Life stories of religious conversion appear in many shapes and are told from various perspectives. You might wonder why authors favour imaginative literature over factual reports. Perhaps this has to do with the potential of literary texts to draw vivid scenes, develop multiple plots and lines of argument, map out social environments and reflect inner motions that are inaccessible to external observation. Fictional texts – such as a well-composed novel with a set of characters, suspense, emotions etc. – open a whole universe to the reader that will surpass most plots one can experience in real life. In short, literature has the potential to be “more than real”, to take up the title of a book by David Shulman, in which he traces the history of the imagination in south India (Cambridge/Mass., 2012).
In India, the novel, in some cases published in serialised form in nineteenth and twentieth-century journals, proved suitable to explore issues of conversion publicly. Literary fiction helped missionaries to promote their cause both among potential converts in India and among potential donors in Europe. For the Indian elite, the recourse to fiction enabled a debate about modernity and religion without the need for the author to expose oneself. For Europeans in India, literature provided a field for reflecting upon their place in the colonial environment between religious institutions and secular administration. In all three cases, by supposedly exploring a hypothetical situation, literary fiction allowed an elaborate and pointed discussion of sensitive issues from a safe distance.
Take for instance the short novel Mimosa, who was Charmed by the Irish missionary Amy Carmichael, first published in London in 1924; a loose German translation appeared in Stuttgart and Basel in 1925. It is a typical piece of mission literature that appeals to the emotions. The reader is made to sympathise with a poor Hindu girl who is badly treated by her family, suffers the death of her son, struggles with her faith but eventually finds rescue and peace with Christian missionaries and their religion. The text is interspersed with ethnographic details and Tamil expressions to endow the novel with an exotic flavour. Carmichael uses a remarkable literary plot device to frame the story: already in her early childhood the heroine shows unconscious attachment to Christianity when she refuses to wear sacred ash on her forehead. This foreshadowing allows the narrative to present the conversion as a ‘rediscovery’ of the Christian truth that has already been planted in Mimosa’s heart at an early age.
Similar plot devices are often used in autobiographical narratives so a clear distinction between fact and fiction is not really possible and rather futile for understanding conversion narratives. Accounts that are presented as ‘authentic’, either by converts themselves or by observers like missionaries, are always trimmed to suit a certain audience or purpose. On the other hand, stories that are explicitly fictitious often draw on ‘real’ cases and I’ll discuss an interesting example of this in my next blog.