‘Penance’: A Tamil story in translation

Published : Jun 29, 2023 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

Translated from the Tamil by Malini Seshadri.

The generator on the bullock cart came to life. The next moment, the lights on Mother Mary’s procession carriage glowed radiantly. She seemed to be afloat on luminous waves—a heavenly sight to behold.

Next to the carriage, lined up against the wall, stood ten poles with tube lights tied on to them. Gone were the days when oil lamps and petromax lanterns were needed to light Our Lady’s path. Nowadays, tube lights had come into use for processions like these. After all, times change….How can one keep celebrating the festival in the same old way?

The Christians of the village who enjoyed caste privileges were standing around the carriage. The nine trustees of the Church, having verified that everything was ready for the procession to begin, went to garland the Parish Priest ceremoniously and formally invite him to start off the procession by invoking heavenly blessings.

The Parish Priest’s stentorian voice broke the silence as he proceeded to recite the customary prayers. He ended with the first part of “Our Father who art in Heaven…”, and then started blessing the chariot. Once the blessings were over, the Chief Trustee ordered, “Mm…come on, it’s getting late. Pick up the tube lights. We must get started.”

No one picked up the tube lights. They remained standing in a row against the wall.

“Where are those Dalit donkeys? Why are they making Our Lady wait? Why are they not here to carry the lights?”

The crowd started getting restless and became noisy. The tube lights stayed where they were. For fifteen whole minutes chaos and confusion, raised voices, and frayed tempers marked the scene. And then…

Cover of The Greatest Tamil Stories Ever Told

Cover of The Greatest Tamil Stories Ever Told | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Heaving and panting for breath, ten young men, all of them Dalit Christians, came running and picked up the tube lights to fulfil their duty to Mother Mary.

The Chief Trustee was gnashing his teeth and blubbering in rage. “Where did you disappear to for all this time, da?” He swung his hand back and delivered a stinging slap on the face of one of the young men. The crowd saw this as a signal. Many of them rushed up and started adding their share of righteous punishment in the form of punches and blows.

The ten young men stood unmoving, heads bowed, as the blows rained upon them. The chaos showed no signs of subsiding.

In a bid to salvage the situation, the Chief Trustee started speaking into the microphone. “My friends, something unprecedented has happened. For the first time, the procession of Our Lady was unable to start immediately after the blessing. Some people have insulted Her by delaying the procession and forcing Her to wait. For this, there must be a penance. We will decide the details tomorrow after a public hearing. But for now, let the procession begin.”

This announcement produced a degree of order. The procession started on its way. Its route would take it only through the streets where the caste Christians lived, and the lights alone would be carried by Dalits.

The Parish Priest, who had been watching all the developments from the sidelines, went back to his room once the procession had set off.

The next morning, a crowd of villagers gathered outside the church. The nine trustees had taken their seats. Facing them stood the ten young Dalit men, the designated tube light carriers, whose delayed arrival the previous evening had earned them the wrath of the trustees and blows from members of the crowd. They stood accused of insulting and disrespecting Mother Mary herself. With folded hands they awaited their fate.

The Chief Trustee addressed Muthu, the spokesman for the group of Dalit youths.

“Empa, Muthu, since you requested it, I personally went and asked the Parish Priest to come and attend this hearing. But he said, ‘I have nothing to do with the public hearing.’ He refused to come.”

The Dalit men were dismayed. They had been counting on the Parish Priest being present and ensuring that justice was done in a fair manner.

Unmoved by their reaction, the Chief Trustee continued with the proceedings.

“Muthu, do you agree that you fellows were in the wrong? Our Holy Mother, Our Lady of Lourdes…should she be made to wait? Wasn’t that a grave sin?”

“Ayya, I wanted to say this even yesterday when we were being beaten up for being late. I kept quiet only because I didn’t want to create problems. But we are telling you now. It’s true that we were late and that we should not have delayed the procession. But we came late only because…”

Before Muthu could finish, the Chief Trustee interrupted him. “Yesterday, you all went to do harvesting work in the fields, and so you came late.”

“That’s right. And the field we were working in belongs to none other than the Deputy Chief Trustee who is sitting there right next to you.”

“But why didn’t you finish the work quickly and get here in time?”

Muthu replied, “Ayya, we pleaded with him to let us go in time to carry the lights for the procession, but he refused to release us.”

The Deputy Chief Trustee was enraged. “Why should I let you fellows go early? Harvesting that field is a single day’s work. I said finish the day’s work before you go. What’s wrong with that? If you deliberately go slow and then want to leave the work half-done, how can I allow it? Lazy donkeys!” he raved.

Muthu addressed the Deputy Chief directly. “Ayya, don’t ever call us lazy,” he told him. Then, turning toward the others, he explained. “It’s true that it is possible to finish the harvesting work in that field in a single day. But it is usually done by a team of fifteen workers. If you hire only ten instead of fifteen and still expect them to finish the same amount of work, how is it possible? He hired five people fewer, pocketed those wages himself, and then expected us to somehow finish all the work in the given time. Is this fair? Do we not have the right to question this? We were not able to complete the work, and we explained that we needed to reach the church in time to carry the lights in the procession. He refused to let us leave. Whose fault is it then?”

The Chief Trustee was annoyed. He spoke harshly: “De, Muthu, why are you babbling all kinds of things? We’re not here to discuss wages. We’re here to decide on the proper penance for the insult to Our Lady who was made to wait. So don’t go on and on with your long stories…”

“Ayya, I am not just talking for the sake of talking. I am only speaking about justice. If fifteen of us had been hired for the harvesting work, why would we have been late? Not only that… realising that it was getting late and the procession would start soon, we went to Ayya and pleaded with him. ‘Ayya, Ayya, we have to go and carry the lights for Our Lady. Please let us go.’ We pleaded with him a second time. ‘We will finish the rest of the work for you tomorrow, and we won’t ask for wages. But right now it’s not right to make Our Lady wait.’ But Ayya told us, ‘I am the Deputy Chief Trustee. How can they start the procession unless I am there? There’s still moonlight. Finish the work and then go.’ That’s what he told us. And then he went away.”

“De, why are you repeating the same thing all over again? The point is, you fellows came late for your job of carrying the lights, you made Our Lady wait, you disrespected and insulted her. So didn’t you all do a wrong thing?”

“Ayya, please don’t keep saying that. It was never our intention to insult or disrespect Our Lady. Ayya, I’d like to say something… don’t get angry… if it is disrespectful to Our Lady to delay the procession, you could have prevented that from happening,” said Muthu. His face seemed to have taken on a new glow.

The Chief Trustee was taken aback. “What do you mean, da?”

“Yes, Ayya… there are two hundred of your people in the village. Many of them are young, strong men. If ten of them had come forward to carry the lights, the procession could have started with no delay and with no insult to Our Lady,” Muthu replied.

When Muthu’s words fell on the ears of the caste Christians, their faces reddened with anger, their lips twitched, and their eyes blazed. “Enda, you scum of a fellow. You think we are pariahs like you…?” A stinging slap landed on Muthu’s face. More angry blows followed.

Muthu rubbed his stinging cheek and looked at his tormentors. “Why… how is it insulting to you to do a service for Our Lady by carrying lights for her procession?”

He lowered his eyes and did not speak again.

Someone from the crowd called out, “Hey, Chief Trustee, hurry up and prescribe the penance. Let it be appropriate for the offence of disrespecting Our Lady.”

After a moment’s silence, the Chief Trustee raised his voice and spoke: “After this hearing, the truth has emerged. That is, knowing full well about the schedule of Our Lady’s procession, these fellows deliberately arrived late, and have therefore disrespected Our Lady. The penance for this is as follows. Today, in the heat of the midday sun, these fellows must carry a lighted candle on the palms of their hands and go around the church. They must keep moving till the candle burns down. And they must go around, not on their feet, but on their knees. Then, as the wax of the candle burns away, so will their sin of having insulted Our Lady.”

“Very appropriate penance,” said the Deputy Chief. “I have not yet paid these fellows their wages for the work they did in my fields yesterday. I will use that money to buy some large candles.” He set off quickly to do his bit for justice.

At midday, the prescribed penance commenced. The ten Dalit men assembled in front of the church. With bleeding knees scraping across the hot, rough stone floor, the sun blazing down on their unprotected heads, sweat pouring off their bodies, and the wax from the melting candles dripping and burning their hands, the ten paid penance to Our Lady.

Meanwhile, the Parish Priest was busy counting and tallying the hundi offerings from the previous night’s procession.

Selected by Mini Krishnan.

Reproduced courtesy of Aleph Book Company.

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta.

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