I have tried convincing myself, unsuccessfully, that I have no business commenting on people’s beliefs and rituals. But there are certain experiences that are so agitating that you choke!
Chennai is a city that is an unfathomable concoction of disparate ways of living. You have the usual Page 3 glitterati, the revered Kollywood stars, the megalomaniac politicians, the intellectual few, the balanced educated middle class, the poverty stricken slum dwellers, the miserly rich – sounds like any Indian city?
Hang on – You have to live here to understand how stark the differences between people are and how these manifest themselves in every day living, unlike a metropolitan like Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore.
On the same stretch of road, you can see women wearing short dresses, salwar kameezes, saries from 6 yards to 9 yards; men wearing shorts, jeans, dhotis and suits, children with dainty sandals, sneakers and bare feet!
But this kind of economic variance is not as perturbing as the religiously charged atmosphere of the city.
In a strange way the whole city is united in its religious fervor and yet divided by the differences because of religion again. Temples adorn every street and corner available – queues of people throng these every single day – different gods for different sects – different traditions for different sects.
I am no religious person. I know only one entity - one god – a super power that I believe in. My god has no religion. The only good part about religion is the festivals – opportunities for community celebration and I believe in the spirit of all festivals irrespective of the religion they come from. So what irritates me is when religion interrupts normal life – be it the kavars in UP, the chhatt processions in Bihar, the use of loud speakers in jagratas, bhajans – however all these can be ignored as just inconveniences – take a different route, stuff cotton wool in your ears...
What is deeply unsettling is rituals out of my understanding – the death dance – the joyous dancing by men around the dead body celebrating life after death or the end of a torturous life and peace in death – I do not know.
I was just growing accustomed to this very common sight on main roads and streets here, that I had another disturbing experience yesterday. I witnessed, at multiple places, men and women with lemons and arrows pierced on their painted bodies, faces and even eyes – swaying swords, dancing as if in a trance – with hundreds around them in some sort of unexplained frenzy.
My heart had that sinking feeling you get when you sense the world around you collapsing.
At North Usman Road, I was in an auto waiting at the traffic signal – when one such procession stood right next to me. The dressed up man and woman looked towards my side and our eyes met. I did not see any religious faith, strength, joy or even anger. There was an unmistakable desperate fear, their gaze seemed to go beyond, as if in a given-up-search of another horizon.
In a split second, the noisily dancing crowd around broke my line of sight.
Why in the name of god torture do we torture our bodies, kill our souls, inconvenience and hurt others – why can’t we use the name of god to bring peace, serenity and love – the symbols god stands for?