My parents passed away within a couple of months of each other (prompting me to quote Oscar Wilde at the time “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”). Now this wasn’t due to their undying love - they barely spoke to each other while they were alive - but that’s how life goes, and they were into their 80’s anyway – so we took it on the chin. The interminable cycle of life, we philosophised..
Not so my elder sister Prem, who read some sinister planetary conspiracies into their deaths so close on each other’s heels. She tasked my late father in law to `look into’ the whole affair. Wrong choice totally, for he was someone who blamed the planets even for the constipation that was his lifelong bane (the only thing I brought with me from Lahore after the partition, he would lament). So it was no surprise when he came up with his explanation – the planets are aligned in a `PANJAKAN’ fashion, which meant that unless we took drastic corrective measures, a total of FIVE people would die in quick succession! Now Prem did some quick calculations – two down, three to go - which meant, in order of succession, my eldest sister Shukla, followed by HER!! The math scared the shit out of her, and I was hurriedly pressed into action to re-align the planets!
I was chosen not because I happen to be close to the Gods, but because the proponent of this bizarre theory happened to be my f-i-l! Now warding off the `PANJAKAN’ threat, entailed carrying out an elaborate puja, and feeding a host of Brahmins. To my lasting regret, I agreed to do the needful. The puja by an Oriya `panda’, followed by the feeding of a dozen or so overfed brahmins (they were PROFFESIONAL eaters, mind you – which meant they could be - and WERE - fed by three different families in quick succession, and EACH time they ate as much as I do in a week!) was GODAWFUL and absolutely cringe worthy!! I could see my dad admonishing me from above “Is this what I taught you in life?” My weak response - that the rituals, while obnoxious, had probably saved three lives - didn’t seem to cut much ice with him.
We are INCIDENTAL Hindus, ie we happen to be born into Hindu families, so we’re Hindu, period. We are not PRACTICING Hindus, ie the rituals and overt practices associated with the religion leave us quite unmoved. While discussing how we wanted to conduct my son’s marriage ceremony, my daughter remarked “But Pa, we’re atheists to the core!” “Agnostics, my dear” I gently chided her – which immediately prompted her to whip out her iPhone and google `Atheists versus Agnostics’. The fruits of technology, sigh..
Why then are we (most of us anyway) so laid back about our religion? Partly due to our upbringing, I guess. I don’t remember seeing any of my parents ever visiting a temple, or even conducting a hawan at home. Apart from the delectable `dhaniya ki barfi’ that my mother prepared every jamamashtmi, and the shining silver coins that made their appearance every Diwali, we remained, for the most part, ritual free. We studied in Jesuit run schools where students of every colour, caste, creed or religion sat side by side, ribbing each other endlessly – all in good fun, of course..
Pudumjee Park, the area I grew up in, presented a microcosm of India. We have a Parsi Colony (Adershir Bagh), a Christian colony (Castellino Apartments), an all caste orphanage-cum-old age home (Ishraprema Niketan), and Sindhis, as is their wont, are all over the place. Of late, the Muslims seem to have become far more visible - there are more burqas and skull caps in Pudumjee Park than in entire Islamabad, my friend Aasia from Pakistan observed wryly when she visited India.
Sipping a sun-downer on the terrace is a pleasure just as likely to be disturbed by the wailing of the azaan from the mosque next to `Dulha-Dulhan Kabristan’ as it is by the clanging of cymbals and shrieking of conch shells from Maharaj’s mandir next door. Come Gurpurab, and be prepared to be shaken out of your slumber at 4 am by the Prabhat pheri by the Sindhis and Sikhs.
We are truly a secular nation!