Sunday, August 19, 2007

Mark Tully's Pilgrimage

In a country where the talk of Christians attempting to proselyte and then convert never dies out and each day it seems one more state enacts a Freedom of Religion Act (Uttarakhand is the latest!) Mark Tully arguably one of India’s most loved journalists and a confessed Indophiles has spoken openly about his spiritual and inner journey. In the semi autobiographical book, ‘India’s unending Journey’, he talks of studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church where he was taught that the only way to understand God and know Him was through Jesus Christ and his position today as a pluralist. In fact at the book release, he mentioned that the reason he wrote this book is that when he was young, he was taught that Christianity was the only way to God. But living in India has taught him that there are other ways to God as well and that it has changed him radically.

To me this piece of news says at least two things. Firstly Christianity is not all or only about conversion. Compare Mark Tully’s “luck” as he calls it in his interview to Shekhar Gupta and the “fate” of Salman Rushdie. Sir Mark walks out of the Anglican Church and in fact the Christian fold altogether and the Queen, the Head of the Church of England awards him a knighthood. The officially secular government of India (the UK is not officially secular) offers him a Padma Bhushan. Mark Tully’s luck is enviable, compared to the situation of Salman Rushdie loathed in several countries for writing a few stray verses in a book that few of the angry men in beards would have read. Imagine his fate if Rushdie had found and written about the virtues of pluralism as plainly as Mark Tully and remarked candidly in a chat that perhaps Islam was one of many faiths that had germinated in the otherwise barren middle eastern soil.

The other thing this piece of news tells me is that it is possible today for a Christian, and someone studying to be a priest no less, to declare that it is his conviction that there are other ways to God and walk out and still get accolades and honour. This is increasingly becoming difficult for say Hindus. With the Freedom of religion Acts in force, in an increasing number of states, it is no longer possible to write a book, announce a Press Conference and say that he or she is not a Hindu without going through a host of formalities and affidavits. But it would seem that for all its zeal and emphasis on conversion as bandied about in general, it would seem as if the church in general does not care too much as to who comes and who goes and why they have lost the belief that they were born with.

So a question for the church. Does it really believe anymore that Jesus and Christianity are the only way to God and Tully is mistaken that God can be found in many ways and places ….in the cathedrals and basilicas as well as the ghats of Benares? if so, should not the church look around and field a person of the stature of Mark Tully, not to confront him, but to engage him in a dialogue and discourse to find out how Mark’s views evolved the way they did? Or is as Hindutva votaries claim that the money and energy of the church is all directed to the vulnerable segments of our society as their souls are more easily harvested, their serene baptismal faces more photogenic than ever? Is it as they say, the church has lost the intellectual moorings to talk to opinion makers and thinkers like Mark Tully? But sometimes, I fear the worst. That no one in the church is clear as such as to what they believe. If so, the Christian faith should just take a bold step and rid itself of the bogey of conversion by reinventing itself --- as an Art of Living Club. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar teaches Sudarshan Kriya. The church can teach cross Kriya. No more. No less.

Death , Delay and Despair

Girija Soni finally received a cheque of Rs 1,40,000 from the Madhya Pradesh government for the treatment of her heart disease. A poor woman, she sought government help and was rewarded significantly. This should have been a cause for jubilation… but this was not the same in this case. By the time the cheque reached Girija Soni, she was no more. The cheque has reached her after 33 years. This is not a single instance; another person named Rakesh was admitted in Bhopal’s cancer hospital for treatment, and Ramrati, the mother of the patient had too approached the authorities for financial help. She received the money well after six months. By that time Rakesh was dead.

Then there is the story of Kawalzia, who came to the small town of Bispohar Bazar in the eastern district of Siddharthnagar, some 250 km from Lucknow, with her mother last month on a visitor’s visa but decided to get married to her cousin Shamshad Ahmad. However, with lethargic bureaucratic ways coming in the way of a visa extension, Kawalzia has been told by the Indian authorities to leave Bispohar Bazar latest by Monday, failing which she would be deported. The Times of India reports blithely that Siddharthnagar police chief P K Srivastava said the proper procedures would have to be followed. "We cannot help it. We must follow the entire drill and carefully verify the marriage before submitting a report. All that is bound to take time," Srivastava said.

These are the stories that we can identify with and which is why every encounter with the government is a moment of dread because delays of smaller or bigger magnitudes are almost inevitable. But what about the other delays that we read of and which affect not only one or two families (though in a welfare state set up, even that is unforgivable)? Reflecting rules of business inherited from colonial times that are wrapped up in opacity, the government trusts no one and suspects every one. The government like Caesar’s wife is meant to be above suspicion but is not as skeleton after skelton keeps tumbling from the cupboard.

But since Caesar’s wife cannot be probed, Caesar is taking shelter under systems and rules of procedure rather than the public good. The efficacy of a government, the measure of its governance ought to be measured (and usually is) by its impact on the public welfare. But in India, governance is not about welfare of the people—it is all about the (“i”) being dotted the right way and the “(t) being crossed the right way and by the right people in the right sequence. And as indefatigable keeper of the law, the bureaucracy tells us in the words of P.K. Srivastava, the Police Superintendent of Siddharthnagar “All these things take time.” Srivastava may be heading a district named after Gautam Buddha but compassion apparently hasn’t yet penetrated the police dictionary.

The Bible teaches about the necessity of law in a society to regulate society and to device norms that are beneficial to all and the common good can be pursued. But while describing God, he is described as the God of all grace whose mercy and compassion if need be overrides every law that might have been made. Law in our society we see plenty of. But in a society where the government rules as mai baap, democracy not withstanding, people like Kawalzia and Shamshad Ahmed and every common man and woman would yearn to taste a bit of grace.