When I started posting to this blog, I’d made a list of those topics that I wouldn’t write about… I guess all of us here have done that at some stage. Today I break that promise… by writing about a subject that has already earned more than it’s fair share of controversy and debate in recent times; “Religion”. No, I’m not a very religious person… In fact most people that know me personally would say that I wasn’t religious at all. But the truth is at times, like most people, whenever it is convenient, whenever I find myself in a situation that I think is not within my complete control, I do depend on an unknown force to help me pull through.
I was born into a Hindu household, but I respect Hinduism as a faith, more than a religion. In this, I respect Hinduism only as another pair of glasses people wear to depend on the unknown. Hinduism is the pair of glasses I have been brought up to wear, but I don’t think it gives me any better a view of God than Islam or Christianity or Sikhism or any other “religion”. Which explains why I’m most comfortable keeping my faith private, very private. This begs the question: if I want to keep my faith private, why in hell (or heaven) am I writing about it in a public space… Let me explain… Your’s truly does not visit a lot of temples. In fact, the last two times I did (in 3 years), I did it to keep somebody else’s commitments. Both of my experiences reinforce a point I’m trying to emphasize in this post. On Sunday, the 15th of May 2005, I decided to visit Kalighat Temple in the City of Joy. I went there only because I didn’t want to sound rude and spoilsport to the company I was keeping. Let’s just say that I have the experience to know that even today, most people do not look at a person who refuses to visit a place of worship, as a normal person. So they proposed and I went along… with an open mind. Besides, most “Citizens” of Joy highly recommended this visit. Anyway, this is what happened: As we stepped out of our car, three bare bodied “Pandits” with super-sized Tilaks insisted on escorting us inside the temple. We thought, “Well, they think we’re wide-eyed tourists… we’ll show them…” and said to them in a relatively authoritarian tone, “We’ll find our way around, thank you!”. I must have had a particularly uninviting expression on my face, which is probably why two of them grumbled and left. The one who remained calmly said “This is my job, don’t worry… this way please” and kept walking a couple of feet ahead of us, continuously warding off the flower-sellers, beggars and assorted junior pandits who seemed to be falling off the very walls of that entrance in front of us. He led us straight to a dingy shop in the corridor where there were assorted ingredients for a “Pooja” being sold for the “right” price and almost ordered us to keep our shoes there. I immediately did what a true Arian does in such situations and straightened up and told him to piss off and that I didn’t need his help to get around. As soon as I did that, a couple of people standing there made some noise about how you should not speak with anger with a “Pandit”, at which I lost it completely and asked them to piss off too, though in much more politically correct language. I swear I didn’t swear even once… we proceeded to another stall, took our shoes off and asked for the Pooja platter. The man at the stall proceeded to load a small 9-inch plate with about 20 kilos of stuff, including but not limited to, 2 coconuts, a huge garland, a box of vermilion, and hundreds of smaller unidentifiable trinkets. You couldn’t imagine how much stuff you could balance on a small metal plate 9 inches in diameter, but let’s not change the topic. I asked him how much the platter was for, and he cutely said, “We have a wide range, Rs.501, Rs.751…”, I cut him off and said “Rs. 51 please…”. I have never seen a quicker change of expression than at that instance. Suddenly, the contents of that platter miraculously reduced to just one coconut and a half-dried garland. I thought, “What the heck… it’s the feeling that counts”, and left towards where I thought the entrance of the temple was, but I was in for another surprise… I knew then that this was just the beginning…
“Walk this way…”, one of the hangers-on said, more like an order than a request, “and take your socks off too, they’ll get wet”. I looked quizzically at the man in the stall and he said, “He’s your Pandit… he’ll take you inside, you won’t have to stand in the queue!”. We followed, like ants in a straight line… As we entered a shabby corridor, one side of which was occupied by at least 10 beggars, most of who looked pretty affluent for beggars. As we walked inside, our Pandit whispered in my ear, “Your jewelry, your money and your cameras…. Be VERY careful!”. “Yeah, right, I thought… the only ambiguity is about who gets to rob me first…”.
The atmosphere inside the place was decidedly spooky, strange people lying motionless on the ground here and there, like dead… several pandits staring knives and daggers at us. The irritation I was feeling was overwhelming as compared to the spookiness, and faith was nowhere in the picture. As we walked around a smallish, very dirty building, I noticed… there was NO queue… “Sucker…”, I told myself, ”but what the heck, the faster I’m through this, the better.”. He led us to a closed door, a man sitting beside it, apparently the Pandit in charge of worshipping whatever was behind that door (We were later told that was the sanctum sanctorum). The Pandit asked us to recite a few mantras after him and noticeably accelerated proceedings after looking at the suspicious way in which I was staring at him. Trust me, I have heard Sanskrit and Bengali before, but whatever he was muttering sounded like it was straight from Qo’nos!
A few seconds later, he borrowed a coconut from our platter, repeated some of the gibberish, sprinkled it with some vermilion and said the first intelligible thing in several minutes, “Rs. 501 please…”. This time, I thought I’d take it cool, and took out a 50-rupee note and placed it on the coconut. The respected Pandit took the note and threw it back at me… and said, “If you can’t honor God, why do you come here?”. Seething, I asked him, “What does a poor man do here?”, and he said, “Even the poor pay more…”. I said, “What difference does it make? God has no use for money… and you look rich enough already!”, and was immediately asked by those with me to shut up… eventually I didn’t pay him more than Rs. 51, but I was too sore to continue this any further… but my torture didn’t end there…
By now I was tiring of being the pain in the ass for everybody around but for some reason, I couldn’t get myself to think that it was all right to shower money on people masquerading as agents of God. I was convinced it was wrong to do so… and my conviction was strengthened quickly by what happened immediately after. The Pandit escorting us told me it was not a good thing to question age-old rituals and the guardians of the same. I didn’t argue, only because by now, I was tired of being the only cynic around. We went around another small, even dirtier building, the gates to which were locked, but there were at least three or four people lying on the floor inside, making me wonder how they got inside in the first place. By now, the place had started to resemble the aftermath of a wild rave party, with people lying around the place in meth, coke or ecstasy induced slumber. There, a fat dude, again with a larger-than-life Tilak on his forehead, called us to another door, with a few stairs leading to it. We were made to stand on the stairs, three abreast, and after some more gibberish, we were told by our escort that the fat dude was the chief Pandit in the temple and if he performs our Pooja, any wish we make could be realized. A few seconds later, from the corner of my eye, I noticed a few other people undergoing the same treatment and heard, to my surprise, their escort telling them that the man in front of them was the head Pandit of the temple!
I played along, by now, all religious thoughts banished from my mind. Never before, I tell you, had I felt so atheist in my life, but why blame God for what his representatives do? Then, something right out of a Hindi film happened! A man walked up behind us, and passed on a 500-rupee note to the Pandit and said, “Mr. Anil Chaudary sent this for a Pooja”. The Pandit, temporarily interrupting proceedings, went on a little tirade complaining about how he does not do Poojas with such small offerings. Then, nonchalantly, his point made, he continued and some more mantras later, asked me to place some money on top of the coconut he was holding. I proceeded to place Rs.101 on his palm, and he looked at me like I was covered in something green and slimy and said, “You should not insult the Gods like this, we don’t even accept anything less than Rs.1001, at least do more than this! ”, showing me the 500-rupee note that the imaginary “Mr. Chaudary” had sent. I told him I couldn’t better that and this time, I was being absolutely honest… I hadn’t expected this to be such an expensive trip and had left my money in the car. Our man proceeded to lecture me about how he was the head Pandit of the place and if we couldn’t afford him we shouldn’t have come to him in the first place. He also happened to tell off our escort for bringing such cheap devotees to him. I told him, “I didn’t come here to meet the top Pandit, I came here to look for God, like all other devotees… so if you feel heartbroken about this, sorry but you’re not any more or less important to me than any of the others here…”.
I didn’t want to lecture him, particularly because that’s my profession and I hate it when I get into a lecture, especially when I’m not being paid for it. I was boiling inside by now, so I told him to give us the Pooja offering so we could leave. As we left, we went to the stall to fetch our footwear, and I paid the stall-owner the promised Rs. 50, when our escort said, “Sir, give me Rs.100 too, I ensured you didn’t have to take the queue”. I was stunned. I asked him “What queue?”, a question he didn’t answer but instead said, “I also took you to the head Pandit, and not many people have the good fortune of getting their Pooja done by him”. I said ”You’re lucky we’re near a temple, because otherwise you’d have been on the floor, counting the teeth that fell out of your mouth when I whacked your face. Take what I’m giving you and shut up… before I lose whatever decency I have left in me…”.
I walked off with thoughts in my mind of how long it’s been since I’ve spoken to anybody in that tone, but I was really over the edge by then. I walked away from that place feeling ashamed, frustrated, angry, disillusioned, violent and embarrassed, all at the same time, but definitely not anything I expected to feel after a close encounter with something so celestial. And looking back, I now realize just how violent and rebellious that hour-long trip down salvation alley made me feel. I had never felt this way before, and I hope I will never have to. I’ve come close to feeling like this, though. That was about a year ago at another temple, one that was much smaller and lesser known than the Kalighat temple, several thousand miles away to the west coast of the country. But more on that in part II
One thing I just realized is that, at the end of the day at Kalighat, after all the racket and the emotions involved, we eventually never got to see the Goddess… aint that strange ?
[Disclaimer: This is one of the posts from my first ever blog, that is now defunct. Though amateur, and in some cases silly, I did want to retain an archive of everything I have ever written in the blogosphere. Thank you for your patience]