Sunday, August 17, 2014

Celebrating the child in me

I have often wondered whether we are born good or bad. Not that I have lost faith in mankind. But this world, with all its conflict and degradation, does not sustain that faith either. There are good people. Bad people. And “people.” I believe this world consists mainly of this third category. But before I explain what this possibly could mean, let me come out with it – all human beings are born “good,” unhindered and unmoved by caste, colour, race or religious preference, much less political preference. I am no educationist or child psychologist. But nothing can overwhelm my faith in children. Nonetheless, there are times when I doubt this as well. I was a child once. I knew innocence. I knew smiles. I could distinguish between honesty and hypocrisy in a way no “mature” adult ever could or can. And I don’t think I left that childhood completely behind.

So when I am told by a certain “friend” of mine that I should have been born and raised in another religion, I can only laugh. Prejudice unmasked. Hidden beneath the well-intended advice, of course, was the sneer. No-one is perfect. But it doesn’t take much to realize we’ve come to a point where even the choice of religion exercised by your parents has become a sort of criterion to measure friendship. It’s that bad. I wouldn’t have been saddened by this alone, though. Indeed, I wasn’t surprised by it. I could have merely asked the “friend” to mind his/her own business, and that would have been the end of the matter.

But the problem doesn’t end there. I know for a fact that children are prone to ask these questions, once in a way. I suppose I must have come from a different generation. Back in my day, questions related to faith and belief were out of bounds. Forbidden territory. Now, though, comments are thrown back and forth with no care in the world, reflecting the prejudices and bigotries that often run through the child’s parent. There’s no other way of explaining it. But I know that the child is innocent in this. S/he is yet too immature to realize the gravity of the question being posed. This is what we call “conditioning.” What is being “conditioned” is the parent’s parochialism. With this, I can say with reason, the child is well on his/her way to bigotry and disharmony.

Just the other day, for instance, I was light-heartedly taken to task by a couple of kids for my religion. At the outset, let me say that being born to both Buddhism and Catholicism in my family did not cause me to love one and hate the other. It would be safer to say that, possibly like many others born to such circumstances, I grew up indifferent to both. My question to those taking issue with my parent’s choice of religion for me, then, is this: even if that choice were made differently, would my wishes be consulted at the birth registrar? Would my own personal opinion be accounted for? At that age? Of course, that’s what I always ask of adults. But what do you say to kids?

I was at a loss for words when they began asking me, a little hurt I thought, why I wasn’t in “their” religion. The youngest of them, who was also the most open, pressed me further. “Why didn’t you take communion like us?” The question was put, I felt, in a bit of an accusatory form. I didn’t know what to say or think. All I knew was that this boy, at some point before, had wanted to visit a temple; and that his father had blatantly forbidden him, even when he had cried out and pleaded with him. When I heard the story, naturally I was saddened. For the father had been thinking pretty much the way many of those following my religion do: that “conversion” occurs magically just as you enter another place of worship. Of course, a more ridiculous notion is hard to find. If we were to count those “converting” to another set of beliefs purely by the number of visits made to other sites, we would have to count in quite a lot.

But those two kids, to be fair, were interested in my religion, more than I could ever be. The bigger one, admittedly, had outgrown that interest a little – his father (the mother was Buddhist) had instilled in him a dispassionate indifference to a religion which, I felt, he would have been interested in once upon a time. This wasn’t the case with the younger kid, at least not yet. He was asking about my religion, vigorously. Looking back, I feel a little relieved at this, though I dread knowing whether that younger kid will go through the same insular path the other had. But that question they asked me has remained in my mind. It has raised quite a lot of other questions in me – and a few hornets’ nests as well.

Children ask pointed questions. That’s natural. Not because they are by nature impolite, but because, at that age, they are unable to veil the “object” of the questions being asked. In this case, these two boys were confused why, having a Catholic father, I was not taken to their faith. They had come to believe that having a Catholic parent, whether mother or father, meant automatic baptism. They were curious, but not angry or condescending, unlike that friend of mine. I have asked that question of myself several times since then. I’ve come to some answers, but I’m not sure whether they’re right.

Goodness knows who I might have become if I were any different to what I am. To this day, I ask myself whether I would have been a better or worse man if I had become different. Perhaps I would have been open to the privileges which, in education and elsewhere, a change of this sort brings with it in this country. Perhaps I could have been made more devout in my beliefs than I am at present. Perhaps I could have developed a love for religion which I lack at present. Perhaps, in that case, I wouldn’t have been writing all this. I may never know. I am no clairvoyant.

Mind you, I am not proud of who I am. Neither am I proud of my religion, because that kind of pride brings with it hate: and hate, as we all know, is most opposed to the spirit of religion. That is why I abhor organized religion, because, being “organized,” it defines itself only in relation to the “Other.” I am sure those kids will grow up viewing their religion that way. I am also sure that along with Christians, there will also be Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims who will grow up scattering hate on the pretext of “following” their beliefs. Identity creates rift. Rift causes disunity.

But identity, at a time when it has become all too difficult to define, is important. I may not laud what I am. But I’m yet to meet someone else who isn’t proud of his/her background. The person who can define his/her religion without taking recourse to the “Other,” without feeling the need to proselytize, while finding the true spirit of that religion from within, is of a rare breed. I think that breed dies out when we reach the end of our childhood. It is when we are children that we can ask questions candidly, pointedly, without feeling prejudiced at all. That, mind you, is the line that separates those two boys from that “friend.”

For that friend was of the “third” kind of people I was talking about earlier. This third kind, the most typical in this world, is neither good nor bad. People falling into this category have one thing in common. They left their childhood, their innocence and their smiles a long time ago. Some of them became bigots. Some others became moderates. A few became liberals, but with the controversy that inevitably arises out of that, a great many became turncoats later on.

That is why I celebrate the child in me. All other things aside, that’s one thing I can be proud of. And I know I am.