By Shevlin Sebastian
When I worked for a newspaper group at Kolkata, several years ago, I came across a senior artist called Samir Biswas. He was well-known for doing pencil sketches of Kolkata which he would print up as cards. It had a steady sale.
Samirda, who died in his early fifties, a few years ago, was a soft-spoken and gentle person. He and I would have regular talks on art, literature, philosophy, politics, human relationships, and the meaning of life.
It was during one of our conversations that he told me about the philosophy of one of West Bengal's greatest spiritual figures, Sree Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Throughout his life, Sree Ramakrishna propounded the belief that there is an Universal Energy, and the path to it is through myriad ways. So, you could approach the Divine through Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, among many other religions.
This concept was deeply satisfying. And I accepted it. I made trips to Dakshineswar and prayed at the Kali temple, where Sree Ramakrishna had been a priest. This was easy for me, because, at heart, I am a liberal. I believe and respect all religions.
Though a Christian, I listen to the Gayatri Mantra, Hinduism's holiest hymn, several times every day because that is the recorded song on the calling bell of my home. In times of crisis, I pray to Allah, Guru Nanak, Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ and Lord Krishna.
Once when my TV suddenly stopped functioning, I prayed to Lord Krishna, and after a while it started working again. My theory is simple: you get special blessings if you pray to Gods of religions other than the one you are born in. This may be true: at the St. Michael’s church in Mahim, Mumbai, the St. Antony’s church at Kochi, and the Khwaja Moinunddin Chisti shrine at Ajmer, there are numerous people from other faiths.
But times are changing. Ever since the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6, 1992, there has been an entrenched religious fundamentalism in India. Soon after that cataclysmic event, a close friend, who was a liberal, railed against Christians and Muslims. That wound, unfortunately, has not healed. Today, when strangers introduce each other, you can see the labeling in the eyes: ‘Oh he is a Hindu, Muslim, Christian’.
Apart from people, cities are changing. A writer recently told me of how Mumbai is different now. “In the 1980s, Mumbai was a beautiful, laid-back, accepting, and liberating sort of place,” he says. “There was a sense of freedom in the air, but all that changed after December 6.”
Nowadays, it is a tense place. “There is communalism in the hearts of the people,” he says. “A lot of the conversation that we used to have earlier you cannot have any more because you have to be aware of the religious community that the person belongs to. When there is censorship of conversation in society, it is the beginning of the end.”
Indeed, for liberals, it is a fraught time. We lack the ferocious will power that right-wingers have. We want to recover the old India that loved all communities, but don’t seem to have the numbers.
Sadly, for us, time is running out.
('Middle' in The Indian Express, South India)