Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chronicling a saint’s life

The Kochi-based Thomas Mundakel has just published an English translation of his Malayalam biography of Saint Alphonsa

Photo of Thomas Mundakel; cover of the book

By Shevlin Sebastian

On January 26, 1984, Thomas Mundakel and his wife Mary went to the tomb of St. Alphonsa at Bharananganam. For long Mary had suffered from an eye ailment. In desperation she had prayed to Sr. Alphonsa and had been miraculously cured. The couple had gone to pay homage to the saint.

“I saw so many people who had come to pray,” says Mundakel. “Apart from Indians, there were several foreigners.”

Curious at this steady stream of believers, Mundakel told Mary, “I want to see more. Let us stay here for a day.” Mary agreed and their room where they stayed overlooked the cemetery. The couple noticed that till 9 p.m. people were coming and going.

Mundakel, himself, went thrice to pray at the tomb. And he was surprised that despite other well-decorated graves, people always made a beeline to Sr. Alphonsa’s simple grave. “The question, ‘Why?’ was like an atom bomb inside me,” he says. “I wanted to know the answer.”

Mundakel bought all the books about Sr. Alphonsa in Hindi, English and Malayalam. After reading it, one day, he claims, he received a message from the nun: “You write as I say.” So he sat with pen and paper and the first question she gave him was, ‘How do you know me?’ “I felt inspired,” says Mundakel.

Unlike a biography written in a chronological manner, Mundakel wrote it as if Sr. Alphonsa was penning it, in the first person. “I would write something and then would go to Bharananganam,” he says. There, he would meet nuns who knew her well and they would provide all the information he needed. He would come back and write it down. “I went twice or thrice a month,” he says. “I was following the instructions given by Sr. Alphonsa.”

The book took six months to write. When it was completed Mundakel went to Fr. Antony, of the now-defunct Mar Louis Memorial Press, to get it published. But there were objections.

“Antony asked me whether it was right on my part to write in the name of Sr. Alphonsa,” says Mundakel. “He said that if he published the book it might lessen the chances of Sr. Alphonsa being declared a saint.”

The publisher asked Mundakel to get the permission from the Vice Postulator (a vice-postulator pleads for a candidate’s beatification or canonisation).

Mundakel felt disappointed. He took the manuscript and went to the tomb of the saint. “I said, ‘Sr. Alphonsa, you know how much of trouble I went through to write the book. I am going to burn it after reaching home. There is nobody to publish it.’ But she consoled me,” he says.

When Mundakel returned to Enakulam he met the Vice Postulator, Fr. M. Moothedan, and said, “I have written a book on Sr. Alphonsa. Do you have any objections to it being published?”

Moothedan said, “Please go ahead.” The book, ‘Alphonsamma Katha Paranjal’, published by Fr. T.A. Anthony, of the Janatha Press, came out in 1985, just after Sr. Alphonsa was declared a Blessed by the Vatican. The first 2000 copies were sold out within two months, and it has been in print ever since.

Recently, the English version, ‘Saint Alphonsa,’ was brought out by the Kochi-based Sargadooth Publications. Unlike the Malayalam text, this is a chronological version.

“It is a highly readable book,” says engineer Sebastian K. Joseph. “Mundakel has done an immense amount of research. You get a deep understanding of Sr. Alphonsa’s life.”

Asked about the most notable quality of Sr. Alphonsa, Mundakel says, “It was her ability to forgive.” Apparently, this was a trait which she showed right from childhood.

One day she was climbing a stile with her friend, Lakshmi Kutty, now 98 years old. A boy came from behind and pushed her. Sr. Alphonsa fell, and her hands and legs were bruised. “Lakshmi wanted to punish the boy,” says Mundakel. “But Alphonsa said, ‘Please don’t bother. Let us forgive him. God will bless us.’”

Fr. Francis Vadakel, the current vice postulator, says, “Sr. Alphonsa was also humility personified and had a loving nature.”

Apart from her sweet behaviour, Sr. Alphonsa is also known for causing miracles. So, as her biographer, did Mundakel experience one himself? He tells a story: several years ago his daughter Tessy Rani lost a brand-new cycle near their home at Thevara. Mundakel informed the police and a few local boys.

Tessy Rani told her father she would pray to Sr. Alphonsa. Mundakel did the same. “I did not have much hope,” he says. But within a day, he received a telephone call from a boy at Kadavanthra saying a cycle had been found. Mundakel went and investigated and saw that it was Tessy Rani’s cycle.

“It was a miracle that we got it back,” he says. “It deepened my faith in the saint.” Incidentally, Mundakel attended Sr. Alphonsa’s canonisation ceremony in Rome last month.

Apart from his biography of Sr. Alphonsa, Mundakel, 76, a former English teacher at Rajagiri Public School, has written 40 books, the most notable being ‘Blessed Mother Teresa-Her Journey to Your Heart’. This was published by Simon and Schuster, one of America’s leading publishers, and has been translated into German, Korean and Chinese.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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