Click here for shortcuts to regional language blogs and city-specific events.
I do not know if I have said it before but my mother was a Christian and my father, a Hindu. They were both pretty non-devout or rather, non-demonstrative in their own way. My mother would drag us to Church, maybe once a year, at Christmas or Easter, with a host of other relatives and my father did not have a single picture of any God or idol in the house. Oh, we had an ancestral home where there was a huge ancient Krishna mandir in addition to puja rooms and the works. So every now and then, if my father was in a mood to negotiate the traffic of the crowded narrow lanes of North Calcutta, we would be taken there for Saraswati puja or Raas Poornima or whatever. For me it was a time to reunite with cousins and run about and play. I also went there for the yummy kheer which was served in shallow earthenware bowls and my only contribution to the puja would be limited to drawing a few alpanas. For a while Krishna fascinated me, I actually tried to set up something like a shrine (though I would not call it that) at home and some evenings made a lot of noise with a bell and announced that I was praying! My knowledge of the God was derived primarily from Amar Chitra Kathas and I soon started to think that Shiva was far more macho and cool with his cobra and dreadlocks! So that put an end to my praying business. As for my Christian side, it was nurtured by this beautiful book we had, the Illustrated Childrens Bible, which I devoured. My favourites were Samson and David. Jesus was a bit of a bore, I thought, (too many pages, after all that one story took up the entire New Testament!) and Moses was far more interesting in the Movie the Ten Commandments. Thats also when I fell in love with Yul Brynner, but that has nothing to do here!
Anyway, the point is, through all these experiments, neither my father nor my mother tried to push me either way. Once I remember asking my father whether I was Hindu or Christian. He told me I was free to be whatever I believed in. So I gave it some thought in whatever way I could and decided I did not really believe in anything. The stories were nice but... you know that zing was missing. So I decided I was an atheist. When I announced it to my dad and declared I never wanted to enter another temple or church in my life, he was unperturbed.
Later, much later, after my father died when I was still in college, I was trying to find some spiritual context to life and death. After going through a whole lot of religious texts ranging from the Koran to the Tibetan Book of the Dead and everything I could lay my hands on in between (I am no expert, I claim to be no expert but live by my own interpretations, however wrong they may be), I now admit I am not an atheist maybe, but at the same time I do not believe in any organised form of worship or religious belief or even, any God. Tagore once said, I love my God, for he gives me the freedom to deny him and that kind of sums up everything I believe in.
So, how does all this matter? You see, after all this, when I fell in love with my husband, I married into an extremely conservative Hindu household. Not only is there a puja room where daily prayers are held twice a day, every religious festival and puja is celebrated and observed. To be fair, my husband had warned me before we got married that I would be expected to go to the puja room and do the needful, sometimes at odd hours. I had readily accepted, as long as I was not expected to believe but could do it as a duty. I have kept my part of the bargain and so has he.
Now when it came to my daughters and their cousins, from very young ages they have all been exposed to a very conservative Hindu culture. They know there are days they are expected to wake early and go to the puja room after a bath and help in the festivities. They do everything expected of them and even have their own separate puja for Saraswati puja. They know they have to wear their traditional Indian clothes and happily adjust from their usual shorts for as long as it is required. They obediently go to the puja room and bow and kneel before the Gods that their grandfathers and their grandfathers before them so devoutly believed in.
My girls have also often asked me about the many Gods and idols and I have replied as honestly as I could without adding my own two bits. Their grandmothers and grandfather have exposed them to temples, places of worship, shrines and stories. I personally have every religious text handy. I also have bought them almost every book in Amar Chitra Katha, (dont laugh, for a child I still insist that it is the best way to gain an interest in mythology and stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata). I also got them a Childrens Bible and for good measure the ones with stories about the Greek Gods. (Who doesnt love Jason and the Golden Fleece?) They have read Jaya and Sita by Devdutt Pattanaik because I told them they are wonderful renditions of the epics and also give a lot of insights into the thought processes and cultural beliefs of the time. I have also explained how history and sometimes geography has also governed religious thought and belief. In short, they have been given the exposure and been taught to think. I hope.
This year, the older one sat for her ICSE. Every day of the papers she would accompany her dad to the puja room and then leave for her exam. Later, after her results were out, my husband asked her one day, so did you ask God to give you good marks?
She did not hesitate for even a second: I dont pray. The marks, I have to get. What can God do?
My husband was quiet. Later, much later, he told me he was glad that she had that confidence that she did not depend on any external agency to see her through life, she will be fortunate if she can be that way always. I listened quietly, there was nothing to say. I dont know whether it is her own questioning nature of whether some of my nonchalance has rubbed off on her. When I speak to my girls (and I include my older 21 year-old niece) I find they are tolerant, broad-minded, open-hearted and anti-dogmatic. I like it. I do not know where their lives are going to throw them. I also do not know how far they will travel in life without feeling the pressures to belong to any religious ceremony or ritual. I dont know or understand why suddenly we are surrounded by narrow minded politics and it scares me. I only know that in todays world when everyone is suddenly so concerned about other peoples beliefs, food-habits, clothes and lifestyles based solely on religion and/or caste, my girls will be hopefully able to keep their heads above water and know that what religion/faith/belief you belong or do not belong to does not matter. And never should.