Saturday, December 2, 2006

This Above all
The two sides of faith


You must have often wondered why religions, as they are practised today, are so completely different from what their founders had hoped to make them. The founders had preached love, understanding and respect for people of other faiths; their followers emphasise their own uniqueness and look down upon and even wage wars against those who do not worship their gods.

Many theories have been propounded to explain the degradation of religion but one of the latest and most perceptive that I have come across is Murad Ali Baigís Reflections in a Sacred Pond (Tara-India) which I first saw in an earlier incarnation as Tyranny in Sacred Colours: An Inquiry into the Paradoxes of Indiaís Mythology, Religion and History.

Murad does not question the importance of faith but outlines how religions have been altered by the vested interests of professional priests of all religions and especially outlines its impact on India. He outlines how distortions, religiosity and superstitions that crept into all religions, especially Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, which are practised in India.

He analyses the five participants in the practice of religion: the founder prophets, apostles, priests, rulers and the rich who became the patrons of religion and finally the common people who were persuaded to make offerings and sacrifices to ensure themselves against the future in life and the afterlife.

Murad takes the reader on a fast Bharat darshan from its hoary past to the present, from the earlier societies of hunters, nomads and cultivators to the more urbane civilised city life, the Aryans and their religion, a 1000 years of Buddhism, revival of Brahmanical Hinduism, the impact of Islam, Bhakti Movement, Europeans and the spread of Christianity as well as the attitude towards religion in independent India.

In this bewildering change of scene one thing comes clear: in order to preserve their separate identity and assert their superiority over other faiths, the preachers of every religion understood that hatred is a much stronger emotion than love. They practised it in the past, they practise it today.

My friend Cedra

On the airmail envelope the senderís name was different. Also, my name and address were not in the same handwriting I was familiar with. I was reluctant to open it as I feared the worst. My fears were not unfounded. Cedra had been writing about her deteriorating health. The first line read "I am writing to tell you Cedra died yesterday". My heart sank. I looked at the entries on October 26 in my diary to see if there was any indicating premonition that my friend in France was dead. There was none.

The letter said Cedra would be cremated (she was agnostic) at Chateauroux on October 27. I looked up entries on October 27 in my diary. There was nothing to indicate for me to construe that Cedra was now an urnful of ashes. All the talk about telepathy, mystic communication and hunches is hogwash. Here were two people writing to each other once every other week more than 60 years and nothing told me that our communication had ended for ever.

The letter was from Cedraís son Damon Osborne. I met him in 1947 when I was staying with Arthur Lall, ICS in Knightsbridge (London). Cedra was companion-cum-helper to Arthurís wife Sheila and their daughter Tookie. Cedra had separated from her husband soon after Damon was born. She had conceded custody of her only child to her husband and was on amicable terms with him. He brought Damon, then barely a year old, to see his mother. He was a tall blond-bearded man. Damon clung to his father. What I never forget is his calling his father Mummy and refusing to sit in his motherís lap.

Cedra was a British beauty moulded like Britannia: large forehead, shock of hair, full-bosomed and well-proportioned open-air type - as they say, to see her was to love her. My friend Prem Kirpal had her photograph in his mantlepiece till the end of his days.

We got on famously because she was also warm-hearted. I continued to see her after I moved into lodgings of my own. When Arthur was transferred to another post, Cedra joined Annigoni, a famous Italian portrait painter who was commissioned to do a portrait of Queen Elizabeth.

Cedra picked up Italian and went under the Italian appellation, Chedra. We kept up a desultory correspondence.

She married a second time, another Englishman Andrew Castellain. The marriage was no more successful than her first. She retired and bought a cottage in the Woods in Central France, named Mourieres in Crevant. Our correspondence became regular, at least one letter every fortnight. She worked on translating Baudelaire into English and sent me her translations in bits and pieces. She wrote about birds and squirrels that visited her garden, difficulties of running her home and pains of ageing.

I wrote to her about the books I was churning out. Whenever she went to London, she bought what she could find in a bookshop which stocked Indian publications. One was found under her pillow after she died. I was moved to tears. At the end of his letter, Damon wrote a few lines of verse which I presume were composed by Cedra as they seem to sum up her views:

Make no tomb or catacomb for me,

Nor broken column, cross nor bleeding heart,

Instead, in my memory,

Place a free beer dispenser in the park.

Cab safety

An insertion in a Canadian newspaper: If you are a heart patient and travelling in a taxi then you neednít worry because 90 per cent of the taxi drivers are Indian doctors".

(Contributed by Shivtar Singh Dalla, Ludhiana)