Friday, 28 December 2012

That Post About Religion

I have always believed that religion has been an essential part of human evolution and has played a defining role in all spheres of life – scientific, military, spiritual, cultural etc. But when people stick too closely to it and forget the reason for its existence in the first place, it becomes a little frustrating and very humorous.

Forget everything that I just said. The bottom-line is: Religious fanatics are hilarious.

Every time I reach this part of the world, I am fortunate enough to be subjected to a diatribe or two about the higher values of life and our raison d’être.  The last time it happened, I was walking down a crowded marketplace in downtown Cairo when a bunch of hawkers stopped me and began coaching me about the truths of life. Back then, I was a naïve fool and I was so stunned by their actions that I failed to recognize the humour in the incident. Well, this time was different.

I began my innocuous walk back to the tea-room along with my engineer-friend to make myself a refreshing cup of piping hot chai after another day of brute-force labour when I ran into the Equipment Operator I shall henceforth refer to only as Mr. M. He had, several times in the past, tried to incite me into conversing with him about religion but I tactfully evaded the talk every single time. This time he took a very direct approach.

Mr. M: You know, Anirudh, I used to preach before to those who are blind. And I’d like to use this opportunity to tell you a little about the truth about God and life. I only want to open your eyes.

I was shocked by the sudden manner in which he brought up the topic and I managed to spill copious amounts of boiling hot liquid on my coveralls. Thank God (whichever one you choose to believe in) for making Nomex coveralls thick!

Mr. M: (quickly correcting himself) No, no… Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean you cannot see this cup of tea or this table in front of you. I want to enlighten your mind. There is nothing wrong in being blind; I too was blind before (he consoled me).

Me: What about this guy? (I asked pointing at my engineer friend) Don’t you want to give him eyes as well?

Mr. M: (Pointing to the other engineer in the room) My friend here is from a holy city and a land of several preachers. I am sure that there are several people more learned than me who can teach him. If he remains blind even after that, then I cannot help him anyway. But you, my friend… You are from the distant land of India and it is my duty to enlighten you.

Me: (I chuckled involuntarily) So you think that the distant land of India is dark and people there are blind? Let me tell you one thing, Mr. M… No one in this world is blind. There are people who believe in the same things as you do and there are people who believe differently. There is no reason to call people different from you as blind!

Mr. M: You don’t understand me fully… We are all one and we all evolved from the same people. But somewhere along the line, some of us went astray. Do you realize that this is why we have conflicts these days? Imagine if we all followed the same religion and the one true God… Imagine how peaceful and powerful we will be!

Me: (nonchalantly) Okay then, why don’t you follow my religion? Then also, we can be peaceful, as you say.

Mr. M: (thoroughly shocked) No! Your religion does not follow the code… Tell me what is good about your religion?

Me: There are several things good and bad about any religion. What specifically do you want to know?

Mr. M: Does your God tell you the way of the righteous man? Does He tell you how to live?

Me: Of course, we have two magnificent concepts called dharma­ – which is the definition of the righteous path – and karma – which defines the fruits of your actions. (Realizing that I was getting way too philosophical) I can explain these in detail if you want, but that’s the gist.

Mr. M: Is this Dharma your God?

Me: No, it is the path of righteousness. Why should you care about God if your religion defines a good way to live? Isn’t that the entire point?

Mr. M: No, your God defines everything. Let me educate you… What do you know about your origins?
I was confused now. Did he want me to talk about Darwinian evolution, about the Aryan invasion of India, about Zoroastrianism and Hinduism in the pre-Vedic times? Luckily, he qualified the question further.

Mr. M: Do you know about Adam and Eve?
Of course, I should have guessed – Adam and Eve! The problem with any kind of debate is that in order to create any sort of meaningful clash, you need to agree on some topic in the first place. This is Debating 101. Using that point as a mutually agreed position, you can go on to debate everything else. However, if there is no meeting place, then both parties can go on endless tirades, all of which will be futile. Sigh, so I have to agree with Adam and Eve now.

Me: Yes, we too have a first man. It’s just that we call him Manu and not Adam. They probably gave him an Indian name to make him sound local.

Mr. M: How can you have a first man of a different name? This is not true then!

Me: Dude, my religion came up with all these stories some four-thousand years ago. I have no idea how they traced people back to the first man with his name. That being said, your version of the origin of Man came some two-thousand years after mine. I wonder why they changed his name in your tale?

Mr. M: Okay, okay (he said in a hurry) So far, you have agreed upon the fact that we all came from the same origin. Now, why do you insist on believing something different? Come to our path…

My Engineer Friend: (turning this into a tag-team match) You understand that every new religion came in order to make up for a void left by another, right? I accept that your faith dates back to several thousand years ago but think about this… Judaism came first, and then Christianity, and finally Islam. Each one filled the gap left by the rest. Same applies to your faith too.

Me: Maybe, whatever you say applies to Abrahamic religions but India is some three thousand miles away. None of this filled a void in India and China back then! Anyway, for the sake of argument, let’s consider that what you say is right. Then, I should believe in Scientology, no? That’s the latest religion, not Islam.

My Engineer Friend: That’s blasphemy. They ought to be killed!

Mr. M to My Engineer Friend: (in Arabic) Scientology aish?

My Engineer Friend: Humans came from aliens, not from Adaam.
They both laugh heartily.

Mr. M: These fellows are funnier than the Chinese guys! (Then, turning to me) Do you know Chinese don’t believe in Adam? They think we just came into this world, like it was no one’s business… Like we evolved from camels or something.
I smiled and put my hands on Mr. M’s shoulder.

Me: I sincerely believe that all people of any faith, if they are completely true to what has been preached to them, can do no wrong. Wrongdoers are anomalies of a system and not the results of them.

Mr. M: That is a wrong belief, my friend… Look at the western society! If people see the light, then we won’t have the evils of the West plaguing us! If you go to the beach, you have to see naked ladies taking bath in the sea… They need to be reformed.
Sigh, now I have to accept that bikinis are bad for this world.

Me: Are you trying to tell me that the church tells these women to wear bikinis to the beach? I don’t think so… I think the Pope will be very upset if he hears this. (My engineer friend laughed) But just for the sake of conversation, if you think women dress badly, what about the men?

Mr. M: For men, it is different, my Indian friend. But when women dress like that and when they go nude, they trigger many evils in the society. We are filled with bad emotions and this will lead to the downfall of Mankind.

Me: Aren’t you supposed to control yourself? I mean – how is a woman responsible if you are the one committing the evils?

Mr. M: All that you speak now – they are the Devil’s words. This desire that they trigger in us is the Devil’s work as well. It is all written in the code: if only you will understand.

Me: As I told you, everyone talks about the same things… These stories are just packaged differently to suit local needs. All I ask of you is not try to impose your faith on me. Believing in the same thing is not a prerequisite for harmonious existence. I come from a secular nation and I can assure you that much. I never once have tried to enlighten you… I only ask you to similarly keep your views unto yourself.
Mr. M gave up on his efforts to make me see the true path of light and glory. For today.

Mr. M: One day, my friend… We will all truly be brothers.

Me: But we are already brothers.

Mr. M: I don’t believe it.

Me: Well, I do.

P.S. On a normal day, I wouldn't give a damn about religion and faith. But these conversations have a strange way about them. They make you want to desperately return to your roots although you aren't all that passionate about it. These religious people – they make you religious too, by one way or the other. God save Humanity.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Peacock Horizon

The sky was turning into the most magnificent combination of crimson and gold. The moon, beaming down upon the earth with its rays of white light, appeared lonely now. A few clouds gathered by the horizon, making a statement of beauty and splendor to our thirsty eyes. The winter wind blew cold and frosty, bursting through the dunes and valleys of the desert, as I held on tightly to my light jacket.

The clouds appeared violet in a blood red sky as the smell of freshly brewed chai was carried by the wind. Short men who cowered from the relentless wind appeared tall and powerful in their shadows. Somewhere an engine was started; perhaps that of a car or maybe a generator to help battle the cold.

A few birds flew in the direction of the sun, flying so fast you would think the end was nigh. Everything in the desert had changed colour in an instant – with the sand turning from rust to deep shade of amber and with the sky now appearing blue and black. You could watch all this a million times and still it wouldn't cease to enchant.

You will fall in love with the desert twice a day – once when the Sun gets up in the East and then when it goes away in the evening. If you take away the experiences prior to them and those which come after, the two instants when you see the Sun peeking over the end of the world are entirely indistinguishable from each other. You cannot know if what will follow will be a day of bright sun or ten hours of darkness.

But you do not care about what will ensue as you are bound by the enthralling colours of the world around you. It doesn't matter what will come next as you know that it doesn't get any more beautiful than this. The desert allows you to live through one of those few rare moments when all that matters to you is only the present - not what came before and not what will come after.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Northern Star

I was seated next to Vishnu, dressed identically of course, in a spotless white shirt and blue shorts. I thanked God (and the school-administration) for not making a tie part of the uniform as it was sweltering outside; the air-conditioner in the classroom fooled us. I believe it was English class as I vaguely recall the Anglo-Indian lady teacher who stood before us that day - D'Mello, I believe her name was.

I usually have an abysmal memory but something about that day will never let me forget... I think it was what she said to Vishnu during the course of her lecture about great leaders:
'Who is your role-model?' she asked him. I looked at him quickly as he prepared his response and then back at the teacher. The question wasn't, I recall perfectly, 'Do you have a role model?' No! She had decided that part for him... Instead, she asked the poor lad who the person was.

I must give full credit to the lad seated next to me of course, as he answered promptly with a socially acceptable response. I don't remember who exactly the person was; it was probably M.K. Gandhi, Abe Lincoln or his dad. I will never know whether he truly meant what he said or whether he said it just to ensure peace and sanity in the class. All the same, I began wondering who I wanted to emulate in life and it wasn't long before I arrived at the horrifying truth. There was no one.

Over the years, I've tried hard to find that person who I found perfect in most ways, but then I've failed miserably in the endeavour. People often say that it is out of conceit and vanity that I harbour such views, but they can be no further from the truth. I believe that the day I find a rock - an immutable human being, who won't transform overnight under the pressure of society and the force of circumstance - my search will end. The day I meet someone who tells me the one thing he/she believes in most strongly and upholds this belief   even as time and circumstances break him/her down, I will look no further. Unfortunately, however, such a person is an imaginary thing and I can no longer hope to find someone I can idolize.

But over the years, I have found a substitute to fill this widening void in life. Places, unlike people, do not  change at the blink of an eye. There is an air of constancy even in our mighty cities with their rising buildings. Even if the skylines do change, the foundations upon which they were built are unshakable. Better still are the places still untouched by man - high in the mountains or in the middle of the sea - where you can return year after year and be assured that you'll be greeted by the same magnificent sights you saw before. Places let you build memories, good or bad, which aren't really influenced by the subsequent memories of them. You can rationally separate them without getting them into a sticky, unintelligible tangle. People don't let you do all these things.

Call me a fool, but even after travelling to so many places, I can no longer tell you which place is better and which place is worse. I remain a terrible tourist-guide for I can only see difference and not good and bad. Places don't judge me and I shan't judge them. I think it is unfair, for every place offers the same amount of good. Time and again, I hear places being abused and sometimes, I cannot understand why. Comfort and discomfort are parts of a traveler's life but only ones he calls upon himself. And most places I have traveled to, probably like most places you've visited, are places inhabited by Man. How then, I ask you, can one group of people find it conducive for life when you can revile it with all your heart?

It is only a matter of perspective... The very perspective which changes so quickly under circumstances ensuring that you are tomorrow, no longer the man you are today. The moment you can look over all this and realize that everything lies in your mind and not outside, you become as steady as a mountain and tranquil as the sea.

The world you see is in your mind. It's not out there.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Undeserving

Dark brown powder quickly dispersed in the boiling water which rapidly flooded his cup. He stirred the brimming cup with the ease of a man who was accustomed to making his own coffee every morning. Spiking his hair with his wet palms, he quickly walked out of the canteen to join the morning meeting, late as he usually was.

Everyone else was already there, waiting impatiently for him to come. As he approached the group, he noticed that every seat was occupied. 'Coming late clearly has its disadvantages', he thought. 'I will probably have to stand through all of it.' But hardly had he embarked upon that thought when the elderly man closest to him rose from his seat to offer it to him. He nodded nonchalantly and took the seat without a though, as if by right. He then looked around at the others expectantly, as if to say 'Get on with it already!'

His eyes met those of the leader's ephemerally and he quickly averted his gaze. The leader had made it clear during the previous meeting that latecomers wouldn't be tolerated and he wished he would be excused once again. The leader spoke next, anger showing in his voice - 'My friend,' he said. 'If I see anyone late next time, you shan't be allowed to sit in this meeting.'

The latecomer looked up sheepishly, ready to apologize but to his surprise, he realized that the chief wasn't talking to him at all! Instead, he was speaking to the man who had just given up his seat for him. Although he understood that the lecture was meant for him, he found comfort in the fact that he wasn't being rebuked in public. The words of warning uttered were harsh, but they were conveyed to him through a third person. All the while, the elderly man standing next to him nodded apologetically for no fault of his own.

The only difference between man who sipped his coffee coolly and the man who had to give up his seat for him was education. The young man with spiked hair was obviously well educated and although he had joined the firm only a few months ago, he deserved the respect afforded to him whereas the older man who had worked his entire life for the organization was already used to the chastising words thrown at him time and again. So no one was hurt badly by the events which took place that morning except for one particular spectator who wanted to throw up.

I find it terribly hard to digest the fact that some people lay claim to common resources at the expense of others simply because they can. Actually, I think it is stupid that they can in the first place. But then, it is something society has been affording them from time immemorial and it would be insane to think that there is a cure for it. However, we all do have the option of saying that we do not want that undeserved right. If you are late for a meeting, then stand. If you are on the wrong-side of a long queue, then wait your turn. Don't delude yourself into believing that you deserve anything more.

'It's okay,' said the leader at the end of the meeting, patting the elderly man on his back. 'This time, I will forgive everyone. Now, will you make me some tea?'