The problem is sentiment. It almost always is when we come to matters religious. Take a mother and a child, a star and a crib, a manger and the mild-eyed oxen warming the child with their breath, the three kings beginning their journey in a distant land, and you can’t help but bring on the schmaltz.
The problem is terror. If you think about what is supposed to be happening there, it can freeze your blood. A woman has given birth to a child she believes to be God. Not just any old middle-sized God but the messiah promised to her enslaved people. And this messiah is not going to come with a flaming sword and drive the evil out of the land but will offer himself as a living sacrifice. The mother knows this. The father is shadowy. He has done his bit by not putting the woman away. The child is resplendent but if we accept that this is God, the child also knows that he is going to die in a horrible manner.
No wonder we need to forget about the child and the message he brought with him. No wonder we have turned Christmas into a retail festival whose most prominent ambassador wears the red and white of a Coca Cola bottle. No wonder we’ve turned this simple birth in a manger into one of the days on which we routinely over-eat and then need time away from the rest of the family to de-stress.
Around this time, someone or the other will remark on the secularisation of some festivals. Someone or the other will remark on how Diwali is no longer a Hindu festival but belongs to everyone who wants to light a diya or ignite a firecracker; and how Christmas parties are thrown by everyone and enjoyed by all. The implication of this? We are all getting along fine. We are a naturally syncretic nation who love and respect each other when we are left alone. It’s only the politicians who get us worked up and then we start killing each other.
I enjoyed this rhetoric. It was comfortable and made me feel safe. But I have increasingly begun to wonder if we can leave secularism in the care of the Christmas bash and the Diwali lantern.
These, as Teesta Setalvad of Communalism Combat maintains, are important. They are gestures but gestures have always been important in India, whether it is the picking up of a handful of salt, a Maruti car dressed as a rath or the garlanding of yet another statue with chappals. And when there is nothing else happening, gestures become powerful in an empty landscape.
But to believe that we celebrate each other’s festivals so we’re a nation that believes in unity in diversity is to fool ourselves. We all love celebrations. We love births and mysteries and the reindeer that we have given a saint from Lycia who probably never saw one in his life.
The problem is hate. We also hate pretty effectively. And it is only by recognising that truth, and then working to make sure that we manage it, that we can ensure that the message of universal love that the child brought with him does not wither away in a welter of broken baubles and antacid.
(Jerry Pinto is an author who is working on his first novel)