Jeet Thayil is one of the most exciting Indian authors writing in English today. As a 61-year-old, agewise, his peers include our finest, like Amitav Ghosh (64), Vikram Seth (68) and Arundhati Roy (59). But their best novels speckled the 1990s. Thayil spent much of the ’90s as a struggling poet struggling with his own demons. It would be 20 years before he found his home in the novel. And what a lavish home it is. His debut novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. It took him five years to bring out his magnum opus The Book of Chocolate Saints. 2020 saw the release of Low, which was as bleak as it was trippy. At a time when the smartest fiction, written in English, emerging from India, is from young debut authors (most often women), Thayil is proving that he is no one-book wonder. With a Bombay trilogy behind him, he still has numerous stories to tell.
Names of the Women (Jonathan Cape; 192 pages; Rs 699) doesn’t seethe with the autobiographical intensity of Low, nor the pioneering sweep of The Book of Chocolate Saints. But this novel establishes that Thayil the author is not a victim of his own trope. He hasn’t ensconced himself into the ease (and tedium) of a single genre. Instead he is feisty enough to try something new. Names of the Women is quite simply a novel about the women whose roles were suppressed or reduced in or erased from the Gospels. It is not a perfect novel, it is not Thayil’s best novel, it is a choppy read, and it risks bewildering today’s laity. This book has none of the suspense of Low where the reader flips page after page wondering what slings and arrows Dominic Ullis will face over one weekend, as he mourns the death of his beloved wife. But with Names of the Women, Thayil affirms that he is plucky enough to divert from a genre that has brought him success, and confident enough to take on the foundational text of Western civilisation.
Names of the Women rides on a good idea. It is a text where the reader feels that the author is righting a historical wrong, while also joshing around. It is a portentous subject, one that can easily rile sentiments, but Thayil enlivens it with some levity. He admits having enjoyed the writing of the novel, “I felt liberated after Low because the Bombay trilogy was over, that subject matter was done, and I could move on. It was freeing to attempt something that had nothing in common with work from the past, a clean break. A cleansing. What I enjoyed most was how fast it happened. I am thinking of The Book of Chocolate Saints, which took six years, and I’m thinking with gratitude of this, which took less than one.”
While reading the book, I chance upon a cartoon by artist, David Hayward, who provides humorous perspectives on religion and spirituality as @nakedpastor on Instagram and Twitter. The cartoon shows a group of 20-odd patriarchs (who look like apostles) standing in a corner, they speak to three women standing at the edge of the frame. ‘So Ladies, thanks for being the first to witness and report the resurrection and we’ll take it from here,’ reads the caption. In many ways, this single cartoon captures the essence of Names of the Women, where ‘Old Mary’ wants to make clear that ‘the men were not with him at the end, not one of them. They did not see him laid in the cave and it was not they who returned to find him gone. It was the women, only the women.’ Later when the men tell the story of ‘the risen body, they will paint themselves as brave men who went to the tomb to see for themselves. They will leave out the story of the woman who was the first to enter the tomb. But they will not be able to erase completely the name of the woman.’
THE NAME OF the woman who inspired Thayil’s novel is Chachiamma Jacob, his paternal grandmother who lived in Thumpamon, an hour and a half away from the city of Kottayam in Kerala. The reader learns about her in the ‘About the Author’ section. She was the last member in Thayil’s family who could recite from memory the hour-long Syrian Christian service in Aramaic, Malayalam and Sanskrit.
Speaking from Bengaluru, where he has written his last two novels, at his parent’s home, Thayil, a Syrian Christian from Kerala, who went to a series of Jesuit schools (where he wasn’t a particularly good student) speaks about his early encounters with Christianity. He still looks back with respect at the Jesuit priests who taught him, for their “intellectual approach to education and openness to life, and a lack of judgement”. While his parents did not make church attendance mandatory, in Kerala, at his grandmother’s home, he remembers the “harrowing” time as a child sitting on a mat and listening to a service for over 90 minutes. If the family could not go to church, or if there was a special occasion, his grandmother would stand and recite the service at home, with everyone chipping in when memory allowed them. But only his grandmother would not falter through the recitation as she knew the verses by heart. He says, “Always, male priests conducted the long service: it was their way of keeping control over the parishioners. My grandmother’s recital was a way of taking back that power.”
I felt liberated after low because the Bombay trilogy was over, that subject matter was done, and I could move on. It was freeing to attempt the names of the women that had nothing in common with work from the past, says Jeet Thayil
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Names of the Women hands the power back to women by identifying them and establishing their presence during the crucifixion and after. Thayil gives us new ways of seeing Jesus’s followers by putting flesh on them. History will tell us that Peter went to the cave and found no body except the linen that wrapped Jesus. For 2,000 years, different versions will sidestep the story that when Jesus was nailed on the cross and parched for water, a woman held up a moist sponge to his lips, that a woman brought him a gift to sweeten his last hours, and that a woman anointed him for burial.
Each chapter narrates the story of a woman who is named at the end of it. While all the chapters on the women use the third person, Jesus speaks in his own voice from the cross, with the crucifixion serving as the central event from which other stories spill out. We meet expected characters, such as Jesus’ mother Mary; the other Mary—Mary of Magdala; Salome, daughter of Herodias; and then the surprising characters such as Assia and Lydia, Jesus’ sisters. The sisters are especially interesting as they are named only once in the Gospels and here Thayil creates a rich backstory for Assia who can’t but help express resentment for a brother who abandons family for the sake of ‘more fame and followers’ and who, by proclaiming that all men and women are his brothers and sisters, leaves his own blood with nothing.
An iconic character who Thayil reframes is Mary of Magdala. He writes, ‘Hundreds of years later, men who have never met her will call her a fallen woman. A prostitute who renounced evil. She will be called a sinner, when her only sin is that she is from a prosperous home and she is sad.’ In our conversation he adds, “Everything I read about her just left me enraged. Because every artist, every filmmaker (Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ for example), every painter who has ever used her as subject matter has just assumed that the calumny is true.” These representations assume she is a ‘fallen woman’, when the Gospels make no mention of this.
Thayil himself grew up in a religious household, but he adds, his parents “are not fanatical about the outward aspects of religiosity and never insisted on him and his sister going to church”. There was a point, where they read the Bible every evening at home, and that was because his father thought he’d become “wayward”. “He was right of course,” adds Thayil. The Bible on its own might not have set him on the straight and narrow path. But the close reading of it (since the age of 13) gave Thayil “an appreciation of the Bible as a literary text”. Spurning the term ‘atheist’, he adds, “I think my faith is strongest at times of trouble, which is unfortunate but that is the way it is.”
The Bible has appeared in his poetry and prose over the years. He says, “I’ve always known I’d work on a fiction connected to the Bible, because it has been such a central thread to my life. Names of the Women came together when my father said, recently, that my grandmother was the first writer in the family. It struck me that the men in my family are strong, silent types, or weak, silent types, whereas the women have been the talkers, the storytellers. It struck me that this is what the book would be about: the women of the Bible. And once I had that, the rest happened very quickly.”
My grandmother could recite the service by heart. Always, male priests conducted the long service: it was their way of keeping control over the parishioners. My grandmother’s recital was a way of taking back that power, says Jeet Thayil
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THE NOVEL MIGHT be set in the Biblical age, but it is well suited for our post-Weinstein era. It captures the feminist spirit of today, where women refuse to be suppressed, reduced or erased, where women insist that their roles and their experiences be rendered visible. Bible stories have always been essential to art history. Reading Names of the Women and its scenes dipped in carmine violence, such as the beheading of Saint John the Baptist, paintings by Caravaggio materialise in my head. Given Thayil’s deep engagement with artists and art works in his previous writings (The Book of Chocolate Saints is after all about ‘India’s greatest living painter’), I ask Thayil if particular paintings have inked this book. He immediately replies, “Artemisia Gentileschi.” Her iconic oil on canvas Judith Beheading Holofernes (c 1612), shows a muscular heroine, with sleeves rolled up, slicing the head of an Assyrian general. Blood drips down the white sheets, as another woman holds down his body, like a butcher perched over a slaughter.
In 2018, this artwork was widely shared online as commentary, of women enacting their own revenge, of women writing their own narrative. Gentileschi was a pioneering woman artist in 17th century Rome, perhaps the first woman to ever be celebrated as an artist. She received some recognition during her lifetime, but given history’s wont, her reputation and work received scant critical attention, until recently. Today, critics are finally recognising her for an artist who survived rape and who ‘harnessed motherhood, passion and ambition’ (The New Yorker, September 2020). Thayil adds, “It took so much time before she got the kind of due that so many male artists of her time did. She is one of the great classical painters. There’s no question about it. She’s on a par with any of them, including Caravaggio. And it’s just incredible that it took so long for her to finally be given that kind of place. It’s only now that it’s happening.” Like the women in the Gospels who have been erased, Gentileschi too would have disappeared, if not for art critics and historians in the second half of the 20th century, who raised her into the canon.
I ask Thayil, why are we ‘terrified of women’ and what these deliberate erasures tell us about society at large. He replies, “The early leaders of the Church and the current leaders of this country are so terrified of women that they try to silence or destroy them. Maybe they know that if women were to assume power, first of all, they’d do a far better job, and secondly, they might be much more ruthless in terms of protecting the good and crushing the corrupt. And then where would they be?”