For today’s post (and I hope you won’t mind), instead of writing something new, I’ve reprinted an excerpt from an essay called “Playing the Goddess” that I published a few years ago. At this time of year, my memory and nostalgia work overtime and I find myself longingly and gratefully thinking of my school’s Christmas pageant and the year I got to be Brown Mary. (St. Mary’s girls, if you’re out there, know that I’m thinking of you & sending much love this holiday.)
My parents sent me to St. Mary’s Episcopal School because it was the best girls’ education money could buy in Memphis, Tennessee. Unlike some immigrant parents, they were unconcerned by the school’s religious affiliation; my mother herself was educated by Roman Catholic nuns, and taught at a parochial school before she was married. And both my parents appreciated the incredibly diverse and tolerant religious landscape of India. Their friends, festivals, school holidays, symbols, and rituals ran the gamut from Hindu to Buddhist to Sikh to Christian; the lines of observance between these faiths were blurry. As my parents had discovered, so they passed on to me: Hinduism is a big umbrella; there’s a lot of room underneath.
So I was free to delve into the cool, quiet landscape of Anglican Christianity. Ever the eager student, I paid close attention in Mrs. Williams’ third-grade Bible class, sitting right in the front and peering up at her through my thick glasses. She would sit in the “teacher’s chair,” with us on the floor, and place her soft, framed felt board up against the chalkboard. Felt figures of Moses or Jesus appeared, with baskets of fish or the burning bush. Naturally, I had more questions than anyone else. Each story was new to me, and I was hooked. An avid reader, I discovered that the Bible was full of wild, fascinating stories that seemed more grownup than anything else I was allowed to read. The heartbreak and suffering of Jesus held me tight. In my mind’s eye, I saw him as a kindly, loving, sad man. And I began to notice that all the girls around me wore crosses around their necks, connected to him in a way that I wasn’t. While I sat behind, they walked up to the altar to receive communion. These were the limits of my belonging.
At the same time, I relished being different. Christianity was my exotic, but I was exotic to everyone else. My friends and classmates started asking me questions about what I believed, how my religion was different. I stopped taking for granted the Sanskrit prayers my family and I said and started asking about their meaning. My parents found books in English that re-told the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabarata, Hinduism’s great epics, full of murder, intrigue, sex, and miracles to rival the most fantastic parts of the Old Testament. As my connection to my own religion grew, so did my fondness for high-church worship, the pomp and circumstance, traditional liturgy, and booming organ. The sensory onslaught of an Episcopalian church service is somewhat tamed-down in comparison to that of my birth religion, but both know how to put on a good show.
At times, I struggled with just how far to join in, whether it was alright to say “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” when I didn’t actually believe in him. No doubt, many of my fellow classmates were also skeptical or uncertain in their beliefs, but they had the luxury of habit and belonging. If their internal landscape didn’t match the external, no one was the wiser. But from the outset, I looked like a non-believer and I weighed my participation very carefully. As a Hindu, I was frustrated by the way my culture and religious traditions were often appropriated and mishandled by outsiders. It was important to me not to commit the same crime against Christianity.
Of course, I felt like an outsider in Hinduism too. Connected through my parents and centuries worth of traditions, my own personal stake in Hinduism was never as grounded as I thought it should be. Church was more interesting than temple; at least I could understand what everyone was saying and singing. The guilt I felt over my half-hearted engagement was tempered by a desire to protect and uphold my heritage, a duty which was important to me. Some first-generation kids push as far away from the “home country” as possible; I didn’t want to be one of them. Still, I knew that my main tie to Hinduism was nostalgic, not immediate. And as was the case with Christianity, my personal affiliation had everything to do with the group in which I wanted to belong. In both religions, I felt equally at home—that is to say, halfway like an intruder in both cases.
Over time, the splitting of theological hairs became less important to me, and the power of community, worship, and tradition took over. Whether I believed in the stories or not, they were good stories, powerful ones which had lasted for thousands of years. The cost of separating myself out from either group seemed too big a price to pay. So I bowed my head and heard myself repeating the same words as a church-full of people, the Apostles’ Creed, which I learned by heart. After I was asked to speak in chapel during Religious Diversity Week, I became known as the “Indian Oprah” for the way I had weaved my way through the pews with a cordless mike, answering students’ questions about my religion. At home, I enacted and absorbed what my parents placed before me—no eating meat on Tuesdays, wearing new clothes on Diwali—trusting that it was all somehow important for continuity’s sake. I felt to myself like a believer, if a loosely defined one. And there were always two creeds which I never had a problem saying, or meaning: the first from the Bhagavad Gita, modern Hinduism’s most sacred text, the second from St. Mary’s daily chapel service. In the first, Lord Krishna is instructing one of his faithful, Arjuna, about the proper way to live one’s life. Any man who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way, my friend. The second ended each chapel service at St. Mary’s, Monday through Friday, from my fifth grade to my twelfth grade year. Our chaplain said, Go in peace, to love and serve to Lord. And we responded, Thanks be to God.
St. Mary’s has many long-standing traditions (they’ve been educating young women since 1847), but my favorite has always been the Christmas pageant. This event has two sets of participants: little girls and big girls. The little girls are the second-and-third graders, who dress in red cassocks and white cottas and stand on risers to sing the evening’s program of Christmas hymns. The big girls are the seniors, who are grouped to form living tableaux, displayed while the little girls sing their songs. Each tableau is modeled after a painting of the Annunciation, Nativity, or Adoration done by one of the French or Italian masters. A shadowbox, about the size of a walk-in closet, was built long ago for this purpose, and is placed at the top of the red velvet stairs which lead up to the altar of the church. Christmas trees, left plain, are brought in to block the rest of the altar from view, so that big girls can hide behind, getting ready for their turn.
For seniors at St. Mary’s, the Christmas Pageant is second in importance only to graduation. To be part of the tableaux, seniors have to have been at St. Mary’s since at least the first grade. That makes eleven or more years during which the little girls have grown into big ones, watching the Pageant every year, sitting in the dark of the church, watching the beautiful seniors sit very still against the bright lights of the shadowbox. Each year, the senior class and high school faculty elect six girls to play the part of Mary. It is an honor which carries weight. The girls playing Mary should be worthy of their role, should have demonstrated love and compassion and sacrifice during their time at St. Mary’s. The school motto, “light and life,” should be exemplified in them. I feel lucky to be able to say my class took that vote very seriously, beyond a popularity contest. Even though we were big girls, there was still something about the idea of Mary, full of grace. She who gave birth to the Savior of Men. She who raised the Son of God.
With this in mind, we voted, and I became the first non-Caucasian, non Judeo-Christian Mary in school history. “Brown Mary,” my friends and classmates called me, lovingly. It felt like a victory, one in which we all shared, injecting new life into an old tradition, scandalizing the church ladies a little bit. “Your skin color is probably more historically accurate than anyone else’s,” my high school history teacher said, and we arranged for my fellow Hindu, Amrita to be my Joseph. Behold the holy family, dark-skinned and authentic. Me, the mother, vehicle, and proud.
I got very sick the night before the pageant, amidst the swirl of exams and college applications which came with Christmas that year. It was bronchitis, and the doctor at the minor medical clinic warned me that it could get worse. “You need to rest, young lady,” he told me. “I know you won’t mind if I make you stay home from school tomorrow,” winking, thinking he was doing me a favor. “You don’t understand,” I protested. “I have to go.” We went back and forth like this for a while; I think he thought I was crazy. It isn’t easy to explain in five minutes what twelve years has built inside you. “Okay,” he relented. “I’ll give you a strong antibiotic and a painkiller. You’re going to have to try to break your fever—otherwise, you’re still contagious, so no go.”
I slept that night, exhausted and upset. The next morning, I hovered around 100 degrees, but was adamant that the fever would break. I had to be at school by noon—that much leeway my principal would give—the pageant started at two-thirty. My mother wrapped me in blankets, brought me warm liquids, lemon and honey for my aching throat. She chanted for me in Sanskrit from the prayer room down the hall and took my temperature every half-hour. “I know better than to argue,” she sighed. But we were both surprised at how hard I was trying. This ritual, this honor I had earned, this seeming contradiction, I wasn’t about to let go. Goddess, mother, Mary, someone. Please. Make me the vessel, give me your strength. I want to do this.
At eleven-fifteen my fever broke.
My mom walked me into the church where twenty-nine other girls were rehearsing their scenes and posing for photographs. The handful of girls standing in the shadowbox at the time caught collective sight of me and called out. “Nishta!” The room turned and I was flooded, overwhelmed with gladness, their gladness; that I was okay, that I was there. “You are supposed to be here,” they said. “You have to be our Brown Mary.”
Immediately, girls went to work on my transformation. It’s all a bit of a medicated blur—I felt woozy and weepy and wholly grateful. I sat on a hard pew in the bright and sunny side-chapel while they took care of me. Sarah, da Vinci’s Mary, dashed out in her silver Volvo to buy me chicken noodle, tomato, and cream of mushroom soups, because she wasn’t sure which one I would like. Kemper, da Vinci’s angel Gabriel, took charge of my makeup. “Now close your eyes, sweetie,” she said in her sweet, round, Southern voice. I felt the cool, black pencil against the edge of my warm eyelid, heard the second- and third-graders rehearsing in the background.
When it was time for my tableaux, I scrambled into place along with Amrita and our three friends, playing shepherds. We had a few moments in the dark before the next song began, and I remember being afraid that I was going to accidentally move; blink my eyes too much, scratch my nose, or, worst of all, pass out. I still didn’t feel very well, and I was afraid it might show. But then I felt Amrita’s hand on my shoulder from behind, where she stood as my Joseph. And that blue velvet curtain opened, and the lights came on, from either side of box, incredibly bright and incredibly hot. The whole thing felt a little bit ridiculous, sitting in a pine box, dressed up like an unwed Jewish mother from two thousand years ago.
I tried to quiet my mind and focus on the rows of hushed and darkened heads that watched me in the distance. Out of the corner of my eye, the little girls, standing oh-so-politely on metal risers, their stocking feet tucked into pair after pair of black Mary Janes. I heard their baby gasps for breath as they tried to make it all the way through the “Gloo-ooo-oooo-oooria” and into “excelsis Deo.” In that moment, I realized that thin line between the ridiculous and the magical is governed by belief. An opera is only successful if its audience is willing to suspend its cynicism for a little while and dive in. Ritual works the same way.
After my turn, I joined my friends, huddled down in the darkness, hidden behind the strategically placed Christmas greenery. The cool, plush carpet was a relief; the girls had even sneaked a ginger ale onto the altar for me. Eyes sparkled all around as we, with muted voices, began to sing along with the little ones, who, in a handful of years, would take our place.
The holly bears a berry as red as any blood;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.
O the rising of the sun,
The running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir,
Sweet singing in the choir.
for the crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
½ cup sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
for the filling:
4 apples (I used McIntosh), peeled*, cored, & thinly sliced
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
for the glaze (optional):
½ cup apricot jam
juice of half a lemon
pan: 9- or 10-inch tart pan (preferably with a removable bottom) OR pie pan
Butter the pan thoroughly & set aside. To make the dough, cream the butter & sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer at high speed. Reduce speed to medium and add the egg. In a separate bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, & salt together—then gently add to the mixer bowl.
Press the dough (which will be soft) evenly into the tart pan, being sure to go all the way up the sides. Arrange the apples on top of the crust in any pattern that pleases you. Combine the cinnamon & sugar, then sprinkle generously over the apples. Dot the apples with a few extra tablespoons of butter.
I find it’s easiest to place the tart pan on a baking sheet and to place the whole thing in the oven. Bake the tart for 45-55 minutes. Look for a lightly browned crust and set filling. Cool slightly on a wire rack.
A glaze is certainly not necessary but is easy to do and adds another level of flavor. To make the glaze, simply combine the jam & lemon juice in a small saucepan over low heat. Use a spoon or spatula to break up any clumps, bringing the glaze up to a boil. Remove from heat and brush or dribble over the tart.
Listen, this tart needs NOTHING (no. thing.) to be delicious, but it certainly won’t hurt the tart’s feelings (or mine) if you decide throw a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Myself? I like to top with homemade, lightly-sweetened whipped cream that’s also been spiked with Amaretto. Hey, it’s the holidays!
*As you can see, I did not choose to peel the apples this time around, just to see what would happen. No one complained–in fact, it was promptly devoured-but it’s more traditional to peel the apples, so do whatever feels best to you. Note that the peel will add texture.