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Dealing with God and faith

A dear friend of ours has lost his wife. She died, after a traumatic, brief illness, of a brain tumour. Soumya Bhattacharya tells more.

india Updated: Nov 16, 2008 00:49 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

A dear friend of ours has lost his wife. She died, after a traumatic, brief illness, of a brain tumour. We were talking about it, my wife and I, in the disbelieving, devastated manner that is brought on by news of a sudden death. (I’m sorry if this is too gloomy for a Sunday morning. But we weren’t feeling particularly cheerful that evening, you see.)

“Did she have children, Baba?” our daughter asked. She knew well the person we were mourning, and knew better her husband.

I said they didn’t. “Good,” Oishi said. She had found something to be cheerful about. “If they did, somebody would have been without a mother.”

And then, in the verbal shorthand she uses to convey sympathy for the grieving, she spoke of our friend: “Poor man, poor house, poor everything.”

This led to what is one of her favourite subjects at the moment. “Why didn’t God protect her?” she asked. “Why should one pray if there is no use?”

“Look,” I said, “neither of them prayed.” (My friend’s last book, a meditation on death and mortality, opens with the sentence: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”)

This whole business of praying and believing, of being rewarded for one’s faith and the not-quite verifiable benefits of doing all this, has been occupying Oishi of late.

We’ve been down this road before, especially after news of bomb blasts, and of innocent people killed in them. She looks carefully at the pictures in the papers, and always asks what the dead did wrong — and why some benign, overseeing, divine superpower hadn’t saved them.

I don’t believe at all. My wife’s response to organised religion is equally unequivocal, but her views on faith are more nuanced and complex than mine. We don’t have photos or iconic representations of idols in our home; and we practise no
rituals.

When we moved into our flat in Mumbai more than three years ago, our elderly landlord was horrified to see his walls defaced by Kandinsky prints without being redeemed by any of Kaali. He thought we were setting a bad example for our child.

We try and let Oishi figure things out herself. My view is that the moment we insist that she simply must do something, she
will specifically do the opposite. So if we tell her what we think about this whole God business, she will, I suspect, very quickly turn into an unwaveringly devout person.

Now I know that if I wanted to employ a bit of adult cunning, I could tell her that praying is the solution to the world’s woes. She will, in no time, I suppose, acquire Richard Dawkins’s atheistic fervour.

But I don’t do that. I let her be. She half-believes in fairies and a god, I think, and she prays (I’ve often asked her what she prays for, and have been surprised at the answers) but there is this other, rational, logical streak in her that questions all that.

She can’t quite make up her mind.

That evening, we saw her torn between those two ways of thinking again. She returned, like a dog chasing its own tail, to what she’d asked me many times. “Okay, Baba,” she said, “so they didn’t pray. What about the ones killed in the bombs in… Where was that?”

“Assam,” I said.

“Yes, Assam. What about them?”

I shrugged. I didn’t know what to say. What would you say? How do you deal with this sort of thing?