A personal experience

The memory of the moment is imprinted on some stubborn neurons that refuse to die. Even after more than 60 years when I look at my left cheek in the mirror and remember that moment, it seems deep red and the pain still sharp

I was 10 then, my father had passed away a year earlier, and I was spending my summer vacation with my maternal grandfather in a small, scenic town in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. One Sunday morning, he took me for a walk through the narrow streets of the town.

As we walked came in view the graceful curves of arabesque motifs on the dome of a majestic mosque, a marvel of Mughal architecture in that corner of the world. After a short walk, through the arched portal, I saw a vast expanse of the checkered marble floor, crowded with men in white skull caps kneeling with their faces towards Mecca. My grandfather, a not-so-devout-Hindu, stopped in front of the mosque, pressed his palms together and bowed his head as a sign of respect. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.

After a few minutes’ walk, the street became quieter and steeper, and we were now in front of a Catholic church. Through the large stained-glass windows, I could see Christ on the cross, exquisitely carved in white marble. My grandfather stopped, pressed his palms together and bowed his head. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.

Now we turned left into a wider street and walked downhill past a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, a simple whitewashed building proclaiming that elegance is ingeniously simple. From the street, I could see Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures, resting on a low table covered with a white silk cloth. An old man with a long snow-white beard and blue turban sat cross-legged in front of the table. In his right hand was a fluffy white fan that he waved gently over the holy book. Again, my grandfather stopped, pressed his palms together and bowed his head. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.

About two hundred yards further on we were now in front an ornate Hindu temple, full of statues dressed in garish garments. Sweet smells of burning incense and enchanting sounds of prayers reminding Hindus of their karma in this world. My grandfather repeated his ritual of respect for places of worship. But I exploded, “Why we have to bow in front of every stupid temple?” I ran inside the temple and spat on a statue of a god.

My grandfather grabbed me and smacked me on my left cheek with a force I thought only Hercules was capable of applying. “I don’t care whether you practice any religion, but you must always respect all religions,” the words erupted from his mouth like lava from a volcano. My grandfather was a man of peace and non-violence, the Mahatma Gandhi of our family. He always exuded happiness and contentment, and I had never seen him angry.

Twelve years passed, and the memory of the childhood incident somewhat dimmed. My grandfather now dead, his body on a funeral pyre a few yards from the River Ganges. A crowd of hundreds of solemn mourners, a Hindu priest chanting a prayer and throwing something on the funeral pyre. I’m watching the ritual from a distance with scepticism, far away from the flames, and then suddenly I felt my left cheek burning and grandfather’s voice thundering in my ears, “You must always respect all religions.” I pressed my hands together and bowed my head in the direction of the funeral pyre.

And then I walked away, wondering, “How could I respect all religions if I don’t know anything about them?” I started reading English translations of scriptures, commentaries and other books on all major religions. I found the books all enlightening and saw no reason I couldn’t respect all the great religions of the world.

I could never learn the divine language that comes so easily to people of faith. But I do know my grandfather would be proud of me. I can be an atheist and still respect followers of all religions. There is no paradox here.

Early this year, I was in my grandfather’s town. The idyllic town of less than 50,000 is now a teeming city of nearly half a million, testimony to the exponential population growth in India. Friends and relatives told me about a less known exponential growth, intolerance of Hindus of people of other religions.

Along with my childhood Muslim friend, I decided to take my “redemption walk”. The majestic mosque was in ruins, the Catholic Church had disappeared giving way to a new car showroom, the gurdwara was still there in all its simplicity. The Hindu temple was larger, gaudier and louder; reveling in the past five years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-Hindu government and looking forward to another five years of swaggering.

I burst into tears when my dear friend told me about the heart-breaking experience of his grandson, a Grade 5 student in a class of predominantly Hindu students. One day, his mother put a lamb kebab in his lunch box. At lunch break, when a Hindu girl saw him taking kebab out of the lunch box, she shouted, “He is eating beef.” The teacher grabbed the lunch box and emptied it in the bin. His classmates beat him so severely that the bruises took days to heal. When the little kid was being roughed, the teacher just watched the spectacle and smiled. The children now learn their lessons from anti-Muslim rhetoric of their political and religious leaders on social media and television. The so-called cow-vigilantes would have killed the little kid. Scores of innocent Muslims have been murdered on suspicion of killing cows or eating beef.

We decided to walk through the vegetable and fruit market to get a feel of the new Hindu India. Such markets tend to be narrow streets with stalls on both sides; they are not wide avenues lined up with trees and fancy shops selling designer fruits and vegetables, at least not yet.

This one was no different except the extra charm of hawkers with bicycle-wheel push carts or on foot spruiking their wares; poor little girls from the hills with faces like pink flowers, their mothers with wrinkled faces and wicker baskets on their heads; housewives with cotton bags in their hands haggling over prices, squeezing fruits to test their firmness and the limits of stallholders’ patience while their husbands look the other way; servants with hessian bags shopping for their miserly mistresses, carefully comparing the highest and the lowest prices of a particular produce so that they can pocket a few coins; stallholders touting, haggling, peeling leaves and throwing them on the street for the two cows, one lazing at each end of the street, who presided over this 100-yard long spectacle and put on their own show when they stood up and started walking slowly towards the other end of the street cleaning it like an efficient street cleaner, once they reached the middle of the street, they eyed each other, ruminated for a while and then peed on the street.

The cows were obviously enjoying the freedom and security the nation bestows upon them, more than it does on citizens of other religious persuasions. Then I saw a street cleaner, dipping a finger in the pee and touching it on his forehead as a sign of respect for the cows’ holiness, and praying with bowed head and palms pressed together in front of one of the cows. Perhaps thanking them for doing his job so efficiently.

As we went around the cows knowing fully their absolute sanctity, I didn’t know what to do: follow my grandfather, press my hands together and bow before these aimlessly moving temples or be a belligerent 10-year-old and spit on the cow, shouting, “Why do I have to respect a religion when its followers show no respect for other religions?”

Then suddenly a temple elephant painted with pigments and adorned with bells and necklaces, and his mahout on foot, both with impeccable street manners, appeared at the other end of the street. Hindu stallholders rushed with their best banana or two to feed the elephant for blessings for brisk trade from Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. I saw a smile of scepticism on my Muslim friend’s face, and tiny toddlers in their mothers’ arms screaming with pure joy without any trace of belief or unbelief on their innocent faces shining in the spring sunlight.

I resolved to remain faithful to my grandfather’s simple lesson and to enjoy the pure joy of respecting people of all faiths without any scepticism. A few misguided souls do not define religion.

© Surendra Verma 2020

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