It’s 4 am when a cellphone pierces the silence of the bare room. Loiusa answers immediately. She knows the caller and takes off in Marathi, one sentence at a time. At the other end, 48 km away on Vasai’s Pachubandar beach, a fisherman repeats what she says, with his team of 10 then repeating the prayer in chorus.
This group of Koli fishermen in Pachubandar has followed the simple ritual for years — they never set out without this call. It’s their first call of the day, to Sr Louisa of the Cross, a Carmelite (Cloister) nun at a monastery in Andheri East, a western suburb of Mumbai.
The Carmelite nuns are believed to be ‘powerhouses of prayer’, receiving prayer requests from all over the world, through infrequent visitors, through frequent letters and phone calls and, for the past few years, via email. They belong to the Order of Carmel (Cloister), where nuns devote themselves to prayer and contemplation and spend their days in solitude and silence.
“We survive dangerous nights at sea because of these prayers. These sisters pray for us day and night. I believe God listens to them especially,” says Rocky Johnson Burkhao (34), a fisherman at Pachubandar. Burkhao’s boats, named ‘Trinity’ and ‘King of Kings’, have for 10 years now never been taken to sea without a call to the Andheri monastery.
Their perceived power may reach across the seas, but the eight Carmelite nuns living in a three-acre gated monastery in the bustling Andheri, its high walls enclosing an island of near-total silence, do not even step out of the priory. The last time they emerged outside was to cast their vote in the Maharashtra Assembly elections in October last year — a short walk to Canossa High School 200 metres away and back.
“The only time we step out is to fulfill our duty towards the country,” says Sr Marie Therese, the prioress or head of the monastery, one of 35 such Carmel Cloister institutions in the country. The eight nuns, aged between 47 and 79, otherwise come into contact with the world outside only during medical emergencies, when they visit Holy Spirit Hospital, also barely 200 metres away.
Not even death requires them to move out — the nuns who depart are buried in a cemetery within their compound.
Inside the high walls, the nuns have no domestic help, save the gardeners, the occasional electrician and the rare undertaker. Most windows stay shut always. The eight nuns maintain the two-storey building, going about their assigned chores “in silence”, according to Sr Therese.
She talks from behind a metal-grilled window, having accepted a business card from a two-way drawer below the grill. All interactions with occasional visitors happen through this window, with the exception of an ‘extern’ nun, the only one in the monastery who can step out to take care of the monastery’s needs.
Between breakfast and lunch, the nuns, including some with goiter and diabetes, sweep the floors, dust and do the laundry or cook while three nuns do the most important chore — baking the Holy Bread (hosts) for various parishes in the Bombay Archdiocese.
Besides donations, the only source of income for the cloistered Carmels is baking this bread. Three nuns work on five-decade-old equipment to bake and cut the bread into shape. Earning Rs 100 for 100 big hosts used by priests for mass, and Rs 100 for 1,000 small hosts consumed by the laity, the income is meagre.
Sr Therese turned 79 in June, and even in the humidity that follows Mumbai’s rains, is covered from head to toe in a dark brown habit, with only her face visible.
The cloistered Carmels have a frugal existence. Breakfast is a loaf of hard bread made by the nuns themselves. “We find it easier to make and digest,” reveals Sr Therese. While rice and vegetables are for lunch, the occasional egg or fish curry or “whatever people send” is “lavish”. Dinner is mostly porridge.
The tough lifestyle means the last to join the monastery was 23 years ago.
Radha Krishnan joined the monastery when she was just 24. An Iyer young woman from Colaba’s Navy Nagar, Krishnan was a teacher in a Catholic school and eventually converted to Christianity. In 1972, Radha Krishnan became Sr Mary Joseph when joined the Canossian order of nuns. Her convent in Andheri shared a compound wall with the Carmelite monastery and the cloistered life of silent contemplation appealed to her. “My family is still Hindu. I was attracted to the faith and when I became a nun, I wanted to spend a lot of time praying,” she says. Other nuns work as teachers or lawyers or nurses, but Sr Mary Joseph only wanted to pray. “So I joined the Cloister Carmels.”
To avoid being “fossilised”, the Carmel Cloister congregation now has a general assembly of the prioresses from the 35 Carmel Cloister monasteries in India. The assembly meets encourage roping in experts who can give lectures to the sisters, and for interactions with nuns from different monasteries. They talk about the ability to focus on prayers amid the hardship. “When we close our eyes, the whole world will come crowding. Memories and imagination. We just try to refocus on God when we realise our thoughts are straying,” she says, adding that she doesn’t know much about yoga and meditation, but it does sound “a lot like that — to become one with ourselves.”