Some time ago, I spent a few days in Hakone, a spectacular hill resort, a few hours drive from Tokyo. The rolling countryside was covered with lush rhododendron bushes and every now and then when the clouds cleared, behind the pink and mauve of the flowers we would see Mount Fuji rising heavenwards like an immaculate work of art.
I think it is culturally ingrained in us Indians to over-eat when we get free good food, the way camels do with water. So the very first night at the conference banquet, I gorged on endless amounts of sushi and marinated fish; and by 2 a.m. that night, in the solitary confines of my hotel room, I was sick.
I had had food poisoning only once, the first week of taking up my first job in Delhi, after eating the University Coffee House’s famed mutton dosa. In the new unfamiliar environ, in the middle of the night, my wife had run to our neighbor, Trehan, who, it was rumoured, was a doctor. Rushing in helpfully adjusting his dressing-gown, Trehan asked me if I felt like vomiting; and, when I said yes, he thought for a while and said gravely, “That means you have nausea.”
Whatever one makes of his deductive skills, the injection that he took out from a tiffin box that he had judiciously brought along with him and gave me a shot with cured me in 30 minutes flat.
Alas, where would I find the talented Dr Trehan 20 years later and thousands of miles away from Delhi. The only person I knew here was the president of the Japanese Economic Association. But I was loath to wake him up at that unearthly hour; and, for all I knew, he was also battling the forces of marinated fish at that time.
Maybe it was because of the closeness of the ethereal Mt Fuji, it suddenly struck me — why not try praying? As a kid I was devout and prayed regularly, making my mother and older relatives proud of me. I lost my faith in my early teens, as soon as I reached the age of reason. The misery and suffering of human beings that I could see all around me just did not square up with the existence of a powerful and merciful God. If he was powerful, he had to be short on kindness to permit so much pain on earth. And in case he was kind, it had to be he did not have the power to act on his kindness.
I did not feel any angst as some thinkers, like Bertrand Russell, had done when they threw off their childhood faith. I just felt that it would be dishonest of me to believe in what I saw no evidence of. And I have to give tribute to the tolerance of old-fashioned Hinduism that my very religious relatives showed no intolerance towards me for my personal beliefs and some, I am sure, prayed extra hard on my behalf.
Any way, that miserable night, toying with the choice between waking up the president of the Japanese Economic Association and dying quietly in the foothills of Mt Fuji, the case seemed compelling to give a prayer a shot. So feeling somewhat self-conscious, I knelt down on my bed, folded my hands and said, “God, take pity on me and please make me well. In case you feel upset that I have come to you only in the time of dire need, look at it in another way. Unlike other people, who call on you day and night with little rhyme or reason, I never do. The last time I prayed must have been several years ago. So now you have to do me this one favour.”
And I lay down quietly. Fifteen minutes later I was absolutely fine.
From this incident we can make one of two deductions. Either God does not exist and what happened that night was pure coincidence. Or God exists and loves me for my lack of faith and for not troubling him with daily prayers.
Kaushik Basu is Professor of Economics and Director, Center for Analytic Economics, Cornell University