The Nestorian Cross

A colleague I had worked with sometime back dropped into see me this evening at my office. I was delighted to see Kalle. Usually, when projects finish, people forget you. When you no longer profit them in some way or the other, they no longer have time for you. Kalle dropped in at around one o’clock to say Hi – and probably to find out how I’m faring under the regime, whether I’m still red or blue – and our chat continued till five. I know him to be an old foot of the left, with whom I have plenty of ideological common ground.
I can’t quite say how Kalle ended up telling me about a parents’ meeting at his daughter’s school – it must be the first time we ever refered to something personal – but I found out that his daughter is a Sirimavian. His description of the meeting rang a bell. Aha! I told Kalle about how I ended up in Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya for the last two years of my schooling. Kalle immediately gasped that there’s no trace of a Sirimavian in me.

Indeed. I am not much of a Sirimavian. I just had to meet Kalle to realise that!

Should you care to read here’s the story. At least Kalle found it interesting… 🙂

I turned six in Nineteen Eighty Six, when bombs were popping-up around the corner every now and then like a carnival in town. Colombo was totally unsafe terrain. Our red brothers, probably Kalle could tell you more about them, were bleeding our streets with tyre-pyers. That was when my very young single mother had to decide all alone which school to send me to. She couldn’t think of sending me to a Colombo school, and so my mother saved me from a life-long complex, or perhaps replaced it with another one. Maybe she thought it is better to be at least Convent-educated if not Colombo-educated. And so I ended up in a small town convent school of 800 students, run by Roman Catholic nuns. Not to mention that my home town is home to hard-core Buddhists. I don’t know how my poor mother had the sense to make such a decision but I thank the Lord in Heaven that she did. She probably thought it was the practical thing to do, because she could just walk with me to school.
If anyone’s interested in a colourful account of my Sister Principal Mary Dhammika – bless her soul – read the story Silent Night, Whispering Night. She was a character. Our Catholic nuns were Victorian Virgins Par Excellence. But in that small town back in the Eighties they were less classist, and more inclusive in many ways than their counterparts in Colombo. For one, it was a convent full of Buddhists. And poor Anglicans were way down in the hierarchy than us. Of course, I never made it to Shakespeare competitions, because no one in my small school knew that such a thing existed, but still that convent gave me enough drama to get out of my shell.

Twelve solid years of that Roman Catholic education and I find that I have to do two more in Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya Colombo Seven. So there I am. No more Hallelujas. No more Hail Marys. I walk in from the gate and a gigantic, blindingly white Buddha greets me. In Sirimavo we call our teachers ‘Madam’. In our convent we just called them Teacher. So instead of Shanthi teacher and Doris teacher and Sister Celine, we had Ekanayaka Madam and Kulasooriya Madam. The madams wore Kandyan Sarees mostly. The Monday morning assemblies were long drawn sermons of how Sirimavo makes “Kula Kaanthawan” out of us poor souls. Literally, Ladies of High Caste, meaning Ladies of High Class in a more Sinhala Buddhist sense. Not that things were so much better in the convent school. There we were supposed to grow up to become Mothers or Nuns. I’ve grown up to become neither, but at least I appreciate having a choice.

I had quite forgotten about it, but in Sirimavo, I started wearing a cross. It was a small Nestorian Cross of silver tinted metal. We couldn’t wear chains or anything so I attached it to my wrist watch. For me it must have been a cross of nostalgia. But I recall how it drew attention. Many ‘madams’ noticed the cross, and asked me if I am Christian. I said I wasn’t but I was from a convent school. I remember the puzzeled look they gave me.

Looking back, I can see how clearly I had enjoyed that opportunity to slap that identity marker across their faces. I can’t fathom what they must have thought of me. I couldn’t care less. Even today.

I didn’t understand what I was going through back then but it must have been a culture-shock. The distance between the teachers and students, the quality of that relationship, the unbridgable difference between a nativity play and a pirith mandapa, left me bedazzled. Now please, Sirimavo is a great school. I mean no disrespect. It has taught me as much as the convent and perhaps more. But I realise it had been painfully Sinhala-Buddhist to me. Even more chronic than our Catholic convent. I remember one madam saying, ‘we don’t want to make good doctors, we want to make good mothers’. Sirimavo, named after the first woman prime minister of the world, that aspired to manufacture high-caste mothers. How ironically Sinhala Buddhist is that?

It was suffocating. It was insular. It was pedantic. Parochial. Paranoid. To be there in that environment devoid of music or culture. It kills creativity and gears you up for 4 A’s.

I never understood any of this then. Perhaps it is good that I didn’t. I just wore a Nestorian Cross for two years. Silently. Only answering when an explanation was called for. All I knew was that I found it difficult to fit in and I missed my old nunnery. I missed the carols and the nativity plays and the English Days. So I thought it was just nostalgia, that cute little Nestorian cross. It had nothing to do with faith. Or dissent.It was something I did unconsciously, almost.

But Kalle tells me it is, indeed, dissent. I don’t know if he’s right. I guess so. I have no recollection of wearing that Nestorian Cross after I left Sirimavo. I can’t ever remember giving it a second thought until today.

But I confess I love crosses. The three petal Nestorian beauty being my favourite. They discovered a most delicately chiselled Nestorian cross I posted above in Anuradhapura. From 5th century AD, if I remember my facts right. I love this cross as much as I love the Avukana Buddha.

I haven’t worn or owned a crucifix since I left Sirimavo. Perhaps I still carry one, invisibly, who knows. It certainly isn’t a cross of faith, though.

A cross is the most powerful symbol in the world.

To date, I stare, every time I see one.


Mother of Sorrows; Mother of Joy!

Christmas makes me sing a few hymns from my convent days. Among them, the hymn I love most is ‘Ma Mavuni’. It’s a Sinhala hymn, calling to Virgin Mary. I have no idea if it has an English version.

Ma mavuni athi premaniya

Me loke mage adhaara

Shoken ma nithi santoshaya

Yangyave mava sundara

(My most beloved Mother; you are my help, my refuge in this world; you save me from sorrow and lead me to joy; you are the Mother of prayer, most beautiful)

As I sing this, I recall the little statuette of the madonna, that all of us sang to as young girls. These expereinces have led to a story found among the pages in this blog as ‘silent night; whispering night’. I never realised the ‘mother cult’ we were so much a part of in the convent, simply becuase it was never really interpreted in a feminist light. I wonder if others who were a part of the same expereince, who sang along with me to Virgin Mary, our mother of sorrosw, our mother of joy, recall these moments the same way as I do…

There’s something about those sad eyes and the blue robe…and how many women from around the world must be praying to her in the same vein…Tarkovsky captured this on a celluloid poem in Nostalgia, in the scene ‘The Madonna of Childbirth”. In an old crumbling church in a remote  Italian village, a statue of  Mary is carried in by women, praying fervently; among them is the one who hosts the ritual, praying for a child…at the fever pitch of their prayer, the robes of the statue is flung open and a flock of tiny sparrows fly out to freedom from the virgin’s womb. 

I’m deeply moved by this scene. Is it becuase I am a woman? Is it because I was in a convent? Is it because I resonate with the yearning of a woman? When women want, they want so badly, so madly, so completely. They pray, they fight, they cry. As if wanting is the be all and end all of exisitence.

Do men want things to the same degree? Do they ever pray? In the same fervour I mean? Does a man ever want to be a father as much as a woman yearns to be a mother? And is it correct to say, that all women want to be mothers?  What about those who don’t want to be mothers; but yearn to be loved as women, as madly and as fervently, as those who pray to become mothers?

I read somewhere that to live, is to want.  

We pray for wanting; for the joy of wanting; for the sorrow of wanting;

So this is for the Mother of mothers…

Madonna of Childbirth from Nostalghia by Andrei Tarkovsky