In a town in Bihar State in India, on the veranda overlooking their garden, a husband and wife sit side by side, rocking in a sofa-swing, chatting quietly about yesterday evening’s bridge game at the club, about tonight’s dinner menu, about events at the office (the husband is a prosperous lawyer). To their two young daughters they present a face of such unanimity that they might as well be a single being. MamandPapa, their daughters call them: MamaPapa, PapaMama.
Though the family is not Christian, the daughters go to a Catholic school. But their mother, uneducated herself, is not convinced of the value of education for girls, and when in her middle years she somewhat surprisingly gives birth to a third child, the elder daughter, Uma, is brought home to act as child-minder. The recall devastates Uma: though she is no great shakes as a student she loves the order and discipline of school, and is obscurely drawn to the life of devotion she sees the nuns leading. In a rare act of rebelliousness against MamandPapa, she seeks out the principal of the school and pleads to stay on:
Uma hurled herself at Mother Agnes, threw her arms around her waist, hid her face in the starched white cotton skirts, and howled aloud. She was a messy weeper: her face was wet, her hair distraught. Her mouth was twisted and her eyes and nose ran. She knotted her hands in Mother’s skirts and girdle. All the time she howled. “Mother, oh Mother,” she wailed, and when Mother Agnes tried to pluck her off her skirts and hold her aside, she flung herself down at the nun’s sandalled feet and lay on the floor, abjectly wailing.
When Mother Agnes fends off this distasteful exhibition of passion (Mother Agnes is sensitive to charges that the sisters are trying to make converts among the children), Uma has no recourse but to fall to the floor and writhe and froth at the mouth in a fit of what may be epilepsy but may also be the sign of a spirit moving within her.
Uma has another exemplar of the religious life besides the nuns. Her widowed aunt Mira stays with them annually on a circuit of family visits. During her stay she does not share their meals: regarding their kitchen as polluted, she has a rudimentary stove built for her in the backyard and cooks her own vegetarian meals.
Mira’s main occupation in life is temple-visiting. On one such visit she takes the young Uma along. Although Uma’s parents are nominally Hindu, they practice only the barest observances. Like the nuns’ prayers, the rituals Uma sees performed at the temple disturb her, touching her deepest being.
Mira also takes the child for a ritual bath in the Ganges. With a confidence born of holy innocence or perhaps just ignorance, assuming without question that the waters will sustain her, Uma wades into the river beyond her depth and is …