Sister Philomena's Veil

ALR Volume 26: Winter 2014


‘I will catch you today, Sister Philomena,’ I called to the youthful nun running away from me. ‘I will catch you.’

Sister Philomena disappeared into the courtyard that fronted the boarding house. We’d barely finished choosing the teams and tossing the coin that made my team the catchers and hers the vanishers, and she’d raced off already. The girls in her team streamed out behind her, yelling, ‘Find me if you can! Catch me if you can!’ leaving me in the arched corridor with my team. ‘You go for the others,’ I said to the eight girls who surrounded me, heads bent forward for my instructions. ‘I’m going to catch Sister Philomena.’

‘But you can’t,’ they said. ‘She’s the fastest. No one can catch Sister Philomena.’

There were many things we girls said about Sister Philomena. We spoke with the conviction of very young children. I was seven. The girls in my team that day were aged six to eight. ‘Sister Philomena is the youngest’ is what we said. That was probably true. We could only see her face and her hands – everything else, including most of her forehead, was covered by her white habit – and her face was clearly young compared to the other sisters at St Joseph’s convent. Her nature was childlike too. She was the only one who deigned to play with us before the bell rang for dinner. Our favourite game and hers, too, was “Catch”. We all wanted to be in her team because her team never lost. She could outrun us all.

‘Sister Philomena is the nicest.’ She didn’t mock us or get cross. She was sweet to everyone. ‘Sister Philomena is the darkest.’ Well, that was true too. In a convent of mostly European nuns she was one of the few Indian novices.

All the girls who boarded at this convent in the Nilgiri hills were Indian. It was the early 1970s and colonial expatriate families were almost extinct. Many of the girls sent to St Joseph’s were from Catholic families while a minority belonged to other religions. In the classrooms, contained in a separate building in the grounds, the boarders mingled with children from local families and with teachers of other religions who originated from other parts of the country. But in the boarding house we were looked after exclusively by the nuns. ‘Sister Philomena is funny.’ That’s because we had never seen any of the other nuns running.

That evening I found myself captaining the opposing team to hers. The last time we’d played “Catch” with her, a few days before, I’d felt myself come up close to her as I chased her and I almost touched her. I’d felt my legs pumping along at the same pace as hers; I’d almost had her arm in my grasp before she bent and darted away, the hem of her long white dress flying out at odd angles as she ran against the fabric.

I stepped out into the yard. The girls in her team had dispersed into clusters all around the convent and were out of view. But in plain, taunting sight, albeit at a distance, Sister Philomena was standing still on the lawn at the side of the boarding house. The sun was low in the sky on the other side of the building and its long shadows made the grass grey. I started walking towards the lawn. I would sprint when I was close to her and it would be too late for her to return in a straight line to the yard.

‘Sister Philomena is my favourite nun in the world.’ I had announced this the previous week to Sister Heather, with whom I’d begun to take piano lessons. Sister Heather was from England. She was gentle. The expression she wore was that of someone who was about to smile at a secret. You felt you could confide in her, you could tell her anything and she wouldn’t get prim-lipped like Mother Francesca and she wouldn’t glare like Sister Jeanne.

When Sister Heather played the piano I looked at her hands. Sister Heather’s face and hands had exactly the same texture: fine papery skin with a light crisscrossing of wrinkles. She’d been singing ‘Here we go, up a row…’ and at my remark about Sister Philomena she’d lifted her slim fingers from the keys and she’d laughed. She always laughed properly, not a stifled grunt. ‘You haven’t seen the world,’ she said to me, a curious waver in her voice. ‘You haven’t even been outside the southern states, have you?’

‘I have. I was born in Delhi, up north. And my family now lives in Kerala. I’ve been to many places.’

‘You haven’t been outside India.’ Sister Heather hummed something to herself. ‘India is not the world, although it could be.’ She smiled broadly but as at a private joke. ‘Remember to say: “Sister Philomena is my favourite nun at St. Joseph’s.” That’s enough. Don’t bring in the world, child. And remember not to . . . ’ but then she shook her head and didn’t give me any instruction. She made a smoothing movement on her legs to remind me to draw the folds of my skirt down to my knees. She began singing again: ‘Here we go, up a row, to a birthday party,’ and she indicated that I should play the piece.

I hadn’t told Sister Heather why Sister Philomena was my favourite nun. It was not because she could run so fast or that she was young and played with us. It was not because she had a bubbly personality. It was because she was kind, and especially so to me.

Two weeks earlier one of the boarders, a girl in my class, had celebrated her eighth birthday. Mother Francesca had swept into the dining room in her portly way and presented the girl with a minuscule gold crucifix hanging on a thread-like gold chain. Mother Francesca had delivered some incantation in her native Italian, then reminded us in English of Jesus and our blessings, mumbled about the founding Sister, and finally clasped the chain ceremoniously around the girl’s neck as the rest of us gathered around exclaiming at its delicate beauty.

‘You will all receive this on your birthday,’ explained Mother Francesca. ‘I’m next!’ I was excited. ‘My birthday’s next month.’

But even as I spoke a frown crossed Mother Francesca’s brow. ‘Oh, child,’ she said, ‘that’s right, your birthday’s next month, but I won’t be giving you a golden cross.’

‘Has she been naughty?’ someone piped up.

‘No . . . or not too naughty.’ Mother Francesca spoke slowly, ‘But she’s not a Christian. Only the Christian girls will receive this gift from the convent.’

I was crestfallen, but not silent. I had not learnt to heed the nuns’ admonishments: ‘You chatter too much; you don’t think before you speak; you must not jump in when others are speaking; you speak too rapidly, you’re not an express train . . .’

It would be perhaps fifteen years before I learnt to keep shut.

I launched into an argument with an uncomfortable Mother Francesca.

‘At the special service at the chapel last week,’ I said, ‘I was chosen to be the angel. I was chosen to stand at the altar holding the candle. Just me. With silver wings. I was chosen so I must be Christian as well as Sikh.’

Mother Francesca’s thin lips disappeared for an instant. Then she said, ‘You were the angel because you’re the prettiest,’ and she made it sound like a misdemeanour. ‘But you’re not Christian and I can’t give you a crucifix.’

She left in a brisk waddle.

I turned away from the birthday girl and ran to the dormitory where I sat on my bed kicking at its wooden legs. Sister Philomena came in and tapped my knee to make me stop. ‘Don’t be too upset,’ she said.

I put my head in my pillow to hide tears. ‘If you promise to be a good girl,’ she continued, ‘I’ll give you a similar necklace. When you leave St Joseph’s.’

I lifted my head.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘A nice one. With a bigger pendant.’ Sister Philomena wore a large silver cross on a thick black thread.

‘I don’t want a big necklace.’ I was petulant. ‘I want a tiny, tiny gold cross, like Mother Francesca gives out.’

‘It’ll be just the same,’ Sister Philomena reassured me. ‘Now don’t worry about it anymore. I’ll keep one for you and when you leave, I’ll give it to you.’

When I reached the long grey shadows on the grass I began to run full tilt at Sister Philomena. The light in the sky was fading fast. There were only minutes to go before the bell went and we would have to line up in the cold corridor to march to the dining room. ‘I’m going to catch her,’ I thought. ‘We’ll win! My team will win!’

I saw her white veil begin to flap as she weaved left and then right to make me stop and change my path. I charged straight on, feeling sure of myself, aware of a sudden power in my legs. ‘When I catch her, it will be the first time that Sister Philomena’s team has lost.’

I made a last strong dash as I neared her. She turned to the right to evade me, swift as ever, but I lunged for her as she went past, the veil a sheet blowing in the wind, my hands grasping at the billowing fabric, my fingers catching a fold as I fell to the ground, my face rubbing into the wet grass. After a moment, I raised my head and then my hand. I was holding her veil. ‘You’re out,’ I yelled.

Sister Philomena was walking very slowly towards me to retrieve her veil. She walked as if each step hurt. A dumbstruck silence had fallen. There was black wiry stubble on Sister Philomena’s scalp. I stared. I had not realised till that moment that the nuns shaved their heads.

‘Bald!’ The high voice of a six-year-old girl broke the silence.

Another high voice said, ‘Look at Sister Philomena’s head. Look!’

It was obvious none of the younger girls had seen the shaven head of a nun. The giggling started in one quarter but then it spread from one clutch of girls to another till all fourteen were tittering.

From the courtyard, two nuns came hurrying towards me, to the scene of Sister Philomena’s shame. I must have looked as if I’d been injured; I was still lying flat on the ground with just my head raised up and my arm with the snatched veil outstretched. I was watching each sluggish step Sister Philomena was taking towards me.

Several little arms were pointing at her now. ‘Ugly,’ someone called out.

She did look strange in the waning light with her big lips, small black eyes, slightly-moustached upper lip and her black-sprouting head rising almost beast-like from her starched white collar.

‘Sister Philomena is the ugliest,’ a little girl declared.

I sat up to hand the mud-streaked veil to her. I had never seen her without the veil. I had never seen her eyes wet.


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