When the bells tolled at St. Peter’s Church, it could only mean one of three things: time for Mass, time for confession, or someone had died. On this particular day, no one had died–not yet, anyway. It must have been time for confession. Even as a child, I had already learned it was best to keep confessions short and sweet, blab, and you had a whole rosary of penance to do. So, I had my routine: “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned, I have told lies, disobeyed my parents and had impure thoughts.” My innocuous sins resulted in ten minutes of restitution, three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers.
Not bad for a week’s worth of sins!
“Bless you, my child, now go in peace.” With those words, Father Fernandez always ended our little session, and I left him blissfully happy, my conscience cleared of all my misdemeanours. The next stop on my weekly pilgrimage through the beautiful old Church was the statue of St. Peter. Peter stood alert and ready to hear my petitions. He was draped in robes of purple and green and was the proud owner of an ornate golden key. I remember thinking how important he must have been to own such a relic. Peter was not very Indian looking, neither was he Jewish looking; his pale skin and the slender nose was no doubt reflective of his colonial masters and makers. Like so much of the India I was born into, even St. Peter reminded me that dark-skinned, wide-nosed children like myself were not necessarily attractive.
Jesus and Mary also had prominent positions in the Church. I must admit, to a child, Jesus was a little scary with gaping wounds in his hands and feet. I never knew what to make of the open cut which oozed blood from his side, bright red paint, congealed to form droplets the size of small apples which leaked further onto his ever-stained loin cloth. The crown of thorns on his head produced, even more, blood; through the streams of blood, a face of agony was barely recognizable, suffering, and yet reaching out to those who were suffering.
I recognized this pain, for I was also suffering; sickness and poverty were the order of the day for me. Relentlessly, they followed me – my demons of despair and hopelessness. Could this Jesus empathize with me; could he take me away from this place to a land far away–to Australia, perhaps?
It was my first childhood dream, to leave India and go to Australia.
Every adult around me spoke of this fantastic place called Australia. Occasionally, those Anglo-Indians who had left our town of Royapuram returned briefly, to boast of their new-found fortunes. Houses, cars, beautiful clothes, and something we had so little of – money; it was all there for the taking. Each week, I conveyed my desires to this Jesus on the cross. Somehow, he seemed aloof and not conversant with me, high behind the wrought iron framework and locked gates, his home in the Holy of Holies, where only the priests dared go.
His prominence was nonetheless clear. Candles burned beside him day and night, the biggest you’re ever likely to see. Encased in gold filigree, they gradually dissipated, dribbling hot wax onto everything beneath them. The Altar below him sat wrapped in pure white linen and handmade embroidery, intricate and delicate, a fine art gotten from a bygone era. Vessels of gold and silver lay neatly on the altar. Sacramental chalices and goblets held what was supposed to be the most revered of emblems, the actual body, and blood of Jesus.
Everything was magical and mystical, filled with awe and beauty. St. Peter’s Church radiated spirituality, which was narrowly superseded by a stark reminder of Colonialism. The building itself stood as a living testament to when India, like most of the then-known world, lay hostage to the British Empire.
A leading intermediary and cohort to Jesus stood at his right side, soft and sensual — the warmth of a mother. Her arms reached out, longing to embrace and hold you in her bosom. Her son, like any man, could be stubborn, even imperious, but a soft whisper in his ears would no doubt coax him into changing his mind, hopefully in your favour. The relationship between Jesus and his mother Mary was complicated, influential, and a little beyond my childlike comprehension.
The bells tolled yet again, a reminder that my Saturday ritual was ready to begin. Today, however, I wasn’t going to make it to St. Peter’s with its atoning confessional, nor would I kneel at Peter’s grotto. I would have to carry the guilt of being a cheeky brat child a little longer.
I was rudely interrupted by the inconvenience of death…
Rather than take the direct route to the Church, which was opposite my house, I decided to go past the lolly shop and ogle egg sweets, which were my favourite treat. As their name implies, they were the size of an egg, with hard white exteriors that eventually gave way to a nice soft egg yolk flavoured centre. If you were lucky enough to be able to buy one of these, the blissful reward could last all day!
Despite their jumbo size, they sat comfortably in my little mouth, like they belonged there. Were mouths built for these wondrous sweets? To the outsider, they must have appeared horrendous, like a primordial mound on the cheek, through which some alien creature was ready to burst forth. After ogling my egg sweets, which I bluffed myself into thinking I had bought, I skipped along, rosary beads in hand, making my way across Main Road to St. Peter’s.
I weaved my way through bullock carts and black-framed bicycles. Bells on handlebars rang continuously, warning people, cows and dogs alike. As I skipped past the bus stop, I heard a noise. Curious and scared, I tiptoed toward the cracked, yellow-stained walls, reeking of male urine, and the occasional blind cobra (human shit, baking in the hot sun), easy to step-in but extremely unpleasant. Not that anyone complained–after all the flies, stray dogs and pigs had to eat, too. “Be careful where you put your feet, Cheryl.” Then a pile of swarthy rags and old torn blankets moved, and to my surprise, an old man lay under them, dying!
He reached over to me, his hand weak; he didn’t even have enough strength to lift his eyelids, and the smell of his rags was unbearable. The forces of death tugged at his soul, drawing him closer and closer to another realm. He fought, even though he had nothing to fight for–a final struggle before he gave into something beyond his control; even Hercules couldn’t hold him back. He struggled to breathe, something I associated with as a child. I knew what he was feeling.
I had developed asthma when I was very young and spent a lot of my childhood gasping for air. We were poor, and the family often had to borrow money to buy my medicine. In these desperate times, money lenders took advantage of the situation and charged us exorbitant interest rates. Despite this, the family didn’t hesitate to borrow, as soon as the money was available, one of the adults would rush off to Mount Road in a rickshaw to purchase my medicine. There was the odd occasion when this didn’t happen; for reasons I was too young to understand, there was just no money and therefore no medicine.
During these times, my mum made my bed away from the rest of the family, because my wheezing was just too noisy. A lack of medicine didn’t mean a lack of comfort, though; she gave me what she could afford: a clean white sheet. It was as stiff as a board, starched in yesterday’s rice water, and dried in the searing heat. She perched me up high on pillows to open my airways and then left. I lay there most of the night, concentrating on staying alive. When morning broke, we were all pleasantly surprised that I had survived yet again.
This time, though, it wasn’t about me. Like my mum had cared for me, I had to address the old man. If I could have called 000 or 911, I would have, but no one would have come; there were no ambulances in India as far as I was aware. However, the old man needed help. I gently lowered his hand and ran as fast as my little legs could carry me to St. Anne’s Convent.
My heart was racing. I wasn’t even sure whether anyone would take notice of a little girl banging on the big green gates, which enshrined a life of solitude. I called, “Sister, sister, please help us “in Tamil. A composed Reverend Mother opened the gates, and together, we moved the old man into the convent grounds, where he lay amongst friends.
The bells of St. Peter’s tolled yet again that day, for the last time, as the old man died.
Author: Cheryl Mason ©
St. Peter’s Church, Royapuram, Chennai