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Chapter 23
Alas, the sense of community that a common faith brings toa people spelled trouble for me. In time, my religious doingswent from the notice of those to whom it didn't matter andonly amused, to that of those to whom it did matter – andthey were not amused.
"What is your son doing going to temple?" asked the priest.
"Your son was seen in church crossing himself," said theimam.
"Your son has gone Muslim," said the pandit.
Yes, it was all forcefully brought to the attention of mybemused parents. You see, they didn't know. They didn't knowthat I was a practising Hindu, Christian and Muslim. Teenagersalways hide a few things from their parents, isn't that so? Allsixteen-year-olds have secrets, don't they? But fate decided thatmy parents and I and the three wise men, as I shall call them,should meet one day on the Goubert Salai seaside esplanadeand that my secret should be outed. It was a lovely, breezy,hot Sunday afternoon and the Bay of Bengal glittered under ablue sky. Townspeople were out for a stroll. Children screamedand laughed. Coloured balloons floated in the air. Ice creamsales were brisk. Why think of business on such a day, I ask?
Why couldn't they have just walked by with a nod and asmile? It was not to be. We were to meet not just one wiseman but all three, and not one after another but at the sametime, and each would decide upon seeing us that right thenwas the golden occasion to meet that Pondicherry notable, thezoo director, he of the model devout son. When I saw thefirst, I smiled; by the time I had laid eyes on the third, mysmile had frozen into a mask of horror. When it was clear thatall three were converging on us, my heart jumped beforesinking very low.
The wise men seemed annoyed when they realized that allthree of them were approaching the same people. Each musthave assumed that the others were there for some businessother than pastoral and had rudely chosen that moment todeal with it. Glances of displeasure were exchanged.
My parents looked puzzled to have their way gently blockedby three broadly smiling religious strangers. I should explainthat my family was anything but orthodox. Father saw himselfas part of the New India – rich, modern and as secular as icecream. He didn't have a religious bone in his body. He was abusinessman, pronounced busynessman in his case, ahardworking, earthbound professional, more concerned withinbreeding among the lions than any over-arching moral orexistential scheme. It's true that he had all new animals blessedby a priest and there were two small shrines at the zoo, oneto Lord Ganesha and one to Hanuman, gods likely to please azoo director, what with the first having the head of an elephantand the second being a monkey, but Father's calculation wasthat this was good for business, not good for his soul, a matterof public relations rather than personal salvation. Spiritual worrywas alien to him; it was financial worry that rocked his being.
"One epidemic in the collection," he used to say, "and we'll endup in a road crew breaking up stones." Mother was mum,bored and neutral on the subject. A Hindu upbringing and aBaptist education had precisely cancelled each other out as faras religion was concerned and had left her serenely impious. Isuspect she suspected that I had a different take on thematter, but she never said anything when as a child Idevoured the comic books of the Ramayana and theMahabharata and an illustrated children's Bible and otherstories of the gods. She herself was a big reader. She waspleased to see me with my nose buried in a book, any book,so long as it wasn't naughty. As for Ravi, if Lord Krishna hadheld a cricket bat rather than a flute, if Christ had appearedmore plainly to him as an umpire, if the prophet Muhammad,peace be upon him, had shown some notions of bowling, hemight have lifted a religious eyelid, but they didn't, and so heslumbered.
After the "Helios" and the "Good days", there was anawkward silence. The priest broke it when he said, with pridein his voice, "Piscine is a good Christian boy. I hope to seehim join our choir soon."My parents, the pandit and the imam looked surprised.
"You must be mistaken. He's a good Muslim boy. He comeswithout fail to Friday prayer, and his knowledge of the HolyQur'an is coming along nicely." So said the imam.
My parents, the priest and the pandit looked incredulous.
The pandit spoke. "You're both wrong. He's a good Hinduboy. I see him all the time at the temple coming for darshanand performing puja."My parents, the imam and the priest looked astounded.
"There is no mistake," said the priest. "I know this boy. Heis Piscine Molitor Patel and he's a Christian.""I know him too, and I tell you he's a Muslim," asserted theimam.
"Nonsense!" cried the pandit. "Piscine was born a Hindu,lives a Hindu and will die a Hindu!"The three wise men stared at each other, breathless anddisbelieving.
Lord, avert their eyes from me, I whispered in my soul.
All eyes fell upon me.
"Piscine, can this be true?" asked the imam earnestly.
"Hindus and Christians are idolaters. They have many gods.""And Muslims have many wives," responded the pandit.
The priest looked askance at both of them. "Piscine," henearly whispered, "there is salvation only in Jesus.""Balderdash! Christians know nothing about religion," said thepandit.
"They strayed long ago from God's path," said the imam.
"Where's God in your religion?" snapped the priest. "Youdon't have a single miracle to show for it. What kind ofreligion is that, without miracles?""It isn't a circus with dead people jumping out of tombs allthe time, that's what! We Muslims stick to the essential miracleof existence. Birds flying, rain falling, crops growing – these aremiracles enough for us.""Feathers and rain are all very nice, but we like to knowthat God is truly with us.""Is that so? Well, a whole lot of good it did God to be withyou – you tried to kill him! You banged him to a cross withgreat big nails. Is that a civilized way to treat a prophet? Theprophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – brought us theword of God without any undignified nonsense and died at aripe old age.""The word of God? To that illiterate merchant of yours inthe middle of the desert? Those were drooling epileptic fitsbrought on by the swaying of his camel, not divine revelation.
That, or the sun frying his brains!""If the Prophet – p.b.u.h. – were alive, he would havechoice words for you," replied the imam, with narrowed eyes.
"Well, he's not! Christ is alive, while your old ‘p.b.u.h.' isdead, dead, dead!"The pandit interrupted them quietly. In Tamil he said, "Thereal question is, why is Piscine dallying with these foreignreligions?"The eyes of the priest and the imam properly popped out oftheir heads. They were both native Tamils.
"God is universal," spluttered the priest.
The imam nodded strong approval. "There is only one God.""And with their one god Muslims are always causing troublesand provoking riots. The proof of how bad Islam is, is howuncivilized Muslims are," pronounced the pandit.
"Says the slave-driver of the caste system," huffed the imam.
"Hindus enslave people and worship dressed-up dolls.""They are golden calf lovers. They kneel before cows," thepriest chimed in.
"While Christians kneel before a white man! They are theflunkies of a foreign god. They are the nightmare of allnon-white people.""And they eat pigs and are cannibals," added the imam forgood measure.
"What it comes down to," the priest put out with cool rage,"is whether Piscine wants real religion – or myths from acartoon strip.""God – or idols," intoned the imam gravely.
"Our gods – or colonial gods," hissed the pandit.
It was hard to tell whose face was more inflamed. It lookedas if they might come to blows.
Father raised his hands. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, please!" heinterjected. "I would like to remind you there is freedom ofpractice in this country."Three apoplectic faces turned to him.
"Yes! Practice – :singular!" the wise men screamed inunison. Three index fingers, like punctuation marks, jumped toattention in the air to emphasize their point.
They were not pleased at the unintended choral effect or thespontaneous unity of their gestures. Their fingers came downquickly, and they sighed and groaned each on his own. Fatherand Mother stared on, at a loss for words.
The pandit spoke first. "Mr. Patel, Piscine's piety is admirable.
In these troubled times it's good to see a boy so keen onGod. We all agree on that." The imam and the priest nodded.
"But he can't be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It'simpossible. He must choose.""I don't think it's a crime, but I suppose you're right,"Father replied.
The three murmured agreement and looked heavenward, asdid Father, whence they felt the decision must come. Motherlooked at me.
A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.
"Hmmm, Piscine?" Mother nudged me. "How do you feelabout the question?""Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.' I just want to loveGod," I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.
My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. Ithappened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi onthe esplanade. Stick in hand, an impish smile on his lips, atwinkle in his eyes, the Mahatma walked. I fancy that he heardour conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to myheart. Father cleared his throat and said in a half-voice, "Isuppose that's what we're all trying to do – love God."I thought it very funny that he should say that, he whohadn't stepped into a temple with a serious intent since I hadhad the faculty of memory. But it seemed to do the trick. Youcan't reprimand a boy for wanting to love God. The three wisemen pulled away with stiff, grudging smiles on their faces.
Father looked at me for a second, as if to speak, thenthought better, said, "Ice cream, anyone?" and headed for theclosest ice cream wallah before we could answer. Mother gazedat me a little longer, with an expression that was both tenderand perplexed.
That was my introduction to interfaith dialogue. Fatherbought three ice cream sandwiches. We ate them in unusualsilence as we continued on our Sunday walk.


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