“Do you like coffee?” she asked me. When I said, “Yes”, she said, “I’ll make some coffee for you.” When I waited for her to make coffee for me, she asked, “But, we are in school now. How do I make coffee for you, here?” I turned silent, without knowing what to tell her. I did not know that I was being conned by her. I have always taken words literally. I was ten. She was 13. Once she laid her palms on the table and asked our mathematics teacher why she was supposed to study geometry when she will probably never use in her life. The teacher said that she was rationalizing, but I knew that she knew something that others did not. When she often stood near the door of our classroom, bending her right leg, I stared at her calf.
After she left the school, I once saw her in a temple with my mother-in-law. She was praying with her eyes closed, wearing a long skirt which was not too unlike the one you can see in old Malayalam movies. I looked at her folded palms and bare feet. While I stood there watching her through my eyes that were half-open, my mother held me by my arm and said that it was time for us to go. I felt vaguely uncomfortable. She did not see me.
This is one of my most painful childhood memories because I never visited a temple again. That summer I saw a movie in which the protagonist was an atheist. When he said that there is no proof that there is a God, it made perfect sense to me. But, how did it never occur to me, in all these years?
My little brother said that I was posing as an iconoclast. But, before long he stopped believing in God too. When I asked him what made him seriously reconsider his position in this matter, he said that “it was always obvious to him that this is nonsense.”, and that my decision had no bearing whatsoever on his. It was only much later I understood that he was probably telling the truth.
My family is religious, but they are not the proselytizing types. They did not really care whether I had this or that belief, in religion or politics. When I became an angry teenager who insulted the people who attended religious ceremonies at home, my father used to give me money and say that I can go out and buy books. And that I need not be back soon.
When we were 13, one day, I and my best friend in junior high school were giggling during the Morning Prayer. A boy said defensively, “You will never get anywhere with that kind of attitude.” My capitalistic detractor too said something to this effect when I once taunted him saying that I was going to expose his true, ugly face. It made him “afraid”. Cognitive load. But, if my memory serves me right, he was not much of a believer.
The day I joined college, when a senior knocked on my door, I did not open the door. He knocked again and again. I opened the door. When he noticed that the room was dark, he asked me whether I was praying. I said, “Yes” because he was very religious. But, when he noticed that I could not control my laughter, he screamed saying that I was lying.
When I came open about my contempt for religion in the college hostel, the other boys did not take kindly to it. Some of them woke up from their chairs. One boy said that he did not know why I never spoke to anyone. And that he was beginning to understand. When I defended my position with a great degree of rigor, they really lost their temper. My little brother said that his experience was not too different from that of mine, when he lived in a hostel while preparing for engineering entrance examinations.
Another boy—and his IQ was very high—said that I was lucky because I do not have moral scruples to get over. I then remembered what happened in High School during Morning Prayer. I was beginning to understand. Unlike us nerds, these people need someone else to keep them honest. They are not born with an inbuilt sense of morality. Someone has to scare them into obeying a moral code.
Now, I am seriously considering the possibility that the ease with which I made too many enemies at a young age has something to do with what the wise H. L. Mencken once observed:
“My essential trouble, I sometimes suspect, is that I am quite devoid of what are called spiritual gifts. This lack of understanding is a cause of enmities, and I believe that they are sound ones. I dislike any man who is pious, and all such men that I know dislike me. It sets me apart from my fellows and makes it difficult for me to understand many of their ideals and not a few of their acts. I see them responding constantly and robustly to impulses that to me are quite inexplicable. Worse, it causes these folks to misunderstand me, and to do me serious injustice.“
It is not that I do not notice my near-complete lack of integration into the mainstream society. Once a girl asked me why I had listed Virgin Mary as my partner on Facebook, and not a Sita or a Yasoda. I tried telling her that it does not matter either way to me, but she did not see my point. It seems that secularism has not seeped down to the masses. She said that being in a relationship with Virgin Mary and raving about her virginal attributes was “twisted”. I then remembered that Facebook had once rejected my request to create a profile with the name, Virgin Mary. I had believed that it must be because it is a fake name. But, now I understand that it is because this stirs up animals.
Recently a feminist smarty who thinks that it might take centuries for the retrograde views of patriarchal men to change asked me, “Shanu, Do you like my name?” It was intended to mean whether it matters to me that she is a Christian.
Once when I was standing in front of the Shiv Mandir near my house in Malviya Nagar, I remembered what the Cute-Girl-That-Fashionably-Sleeps-So-Little once told me, “Take Shiva. He was a rapist. But, people worship him.” It suddenly struck me that it must be a Hindu temple because Shiva is a Hindu God. I was living there for almost an year, but this never occurred to me before. I had seen my land lady going into the temple wearing pyjamas and I felt that it must be something cooler, because they won’t allow anyone to enter an Hindu temples in my state in such clothes. I smiled. I am amused when I notice my total alienation from the mainstream society and their concepts.
But, I am not one of those militant atheists who feel compelled to argue with believers. I find it too silly, and beneath my attention. But, religion is not without its uses. As a kid, I loved walking near the Guruvayur temple, seeing girls wearing saree over what they were wearing. I like churches and devotional songs. I also like seeing young girls pray, my long-standing atheism notwithstanding. I used to peep when my land lord’s daughter was praying. When I once insisted that Michelle should light candles inside the office, kneel down and pray, she said that she was not willing to pray inside the office, for me to see. One evening, she said that we should go to a church, far away. Kneeling down, she started praying. While walking out of the church, I said, “I think you have gained weight.” She retorted, laughing, moving her hand through the back of her trousers, “But, in all these days, you noticed it only now—when I was praying?”