Jeet Thayil’s last novel, Low, was about a man grieving over his deceased wife. The invisible woman trailed him as he flew to Mumbai from Delhi carrying her ashes in an urn. His latest novel, Names of the Women, is about the women who have been made invisible in the New Testament. Women without whom the life of Jesus Christ would have been incomplete, and yet they find little voice in the holy text. Among these women the leading one is Mary Magdalene or Mary of Magdala, who was one of Jesus’s followers as well as a witness to his crucifixion. For many centuries she was portrayed as a prostitute and a ‘sinful woman’. It was only in the last decade that the Vatican called her ‘Apostles of the apostles’.
The first chapter of Thayil’s novel begins with Jesus on the cross, asking Mary to record his ordeal in detail: “Mary, write that they nailed the left wrist first…How can you love when your brother, your child, hangs above you, splintered across?”
The novel announces its intent right in the beginning. It will contest the prevailing perceptions about Jesus Christ and Christianity. In the next 23 chapters, various women—Herodias, Martha of Bethany, Shoshamma, Ariamma the Canaanite, Assia—narrate their stories in first person, interspersed with Christ’s own account on the cross. As Thayil goes about seeking and narrating the untold lives of these women, he offers a new retelling of the Bible.
The novel questions the missionaries who “built the Church on the witness of the women” but refused “to record their names”. It restores their rightful place in Christianity by asserting that “the risen Christ appeared first to Mary of Magdala and that it was the women who were the first leaders of the Church.” He lends these women a space that is perhaps largely fictional, but strongly contests the historical. These women know that in order to reach the “correct word”, it is important to “think with your body rather than your mind”.
As if this was not enough, the novel lends a face to Jesus that we had not encountered in the Bible or the annals of Christian theology. Each of the women describe him in a perspective we never knew. Their Jesus humbly acknowledges the contribution of various women like Mary, Susanna and Joanna to his life. “Because if not for them, my teaching would amount to nothing…without them I could not have continued.”
Perhaps the most subversive sequence is the one when Thayil upends the famous words of Jesus about forgiveness when he was nailed to the cross. Thayil’s Jesus tells Mary that “forgiveness is the recourse of the weak and we are not weak and we must not forgive”.
It reminds of Margaret Atwood’s novella The Penelopiad, a retelling of another canonised text of the West. The twelve maids Telemachus killed at the instructions of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey return to tell their tale in Atwood’s novella. The women charge him of “honor killing” and Odysseus, the protagonist of an iconic text, is made to face a trial.
Several works in the last few decades have seen women characters of previous texts returning to narrate their tales. But Thayil’s novel is as much about the women as it is about the man and his martyrdom. It begins with Jesus requesting Mary Magdalene to write about his death, and ends with him telling his mother Mary, “When they say to you that I died for your sins, do not believe them. My God does not require blood sacrifice.”
The novel deals with a theme whose narration could have easily gone overboard, but Thayil is political without being polemical, compassionate without being rhetorical. That he manages to subvert the holy text in serene and poignant prose is a remarkable artistic accomplishment.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer and journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, received the Atta Galatta Non-Fiction Book of the Year award
Names of the Women
Penguin Random House
Rs 699, Pp192