Jesus and Mary Magdalen, by Khalil Gibran

The following is an excerpt from Khalil Gibran’s work, Jesus the Son of Man… It recounts the first meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalen, and it is written in the voice of Mary:

It was in the month of June when I saw Him for the first time. He was walking in the wheatfield when I passed by with my handmaidens, and He was alone. The rhythm of His steps was different from other men’s, and the movement of His body was like naught I had seen before. Men do not pace the earth in that manner. And even now I do not know whether He walked fast or slow. My handmaidens pointed their fingers at Him and spoke in shy whispers to one another. And I stayed my steps for a moment, and raised my hand to hail Him. But He did not turn His face, and He did not look at me. And I hated Him. I was swept back into myself, and I was as cold as if I had been in a snow-drift. And I shivered.

That night I beheld Him in my dreaming; and they told me afterward that I screamed in my sleep and was restless upon my bed.

It was in the month of August that I saw Him again, through my window. He was sitting in the shadow of the cypress tree across my garden, and He was still as if He had been carved out of stone, like the statues in Antioch and other cities of the North Country. And my slave, the Egyptian, came to me and said, “That man is here again. He is sitting there across your garden.” And I gazed at Him, and my soul quivered within me, for He was beautiful. His body was single and each part seemed to love every other part. Then I clothed myself with raiment of Damascus, and I left my house and walked towards Him.

Was it my aloneness, or was it His fragrance, that drew me to Him? Was it a hunger in my eyes that desired comeliness, or was it His beauty that sought the light of my eyes? Even now I do not know. I walked to Him with my scented garments and my golden sandals, the sandals the Roman captain had given me, even these sandals. And when I reached Him, I said, “Good-morrow to you.”

And He said, “Good-morrow to you, Miriam.” And He looked at me, and His night-eyes saw me as no man had seen me. And suddenly I was as if naked, and I was shy.

Yet He had only said, “Good-morrow to you.”

And then I said to Him, “Will you not come to my house?”

And He said, “Am I not already in your house?”

I did not know what He meant then, but I know now.

And I said, “Will you not have wine and bread with me?”

And He said, “Yes, Miriam, but not now.”

Not now, not now, He said. And the voice of the sea was in those two words, and the voice of the wind and the trees. And when He said them unto me, life spoke to death. For mind you, my friend, I was dead. I was a woman who had divorced her soul. I was living apart from this self which you now see. I belonged to all men, and to none. They called me harlot, and a woman possessed of seven devils. I was cursed, and I was envied. But when His dawn-eyes looked into my eyes all the stars of my night faded away, and I became Miriam, only Miriam, a woman lost to the earth she had known, and finding herself in new places.

And now again I said to Him, “Come into my house and share bread and wine with me.”

And He said, “Why do you bid me to be your guest?”

And I said, “I beg you to come into my house.” And it was all that was sod in me, and all that was sky in me calling unto Him.

Then He looked at me, and the noontide of His eyes was upon me, and He said, “You have many lovers, and yet I alone love you. Other men love themselves in your nearness. I love you in your self. Other men see a beauty in you that shall fade away sooner than their own years. But I see in you a beauty that shall not fade away, and in the autumn of your days that beauty shall not be afraid to gaze at itself in the mirror, and it shall not be offended. I alone love the unseen in you.”

Then He said in a low voice, “Go away now. If this cypress tree is yours and you would not have me sit in its shadow, I will walk my way.”

And I cried to Him and I said, “Master, come to my house. I have incense to burn for you, and a silver basin for your feet. You are a stranger and yet not a stranger. I entreat you, come to my house.”

Then He stood up and looked at me even as the seasons might look down upon the field, and He smiled. And He said again: “All men love you for themselves. I love you for yourself.”

And then He walked away.

But no other man ever walked the way He walked. Was it a breath born in my garden that moved to the east? Or was it a storm that would shake all things to their foundations?

I knew not, but on that day the sunset of His eyes slew the dragon in me, and I became a woman, I became Miriam, Miriam of Mijdel.

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Reading The Namesake

Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, has been appreciated by desis (Indians) and non-desis alike, to the extent that it has been made into a film in India and appreciated worldwide. The book deals with the cultural situation of first generation and second generation Indians in foreign countries, in this case America. I am in a bit of a strange situation when it comes to cultural categories, as I am neither a first nor a second generation Indian… I am somewhere in between, having been born in India and having grown up in the west (something like a 1.5 generation migrant). Stranger still is the fact that, after living in England, making friends there, graduating from college there, getting married there and having a home there, I have revisited my motherland after all these years. My partner and I are currently working in India for a couple of years… My husband is in the second generation migrant category, and we speak to each other in English (with British accents), he watches the football, we eat a mixture of western and Indian food at home, we don’t practise the Hindu rituals our parents practise and we wear mostly western clothes. So, that’s my situation as I begin reading The Namesake

The book begins with an account of a Bengali couple’s journey to the USA, the wife’s (Ashima’s) sense of alienation as she learns to accept her distance from her family, the lack of authentic Indian food, the cold climate and the sense of being different from those around her. The couple have two children, Gogol and Sonia. The story centres around Gogol’s experience. He hates his name, which was given to him as a pet name but which stuck as his ‘outside’ name. He does not initially know that his father gave him this name because he had been reading a book by Nikolai Gogol when he experienced a serious train accident; waving the book from below the wreckage was the act that allowed him to be seen and rescued. Gogol later changes his name to Nikhil, a name his father had wanted him to adopt for school, but which he had not liked as an infant. The act of naming becomes integral to the book’s exploration of cultural identity. Unlike his mother, Gogol embraces Amercian culture effortlessly, to the extent that he dismisses and discards his Indian identity. He has premarital relationships, goes out with friends and only engages with the rituals of his childhood – of speaking Bengali, attending ‘pujos’ and eating mostly Indian food – when he visits his parents. He visits his parents less and less as he grows independent, preferring his separation from them. This is until his father dies suddenly, when his perspective begins to change. As if in retaliation to his ‘foreignness’ from his parents and from his white American friends, he marries an American-Bengali like himself. But the marriage fails because the couple cannot maintain a sense of connection with each other; Gogol’s wife begins an affair with a man who has the same intellectual interests as her, and Gogol eventually finds out.

The book ends at the point Ashima, Gogol’s mother, is about to return to India to enjoy her retirement. She plans to divide her remaining time between India and America. Sonia is about to get married to an American man who Ashima knows will make her daughter happy. The story is simple but deeply moving, showing the struggle of those who start a life in a foreign country whilst being unable to fully let go of their own cultures and customs. It also shows the more subtle pain of the second generation immigrant, who feels divided between two identities.

What struck me most about the book was that things I thought were specific to my own experience of growing up are actually typical migrant experiences. Such as the loud Indian get-togethers Gogol’s parents have, and his mother’s fussing. It seems to me that the book is ultimately trying to say that however important culture may be in shaping our experiences, it is not the thing which makes us who we are inside. Gogol and his Indian wife have the same cultural experience, but their personalities do not complement. Ashima builds her life around her Bengali community, but when she grows older she realises that America has also become her home, and she cares about her American friends at the library where she works.

The saddest thing about the book is that it is a reminder of cultural fragmentation. People living far from their families and friends in pursuit of new opportunities. But in such a global situation, it becomes even more important to stay connected with loved ones and to be open to unlikely friendships.