Some called it the Bush Convent.
A crumbling citadel hidden behind spokes of oxidized iron, ancient fans of moriche palms and a blaze of African tulip trees. Under these trees was a stone grotto housing a statue of Mary — flowing robes, hands clasped, neck slightly tilted, a green snake beneath her heel The school was built in the Central plains, surrounded by acres of burning sugar cane, not the burning exhaust and the glass cityscape of Port of Spain or San Fernando where the real convents were.
Irish Catholic nuns, from the outset in 1956, had planned the school for the daughters of sugar factory employees, after being requested by the Archdiocese to spread the word and nurture their righteous souls. The managers’ daughters, the majority, got in through recommendations of the Church; and the few canecutters’ girls, most of them daughters of Hindu devotees, were only allowed admission through college exhibition; put together, they formed the first class of thirty young girls.
Today, almost five decades later, whitewashed walls held seven hundred diverse adolescent girls, each seat now earned instead of inherited. Boundaries were blurred so that Christmas was no longer the only festivity — now prasad was parceled out for Divali and ladles of sawine for Eid-ul-Fitr. All Trinidadian cultures were now represented. And though the cane-fields had been replaced by housing settlements, coffee shops, gourmet stores and delicatessens that sold imported cheeses, the name Bush Convent had never left, as if the miasma of rotting bagasse had settled permanently within its walls.
The structures in the compound were falling apart. The green mock-marbled tiles, now cracked and dislodged, were the same ones placed by those Irish nuns who had all departed this mortal realm. The once grand barge boards edging the roof had frayed into long thin splinters. The toilets were still equipped with chains that girls pulled with a prayer for the low-pressure flow to somehow take their sins away.
The Second Form classrooms housed worn termite-gnawed Rettig benches, where the tiniest girls were forced to sit at the front of the class. Maria shared one of these with Devi.
At first glance the two thirteen-year-old East Indian girls seemed very much alike — deep carob skin, hair-tangled arms, untamed eyebrows, almond eyes edged with thick lashes.
But Devi’s black hair hung like a thick woven rope, glistening with coconut oil. And Maria’s was cropped just short enough to cover her ears, so dry that it frizzled like soft smoke. Maria ate lunch in the classroom — her mother’s beef stew — while Devi excused herself to eat chataigne and sada roti in the open air near the sports field.
On Wednesday mornings, Devi and the other Hindu girls crammed into a small, stifling Fifth Form classroom to sing bhajans. Maria assembled with the Catholics in the St. Dorothea Main Hall for hymns. Above her school blouse, always in view was her Miraculous Medal, engraved with flaming hearts and an open-armed Mary. Devi’s gold Om Trishul always remained shrouded by her own thin cotton blouse.
At noon, after the bell, the PA would call out with ceremonial stiltedness: “Please stand for the Angelus.” Maria would genuflect, while Devi remained absorbed in her hard-bound sketchbook, filled with charcoal drawings of faceless figures and poses. She wore a pencil in her ear as if it were an ornament.
On Thursdays, at lunch, Maria made the weekly pilgrimage to the prayer room where she and five other girls were led in the most holy mysteries by the young Ms. Sooknanan. Maria adored the woman. She doubled as teacher in both religious instruction and art. She was tall and beautiful, with black hair neatly styled into a bun with two barrettes clipped to the front. She wore long, dark cotton dresses with a belt around her small waist and a blazer over her shoulders. A mahogany cross carved with the suffering face of Christ swung between her sharp collarbones from a white cotton cord. Maria often mused that Ms. Sooknanan probably looked like the teachers back in the days when the nuns ran the school.
Ms. Sooknanan was the type of Catholic who Maria hoped to one day become. One who made her devotion to the faith look natural, as though emerging from an unquestioned lineage of Catholic practitioners. Not a descendent of hasty converts with a history of indentureship.
Earlier that year, Ms. Sooknanan returned from a pilgrimage to Vatican City with a very beautiful rosary. The beads were made of a dark, pinkish wood soaked in rose oil and threaded through a silver chain. A minimalist cross, like two silver sticks, hung at the end and a glass vial centre-piece, filled drop by drop with holy water from the spring in Lourdes that St. Bernadette herself dug with her finger. The rosary had been presented before Pope John Paul II to receive his blessing.
A quiet holiness emanated from the coiled chain of beads. When the bell rang to signal the end of the lunch break, when everyone else was gone, Ms. Sooknanan held Maria back and poured the beads into her hands.
“Maria,” she smiled and whispered. “This is yours.”
Maria felt her breath leave her body as she accepted the beads with trembling fingers. What did Ms. Sooknanan think of her? Perhaps that she belonged with those who were blessed, beautiful, venerated. She was a part of it — that piece of the newer, brighter, cleaner world that her ancestors would have fled the darkness of India to find here in Trinidad.
During mid-term exams Maria kept the new rosary in her skirt pocket. When stumped by a problem, she’d take the beads out and breathe in the scent of roses as though it would guide her to the answer. One day, as her eyes flitted over a bubble of air in the rosary’s vial, a shadow loomed over her paper.
“Give it here,” a voice said. It was Ms. Sooknanan, acting as invigilator.
The class looked up from their papers as Ms Sooknanan leaned across, her chin hovering past Maria. The teacher grabbed at the chain around Devi’s neck and yanked off the Om Trishul that hid beneath her shirt.
“You know the rule: no jewellery. You’ll get this back at the end of the term,” Ms. Sooknanan said, slipping the Hindu necklace into her blazer pocket.
When the exam was done, Devi was fretful. She told Maria, “You know, because I does get frighten for test, my mummy carry it by the pundit to bless.”
Maria touched her own medallion, thumbing the raised relief of Mary. “Same for me. My mummy carry this by the priest in the Mount to bless.”
Devi remained ashen-faced and despondent for the rest of the mid-terms.
After the exams Devi was back to her old self — yellow 2B pencil tucked against her ear, her sketchpad large enough to blanket the entire desk space, face kneaded into deep concentration, pulling her graphite pencil down in thick heavy strokes, flicking the point to create the folds and creases of a gown.
As Maria put her bag on the desk, trying her best not to disturb the process, Devi looked up, surprised “Sorry, I eh see you there, Maria,” she said in a nervous tone.
Maria glanced at Devi’s pad. In it was a drawing of a woman seated in a large flower, the blank face awaiting its features. Devi had been hard at work on the arms — all four of them. Two were raised up on either side of the woman figure; the other two rested open-palmed on her lap.
“Devi, what’s that you drawing there?” Maria asked.
“Working on this for the Divali programme next week,” Devi said hastily, firming her grip on her pencil and focusing on the undrawn facial features. “Ms. Rajpaul tell me real last minute. But she say they want me to do it, so I have to work fast.”
Maria nodded, realising now that the drawing was undoubtedly of Mother Lakshmi. Eyeing the very large sketchpad, she asked, “How come you not using the Art Room to do this?”
Devi’s eyes did not leave the drawing. “I try. But Ms. Sooknanan said that she not allowed to open it on lunchtimes.”
“You sure? That weird,” Maria said, knowing that almost every Fifth Form Art student used the room to finished rushed assignments during their lunch breaks.
“And home does be so busy and noisy,” Devi continued, “is best I do it here anyway, and I’ll lock it up in my desk.”
Maria didn’t mind giving Devi the space. Every day, she looked at the progress Devi made with interest. Each of Mother Lakshmi’s open arms tapered down to delicate, slender fingers. The eyes were captivating, large as lotuses. She began looking forward to lunchtimes to see what new attribute of the deity had been added.
When the sketch was complete, Devi was to use the Art Room’s light box to transfer the Mother Lakshmi drawing onto hot press cotton watercolour paper. But she had been turned away by Ms. Sooknanan. The bulb in the light box had blown, apparently, and she was still waiting for the specially ordered replacement.
“What you gonna do now?” Maria said to Devi, watching the girl repeatedly dig her fingers into the palms of her hand, her eyes half-closed as though meditating on the setback.
Devi suddenly shook her head. “Small thing, I go use carbon paper.”
“That should work too.”
She watched as Devi carefully laid out sheets of carbon paper on top of the huge watercolour paper and painstakingly traced over all the lines. When she was finished, Maria asked if she needed help to remove the carbon paper sheets.
“No,” Devi responded, her eyes sharp as an eagle’s, her fingers poised over the sheets. “I’ll show you how to do it first.”
She nipped the edge of the paper with her fingertips and revealed the final line drawing. Maria leaned forward, realizing if she had tried, it might have smudged the drawing. The detail and precision of the heavy filigree on Mother Lakshmi’s clothing astounded her. The drawing felt flat now without the help of graphite lights and shadows, but it was still beautiful.
“Right now, it look a little plain, but I taking it home tonight. I go wait till everyone sleeping to paint it. That original sketch go guide me.”
The next day came and with it, the much anticipated Divali programme. Excited rumours circulated that the Government box lunches that day would be curry channa, aloo and pumpkin with buss up shot, and someone had seen huge basins of kurma and prasad being carried into the office, presumably to be bagged and distributed among the students.
Devi brought the completed water colour painting to the classroom. At its full spread of 24” x 18”, Devi laid it out on the teacher’s desk like a cartographer’s map. The girls flocked to it as if they themselves were devotees of the goddess. Maria craned over them to get a good look at the finished work of the goddess seated in the blush-pink lotus, with heavily lashed almond eyes and deep brown skin, her sari cascading down her body in a shower of vermillion. When the sunlight fell on the painting the goddess’s palms glowed with gold, blessings of wealth bouncing off her hands. Mother Lakshmi’s face reflected the divine serenity of the heavens.
Devi’s eyes were red and sunken. Maria, taking notice, commented, “Devi, like you stay up whole night for this.”
“Yes, girl, it take a little time for the details.”
“How the heck you put gold in she hand?”
Devi’s tired face still managed to break a small smile, “That is gold leaf. My auntie bring it down from foreign for me.”
After lunch, the student body poured into the assembly hall. Girls were garbed in ghararas and shalwars for the occasion. Maria came in late and ended up sitting near the back doors. Ms. Sooknanan was standing within eyeshot, twirling her cross between her fingers, her usual smiling face stern. The girls on stage, ornate and dressed in all colours, danced and sang bhajans. Devi’s painting of the goddess was centrestage. Placed on a wooden easel, it was surrounded by brass, copper and ceramic statues — the deities of the Hindu pantheon.
Devi was soon up on the stage, wearing a poui-pink sari that trailed behind her. She grasped the microphone with her small hands and in a trembling voice read aloud: “Mother Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. During Divali, we, her devotees, remember her as the symbol of light over darkness.”
Ms. Sooknanan’s arms immediately folded over her chest, her eyelids lowered, a subtle scoff escaping her throat. While Devi spoke, various girls began flanking the painting. They each held a brass plate of heaped sweets or chopped fruits.
“We offer food first to the various forms of God, represented here as murtis, to show our love and devotion,” Devi’s voice reaffirmed. “The food is prepared without tasting, as God should be the first to taste it. Prasad or sweets are made with love and offered to the different forms of God, according to their preference.” She turned to her painting. “Mother Lakshmi prefers tilli cake and sweet rice.”
As the girls set the dishes before the painting and the ceramic murtis Maria heard someone loudly suck their teeth. She turned only to see the swishing edge of a black hem leaving the hall.
When the programme was over, there was a mad rush for the sweets being distributed, but Maria went back to the classroom to find Devi and congratulate her. Maria squeezed Devi’s hands excitedly. “The painting was glowing on the stage!”
Devi offered a confident grin and before she could say anything, her eyes widened as if she just remembered something. “Gosh!” Devi sucked her teeth. “Do me a favour, Maria?”
Devi grabbed her bag. “I late for my van. It go leave me if I don’t go now. The painting in the back of the hall. Ms. Rajpaul say to put it in the art room.”
“You want me to get it?” Maria offered before she could ask.
“Go catch your van!”
Maria returned to the assembly hall to retrieve the painting. Before picking it up, she stared in the large lotus eyes of the goddess and dwelled for a moment in its bright and soothing beauty.
With the painting tucked under her arm, she hustled out of the Hall and towards the art room. She grasped the brass handle of the heavy wooden door and exhaled loudly in relief; the door was open.
Inside, the room was dark. The smell of flaking old paint filtered through her lungs, and from the walls, she felt many eyes watching her. The room was lined, inch by inch with iconic representations of Mary and the Holy Family, scenes from the bible, and the Saints. Some were poorly replicated simulacra of the great works of Da Vinci, Rafael and Michelangelo. Clouds slopped over thickly with heavy layers of acrylic painted creating a bed for the bleeding, disproportionate foot of the Lord to step upon.
Maria felt a tinge of fear creep over her, and hurriedly searched for the light switch. As she did so, Maria caught her own face reflected on the huge kiln in the corner. The enormous device looked fitting for some space age production — shiny stainless steel on the outside, porous white brick stacked in hexagonal layers on the inside. Only Sixth Form Art students were allowed to use the kiln for their final projects. And Ms. Sooknanan herself had to be there to operate it.
She stretched her hand to touch the shiny exterior and felt a dense heat emanating from it. A voice called out to her: “Maria?”
It was Ms. Sooknanan, standing in the doorway, the shadow of the growing afternoon resting partially on her face. Her perfect smile quickly faded as her eyes fell on the painting.
Maria acknowledged the teacher with a vibrant, “Miss!” She pushed the painting to the teacher. “I need to put this away and head out for the day. You know where I could put it?”
Ms. Sooknanan reached out and slid the painting out of Maria’s hands. She held the image of Mother Lakshmi up, letting the soft sunlight catch the gold in the goddess’ palms. She seemed to be studying it, as though it were some alien object. “Maria,” she said suddenly. “Let me ask you a serious question.”
Maria nodded. “What is it, Miss?”
“Is Mother Lakshmi the light of the world?” The teacher turned her gaze on the girl and the smile reappeared.
Maria’s mind reeled back to the Divali programme, at the scoff, the black swish of the hem. She said nothing at first — was there a correct answer for such a question? She finally responded, “I don’t understand the question, Miss.”
Ms. Sooknanan’s eyes now bored into Maria. She spoke again, “After that… what they had in the Hall there, I wonder if everyone… gets confused, you know?”
Ms. Sooknanan bit her lip. “This place has really gone downhill. It seems they just allow anything to happen within these halls now. They just allow people to say anything now.” Then she muttered under her breath, “No wonder they call this the Bush Convent.”
Maria remained dumbfounded at these words, her mouth slightly ajar as though waiting for the correct words to reach her lips.
“There is only one Light of the World, Maria,” Ms. Sooknanan continued, “and I, and the people who built this place can tell you that it isn’t this idol here.” Her nails were digging into the thick paper, her stiff hands severely creasing the edges of the painting. It was then Maria noticed for the first time how calloused and knobbly the teacher’s fingers were. “Tell me who is the Light of the World,” the teacher suddenly asked Maria as if to challenge her.
“Jesus Christ is the Light of the World.” The words emerged from Maria’s mouth automatically.
“Yes, he is the only Light of the World. And you saw it too,” the teacher continued. “They put sweets before the idols. And then they give us the same sweets, and expect me to eat it. Expect us to eat it. Do you eat their food, Maria?”
“No, no, I don’t!” Maria lied reflexively, a heavy lump in her throat. She could no longer bear the teacher’s stare, instead concentrating on the wooden cross, the mournful face of Christ glowering at the water-stained ceiling.
Ms. Sooknanan smacked the painting with the back of her hand, as if to reprimand it. Maria flinched.
Ms. Sooknanan walked towards the kiln. “In Exodus 32, after Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments in hand, he found the Israelites committing the Sin of the Calf.” She grasped the cloth covering of the kiln handle. “ “Maria, do you remember what Moses did to the calf?”
Maria remained silent, searching her mind for an answer, something to appease her teacher.
Ms. Sooknanan opened the shiny lid of the kiln, causing a blast of scorched air to shoot out. Maria stepped backwards, her eyes starting to water.
“What did Moses do to the false god?” the teacher asked again handing Maria the painting.
She took it in her hands, and suddenly remembered the image of Moses casting down the stone tablets, and fire burning up the golden statue of the calf.
The teacher wanted the painting destroyed, as Moses had done to the Golden Calf. But if Maria, in this scenario, played the role of Moses, which Biblical form did Ms. Sooknanan see herself acting out?
Maria stood stitched to the spot, knowing that there was nothing in the faith that instructed her to do this — no word in scripture had ever called Mother Lakshmi a false god.
Ms. Sooknanan’s expectant smile disappeared. She snapped, “Give it here!” and lunged forward. Maria, lost in her reasoning, hesitated and the teacher easily wrested it from her hands pushing her so that she fell back into a stand of folded easels.
Maria watched as Ms Sooknanan straightened to her full height. Tiny dots of sweat were forming under her nose. With great force, the teacher crushed the paper between her hands. The goddess crumpled into a huge ball. For a moment, it was as if Ms. Sooknanan herself had the strength of four hands. Mother Lakshmi’s lotus eyes and sari caught a final glimmer of sunlight, filtering through the open windows, before being stuffed into the stainless-steel husk.
Maria rushed to the kiln. As she opened it, the swiftly disappearing smoke revealed that the goddess was no more than a pillar of white ash, speckled with brilliant gold dust. She cried out, releasing the cover and it banged shut, the white-hot edge skimming down her forearm. Maria fell to her knees, screaming from the pain.
Before she could give the woman a chance to help her, Maria pulled herself up and bolted out of the art room, gripping her burnt flesh, half-expecting to hear the tap tap tap of heels across the cracked tiles, but the sound never materialized.
Maria continued to run, only slowing down as she approached the large glass doors of the main office in front of her. Within were a line of secretaries, the offices of the Deans, the Vice-Principal, the Principal. Her skin was stinging badly. In a slow march, her legs carried her away, past the doors and into the grotto built under the African Tulip trees.
There, Maria rested beneath the statue of Mary with her knees tucked under her chin. Above her, the statue’s arms were outstretched to all those who required her intercession. Her white face bore a look of serenity, her half-closed blue eyes lowered. Below the white folds of her gown, her ivory foot crushed a brilliant green snake, its stone body writhing, its long red tongue lashing the grotto rocks.
In that moment, she thought about Devi looking for her Goddess, now cremated, unbeknownst to her.
Maria winced in pain, the burn worse than she thought. She slipped her good hand into her skirt pocket looking for a handkerchief, only to grab the rosary instead. The rose oil’s scent was suffocating in this moment. She flung it into the grotto, where it would drown in the deep, deep darkness — far away from the light of the world it once proclaimed itself to be.