Saturday, October 17, 2020

Saint Devasahayam Pillai


Devasahayam Pillai's statue in one church in Kerala

Book Review

Title: യേശുമുത്ത് [Jesus Pearl]

Author: Gopikrishnan Kottoor

Publisher: Authors Press, New Delhi, 2020

Pages: 330

Spirituality is one of the ways to the discovery of the meaning of life. Evil and death are the most potent factors that render life meaningless. A lot of people have grappled with the problem of evil in diverse ways. The answers given by religions seem to satisfy ordinary people. But there are some who seek deeper answers. Saints belong to that category as also many philosophers, writers, and artists. Saintliness has its roots in insanity as philosopher William James argued very convincingly in his book, Varieties of Religious Experience. Jesus and the Buddha were not normal men in the traditional sense. Most people who were canonised as saints by the Catholic Church and a lot of the ascetics who found bliss in the solitude of the Himalayas are not normal people.

Gopikrishnan Kottoor’s historical drama in Malayalam, Jesus Pearl, tells the story of Neelampulla [Neelakanta Pillai] who converted to Christianity and took the name of Devasahayam Pillai and was eventually martyred. Neelampulla was a prominent figure in the court of Marthanda Varma, an acclaimed king of Travancore [1729-1758]. A skilful warrior, Neelampulla helped Marthanda Varma win the Battle of Colachel and take prisoner the Dutch naval commander, Captain Eustachius De Lannoy.

Marthanda Varma decided to make use of De Lannoy’s soldierly skills instead of putting him to death. De Lannoy did serve the king with loyalty and dedication. Neelampulla came under his religious influence and embraced Christianity to the king’s chagrin.

The low caste people were allowed to change their religion. But conversion of upper caste people was seen as treason. Since the King was fond of Neelampulla, who was a man of many fine virtues, he gave the “traitor” many chances to repent and return to his original gods. When all the efforts failed, the King had no option but order death.

This book dramatizes the story of Neelampulla turned Devasahayam Pillai. The author does a remarkable job with making the drama cinematographic. The scenes change quickly like in a movie and the entire sequence grips the reader even as an exciting movie does.

The author succeeds in giving us deep insights into the character of Devasahayam Pillai who, incidentally, is likely to be canonised as a saint by the Catholic Church in the near future. Pillai was pained by the injustices committed in the name of the caste system. He could not accept the enslavement and maltreatment of the low caste people. The drama shows how the low caste people did not have any rights at all. They did not even have the worth of animals such as cows. Their children were just snatched away for human sacrifices to please the gods of the upper caste people.

In one scene, Ramayan the Prime Minister tells Neelampulla: “Children! Aren’t they just little devils born into the low race? They are children only in appearance. Wretched incarnations, that’s what they are. Filthy creatures. What use are they even if they continue to live?”

While the Brahmins receive free food and a lot of occasional gifts from the palace and elsewhere, the poor low caste people are taxed for everything. The irony is that the Brahmins did no job at all except recite some shlokas. The poor people did all the work and paid all the taxes. The women of these poor people had to bare their breasts for the ogling pleasure of the Brahmins. Such were the rules. Kottoor shoots a few arrows that pierce the very foundation of the Hindu caste system as it was practised in Kerala until the beginning of the 20th century.

Devasahayam Pillai is unable to bear those injustices and the concomitant cruelty and is driven by an insane longing for a different order of reality. The religion of love that Jesus taught naturally appeals to him. His heart goes out to meet the poor and the oppressed. He embraces the children of the downtrodden. He wants to bring the kingdom of God to them. They are not devil’s offspring as the Prime Minister claimed.

There is no wonder that Devasahayam Pillai is waiting to be canonised by the Catholic Church because he epitomises saintliness as visualised by the Church: suffering for and with Jesus. Pillai sees himself as a co-sufferer of Jesus in the drama. He is partaking in the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus through his suffering. The last part of the novel, nearly 100 pages, is a gruesome spectacle of the agony endured by Pillai who was chained and dragged from place to place and subjected to different kinds of torture.

The book hurls many questions at the reader. What is religion? Is it just a set of rules and rubrics that gives unlimited power to a small group of people who exploit the vast majority in ingenious ways? Or is it something that should touch your heart and move you to compassion for fellow beings? How valid are some of the rules and rituals of our religions?

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in you (God),” said one of the saints of the Catholic Church, Augustine of Hippo. Devasahayam Pillai emerges as one of those seekers whose heart could not have found rest anywhere else.

The book is particularly relevant in today’s India which is grappling with a renewed religious zeal. One limitation is that it is available only in Malayalam.

The author has done much research before writing this book. That has helped him to bring alive the history of the period and the place. But one drawback is that the book feels like a hagiography in some places. Also the sentimentalism that suffuses the last 100-odd pages detracts from the aesthetic merit of a book which is otherwise a superb work.


PS. I started writing this review in Malayalam but soon realised that it would take me an entire day to complete that. I hope this review reaches a lot of potential readers.

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