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‘This is our home; who dares to evict us from here’

Denying the diversity and confluence of ideas and people cannot be a way to take us closer to one's own spiritual self

‘These matters don’t scare me. They make me angry,’ said Shah.Photo: Satish bate/Hindustan Times
‘These matters don’t scare me. They make me angry,’ said Shah.Photo: Satish bate/Hindustan Times

I don’t talk to God as much as I used to. There was a time when I was very talkative in this relationship between my personal idea of God and me. God—who was wise and had the power to get things done. God was a secret ally, both a witness to my attempts to build myself, as well as someone who was invested in holding my hand when the going got tough. Of course, I was much younger then, much more vulnerable, but also much more trusting.

It’s a relationship that I haven’t always been loyal to. There have been years when I have turned away from it. Perhaps I felt I was much more in control. Maybe I was embarrassed that I had this active relationship at all, now that things seemed to be going my way anyway.

I’ll tell you how God came into my life. I was 12 and a half years old and in immense pain. I had been brought into a hospital emergency room with severe injuries one morning and I was going to stay there for the next three weeks. There were three surgeries and multiple dressings of open wounds.

I would cry for my mother. And my father. When the pain was deeper and more prolonged, I would beseech my brother and grandfather to help me. I’d name uncles and aunts in my delirium. My mother, who was almost always my witness, suffered with me. She held on to the Japji Sahib, a set of mantras and verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, and she would read from it over and over again.

One day, when my terror and pain were peaking, my mother put a booklet of the Hanuman Chalisa, a set of verses addressed to the Hindu god, Hanuman, in my hand. “Just read it aloud. Read it repeatedly," she said to me. “We’ve done everything else we can."

Desperate and helpless, I began to read. In my memory, I hear the voice of the child that I was, reading the opening verses haltingly, for the first time. By the time I reached midway, the effort it was taking to concentrate on reading the words in the Devnagari script began to distract me from the pain. By the time I finished one reading, I was ready to read again. Over the next few weeks and months, the Hanuman Chalisa became my personal shield against extreme pain. Reading the words worked on me like a low dose of morphine might have.

The only prayers I had learnt till that age was the Gayatri Mantra from my grandfather when I was five years old, and the Christian hymns we used to sing as part of our music classes in primary school. An innate rationalist, I would reject all ideas that didn’t make logical sense to me. The idea of praying regularly to be seen as a devotee worthy of earning the favour of an overworked God was not a plan that had ever appealed to me.

In those days in hospital, I discovered that there are ways in which I could affect my own healing after the best doctors and the most loving parents had done the best they could. I discovered the power of what I loosely understood as faith. Faith in a power higher than me. Faith in a power within me that I can summon through the resources of my own imagination. I discovered faith in me.

As I healed from physical and emotional injuries over the next few years, I built a robust relationship with my own personal version of God. I wrote to him, I spoke to him and I listened to him. In a sense, this trained me to listen to and have a dialogue with my own inner voice.

Healing requires the surrender of one’s ego and false sense of control. True healing connects us to nature and one’s own inner self, it helps us find our place and purpose. It motivates us to want to help others, not hurt them.

There’s a lot of talk about religion in the news these days. Actor Naseeruddin Shah was attacked viciously online for talking about religion in the context of his own inter-faith family recently. In a short video produced by Karwan-e-Mohabbat, he said that his wife, actor Ratna Pathak Shah, and he had tried to instil a sense of morality in their children. “I believe that being good or evil has nothing to do with religion. We taught them to understand good and bad."

As I get down to work today, I watch a short film that my film-making colleague from Chhattisgarh, Devendra, has sent. On my screen, a man called Aminullah Khan in Kunra village in Raipur district laughs a villainous laugh as he tries to woo his wife, addressing her as Sita. He is reciting dialogues from Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas. Khan plays the role of Ravana in the Ram Leela celebrations every year. He says he is lucky to be born in a village where the temple and mosque share a common boundary wall and there are no partitions in the hearts of the people.

“This is our home; who dares to evict us from here," Naseeruddin Shah has said in response to the hate violence being directed towards minorities in India by the Hindutva version of Hindu religion. “These matters don’t scare me. They make me angry. And I want that every right-thinking person should feel angry, not scared."

Organized religion—and its demands of counting you in only if you conform to gendered and caste-based roles and perform rituals dictated by the priestly class—is a disservice to all humanity. Denying the diversity and confluence of ideas and people cannot be a way to take us closer to one’s own spiritual self. I reject this version of religion that is supremacist and exclusionist. It degrades us.

Despite everything, I find my comfort zone in optimism, in my faith in my own agency. I don’t care if you call it blind. Don’t try to cure me. It is my hobby. I’ve practised it. I might even be an expert at it.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.


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