Iwas watching Harry Potter on a lazy Sunday afternoon when my dad said, “This is so stupid, no one flies on a broom.” Now, I’m no Potterhead to take offence, but I felt like I just couldn’t let it go. “Well, it’s fiction. I know it’s not real.” I then paused for a moment and with a lower tone let this zinger fly: “I’m not the one who believes that a monkey flew with a mountain in his hand.” My dad stared me down until he exited the room.
Born in a Gujarati family, I was raised Hindu, but I went to a convent school and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. My upbringing was so secular that if I were in politics, the Congress party would have already offered me a ticket by now. My mum must have done some “paaps in her previous life” (her words, not mine) that I turned out to be nastik.
Being an atheist in India can be confusing. There are multiple religions, hundreds of prayers, crores of gods, and millions of controversies surrounding us. I know only the Gayatri Mantra and it’s what I whisper in my head when I have to pretend to pray, regardless of whether it’s a temple, mosque, church, or gurudwara. As a nastik, you are not invested in any of the rituals and traditions, but you sure as hell are interested in public holidays. Nothing breaks your heart like finding out that Bhai Dooj will fall on a Saturday this year. Holidays know no religion.
Another thing that does not know religion is dance and food. Whether it is the ghaati dance during Ganpati, feasting on delicious food during Durga Pujo, kite-flying during Makar Sankranti, or playing with gulal during Holi, the celebration is hard to resist, even if you’re nastik. One has to be a sadist to not notice how beautifully the streets are lit up during Diwali and Christmas, but one has to be careful about making these observations. You don’t want to goad mum into asking, “Are festivals just about having fun for you?” This is a rhetorical question. Obviously, she doesn’t really want an honest response from me.
Over the years, I have mastered the classic Indian trait of adjusting my belief system as per my convenience. I visit the Ganesh temple near my house because I really love the kheer they distribute as prasad. I would accompany my Catholic classmates to church just so that I could bunk lectures, and on Diwali, I keep touching the feet of the elders in the family because each bow is rewarded with a cash-filled envelope. To be honest, I’m not different from religious leaders. Like them, I too exploit customs for my personal benefit.
This attitude, while profound, does cause a bit of tension at home. Diwali for instance, is fraught with arguments. My mum looks forward to waking up early, bathing, dressing up in all her finery, and performing puja, while I look forward to getting up in the afternoon, doing nothing all day, feasting on farsan, and scamming relatives for fat envelopes. Patakhas may be banned in parts of India, but fireworks are guaranteed at home.
The stress of waking up early and getting dressed is followed by the expectation of participating in the house puja with enthusiasm. One has to wear a clean kurta and stand with folded hands at least for two minutes when mum is around. What’s the point of praying if mum’s not taking notes? Over the years, I’ve mastered yet another trick. During the Diwali aarti, I indulge in such furious clapping that I could give a seal from Antarctica a run for its money.
While my parents have now gradually come to terms with me being nastik, they try to keep it under wraps when interacting with relatives. Courtesy, India’s classic “log kya kahenge” syndrome. Most of our relatives aren’t as casual about faith as my parents. As Gujaratis, they are very passionate about two things: God and Narendra Modi. If they find out about my religious orientation, they’d go into a state of shock and give me look you’d reserve for someone who’d just called NASA’s Diwali picture fake. They’ll then move on to condole with my parents: “You’ve not done a shoddy job of raising him, it’s this whole generation that has no values.”
Perhaps, it is indeed is a generation thing. With more people refusing to believe in any sort of god than ever before. My mum’s biggest worry right now is that my “shameless attitude” will rub off on my younger sister and she might also grow up to be nastik. In her worldview, that could be the new plague, a world full of people who don’t believe in god but still enjoy all the free food and booze that comes with celebrations of him.
Being nastik in a religiously charged country like India, where you have faith on steroids, can mean that there are seven different kinds of hell that you can go to, all in one lifetime. Until that moment, dare I say, “God bless you!”