They tell you to do your thing, but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.
That rather depressing passage is from the final chapter of Chocolate War, a campus novel by Robert Cormier, which was made into a movie in 1988. The protagonist Jerry has thrown in the towel in the face of relentless attack including physical violence and psychological battering. Left with nothing to hope for, he finally caves in. It would sound familiar to those who have read George Orwell’s 1984, for, it is the campus version of the world of Big Brother, where to have your individuality is to jeopardise your very existence. A story about conformity being the safest bet to survive in a hostile and manipulative world.
And all because Jerry refused to comply with the Vigils — a secret society in the school, run with tacit approval from the faculty of Jesuit Brothers — which required every student to sell a certain quantity of chocolates (ostensibly voluntarily), to raise funds for charity. It wasn’t even a deliberate act of defiance, but an impulsive one, that could not be undone once done. The consequences are ugly, with him being subjected to every kind of mental harassment and physical violence including by Brother Leon the teacher in charge of the sale. In the end, a completely broken and utterly hopeless Jerry tells his friend to fall in line – to do anything at all and be on the right side of the wrong people. If you dared to defy them, they could suck your very life out like the Dementors in the Harry Potter series.
It would be at least to those who have read 1984, and also as we are seemingly living in the times of the broken Winston Smith (1984) and Jerry (The Chocolate War), caught up in a 1984 and a ‘Chocolate War’ of our own.
There might not be Vigils bullying us into submission (or might there be?), but there are any number of vigilantes of the secular kind in our daily environment, who take it upon themselves to reform the lesser mortals whom they deem as being fundamentalist and communal. They can be rude, nasty, or even intimidating — depending upon our reactions to their tactics. Let me share my experience with one such vigilante.
The day we had moved into yet another new house, this lady, and her husband from the flat across the landing had come to our house to welcome us into the Housing Society. They seemed nice and we were happy to have found some good neighbours. An amateur writer, she had some self-published e-books on her travels (“We have travelled to almost all countries of the world.”) and prided herself on being ‘secular’, of the Indian kind, that is.
It was Navaratri and I was at the Durga puja pandal in our locality, watching the rangoli of Tulza Bhavani coming to life in the deft hands of the rangoli makers.
‘I am going to write about this.’ I turned to see my new neighbour standing behind me.
Possibly inspired by the mesmerising eyes of the Devi, I replied without thinking: ‘Oh, you should also write how She is getting Herself drawn by these creative hands.’
‘I will write about the creativity of these artists,’ she pointedly replied letting me know that in her scheme of things no Devi existed. ‘Oh, a ‘cultural Hindu!’ I thought to myself.
I am grateful to Devi for making me hold my tongue, else, I might have launched into a lecture on how arts and crafts like these are inextricably bound to our rituals, festivals, Deities, and very dharma. Today we might have rangolis in airports, and in the atriums of 5 and 7-star hotels, and other public places, but their origin was in the puja routines of ancient Hindu homes and temples. Shorn of their divine connection, they are just a plastic art form. But deeming it pointless to engage with her, I smiled and left.
A couple of days later, I invited her for haldi-kumkum, not wanting to exclude her while inviting other neighbours, even though I had an inkling of how she felt about such rituals.
A sweeping look at my puja and decorations, and she asked, ‘Do you do puja every day?’ There was a load of accusation in her question, as if she was condemning me for wasting oil in my lamps, the flowers and other puja items.
She seemed to be on a mission to reform me, for, some days later she invited me to her home ostensibly ‘for some gup-shup’. After a bit of polite small talk, went inside to bring a tiny crystal Ganapati — about an inch high. It turned out that the murti was her sole puja item. I oohed and aahed at it in true social media fashion. Without much ado, she then launched on a lecture on how regressive elaborate rituals were, how they held one back from intellectual growth and so on, like any self-respecting secular-liberal ‘intellectual’.
If she had thought I would rise to her bait and either be apologetic about my puja or admonish for her frugal one, she was disappointed. True to the lessons learnt on my spiritual journey, I held my peace. After all, she was on her own journey of life and I had no right to judge her or her lifestyle. But I could see her lips curl.
And just like that, it hit me. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I,’ I thought in shock.
I had been there and done all that, but even during the height of those heady ‘secular’ years, I had honestly never been on a reforming mission or spoken rudely to anyone who did things differently. It had been a long and painful journey for me to reach where I am now. Read about my journey of faith here, here, here and here.
Here, I have to say that many friends, neighours and relatives who follow prescribed Hindu customs and rituals to the T, have disapproved of my method of worship and rituals. But none of them has ever turned hostile, leave alone being nasty or cutting me off for not doing things the way they did. I would say that there is a lot more tolerance among the Hindus — even the sticklers for rituals.
After her invite to her house, her behaviour turned rather bizarre in the coming days and weeks. From shutting her door if I happened to open mine when hers was open, turning away if we unavoidably came face to face in the lift or elsewhere, pretending to be searching for something in her bag or speaking to her husband, to completely ignoring me – she was discovering new ways to intimidate me, a new tenant in the place. I had not listened to her advice, and so had to be ‘cancelled’!
Much like religious extremists, these ‘secular-liberal extremists’ also want complete compliance of their point of view/ideology. While they demand choice, freedom, and rights, they refuse to accord the same to those who do not subscribe to their ideas. Given how the discourse against Hindus has been mainstreamed today, they do not even need to be subtle anymore. The more brazen they are, the more in the limelight they come and rise in the hierarchy.
The wannabes trying to enter their clubs have to put down anyone who is a practising Hindu, actively denounce our traditions and customs — particularly Hindu — to prove their secular credentials. I am saying ‘practising Hindu’ because that is the soft group these secular extremists — professing to be atheists — target for condemnation and contempt. Never mind that the practising Hindu is a harmless old man or woman or young person who is not threatening their ‘secular’ existence in any way.
(Read Indu Viswanathan’s open letter to Hindu American college students, a beautiful article with universal relevance).
My experience hardly merited any response from me, as all she could do was to be rude and nasty to me. But if she had managed to turn others in the society against me or started a smear campaign, things would have turned ugly. Many of these ‘extremists’ take to verbal and physical violence against those who do not subscribe to their ideas, which they propagate with evangelical fervour.
As it was, I could dismiss her and get on with my life. But imagine a workplace, campus or social group where a bunch of these secular-extremists gang up against someone who does not fall in line? While it might not actually end up in physical violence as in the case of the Vigils and Jerry, the emotional and psychological trauma can destroy a life – many lives. How can a young professional ignore someone like her at their workplace when it means keeping their job, or a business or profession? Or a diligent student concentrate on his studies when targeted relentlessly, often abetted by the faculty? Little wonder that a lot of students and young professionals who do not belong to this category find it safer to stay silent than to take a stand on any social issue. Many decide to join them, just to be safe and ‘belong’, and avoid being alienated and shunned.
It is like the students selling chocolates for the Vigils, to remain safe from being singled out for punishment and harassment. Who would want to be a Jerry, defying the powerful group, which can literally break one’s bones and spirit without any consequences?
Perhaps it is a safer bet to be on the right side of the wrong people and not disturb the Universe as Jerry advises his friend.
Also read: How Ego-Activism is helping sell a unique 21st Century product
Images: Top: https://www.videodetective.com/ Bottom: https://m.imdb.com/
This is what I love most about you, and your writing. You are exquisitely balanced and fair. You focus only on the erroneous thinking–and you do it kindly. There is never a hint of judgment in your words.
In my own professional group, I have people who have permitted themselves to say things like, “Oh, I don’t know how these Sanghi types get admitted to elite colleges (read JNU)!”
I mean, hello!
As for finding rituals ‘regressive’, plenty of those around too. While on this, I particularly hate the trend of chocolate replacing our traditional sweets. Pure ghee pedas, motichoor laddoos and melt-in-the-mouth balishahis are soul food. The fanciest chocolate has nothing on them. ❤ Regards, Dagny Serenely Rapt: Freelance Book Editor, Writing Coach, Writer
Oh Dagny, this post is not so balanced IMHO. I had let that woman get under my skin for some time and that shows in the writing too. But thank you so much for the compliment 🙂 Let alone replacing laddoos with chocolates, they are even replacing Dushera/Deepavali with Halloween and Christmas/Eid. I was dreading the arrival of the society kids coming for ‘trick or treat’ today, but thankfully they didn’t. Whew! And oh, we are the Sanghi types, proudly so!
Filled with hard truths, wisdom. I think it was in one of those Harry Porter films (wisdom is hidden everywhere!) that this old geezer, Dumbledore (?) says: “It takes courage standing up to one’s foes; but it takes extraordinary courage to stand up to one’s friends when you know they’re wrong…”
Yes, it’s always the easy way out to swim with the tide, to parrot what your peer group tweets (ouch)…to become an Animal Farm sheep rather than stand up and/or speak up against wrong, against injustice and hypocrisy. But that is not to live! That is to cower against the light. No oppression, no amount of politically correct faff can overcome the simple, stark, wonderful truth – that the brave dies but once, while the coward dies a thousand deaths.
Power to thee