Monday, March 22, 2010

Nun the less...

With all this news about nuns backing the health care reform, over the objections of their superiors in the church (men, of course), it brought back memories of the women of steel who taught me and other generations of infidels, toiling away in relative obscurity.

I went to a convent school, at the time the only option for a decent 'English medium' education in India. The nuns were all of the Carmelite order, and we called them all Sister so-and-so, whether they were fully-professed or still novices. There was a Mother-superior and a couple of ancient fragile Mothers, who were ceremoniously brought out on their feast days, to wave weakly at the rows of girls in uniform lined up under the blazing sun at mid-day, no shadows cast by the trees lining the ground.

Sister B was the headmistress of the school I went to. To hear my mother tell it, she took me to be interviewed by Sister B, who was instantly charmed by the outlandish American accent with which I spoke and instantly promised admission.  She would stop by every now and then to check on my progress in class in the early years, but I never really got to know her as well as when I reached the last two years in school.
Sister B would stop occasionally by at my piano practice, a daily ritual that I completed after school without fail, and inquire about the latest books that I was reading. I once pointed her in the direction of Rumer Godden's "In This House of Brede", saying she might like it, since it was about Benedictine nuns. She went ahead and ordered the whole set of Godden's nun series, including "Black Narcissus" about a nun who runs away from her Carmelite nunnery with the gardener or such. I think she stopped asking for book recommendations after that.

Sister Y was the replacement as headmistress when Sister B was called back to the main convent headquarters. Her tortoiseshell glasses gave her a more forbidding aspect than the bland moon-shaped ones of Sister B. I remember clashing with her early on.
"Sujatha,", she said, as I argued about missed points in a Mathematics test for an answer given correctly, despite small errors in the work-sheet. " I cannot give you full marks for that answer."
"But Mary did the same thing with her answer, and you have given her full marks!"
"Let me explain something to you. If there are two pupils and I expect more of one because she is of privileged background, I may not award her the points without the proper work-steps, while I may award the points as an encouragement to some other student who could do with it."
" isn't fair. In Maths, if you give the correct answer, you should get the marks!"
My argument went unheeded. It was my first exposure to the concept of 'differential marking', even for subjects like Maths, where a wrong answer is wrong and a right answer is right.

Sister F was rumored to be of a fisherman family, and had gained her family immense prestige when she was accepted into the convent. But she had a bee in her bonnet, and would berate all students at every possible opportunity. "Scrape off the nail polish!", "Remove the bindi"...This last was met by my 'puzzled' query "I thought we learned in Civics that we have freedom of religion in India'. That earned me a sharp admonishment. I went home to my mother, who suggested that I ask her for a written note stating that 'No bindis were allowed'.
That was the last I heard of it. No further comments when I sported a bindi to school. But no compliments on my school work either.

I put the behavior down to incipient fanaticism about religion, and was puzzled when she casually quoted stories from the Mahabharata when discussing a lesson. Why, she knew of the Mahabharata well enough to use it as a lesson pointer! Who would have thought?

Sister H was the beloved of all the students. A novice, she was freckled faintly, with tiny red curls peeping out surreptitiously from under her nun's cap. The rumors flew thick and fast. She had been headed for a stellar career as an air-hostess, when she heeded the call of the Lord and joined the convent. We wondered at her dedication, and the more religious among the class practically anointed her their patron saint, wishing that they could follow in her footsteps when they grew up.
Some years later, talking to another student who had been in her class, I was shocked but not quite surprised to hear that she had left the convent before taking final vows. The religious life had not been as much to her liking. I hope she is happy somewhere with  a family of her own.


Anonymous said...

Did you watch the "sister act" in city theater? You would have enjoyed that.

Sujatha said...

No, Munimma, haven't had the chance to see it. Though I did see an ad for the "Nunsense" musical while crawling towards the Fort Pitt, this morning. What a coincidence!

Munimma said...

We caught one of the late night catechism ones, and enjoyed it. Partly felt like we were back in school :-) But it was a lot of fun. I did see a review of the nunsense, and the ads around the city, sounds interesting, but there is only so much of religion that I can take ;-)

Narayan said...

On the subject of nuns in India, the Powell & Pressburger film of "Black Narcissus" is a cult classic if not quite suitable for nuns. Another Godden novel set in India, "The River", filmed by Jean Renoir (the painter's son) has the same reputation. The DVD of the latter also has a fascinating short film about the author.

Sujatha said...

Will definitely put the film on my Netflix queue. I've read the book a long time ago and was scrupulous about not mentioning it to Sr. B. But she went ahead and ordered it anyway. I wonder whether she was horrified by the theme, or enjoyed the writing anyway. She didn't seem that dogmatic, in retrospect, and may not have been the fuddy-duddy that I thought her to be.

Ah, the catechism! We managed to escape those classes, since they were reserved for the Catholics only. Interestingly, the nuns were a lot less 'exclusionary' in some respects than the Marthomite school I attended during the +2 years- they were rigorous in excluding all non-Christians from their church-service related activities, the nuns, less so. We were prayed and rosaried over, especially at board exam times, and made much of, and the proselytizing attempts were more nominal than serious.