Last year, I spent Christmas in Chennai. It was blisteringly hot all day on Christmas eve but I was is the acid green Haptics lab poring over code, so I didn't notice. That night, Chitti was expecting carol singers from her church so we sat up waiting for them, dozing on the living room sofas and occasionally taking a crack at the exceptionally hard smowman cookies my cousin and I had baked.
The singers came at around 4 am. Around 10 of them wrapped up in sweaters and mufflers for protection against Madras' mincing winter. They were blustery and cheerful as they handed out hymn books to us and made us join them in their carols. We sang hymns about God's forgiveness and the goodness of mankind, all of us in different tunes while an energetically played guitar kept us vaguely in scale. Then the minister gave us a sermon asking God to bless us, every one, and everyone yelled Amen whenever he paused.
All the people in that room seemed so happy, so secure in their faith.
Last week Amma, Appa and I took a walk to the local Ayappa temple. The aarathi was about to begin when we entered. A priest closed himself in with the idol in the central chamber while we waited outside with about 50 other devotees listening to this strange music they played- all mridangam beats and nadaswaram. As the music rose to a crescendo, the chamber doors were flung open and we saw the deity in fresh golden robes, encircled by leaping flames, while the priest blew on a conch shell.
Despite my professed atheism, I was intrigued. True, it was a ritual designed to impress and done mostly for effect, but for the brief time that it lasted I felt a strange kind of kinship with the fifty other strangers in that temple.
My mother has a small corner in the house where she keeps a motley collection of photographs, prints and figurines of various deities. Every evening she lights an oil lamp before them and reads a shloka in stumbling Sanskrit- a language she does not understand. She follows this ritual every day.
I remember a school project we had in 9th standard. We were all to write what we thought was the greatest evil in the world and why, on a chart which was then put up for display on our classroom wall. People wrote of unemployment, illiteracy, pride, prejudice... I wrote that religion was the worst of all evils because I believed that it was at the root of almost every dispute.
I don't believe in thousands of Gods in human form with all the weaknesses of mankind. I don't believe in beings of infinite patience and forgiveness who were crucified for mankind's sins. Nor do I believe in long winded ceremonies that no one understands, done in the name of faith. But there are times when I crave that simple peace that I see in Amma's eyes when she lights an oil lamp in front of a faded print. I long for something to believe in.