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Love Beyond the Pale


N. Kamala

OTHAPPU: THE SCENT OF THE OTHER SIDE
By Sarah Joseph Translated from the Malayalam by Valson Thampu
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 286, Rs.395.00

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 3 March 2012

Othappu does not exactly mean 'The Scent of the Other Side', as readers may tend to think, looking at the subtitle! It is a word to be found in the Malayalam Catholic Bible meaning 'to stumble' or 'to falter' from the straight way of the faith and to turn to evil ways (p. xx). It is the resultant scandal when someone chooses to go against the accepted norms of religious and, therefore, social behaviour in the Catholic community. And so the novel begins with the protagonist, a nun, deciding to leave the convent to assume the ordinary garb of a lay person and seeking the way of her 'body'. It is the doomed tale of Sister Margalitha's love for a priest Karrikan, their decision to defy religious edicts and find a life together, while facing the unpardoning, cruel, social ostracism meted out by a shocked community. Sarah Joseph does not paint a picture of idyllic forbidden love, alluring in its scandal value, with voyeuristic relish. This is a harsh take on religious bigotry, social sanctions, blind faith, and the stifling brutality of the immediate family when they realize the stigma that will attach to them by this act of defiance. The novel reveals to us the stranglehold of institutionalized religion and the complete unforgiving resolve of the Church to stem any such further rebellion in its ranks. She counterpoises the lack of compassion in organized religion with the solicitous concern of different ways of faith in non-conventional ways. Hence the healing touch of Rebekka, a parallel rebel figure from Margalitha's family, holds a different kind of mass that gives peace to many people. She is the only one who dares to give her succour when she gets to know that Margalitha has returned to her familial home and is imprisoned in an almost airless room with no amenites in a house with plenty of bedrooms with attached baths. For that is what women who step out of faith can expect even from their immediate family who are more scared of what people will say than try and help the 'prodigal daughter' to reestablish herself in society. Even her own mother wishes Margalitha dead and makes Karikkan wonder '…what exactly made one eligible to stay alive' (p.67). The storyline is simple insofar as it follows the travails and trials of Margalitha who is cast out by family and church but ...


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