Mum­bai’s Op­er­a­tion Chup-Chop, and some smelly red her­rings

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Sunday Special -

An ag­grieved per­son who calls him­self Ravi Ku­mar Athe­ist re­cently pe­ti­tioned the Pun­jab and Haryana high court, chal­leng­ing the can­cel­la­tion of the “athe­ist” cer­tifi­cate is­sued to him by a naib tehsil­dar in Fate­habad district of Haryana. Re­spond­ing to the pe­ti­tion early this month, the court said that even if such a cer­tifi­cate had been is­sued and sub­se­quently can­celled, it would be of no con­se­quence. The court dis­missed the pe­ti­tion say­ing that if one chooses to be a non-be­liever in a re­li­gion, caste or class, the law does not have to cer­tify this fact. For, Ar­ti­cle 25 of the In­dian Con­sti­tu­tion en­sures free­dom of con­science to an in­di­vid­ual to choose to be­lieve or not be­lieve in any re­li­gion.

Ravi Ku­mar Athe­ist’s pe­ti­tion might sound ex­tra­or­di­nary, even bizarre, but the fact is that world­wide, an in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple are de­scrib­ing them­selves as athe­ists, ag­nos­tics or “not con­cerned about re­li­gion.” Ac­cord­ing to In­dia’s 2011 Cen­sus, the num­ber of “peo­ple with­out re­li­gion” rose four-fold to 29 lakh peo­ple, as against only 7 lakh peo­ple in the 2001 Cen­sus though we don’t know if they are guard­ing their pri­vacy, or are athe­ists or ag­nos­tics.

In­ter­na­tional polls, in­clud­ing those con­ducted by the Pew Re­search Cen­tre, do in­di­cate that there is a rise in the num­ber of peo­ple dis­as­so­ci­at­ing them­selves with re­li­gion — some call them­selves ‘spir­i­tual but not re­li­gious’; oth­ers say they are athe­ists or ag­nos­tics, and still oth­ers con­fess their faith in in­di­vid­u­al­ism, hu­man­ism, oc­cultism, Jedi, Falun Gong and more. And a grow­ing num­ber choose to sim­ply say that they fol­low no re­li­gion.

When you say you are athe­ist, are you just be­ing re­bel­lious? Hol­ly­wood heart­throb Brad Pitt says he was, but now he is no longer re­belling against be­lief in god. So has he turned be­liever, then? “Oh, man, I’ve gone through ev­ery­thing. I grew up with Chris­tian­ity. Al­ways ques­tioned it, but it worked at times. And then when I got on my own, I com­pletely left it and I called my­self ag­nos­tic. Tried a few spir­i­tual things but didn’t feel right. Then I called my­self an athe­ist for a while, just kind of be­ing re­bel­lious. I wasn’t re­ally. But I kinda la­belled my­self that for a while. It felt punk rock enough. And then I found my­self com­ing back around to just be­lief in — I hate to use the word spir­i­tu­al­ity, but just a be­lief in that we’re all con­nected,” Pitt, 55, said in an in­ter­view for the Oc­to­ber is­sue of GQ.

An­other Hol­ly­wood celebrity, Su­san Saran­don, has more clar­ity. She says she is a hu­man­ist. Does that make her an athe­ist? Yes, she says though she does not wear her non­be­lief on her sleeve.

Closer home, Tol­ly­wood su­per­star Kamal Has­san once de­clared in a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view: “Thank God I’m an athe­ist!” Now as ac­tor-cum­film­maker-cum-politi­cian, he makes no bones about the fact that he is in­deed, an athe­ist. Won’t he lose the con­fi­dence of vot­ers who are be­liev­ers? “Hah! Not in Tamil Nadu, that has a long po­lit­i­cal his­tory of ra­tio­nal­ist par­ties.” He quotes the ex­am­ple of Peri­yar Ra­maswamy Naicker who de­nounced de­ity wor­ship and rit­u­als, and tried to gal­vanise peo­ple to be­come ra­tio­nal­ists. The en­tire Dra­vid­ian po­lit­i­cal move­ment was spear­headed by ra­tio­nal­ists/ athe­ists, he points out, start­ing with the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) that later got splin­tered into sev­eral par­ties in­clud­ing DMK and AIADMK.

The mother of all poster boys for athe­ism glob­ally is, of course, evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist Richard Dawkins who is mil­i­tant in his de­nounce­ment of be­liev­ers.

All the above ex­am­ples are from an older gen­er­a­tion. What about the mil­len­ni­als who be­lieve that the world is full of chaos? Where or who do they turn to for draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion, hope and suc­cour? Some of them are turn­ing to oc­cultism. Few ex­alt the ‘Fly­ing Spaghetti Mon­ster’ of the Pasta­far­i­ans, and fewer oth­ers swear by Pey­otism (Na­tive Amer­i­can Church) and sev­eral other such new re­li­gious move­ments.

In­ter­est­ingly, mil­len­ni­als who are pas­sion­ate about their ca­reers, green causes and fit­ness have no use for con­ven­tional re­li­gion. “The gym is my tem­ple and work­out is my prayer,” says Deepa Muthu, a 20-some­thing techie in Chen­nai who is also tak­ing yoga lessons. “Hey, just cut the crap and show some kind­ness to strangers and to the earth, and for good­ness sake, stop the lit­ter!” So says Har­ish, an un­der­grad­u­ate study­ing Economics and Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment at a Lon­don univer­sity. When asked if he were re­li­gious, he says his re­li­gion is com­pas­sion — to be kind and con­sid­er­ate to all be­ings and to re­spect the en­vi­ron­ment.

For many in the dig­i­tal work­force who spend most of their wak­ing hours nav­i­gat­ing cy­berspace, god is but a delu­sion. But they work with such re­li­gious fer­vour that they seem to wor­ship work. They have faith in it, it gives them hope and con­fi­dence, and they find so­lace and com­fort in nav­i­gat­ing that space, and they draw from it to fig­ure out their moral com­pass. Fair enough.

Could athe­is­tic philoso­phies help one nav­i­gate an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis? Ap­par­ently yes, go­ing by older move­ments like those of Jain­ism and Bud­dhism that did not speak of god or gods. Hin­duism, too, has in its fold, sev­eral schools of athe­ism, like those of Char­vaka and Mi­mamsa in the Samkhya tra­di­tion. The Ajivika, an­other athe­ist (nas­tika) school was born of sra­vana move­ments that have helped their fol­low­ers in their jour­ney of self-in­quiry de­spite non­be­lief in a Creator-God.

Can one say this of the newer crop of stri­dent athe­ists who up­hold their own anti-be­lief and de­nounce all be­liev­ers? Nope. Be­cause the mo­ment you up­hold your own be­lief (or non­be­lief) as be­ing supreme and all the rest as rub­bish, you have lost your cred­i­bil­ity. And you are in­ca­pable of pro­vid­ing com­fort and direction to the dis­tressed and the con­fused.

“This is why athe­ism, if it is to be rel­e­vant, must… broaden its fo­cus away from the va­lid­ity of god’s ex­is­tence and nar­row con­cerns over in­di­vid­ual free­dom. In­stead, it must turn to ad­dress ques­tions about eco­nomic causal­ity, be­long­ing and alien­ation, poverty, col­lec­tive ac­tion, geo-pol­i­tics, the so­cial causes of en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems, class and gen­der in­equal­ity, and hu­man suf­fer­ing,” says Pa­trick O’Con­nor, who teaches phi­los­o­phy at Not­ting­ham Trent Univer­sity. He points out that “ex­is­ten­tial­ists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Al­bert Ca­mus al­low us to com­pre­hend our shared mor­tal­ity, and the hu­mour and tragedy of life in a god­less uni­verse.”

online sales work as well as spread aware­ness about a prod­uct among fel­low stu­dents on cam­pus. “With an in­tern­ship you’re do­ing one kind of work, but here I get to do a bunch of dif­fer­ent things,” says the 20-year-old, who made Rs 29,000 through the app last month.

For com­pa­nies, it’s a cheaper way to get a job done, while stu­dents ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­tra cash and perks. Rishi Jain, 18, was given the task of be­ing a se­cret shop­per at a salon. “I had to go to the salon and get ser­vices worth Rs 500, and then they paid me 500 more on top of that to re­view the ser­vice on the app. I would never have got­ten a hair­cut worth that much money oth­er­wise,” he says.

Some av­enues of money-mak­ing are even eas­ier. Notes­gen is a global notes and study ma­te­rial mar­ket­place where stu­dents can sell the notes they al­ready have made. With a user base of 2 mil­lion glob­ally, with 85% of them in In­dia, all you have to do in scan your notes, price them as per your de­sire and need, and then just let peo­ple have at them. Manak Gu­lati, CEO and co-founder, says, “The notes which had no value other than in their so­cial cir­cles are worth ac­tual money now.”

Tru­elancer is a free­lanc­ing plat­form that has users of all lev­els of ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing stu­dents. They have a num­ber of op­por­tu­ni­ties on of­fer — from be­ing a re­search as­sis­tant for pro­fes­sors from Stan­ford and Berke­ley, to cod­ing for ma­chine learn­ing firms or writ­ing health-based con­tent. Co-founder Dipesh Garg says that they have fresher engi­neers who make $500 (Rs 35,000) a month work­ing with com­pa­nies in the US. “We also have fi­nal year ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dents free­lanc­ing with a small firm in Aus­tralia. Even if they pay half of what they would give some­one there, it’s a de­cent amount for these stu­dents,” he adds.

Mel­roy D’Mello, who runs the sub­ti­tling and dub­bing firm that Harika has been em­ployed with, says they have 160 free­lancers work­ing with them, most of whom are stu­dents. While he doesn’t want to go into specifics of how much they are paid, he says peo­ple have been able to buy them­selves new com­put­ers, or pay med­i­cal ex­penses for their fam­i­lies. “It’s a cre­ative job that they can be proud of,” he says. My sis­ter has come down from Delhi for Di­wali. Less out of love for me and more out of ne­ces­sity since it’s that time of the year when my nephew’s lungs be­gin cough­ing out loud protests. Sip­ping on some green tea, I tell her, ‘Soon my home will stop be­ing your refuge, as our air may just go the Delhi way with all the tree-felling. The worst bit is that the minute you say some­thing, the Min­istry of Red Her­rings gets into ac­tion.’

My sis­ter seems con­fused, ‘Min­istry of whaaat?’

I re­ply, ‘I mean the folks who use rhetor­i­cal ar­gu­ments as a weapon to dis­tract peo­ple from rel­e­vant ques­tions.’

She im­me­di­ately chirps in, ‘You do know that your for­eign her­ring is noth­ing else but hilsa right? Ben­galis love to douse it in mus­tard and prob­a­bly wor­ship it as much as they do Tagore.’ I laugh, ‘Re­ally? Well, now in­stead of steam­ing or fry­ing, it’s eas­ier to chuck some odor­if­er­ous hilsa into the mid­dle of dis­cus­sions. Even our kids do it to us all the time. Like if you tell your daugh­ter, ‘Look at your grades, you have to do bet­ter!” and she re­torts, “Payal Aunty has a dou­ble masters from Columbia but you keep say­ing that she is such a loser, so how does study­ing help?”

“When did I say that Payal is a loser?”

“You did Mom!’ and so on and so forth.”

The same tac­tic was used on me when I said that though ev­ery­one be­lieves in de­vel­op­ment, the metro shed should be lo­cated on bar­ren land. Im­me­di­ately the Red Her­ring min­istry be­gan its cam­paign, “Stop us­ing your SUV!” “Stop read­ing pa­per­backs!” “Why don’t you turn film city into a for­est?”’

She in­ter­jects, ‘Why do you even read these com­ments. Say what you have to about the metro, then shut your ears so you don’t lose your train of thought!’ She pauses and then glee­fully asks, ‘You got my pun? Metro and train of thought? You can use it in your next book. I give you per­mis­sion!’

I put my cup down and sigh, ‘Thank you for your gen­eros­ity sis­ter but I must de­cline. A bad pun is like a teabag, best used once and then tossed away.’

Lunch break con­sist of chomp­ing on some, thank­fully odour­less, fried pom­fret at my desk. Just as I dis­cover that Ex is a mea­sure­ment and doesn’t in­di­cate the pot­hole that you had briefly mis­taken for a boyfriend, my phone rings. ‘Con­grat­u­la­tions dikra your name has be­come more fa­mous,’ Biren Bhai in­forms me. My un­cle then pro­ceeds to tell me about two Gu­jarati women who have run back­ward for 53 kilo­me­tres and now want to set some sort of Guin­ness record.

Biren bhai adds, ‘ The two women are sis­ters-in-law, one is called Swati and the other one has your sweet name, Twin­kle!’

I do want to con­grat­u­late my name­sake for her for­ti­tude and par­tic­u­larly her fore­sight. Bhaag Twin­kle Bhaag! Keep run­ning back­ward. Soon ev­ery­one will end up run­ning in the same direction as you, they just don’t know it yet.

The girls in the of­fice are swoon­ing

over young cli­mate ac­tivist Greta Thun­berg. The 16-year-old also makes cer­tain peo­ple — best re­ferred to as Un­cles — froth at the mouth. From be­ing called “freak­ishly in­flu­en­tial with many men­tal dis­or­ders” by a Herald Sun colum­nist to a “hys­ter­i­cal teenager” by a Sky News com­men­ta­tor, she has also been likened to geno­ci­dal Pol Pot re­cently by an In­dian colum­nist.

Why a teenager ask­ing po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to re­duce CO2 emis­sions out­rages peo­ple is an ab­so­lute mys­tery. But red her­rings are now be­ing thrown into the Greta gravy as well.

Pic­tures have sud­denly ap­peared of Greta with a few plas­tic food con­tain­ers in front of her with cap­tions that ac­cuse her of hypocrisy. An­other al­le­ga­tion cen­tres around Greta’s par­ents — both be­ing per­form­ers — and that her rous­ing speeches are deemed well-crafted histri­on­ics. Err... I would be the first one to

Source: WIN/Gallup In­ter­na­tional polls Source: Pew *If last decade’s growth rate con­tin­ues

7% feel re­li­gious 13% 16% In­cludes Evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tant And Catholic Jewish Mus­lim Bud­dhist 1.9 0.9 0.7 Hindu Other re­li­gions Other faiths 25.4 20.8 0.7 0.3 1.4 Athe­ist Ag­nos­tic Noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar 3.1 4.0 15.8 2001 2011 2021 Est*

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