Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review: Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun by Sister Jesme

Convents, monasteries, dargahs, mathhs, are places separated from the world. The deceit and falsehood that is so abundant in the outside world, one thinks, will never be able to penetrate those hallowed walls. Unfortunately, it does not happen. Greed, lust, corruption, everything seeps in; the only thing is that there is a veil of secrecy round it. And it takes a brave person to rip-off that mask.



Sister Jesme attempts to do just that in her memoirs titled Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun. Belonging to the Congregation of Mother of Carmel, Sister Jesme spent thirty three years in a convent. Deeply interested in Literature and the Arts, she holds a doctorate in English Literature, which she taught for many years in a college in Kerala. She also served as the principal of a college before leaving the Congregation in 2008.



Her autobiography first published in her mother-tongue Malayalam caused a furore as she exposed many unsavoury details about life in a convent. And there are many things over there that Sister Jesme who had joined the congregation as a young, naive girl, finds shocking. There were class-distinctions between nuns whereby the less-educated sisters coming from less-privileged backgrounds and known as cheduthies have to do the menial jobs; something called 'special love' between sisters which might just be a bond of affection between the nuns but can also be a physical relationship; the favouratism shown to the priests vis-a-vis the nuns; corruption by way of donations for college seats to sisters secretly hoarding money even after taking the Vow of Poverty; and sexual exploitation.

Thus, Jesme finds herself at loggerheads with the powers-that-be when she protests against some of these practices. She also feels that is a conspiracy brewing against her to declare her insane and confine her to an asylum. Finding no other way, she escapes one day in disguise, and later leaves the Congregation. 


The book is disturbing in many ways, one of the main reasons being that we are just presented with the

 p-o-v of Sister Jesme. Not her fault because while writing her own life-history she can only show things how they appeared to her and it is to her credit that she doesn't try to hide her weaknesses but diverse viewpoints would have definitely enriched the text. There are certain points that I'd like to know more. What happened to the loving family of Jesme? The sisters and brothers - who joked that Jesme should seek a recommendation for them, whenever necessary, from their new brother-in-law - why did some of them turn against her and not provide her support when she most needed it? 

However, all through her travails Jesme's faith in Lord Jesus Christ shines through. Once she is asked to release the autobiography of a sex-worker. She is at first disturbed and asks for guidance from Christ and realises from a close reading of the Bible that Christ always helped those who had lost their way. Finally, she is unable to release her book because of an order from her superiors but it makes her aware that Christ's message of love and forgiveness has been lost in petty moralising.


In many ways a brave attempt, Jesme's book (in her own words) is an attempt to let the fresh breeze enter the closed walls and purify its stinking corners. May the Holy Spirit liberate the chained souls in the dungeon-like interior of the Holy Abode. Amen!


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First Line: The Mangala Express from Delhi to Ernakulam is speeding up.

Title: Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun

Author: Sister Jesme

Publication Details: ND: Penguin, 2009

First Published: 2009

Pages: 178

Other books read of the same author: None

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The book can be purchased on the Net, I borrowed it from DPL, opposite Old Delhi railway station. [921-JES]

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Submitted for various challenges.

4 comments:

  1. Neer, I hadn't heard of this book until now. Sister Jesme's life story sounds all too familiar.

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    1. Prashant, I came to know of the book when I read a review of it in a magazine a couple of years back. I was afraid that the government would ban the book. Thank God that did not happen.

      Sister Jesme's story is sad. I don't know why sacred spaces get spoiled.

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  2. Neeru - Thank you for this fine review. It is so unfortunate that such things happen, and I give Sister Jesme a lot of credit for having the courage to speak out.

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    1. Thanks Margot. Sister Jesme is indeed courageous. Having studied in a convent and having looked up at the sisters and fathers with awe and admiration, it was discomforting to read this account.

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