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Chapter 17
First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in theimpression made by the first. I owe to Hinduism the originallandscape of my religious imagination, those towns and rivers,battlefields and forests, holy mountains and deep seas wheregods, saints, villains and ordinary people rub shoulders, and, indoing so, define who and why we are. I first heard of thetremendous, cosmic might of loving kindness in this Hindu land.
It was Lord Krishna speaking. I heard him, and I followed him.
And in his wisdom and perfect love, Lord Krishna led me tomeet one man.
I was fourteen years old – and a well-content Hindu on aholiday – when I met Jesus Christ.
It was not often that Father took time off from the zoo, butone of the times he did we went to Munnar, just over inKerala. Munnar is a small hill station surrounded by some ofthe highest tea estates in the world. It was early May and themonsoon hadn't come yet. The plains of Tamil Nadu werebeastly hot. We made it to Munnar after a winding, five-hourcar ride from Madurai. The coolness was as pleasing as havingmint in your mouth. We did the tourist thing. We visited aTata tea factory. We enjoyed a boat ride on a lake. We toureda cattle-breeding centre. We fed salt to some Nilgiri tahrs – aspecies of wild goat – in a national park. ("We have some inour zoo. You should come to Pondicherry," said Father tosome Swiss tourists.) Ravi and I went for walks in the teaestates near town. It was all an excuse to keep our lethargy alittle busy. By late afternoon Father and Mother were as settledin the tea room of our comfortable hotel as two cats sunningthemselves at a window. Mother read while Father chatted withfellow guests.
There are three hills within Munnar. They don't bearcomparison with the tall hills – mountains, you might call them– that surround the town, but I noticed the first morning, aswe were having breakfast, that they did stand out in one way:
on each stood a Godhouse. The hill on the right, across theriver from the hotel, had a Hindu temple high on its side; thehill in the middle, further away, held up a mosque; while thehill on the left was crowned with a Christian church.
On our fourth day in Munnar, as the afternoon was comingto an end, I stood on the hill on the left. Despite attending anominally Christian school, I had not yet been inside a church– and I wasn't about to dare the deed now. I knew very littleabout the religion. It had a reputation for few gods and greatviolence. But good schools. I walked around the church. It wasa building unremittingly unrevealing of what it held inside, withthick, featureless walls pale blue in colour and high, narrowwindows impossible to look in through. A fortress.
I came upon the rectory. The door was open. I hid arounda corner to look upon the scene. To the left of the door wasa small board with the words Parish Priest and AssistantPriest on it. Next to each was a small sliding block. Both thepriest and his assistant were IN, the board informed me ingold letters, which I could plainly see. One priest was workingin his office, his back turned to the bay windows, while theother was seated on a bench at a round table in the largevestibule that evidently functioned as a room for receivingvisitors. He sat facing the door and the windows, a book in hishands, a Bible I presumed. He read a little, looked up, read alittle more, looked up again. It was done in a way that wasleisurely, yet alert and composed. After some minutes, he closedthe book and put it aside. He folded his hands together on thetable and sat there, his expression serene, showing neitherexpectation nor resignation.
The vestibule had clean, white walls; the table and bencheswere of dark wood; and the priest was dressed in a whitecassock – it was all neat, plain, simple. I was filled with asense of peace. But more than the setting, what arrested mewas my intuitive understanding that he was there – open,patient – in case someone, anyone, should want to talk to him;a problem of the soul, a heaviness of the heart, a darkness ofthe conscience, he would listen with love. He was a manwhose profession it was to love, and he would offer comfortand guidance to the best of his ability.
I was moved. What I had before my eyes stole into myheart and thrilled me.
He got up. I thought he might slide his block over, but hedidn't. He retreated further into the rectory, that's all, leavingthe door between the vestibule and the next room as open asthe outside door. I noted this, how both doors were wideopen. Clearly, he and his colleague were still available.
I walked away and I dared. I entered the church. Mystomach was in knots. I was terrified I would meet a Christianwho would shout at me, "What are you doing here? How dareyou enter this sacred place, you defiler? Get out, right now!"There was no one. And little to be understood. I advancedand observed the inner sanctum. There was a painting. Wasthis the murti? Something about a human sacrifice. An angrygod who had to be appeased with blood. Dazed women staringup in the air and fat babies with tiny wings flying about. Acharismatic bird. Which one was the god? To the side of thesanctum was a painted wooden sculpture. The victim again,bruised and bleeding in bold colours. I stared at his knees.
They were badly scraped. The pink skin was peeled back andlooked like the petals of a flower, revealing kneecaps that werefire-engine red. It was hard to connect this torture scene withthe priest in the rectory.
The next day, at around the same time, I let myself IN.
Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment thatcomes down heavily. My experience with Father Martin was notat all like that. He was very kind. He served me tea andbiscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch; hetreated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Orrather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story.
And what a story. The first thing that drew me in wasdisbelief. What? Humanity sins but it's God's Son who pays theprice? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, "Piscine, a lionslipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas.
Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two ofthem ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks andgrey herons. And who's to say for sure who snacked on ourgolden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Somethingmust be done. I have decided that the only way the lions canatone for their sins is if I feed you to them.""Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do.
Give me a moment to wash up.""Hallelujah, my son.""Hallelujah, Father."What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology.
I asked for another story, one that I might find moresatisfying. Surely this religion had more than one story in itsbag – religions abound with stories. But Father Martin mademe understand that the stories that came before it – and therewere many – were simply prologue to the Christians. Theirreligion had one Story, and to it they came back again andagain, over and over. It was story enough for them.
I was quiet that evening at the hotel.
That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand.
The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies,kidnappers and usurpers. What is the Ramayana but theaccount of one long, bad day for Rama? Adversity, yes.
Reversals of fortune, yes. Treachery, yes. But humiliation?
Death? I couldn't imagine Lord Krishna consenting to bestripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streetsand, to top it off, crucified – and at the hands of merehumans, to boot. I'd never heard of a Hindu god dying.
Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monstersdid, as did mortals, by the thousands and millions – that'swhat they were there for. Matter, too, fell away. But divinityshould not be blighted by death. It's wrong. The world soulcannot die, even in one contained part of it. It was wrong ofthis Christian God to let His avatar die. That is tantamount toletting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannotbe fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a humantragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ.
The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured methat it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, evenresurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever inHis mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be acertain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horrormust be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Whynot leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what isbeautiful, spoil what is perfect?
Love. That was Father Martin's answer.
And what about this Son's deportment? There is the story ofbaby Krishna, wrongly accused by his friends of eating a bit ofdirt. His foster mother, Yashoda, comes up to him with awagging finger. "You shouldn't eat dirt, you naughty boy," shescolds him. "But I haven't," says the unchallenged lord of alland everything, in sport disguised as a frightened human child.
"Tut! Tut! Open your mouth," orders Yashoda. Krishna does ashe is told. He opens his mouth. Yashoda gasps. She sees inKrishna's mouth the whole complete entire timeless universe, allthe stars and planets of space and the distance between them,all the lands and seas of the earth and the life in them; shesees all the days of yesterday and all the days of tomorrow;she sees all ideas and all emotions, all pity and all hope, andthe three strands of matter; not a pebble, candle, creature,village or galaxy is missing, including herself and every bit ofdirt in its truthful place. "My Lord, you can close your mouth,"she says reverently.
There is the story of Vishnu incarnated as Vamana thedwarf. He asks of demon king Bali only as much land as hecan cover in three strides. Bali laughs at this runt of a suitorand his puny request. He consents. Immediately Vishnu takeson his full cosmic size. With one stride he covers the earth,with the second the heavens, and with the third he boots Baliinto the netherworld.
Even Rama, that most human of avatars, who had to bereminded of his divinity when he grew long-faced over thestruggle to get Sita, his wife, back from Ravana, evil king ofLanka, was no slouch. No spindly cross would have kept himdown. When push came to shove, he transcended his limitedhuman frame with strength no man could have and weaponsno man could handle.
That is God as God should be. With shine and power andmight. Such as can rescue and save and put down evil.
This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffersfrom thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who isheckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers whodon't get it and opponents who don't respect Him – what kindof a god is that? It's a god on too human a scale, that's what.
There are miracles, yes, mostly of a medical nature, a few tosatisfy hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water isbriefly walked upon. If that is magic, it is minor magic, on theorder of card tricks. Any Hindu god can do a hundred timesbetter. This Son is a god who spent most of His time tellingstories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestriangod – and in a hot place, at that – with a stride like anyhuman stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks alongthe way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was aregular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours,with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of a god is that?
What is there to inspire in this Son?
Love, said Father Martin.
And this Son appears only once, long ago, far away? Amongan obscure tribe in a backwater of West Asia on the confinesof a long-vanished empire? Is done away with before He has asingle grey hair on His head? Leaves not a single descendant,only scattered, partial testimony, His complete works doodles inthe dirt? Wait a minute. This is more than Brahman with aserious case of stage fright. This is Brahman selfish. This isBrahman ungenerous and unfair. This is Brahman practicallyunmanifest. If Brahman is to have only one son, He must beas abundant as Krishna with the milkmaids, no? What couldjustify such divine stinginess?
Love, repeated Father Martin.
I'll stick to my Krishna, thank you very much. I find hisdivinity utterly compelling. You can keep your sweaty, chattySon to yourself.
That was how I met that troublesome rabbi of long ago:
with disbelief and annoyance.
I had tea with Father Martin three days in a row. Eachtime, as teacup rattled against saucer, as spoon tinkled againstedge of cup, I asked questions.
The answer was always the same.
He bothered me, this Son. Every day I burned with greaterindignation against Him, found more flaws to Him.
He's petulant! It's morning in Bethany and God is hungry;God wants His breakfast. He comes to a fig tree. It's not theseason for figs, so the tree has no figs. God is peeved. TheSon mutters, "May you never bear fruit again," and instantlythe fig tree withers. So says Matthew, backed up by Mark,I ask you, is it the fig tree's fault that it's not the season forfigs? What kind of a thing is that to do to an innocent fig tree,wither it instantly?
I couldn't get Him out of my head. Still can't. I spent threesolid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, theless I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him,the less I wanted to leave Him.
On our last day, a few hours before we were to leaveMunnar, I hurried up the hill on the left. It strikes me now asa typically Christian scene. Christianity is a religion in a rush.
Look at the world created in seven days. Even on a symboliclevel, that's creation in a frenzy. To one born in a religionwhere the battle for a single soul can be a relay race run overmany centuries, with innumerable generations passing along thebaton, the quick resolution of Christianity has a dizzying effect.
If Hinduism flows placidly like the Ganges, then Christianitybustles like Toronto at rush hour. It is a religion as swift as aswallow, as urgent as an ambulance. It turns on a dime,expresses itself in the instant. In a moment you are lost orsaved. Christianity stretches back through the ages, but inessence it exists only at one time: right now.
I booted up that hill. Though Father Martin was not IN –alas, his block was slid over – thank God he was in.
Short of breath I said, "Father, I would like to be aChristian, please."He smiled. "You already are, Piscine – in your heart.
Whoever meets Christ in good faith is a Christian. Here inMunnar you met Christ."He patted me on the head. It was more of a thump,actually. His hand went BOOM BOOM BOOM on my head.
I thought I would explode with joy.
"When you come back, we'll have tea again, my son.""Yes, Father."It was a good smile he gave me. The smile of Christ.
I entered the church, without fear this time, for it was nowmy house too. I offered prayers to Christ, who is alive. Then Iraced down the hill on the left and raced up the hill on theright – to offer thanks to Lord Krishna for having put Jesusof Nazareth, whose humanity I found so compelling, in myway.


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