Niharika’s Bookshelf: “AMEN: The Autobiography of a Nun”


Penguin Books India 2009

The discretion to be made either while reading or writing about the autobiography of marginalised women is almost negligible. Most of these, coming from a relative or an absolute subaltern, are a revolt against society, institutions, systems and most of all people, who choose to carry the legacy of unjust social prejudices and meaningless subjugation, violence and oppression. After all, politics, religion, caste, class and social thought work together; they collaboratively or individually influence the other.

These autobiographies, thus, need to be judged at two levels, perhaps three: as a cathartic process for the sufferer, as a rebellion on the systems or institutions that victimise them and at the larger level: a desperate call for a renaissance.  Sister Jesme’s autobiography is an interesting read from many dimensions, given the chastity, sacredness and numerous other moralistic ideals we associate with religious life. That is the standard that unfortunately, we are conditioned to believe- renunciation is the sole path to salvation. To brand this book from an extremely commercial sense- it is scandalous, yet the honesty with which life inside the four walls that preach sanctity has been depicted, cannot be treated lightly. What we now complain as factors that are detrimental to the nation’s development and progress are strife and rampant at the less publicised religious level. Corruption, power games, homosexual relationships between nuns, class distinctions, sexual abuse by nuns and priests, mental torture – these are what Sr Jesme describes as frequent and natural happenings at the convent. At each crucial juncture of entering religious life, right from the Pre-Novitiate, Jesme has severe hurdles to overcome- those raised by her colleagues, counterparts and fellow sisters. She rises above them, despite many bruises and wounds, with faith intact. That seems to be one of the more positive aspects of this account. Irrespective of those who claim themselves to be the messengers of God and misuse that power, faith in that higher power will remain unblemished.

As far as a story line is concerned there is nothing much to look into. It is a series of incidents that exemplify the hypocrisy and the double standards of the church. The book simply achieves what it is meant to. What makes this one an important landmark is the strength to come beyond repressed silence and bare open to the world- the condescending truth. It completely demolishes our naïve idea of religious institutions and the life that comes with it. However, it does nothing to shake our belief in higher power; in fact, it reiterates the existence of one. Sister Jesme’s vision stands clear-‘I would like to give you as much freedom as you want, provided you are also that responsible. “Freedom with Responsibility” – that is my policy. I am going to open wide the portals of this college. Men and women may interact in the auditorium and the campus. You live in a society comprising both. Learn from now on how to treat the opposite sex. A lack of responsibility will lead to this freedom being curtailed. That is, please don’t misuse the freedom given to you.’

If only such an ideology that combines liberty with responsibility is nourished with an unconventional outlook, surely our notions will have a more prudent change.