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Here’s an Easter trivia question for you. Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s companion and is mentioned a dozen times in the New Testament. But what was her line of work? If you answered “prostitution”, as I did, then I’m afraid nul points.
I was so surprised to have my assumptions overturned by Jeet Thayil’s new novel, Names of the Women, that I went to double-check. And in my annotated copy of the Bible, I found: “Occupation: We are not told, but she seems to have been wealthy.”
“Hundreds of years later, men who have never met her will call her a fallen woman,” writes Thayil. “She will be called a sinner, when her only sin is that she is from a prosperous home and she is sad.”
In Names of the Women Thayil reclaims the story of not only Mary Magdalene but of 14 other women who play different roles in the gospels. Thayil, best known for the Booker-shortlisted Narcopolis and raised among adherents of the ancient Christian community in Kerala, has read his Bible carefully. He also draws on ideas from non-canonical texts such as The Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Pilate and a fascinating fragment that turned up in the 19th century called The Gospel of Mary.
Alongside Mary Magdalene, we meet Jesus’s sisters, Assia and Lydia; his followers Susanna and Joanna; Mary of Bethany and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. There are female baddies too: Herodias and her daughter Salome, who call for the head of John the Baptist.
Thayil’s argument is with the systemic misogyny that has marginalised and misrepresented the female characters in the New Testament. We wrongly remember Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Her key role in the narrative – retold here in a wonderful moment of hair-raising strangeness – is to be the first witness to the resurrection. “They will build the Church on the witness of the women,” Thayil writes, “but they will refuse to record their names.”