“Our names have nothing to do with religion,” said Lakshman Sharma to Simon Cruz, “unlike yours.”
Cruz had been on a tour to India, a stereotypical tourist travelling through stereotypical mausoleums, savouring stereotypical cuisine, listening to stereotypical music – he was getting bored. When he had left for India, his first time, he wanted to do all this, for that is all he knew from his stereotypical Indian friends back in his own country.
“You must see the Taj Mahal,” they would advise, and then recommend the best places where he could relish the richness of authentic Mughlai cuisine. Cruz had done all that, and he had certainly enjoyed doing that, even dancing to some faux-Bhangra beats from the latest Bollywood flick.
Yet, Cruz knew that there was more to India than all this. An endless chain of broken and unbroken traditions from several millennia must have more than movies and mausoleums. Perhaps, thought Cruz, India has the knack of amplifying the inner desire within anyone who wants to know more about her. It was almost as if she peers into the hearts of all those who come to get her glimpse, and chooses and beckons only those with a yearning for her secrets.
So it was that Simon Cruz, through his network, got introduced to Lakshman Sharma, and they, along with two of Sharma’s friends, Vasudev Gupta and Deb Ghosh, were conversing in an upmarket café about how their names had nothing to do with religion.
“Isn’t your name Lakshman?” asked Cruz with some confusion. “Wasn’t Lakshman the brother of Lord Ram?”
“Ah! Yes, but you see,” said Sharma coolly, “Ram has nothing to do with religion either.”
“Unless,” said Gupta with a twinkle, “we consider his patriarchy, which has everything to do with religion.”
Ignoring the last part, Cruz said, still appearing confused, “How about the temple for Lord Ram that has been in the news recently?”
“Temples are secular, public places,” said Ghosh. “Temples have nothing to do with religion.”
“Also,” said Sharma, “you don’t need to keep calling him LordRam. He is a fictional character.”
In the silence that ensued, the only sound that could be heard was the lilting music of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia’s flute coming from well-concealed speakers in the café.
“Listen to this music, Cruz” urged Gupta. “Do you know the song?”
Cruz listened to the tune for some time, and then lit up. “Isn’t this…Vaishnava Jana To?”
“That’s brilliant,” exclaimed Gupta. “How did you know?”
“Well, I have heard this song a few times recently – I think this is associated with Gandhi, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” intervened Sharma, and added, “but the point is that that song has nothing to do with religion.”
While the Prime Minister, Modi, may have agreed to this statement, Cruz didn’t.
“What about carols and – what do you call it – Sufi music? I would say they are associated with religion and nothing else.”
“Ah! But you see,” argued Ghosh, “when religion inspires art, you get hymns and carols and Sufi music, but when religion hinders arts, you get the cacophony of bhajans and kirtans.”
“Let me get this straight,” said Cruz. “A carol is associated with religion but a bhajan is not?”
“Of course,” said all the three together, and then Sharma commented, “Who would consider bhajan as music anyway?”
The hidden speakers in the café had now moved on to some indistinguishable music from one of the indistinguishable Bollywood movies, the fluidity of Urdu lyrics gently mocking the inclusion of this song under “Hindi” in any of the music streaming apps.
“Now listen to this one,” urged Gupta, and then added, without any hint of irony or history, “What purity!”
“I don’t know much of what he is singing,” said Cruz, “but he keeps repeating ‘My God My God My God’ over and over again.”
“As I said,” said Ghosh, and then went on glibly, “that’s what happens when religion inspires art. How simply and sublimely he talks about becoming one with God.”
“If he is one with God, Deb,” argued Cruz in a sarcasm that none of the three got, “he can’t say that it is his God – in that case, he should be the God. Isn’t that what Hindu philosophy teaches?”
Sharma, Gupta, and Ghosh were a little taken aback at Cruz’s response, for they expected the “foreigner” to be docile about what they told him. It was turning about to be a long evening, and the cappuccino they had ordered had gone cold and flat.
“Philosophy,” said Ghosh, “has nothing to do with religion.”
“I am sure you would say that Shankaracharya was not a Hindu,” ventured Cruz with a smile.
Now tackling this particular line of argument was not new to them. “Yes,” said Sharma, “in fact, Shankaracharya had always been against Hindu traditions – so he had nothing to do with religion, either.”
“How about Diwali?” asked Cruz, and the way he said it indicated to the rest that he was thoroughly enjoying himself. It disconcerted them. “You know what,” he continued, “don’t bother replying to that. Let me say what you would anyway: festivals have nothing to do with religion – Diwali, Holi, Navratri, and the ones in the South too, Onam, Pongal.”
The rest had just enough shame to agree sheepishly at first and then offer an explanation on the one that was easiest.
“Crackers were never a part of religious rituals, Cruz,” offered Sharma.
“And Christmas trees were, Lakshman?” asked Cruz.
“Aha!” exclaimed Gupta, as if winning the argument, “but Christmas trees don’t pollute the environment, Cruz. Crackers do.”
Ghosh latched onto this and said, “What did I tell you, Cruz? Religion should inspire, not be a burden.”
“So what you are basically saying is that Hindu festivals have nothing to do with the Hindu religion,” said Cruz.
“I would rather say,” ventured Gupta, “that Hindu festivals can be enjoyed more responsibly if they are dissociated from the Hindu religion.”
“Ah! I think I get what you are saying here,” said Cruz. “Hindu temples, Hindu gods, Hindu goddesses, Hindu festivals, Hindu rituals, Hindu kings, even Hindu mathematicians who got inspiration because Hindu goddesses came in their dreams – they have nothing to do with the Hindu religion.”
When Cruz was saying this, Sharma, Gupta, and Ghosh were nodding vigorously like one of those Thanjavur bommais (dancing dolls) which, they would have cheerily said, have nothing to do with religion.
“Not only that,” continued Cruz, even as the others continued the bommai act, “food, music, culture, clothes, rituals, technology – this has nothing to do with the Hindu religion too.”
Sharma was the first to respond ecstatically. “You got that right, Cruz!”
“Hmm,” said Cruz. “What is associated with the Hindu religion then?”
Pat came the reply from one of them, “Patriarchy.”
“Especially,” added Sharma, “the Brahminical variety.”
Gupta and Ghosh, along with Sharma, then conversed, more to themselves than to Cruz, about casteism, bigotry, superstitions, pollution, alien invasion, and any other subject that took their fancy. It appeared to Cruz that they rather enjoyed this conversation, as a child would talk about her favourite cartoon program.
Cruz thought that they were hardly different from his Indian friends back in his own country. While appearing to listen to them, he poured himself some more coffee.
Suddenly there was silence as if someone had pressed the “Mute” button on the remote.
“What is this, Cruz?” said Sharma, pointing to the rudraksha on his wrist and a large but partially visible tattoo of Om.
Assuming that someone must have conned Cruz during one of his tours, Gupta said, “you shouldn’t fall for charlatans, Cruz. So many of them around.”
“I wear them,” said Cruz, showing his wrist, “because I believe in them. I am a Hindu.” The Hanuman pendant that hung from his chain, however, he kept to himself.
“But,” said Lakshman, putting his finger in the nub, “your name is Cruz.”
“And yours,” said Cruz, “is Lakshman.”
Author of “Twisted Threads”, a satirical book on power, politics, and pollution set in the post-2014 era about connected machines and disconnected ideologies.