Thursday, May 05, 2005

she who "caught and sang the sun in flight"

Sister Basil Quinn died on April 28th, 2005 on the Church Park campus, in her bed, quietly and in peace.

She was an 88 year old Irish nun, who scorned all forms of transport except walking and the public transport bus service in Madras. In fact considering the constancy of human nature, if not human emotions, I’m pretty sure even if they did have a shuttle service at the pearly gates for senior citizens, she'd probably make a particularly rude Latin gesture in scornful benediction and then proceed to stride past a jaw-dropped St. Pete right up to His Throne- At which point she would then proceed to discuss the bad roads on the Way Up but at least there wasn't a water problem up here, yes? I should hope not!! Tea? Yes, I would love that, thank you so much...

That was Sr. basil's way, and so much more. How did I know her?

She lived in the convent that administered the management of the school I studied in. The school was everything all convent schools are in this part of the world- Green pinafores with bloomers [elasticated puffy shorts that would be used in every impromptu school Shakespearian production if the students weren't yet in the 11th grade. Once you were in the 11th, the faculty suddenly decided that you had a new found dignity that didn’t allow for bloomers on the outside over stretch tights while lisping "now is the winter of our discontent"], which turned to salwar-kameez in the- yes you guessed it- 11th grade. There were the voice raining classes, where we'd shriek along in F minor to Tom Dooley. There were the art classes where we were taught everything from painting to embroidery: I escaped from the embroidery coz my grandmum used to be art teacher there- ha! I'd claim a piece of art paper and would then proceed to demonstrate in water color what Dali would've done if he squished a cheese burger at a Macdonalds only to find a black beetle scurry away gasping carrying a very tiny pomegranate on its back. Swear to god. Still have the painting to prove it. [Proof of love, btw- mum keeps everything I scribble or dribble paint on, even things like this].

In this school, we had the usual mix of twisted morals emotions and sexuality that only exists when you have a bunch of women living together most of whom have been there studying for 14 years of their existence, and most of whom have never interacted with the male specie other than the occasional cousin or hopeful neighbor. Nothing particularly decadent at all- THAT came with college.

[A blue tail flickers out my door, gurgling as I fling my hairbrush after it. There should be a ban on rude blue goblins. At least red goblins are "meant" to be rude. Geez.]

We had great teachers. And not just in English- One thing I will say for my old school: no other convent school had teachers like ours. May their tribe increase, at least the few I’m referring to. They called a spade a spade and weren't above dragging you out by your flagging conscience and standing there calmly-metaphorically- till you shoveled your own shit. I respect them for that. Any respect I have for authority comes only because of them.

Anyway. Life would've gone Jane Austenly in that school if it hadn't been for a few things- One of them was Sister Basil.

She and I met in my grandmother’s art room- 80 something and beginning to get extremely forgetful, she nonetheless had an Irish lilt and blue eyes and laugh that had my attention glued- to what she was saying, to the energy I could sense, to her humor and the fact that she like me thought all hierarchy sucked- its funny, even when she's spoken of God which has been once or twice, I never heard any snivelling remarks about masters and sheep.

You couldn’t help liking this lady, really. She never let the fact she was a nun act as a buffer between the world and her mind. She walked everywhere, alone. She spoke with everyone, had an opinion on everything, and stayed in madras because she preferred the weather here. Ireland, she said, was too cold.

I loved her. Still do. With her the little things and the big things were the same; you could never have trivial conversation with her- your real opinion, who you are, or nothing thank you very much. AND you can KEEP your tea! That’s how she was.

I remember bunking a two-hour math period in the 9th and going looking for her in the convent. An India-Pakistan match was on, and she called me inside the convent to watch it on tv with her. So aye, I couldn't be caught for bunking coz I was on holy ground-

[Apologies, Mrs. Grace if you ever read this. I did the math, and this too added up. Thanks for the algebra]

So I didn't tell her I didn't like the game, let alone understand it. I didn’t have to. The tv was on, goodday biscuits munched, but Sr Basil and I talked about walking in grace- the thing that Virgina Woolf called 'moments of being'. I told her .. what did I tell her?.. All those things that we who feel too much and are taught that it isn’t decent to talk about in public: the writing, the things in my head, words like god and honour, things that were mumbled and rushed over and throat-gulped out, but which she listened to, and nodded, and told me her own stuff- about Ireland, and walks, and people and herself, and faith.

In the car park one afternoon, she and I met and spoke of car prices, and she told me she was getting older. I told her I wanted to take over the UNO and restructure it. She and I laughed and planned under the sun.

When my theatre group went around to a group of city schools taking a poetry-in-performance rehearsed reading with them, I felt a strange kick in the gut when I heard we'd be performing in my old school. It was a good program we did, in association with the British Council, where we took poems from the kids' syllabus and performed them- Stuff like 'the rime of the ancient mariner' and 'the frog and the nightingale'. That afternoon, in front of kids, a few of who had been my juniors- I got up and did Diop's Africa. And Sr. Basil was there.

I had met her in the convent an hour before the show, with two of my very dear friends from college. I stood still when she came bustling out and I said, "Do you remember me?"- I had heard that she had begun to forget faces and places. She slapped my shoulder in a way that I can only describe as smartly, and then said-"of course I do, Priyanka. So what are you doing now?"

She sat with us for a bit, telling us about all the surgery people her age were getting in Ireland, where she had just come back from after visiting her family. She told Vaish, Darsh and me that when she was young, plates were things you ate off, which were found on tables at mealtimes: Not in hips and shoulders and such. Plates, indeed.

She's not too keen on medical aid, Sr. Basil.

I met her last on dec 1st, at the end of a world aids day march. It was six in the evening on marina beach, with kids in red t-shirts leaving in ones and twos and threes. I saw her suddenly, sitting right there on the pavement ridge. Tired, but still alive. She had come to the beach that day and saw our procession and came to watch. I told her of all my grown-up plans and fears and sureties. She smiled wryly, and reminded me to not forget. That’s the best part, you didn’t have to explain anything; she saw it on your face. To not forget. The sentence ended there, made sense anyway.

She had a cataract issue for a couple of years. It came back after she tried having it nicked. They found out 5 months ago it was because of a tumor in her pituitary gland. She lost sight in both her eyes then- she only said it was hard, all this darkness, when she was used to seeing so much.

An auto was driving me past school on the night of the 28th. A board outside gave me a time and place for her funeral. Till then I had never known that her last name was Quinn. I went the next day to see what was left of her, just after my visa was approved at the USIS building next door.

[A bit tragic-mystic-funny, all this passing and passaging and trips across borders]

She looked whiter than she ever did in life. Cotton stuffed everywhere, and her thumbs tied together across her chest with little bits of cotton bandaging. She didn’t look like her, at all. Sr. Basil is the first human I've known and personally interacted with whom I've seen dead. I’m not too good with portly relatives doused in jasmine and agarbati- these I do not know and do not want to know. But Basil was a different matter.

I had known she was ailing for 3 months. I had wanted to go see her. I had wanted to go tell her of my bruises and thoughts and screw ups and plans and ask her what do I do now sister, do you think I can still walk and fly the way I used to, the way you used to know I could?


That word didn’t leave me all day. It had begun the previous evening, when I had seen that chalkboard with her last name and a date underneath it. It continued when I saw the teaser campaign of Peter England shirts, where some poor sot had evidently toiled over it, but people were speeding by the damn thing, trafficking, radio mirching, spitting, cursing, driving but not seeing the damn ad at all. It was still on the next morning when I saw the way cashier clerks- Indian cashier clerks-worked inside the US embassy. It made me lean against walls and want to laugh when I saw how scared the visa applicants were, how afraid to talk, how they had all taken trouble to dress up. I laughed into the jeans I was in that a sniffer dog ten feet away yelped at and then ran away whining from. I then went to see her in a long glass box, with way too many suffocating flowers everywhere.

Nuns were mumbling litanies. Shoes off outside... I walked outside after talking one look at her. She wasn’t there at all.

That’s the thing with Basil. She, who flagged down buses. She, who refused to be dropped back by car after concerts or plays. She, who laughed and trotted and borrowed 10 bucks and made benedictions only when she knew you needed something more than a hug. She cannot die.

I was standing in the loft at the chapel, staring at a cloth-covered cross, a prosperous lizard, and a lot of ruby-shined cobwebs, lit up by the sun filtering through the stained glass. Futility? Not so. Owen wrote that poem for young men who died in a war that wasn’t their own. The peter england ad was still rubbish. The US embassy was still a morbid joke. But Basil's life was not futile. She lived the way I can only dream of- free of the emotional bull of a non-nun life that ties one up in knots, she walked free and energetic, drinking tender coconut water and learning Tamil.

I only wish it hadn’t been blindness at the end. I would’ve liked her to have seen one last sun.

For this scholarship, I had to write 7 "essays"- which in yank terms, meant 7 paragraphs of 120-200 words. I laughed. And in September, on the last day of submission, at 3:25pm when the deadline was 4:00pm, I typed out those essays in Anjana's house. Mum pacing up and down the room behind me.

The most unforgettable person you have met, someone who ahs inspired you, and in what way?

Sr. Basil.

I wrote an essay as part of the application for a scholarship offered by the US dept of state and the Fulbright commission telling them about a little old Irish nun and car prices and faith and bunking math class.

I wish I had spoken to her before she went. Even if it was only her saying my name. Sure, the pope too had wit and god's grace. But Basil braved PTC buses. No pope could beat her. She was cool, she was Irish, and she was a woman.


*tiny grin*

Walk on, sister Basil. I will not forget.


Gul said...


Abhi said...

this is a lovely little tribute to her .she must be smiling.

JJ said...

sweetheart.that was excellent and very touching.We too had an inspiring morning with the Irish Spirit at the convent.keep up the good

Anonymous said...