacon of that truth. He felt as if he was wearing a fancy dress during a church function, with artificial wings pinned to his back.
The girl had stepped into the compound previously with the help of a branch of the Vazhana tree brushing against the boundary wall. But since the pests had destroyed it, her efforts to scale the tall wall did not succeed. Besides, she had a heavy sack to carry on her slender shoulders. Brother Jovial arrived at a solution, realising that he could carry a slim body. As when singing psalms, he lowered himself on all fours on the ground and lowered his shoulders.
“Step on my back,” he said.
“Ouch! Step on a godly man? It will be a sin!”
Although she was hesitant, due to Brother’s insistence and no other feasible solution, she placed her muddy foot on the shoulders of the robed one. As Brother rose up with her and raised her to the wall top, she quipped naughtily:
“It is like climbing the ladder of yarn to heaven.”
Brother Jovial could hear a combined hailing of “Chechi” emerging from the other side of the wall.
“How sad that I am unable to see them,” Brother voiced his regret.
“Maybe the Periyar will overflow and knock down the wall one day. All barriers shall vanish then,” she smiled. Then waving her hand, she said loudly:
“Praise the Lord!”
By the time Brother Jovial repeated “Now and Forever”, the girl had leapt into the unknown beyond. Brother chastised himself for not asking for her name. Guessing that she might have teased him by replying “Guardian Angel”, he patted away the dust around his shoulders left by her footprints. For a moment, when the dust filled his hands, Brother was confounded about whether the garrulous girl had truly been a guardian angel.
When Brother climbed the rocks again, counting the egregious breaking of the commandments hitherto, his conscience stirred up a mutiny against him.
Broke the vow of silence, touched a woman’s body, participated in stealing, and helped a thief escape… above all, meditation had been brought to naught!
Perplexed by having to scribble down his thoughts, Brother Jovial sat brooding on the rock for a long time, but in vain.
In the evening, Abelachan read the lines written in the book by Brother Jovial, who had been rather late in returning.
“My silence was broken. So was my prayer. I could write nothing.”
Abelachan cast a grave look at Brother Jovial. He was a reticent man by nature.
After proclaiming the punishments for the sinner, and holding onto the rosary from Rome, Abelachan moved towards his room to complete his nightly prayers. As Brother Jovial served dinner to the other deacons, with the broken neck of the clay pot around his throat, inscribed with the words “I have sinned”, he felt the sky filling his heart.
By the time he finished washing up the plates of the diners, it was near midnight. When Brother Jovial reached his room, after undertaking complete fasting, Brother Edwino extended the plantain he had kept aside for him.
“Got it for the four o’clock teatime. I knew you would be starving.”
“I don’t want it! How did you know I would be starving?”
“The fate of the righteous is the same across ages.”
Touching the broken clay pot around his neck, Brother Jovial smiled at the picture of the One wearing the crown of thorns. When Edwino’s arm circled him at night, Brother Jovial felt that he too was a guardian angel who stood by his own truths. In the blue light which dripped on earth from the high mast light affixed to the sky, a ladder of yarn became visible.