Sunday, July 24, 2011


After my stroke, as expected, some people will come home saying they wanted to say a prayer for me. I usually sat quietly during these interludes (except for that one occasion). I just hoped they landed up when I was lying on the bed at which time I will be doing nothing more productive than watching T.V. I also hoped that they won't come when Tendulkar was nearing a century. This was because many of them wanted the T.V. switched off during their prayers. I don’t know about you but switching off the T.V. when Tendulkar is batting in the nineties is not the best strategy to get into my good books.

I am usually shifted back to the bed at around 9 p.m. Sometimes, at about 8.30 p.m. I will be racing through an article or the last chapter of a book hoping to complete it before I am shifted back to the bed. In 'Full Moon', P.G.Wodehouse writes:
It is a truism to say that the best-laid plans are often disarranged and sometimes even defeated by the occurrence of some small unforeseen hitch in the programme. The poet Burns, it will be remembered, specifically warns the public to budget for this possibility.
Not having taken into account the poet Burns' sound warning, I will be unprepared for the announcement that some well-meaning people have come to pray for me. My best-laid plans being thus upset by this unexpected interruption will not put me in a good mood. I will get irritated and think peevishly of telling them that it is all in the mind. When they troop into the room, I will give them a baleful glare. If looks could kill! But then I will feel a bit guilty because they were nice people who were only doing what seemed to them to be the best method to cure me. And hopefully it won't take too long. But my day was over.

In fact, this was the major problem in handling suggestions of a religious nature. If they had come from obnoxious people, it would have been easy to tell them to go jump. But they will generally come from nice people who sincerely believed in what they said. They wanted to help me in whatever way they could and would have been extremely glad if anything they said had helped me in any way. Some of them will be old people who would have played with me when I was a child and I would not want to hurt their feelings by brusquely dismissing their suggestions. In 'Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)', the author describes his dog:
To look at Montmorency you would imagine that he was an angel sent upon the earth, for some reason withheld from mankind, in the shape of a small fox-terrier. There is a sort of Oh-what-a-wicked-world-this-is-and-how-I-wish-I-could-do-something-to-make-it-better-and-nobler expression about Montmorency that has been known to bring the tears into the eyes of pious old ladies and gentlemen.
I know that Montmorency-look. It portends trouble. I get the same feeling of apprehension that Clarence, the ninth Earl of Emsworth used to get when his sister, Lady Constance Keeble ('Connie') used to pay him a visit.It was tricky for us (Jaya is mildly religious; I am the hell-bound one) to know how to handle such situations politely. (According to Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.)

I rely on the fact that most people who are not regular visitors will not be sure what I am trying to communicate. It was said that Humphry Appleby (of 'Yes Minister' fame) 'used language not as a window to the mind but as a curtain to be drawn across it'. My system of communication did a similar job of leaving most visitors flummoxed. That my expressions are more like that of Srinivasan than like that of Jagathy helped increase the perplexity of visitors. Jaya had the tougher task of deciding how to say 'no' in a way that sounded like 'yes'.

During prayers, some become very emotional and teary eyed while repeating certain names or verses which I find curious. The power of metaphors and symbols cannot be underestimated. I heard of a woman who spent the whole day praying in a room, coming out only for her meals because someone in her house was gravely ill. I would be appalled if Jaya got such a brainwave and started leading an eremitic existence.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Before my stroke, I could have been classified as an 'indifferentist'. (I still am in many ways. I am just more aware of the deleterious effects of organised religion and the often subtle coercive actions it inspires.) I don't remember feeling the urge to go to a temple on my own but I had no problem accompanying relatives or friends to a temple, church or mosque if they wanted to go to one. While there I would do what I saw other people doing so that I didn't stick out like a sore thumb. But I was more likely to admire the architecture or wonder how those intricate carvings were made. ('Like Michelangelo carving David by chipping away all the bits that did not look like David' as I once heard V.S.Ramachandran say in a podcast.)

Like many people, I enjoyed the social aspects of religion, the meeting opportunities it provides, without bothering about scriptures. The rituals were preliminaries that I had to sit through before I got some good things to eat. I could never bellyfeel them as believers so obviously did. The fun element disappeared after my stroke. Now religious functions were occasions for imploring various gods to perform miracles. I gradually grew tired of sitting like a trussed chicken and listening quietly to the jeremiads and the false promises of cults (not the Cult of Apple). It was all too solemn and maudlin. As Wole Soyinka says:
“One of the things about religion and deities is that many of these Gods have a marvellous sense of humour. This entire creation is a piece of humour; the absurdity of human existence strikes me as a big joke. The deities without humour are the dangerous ones. Deities that represent the solemn, the profound, the grave can sometimes dangerously exaggerate one of these elements, which makes for a lack of balance, of letting the negative take over the positive. It is the fundamentalists who lack a sense of humour and are dangerous. It's important to see the comic side of existence to be able to recognise the profundity of human life.”
There was an incident that happened soon after Jaya and I got married that illustrated my indifference towards religion. While visiting some of her relatives, one of her cousins pointed to a building and said that when 'amma' had come there, the queue had stretched to a couple of adjacent streets. 'Amma'in Malayalam means 'mother' and I thought he was talking about his mother. I knew that his mother had passed away some time back but I knew nothing else about her and I wondered why she had been so famous. I did not ask any questions then, thinking that I will find out about her over the the next few days.

I found out that that he was referring to a religious leader who seemed to have a large following. My in-laws would have been shocked if they had learned that I had no idea who 'amma' was. I am sure someone would have mentioned something about her at sometime but the name never registered. I tend to switch off when matters of religion are being discussed.

Even now I read blog posts and articles concerning religion which I can complete in 10-15 min. Anything longer and I tend to get bored and start thinking of switching to reading about the photosynthetic slug or the the vegetarian spider. (I can listen to a podcast for a longer time. This is because, especially in the afternoon, it leaves the nurse free to do any work or sleep for a while without being disturbed by me for a while.) My main interest in reading these articles and listening to to the podcasts is to get a better idea about two questions:
  1. The puzzle of there being many smart people who are skeptical of god and religion while there are many other smart people who accept it wholeheartedly. This person has a similar interest although he seems to spend much more time on it than me.
  2. Religions tend to have men in positions of power and it devises various methods to subjugate women but women seem to be more religious than men. Why is it so?
I have not read any books that have to do mainly with religion. I don't think I will be able to devote so much time and effort to a topic that doesn't figure high on my list of priorities. When I see sentences like “Things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower”, my eyes glaze over. So it can be said that I don't know much about the scriptures or the sophisticated arguments for religion. I think most believers don't either. In my experience, the belief model rather than the orientation model is prevalent to a greater extent. I have never been in a discussion where people were talking about the religious views of Einstein.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The straw that broke the camel's back

In 'The Code of the Woosters', Bertie Wooster says:
A thing I never know, when I'm starting out to tell a story about a chap I've told a story about before, is how much explanation to bung in at the outset. It's a problem you've got to look at from every angle. I mean to say, in the present case, if I take it for granted that my public knows all about Gussie Fink-Nottle and just breeze ahead, those publicans who weren't hanging on my lips the first time are apt to be fogged, Whereas if before kicking off I give about eight volumes of the man's life and history, other bimbos who were so hanging will stifle yawns and murmur 'Old stuff. Get on with it.'

I suppose the only thing to do is to put the salient facts as briefly as possible in the possession of the first gang, waving an apologetic hand at the second gang the while, to indicate that they had better let their attention wander for a minute or two and that I will be with them shortly.
The advantage of a blog is that I can avoid such dilemmas by just giving the appropriate link. Remember the 'Real God' guy? Gosh, you have an amazing memory! I had to read the whole post before it all came back to me.

When the guy saw that I will not agree to the Chennai trip, he suggested later that we perform some prayers at some place they had nearby. I did not object to this since it did not involve any expenses and my presence was not required. So my mother, mother-in-law, sister and Jaya went there for a few days and prayed. One day a woman from the cult asked Jaya if she could see any improvement in me to which she replied in the negative. The woman's reply was predictable, 'You didn't pray hard enough.' She then implied that Jaya was not taking me to Chennai because she did not want me to get cured.

When I was told about this I was annoyed and forbade any further contact with the group. Although the remark was not entirely unexpected, it did not diminish my anger. I could
picture the hauteur with which the woman delivered her verdict, her face suffused with the unctuous self-righteousness and pious certainty that many cult members seem to pocess. (Julia Sweeney gives an account of one such meeting in this TED talk.) Some people think that they can say and and do anything they want if some god is on their side irrespective of the sensitivity and state of mind of the other person.

Some of the cult members came home a couple of times and once wanted to say a prayer for me if I had no objection. I objected so they left. By Zeus, I was not going to listen to their mumbo-jumbo. I think God will forgive me for that one. There is an old joke:
Priest: "Son, do you believe in God?"
Boy : "Father, not when I look at you."
If the Ichneumonidae is often cited as having caused Darwin's loss of faith, it was this incident which made me read a bit more about organised religion. I had been getting irritated by unending suggestions of various rituals which we had to perform. 'Respect creep' was something I started thinking about only after my stroke. As is often the case,only when you experience something do you think about it. This incident was the final straw.

I started reading some articles and listening to some debates on the issue. Debates rarely convince the opposite sides of each other's point of view. The value of debates is that they expose listeners to opinions that they would otherwise not hear since they would be listening to the same bromides being parroted by the members of their in-group which promote in-group fraternity and out-group hostility. Of course it helped that I had not been indoctrinated to any great extent during my formative years. So I did not bristle when I heard statements that did not comport with received wisdom.

I found that a society without god is not exactly dysfunctional. I read about theodicy. I read about why Bhagat Singh became an atheist. I learned that the brain can play strange tricks. (See this talk by V.S.Ramachandran and the discussion that follows. His talk begins at 38:50. I didn't understand anything in the talk before that.) An American Unitarian minister explains what happens in the minds of believers:
That which really belongs to the mind of the reader is attributed to that of the writer. The natural and simple meaning of the words is set aside. Forced interpretations are put upon passages for the purpose of compelling them to harmonize with that which it is supposed they ought to mean. Statements, doctrines, and allusions are discovered in the books which not only have no existence in their pages, but which are absolutely foreign to the epoch at which they were written.
What it all pointed to was what Delos McKown said, “The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike.” I had never thought about these things. Religion was like a fog all around me that I wasn't too keen on. I was content to go through the motions as expected and leave it at that. I also realised that I would not have read and thought about these things if I had still been busy selling widgets and sitting late in office trying to look busy because the boss would be around. I just wouldn't have had the time. In other words, there would always have been pressure on me to continue to be an exemplary sausage.

You say and do many things not because you have given them much thought but because they play well with people around you. (For example, Miss Indias say that their role model is Mother Teresa.) But as you learn and undergo more experiences,you tend to keep revising your opinions about many issues. If somebody tells you that he hasn't changed his opinions on many issues for decades, he is admitting that his brain has atrophied.As someone said, if you are not idealistic in your twenties you have no heart, if you are idealistic in your forties you have no brain.

I grew fascinated by the concept of shifting the Overton Window. Or, to put it in technical terms, of treating the constraints as endogenous variables.

Note: Most of the links in this post are dated well after the incident which must have happened around six years ago. At that time I was not thinking of writing a blog so I now searched for links that I thought had the kind of information that I remember reading at the time and continue reading off and on.