Maria, Just Maria is a sweeping novel that follows the life of a recently divorced woman who finds herself in a psychiatric hospital. From this point, the story moves backwards, illustrating Maria’s childhood with her grandparents in Kerala, in a home of strong-willed people and socialist gods with whom she has frequent tête-à-têtes. Told with humour and the whimsical worldview of a child, the novel still manages to address the complexity of a woman growing up against the grain.

Written by Sandhya Mary in Malayalam, it has now been translated into English by Jayasree Kalathil. In an interview with Scroll, Mary and Kalathil spoke about the role of religion in the novel and the habit of conflating unconventionality with madness. Excerpts from the conversation:

I read that you had started writing the story in little snippets over the years. How did Maria, Just Maria come together as a novel?
Sandhya Mary (SM): It started as a conversation between Jesus and me. Even if you are a believer or not, that relationship remains. Jesus was always there, and I used to talk to him a lot; he was like a constant companion. Later, when I realised that these snippets could be a novel, it was a huge editing process to reduce Jesus’s part. Through this, all the other characters came to me. Even without intending or realising it, it turned into a literary work.

Religion plays an important role in the novel, but I love that saints and gods are like friends and neighbours. They’re always available to chat whenever Maria needs them, especially Geevarghese Sahada (St George) and Karthav Eesho Mishiha (Jesus Christ). Why did you depict them this way, and what do you think that bond between them says?
SM: It should be like that, right? We say that gods are omnipotent, but why should they stay above us? I don’t know whether God is there, and I’m not bothered about it, but at least God should be a socialist. Wealth and resources are abundant in the world, and God doesn’t even know what to do with it! What kind of a God is that? There should be some human element in them; why should they be there to judge us?

At least do a better job, that’s all I have to say to them – if they’re there – that’s my earnest request.

The chapter from Geevarghese Sahadha’s point of view is so funny as well, and this powerful saint is rendered helpless and unwanted by the end.
SM: Poor thing. He just wanted to help everybody.

Jayasree Kalathil (JK): Away from the politicised religion, which causes problems worldwide, if you were to take an individual’s relationship with God, it is mostly like this, isn’t it? For instance, my mum is a believer. She has a very special bond with Shri Krishna, and even now, the way she talks about him is almost like a son. There is an everydayness to the relationship between ordinary people and their gods. God becomes something elevated and out there, something that you’re not even allowed to say anything about when religion becomes politicised and divisive. It’s ultimately bad for all of us. This is why Karthav Eesho Mishiha is a full-fledged human like any other character in Maria. He’s just another person.

SM: I think a religion-less God will be a beautiful concept.

What was the process of translating Maria’s whimsical childhood into English? And what about Maria’s specific point of view drew you in?
JK: I’m always interested when a story is told from the point of view of a child, and in the hands of a good writer, it allows for an exciting way of storytelling. The younger version of Maria is quite unique in Malayalam literature. We don’t have many serious adult novels narrated from a child’s point of view because it’s difficult to do that without being condescending. Sandhya has given Maria an independent, innocent, and complex voice – which is rare.

It’s also a very political story that asks complex questions about things like normal and pathological, what a society should be like, what we allow people in the society to be, and how we disallow certain kinds of people to be. It’s also an interrogation of patriarchy and religion. At the same time, it’s not told in an overtly political voice, unlike other stories in Malayalam. Maria brings politics into it in a very embedded way, with a gentle touch in terms of where the politics lie because Sandhya is really telling the story of this child and her family and her community. Still, within that, you find all of these different layers.

I know it’s probably not the right thing to say, but I do find much of my life in Maria. I could understand and identify with her.

The novel is about madness and how anyone, even slightly askew to social norms, is considered abnormal. Can you explain a little bit more about why you thought it was important to talk about madness from Maria’s point of view? What makes this voice different?
SM: I think in everyday life we see many people branded crazy, even though they’re all living happily with brilliant lives. Intellectual gems of persons were taken to hospitals just because they were slightly different. I didn’t fit into that particular society. You are expected to marry, have children, have a good job and everything else. I never went for all those things. I just lived my life according to what I wanted. I was never considered mad, but I was an outcast.

If you go against the system, you always have to fight. I am fed up of fighting. There are so many questions you have to face about your life. If you’re in a relationship, why? If you’re not, why? Just leave us alone. Not even alone, just leave a little bit more space. That’s what I’m asking. A person’s life shouldn’t be this difficult.

I think the title of the novel perfectly encapsulates that sentiment. She’s just Maria.
SM: Yes! I just want to be. I want to be just Maria, just Sandhya. Even in literature, you have to become a successful writer!

Jayasree, what does it mean to you to be just Maria?
JK: I agree with what Sandhya said. For the last 25 years, I have worked in madness and human rights as an activist and a researcher. I am somebody who’s been branded mad and also psychiatrically mad several times; it’s part of being human.

Women who got themselves involved in the women’s rights movement were psychiatrically deemed mad and put in hospitals. Homosexuality was deemed a mental illness until the 1970s. Slaves who ran away from their enslavers were diagnosed with a mental illness called drapetomania. So anything people did that was against the norm – against what people of power in society decided – has always been deemed mad. I’m not saying that people don’t experience distress of a certain kind, and they might need help and support. That is different from just calling people crazy or mad or ostracising them from society.

So all these very complex and hurtful things in Maria become quite a natural part of the storytelling of this girl growing up to be a woman and then reflecting on her life. We all talk about Maria as a humorous book, but it is actually a very serious and complex story, and Sandhya has brilliantly managed to discuss madness in contemporary society. I think that’s just phenomenal.