(The writer, Vikram Bhawani Singh is my brother and a guest contributor. The above caricature is my work, of course, without his permission!)
I am an atheist and my mother is a complete believer. All her life, she has tried, encouraged, compelled, forced and even tortured me to follow the extensive daily rituals practiced in our house to please the deities but I have remained stoic. My views on God and religion makes her mad but she has never given up on me and she never will! Recently, she went a step further…
I took a two-week leave from office to visit my parents and sister at Ranchi. Unfortunately, the day I reached Ranchi I got to know that my sister had caught chicken pox. It is a highly contagious disease normally associated with children. But even adults and older people are at risk if they do not have any history of this infection.
I checked with my mother whether I have had chicken pox earlier. To my disbelief, I had never been infected before. I tried to explain to her that during childhood, small rashes did appear on my skin with high fever and extreme weakness. I was told that it was Measles.
So, I was on a mission now. I had to avoid the dreaded infection at any cost. I saw my sister’s pain and discomfort and it scared me all the more. I read about the disease extensively. Chicken pox is caused by the herpes varicella-zoster virus. It is spread by droplets from a sneeze or cough, or by contact with the clothing, bed linens or oozing blisters of an infected person. The onset of symptoms is 10 to 21 days after exposure. It is contagious a day or two before the rash appears and until the rash is completely dry and scabbed over.
My sister was kept isolated in a room and I made a point to not enter it. Small branches of Neem leaves were put at various places at our apartment. Neem leaves have immense medicinal properties and their presence are considered to have soothing effect on itching and irritation caused by blisters. We were following all these measures.
However, as was destined, religion intervened to add salt to our injury! My mother instructed me that the pious Neem leaves should not fall on floor and by any chance it should not be touched by feet.
I argued, “What will happen if the leaves fall on the floor? And when it gets dry it is definitely going to fall down. I am not going to follow such instructions”. My mother replied furiously, “Mata (Goddess) has come…..Dare you displease her.”
I was taken aback. “Who was ‘Mata’?”. She enlightened me on the popular belief that chicken pox was a Goddess. I laughed at the ridiculous idea and looked for support towards my father, sister, relatives…but surprisingly, everyone was looking the other away. I was the odd man out!
Chicken pox is no less than a form of Goddess for people in whole of the eastern belt of India. It is revered and dreaded so much that people talk in whispers and perform elaborate rituals to appease the Goddess. Anger and melancholy had overpowered and I left it to my mother to do as she wished.
For the next seven days all the rituals were followed. Many relatives were consulted for guidelines. The respect and fear of “Mata” was ubiquitous. My mother had a battalion behind her who were more vociferous and committed to the cause. Finally, the theatricals ended and the Neem leaves were packed in a bag and thrown in a Pond. All these days, I kept aloof from the proceedings and told my mother that if I were to catch the infection, I was not going to follow the rituals.
My holidays were about to be over over. I had booked a Tatkaal ticket back to Vadodara. But on the very evening, all hell broke loose! I noticed a single acne like something on my right hand. I knew it, probably, ‘Mata’ had returned to unleash her anger on me since I had dared to laugh at her.
The following day many more blisters appeared. I consulted a doctor and came back with loads of medicines. As you all know, diseases caused by viruses do not have any medicines to cure it. However, the antibiotics and other medicines make the whole process far less painful.
The return of ‘Mata’ provided me the opportunity to enter her realm and into the minds of her followers. Everyone who came to visit me spoke in a low tone. The maids were fully devoted to her cause. I was treated like a king…no sorry…like a queen goddess..lol!
People would enter my room only after opening the shoes/slippers at the doorstep. My orders were to be followed in word and spirit. I was the first one to be provided food. I was shown respect in every way. In short, I was not me, I was she, the dreaded Goddess.
By sheer coincidence, Pundit Ji (Cook cum Priest) also came to Ranchi. My mother was happy as daily bhajans (devotional songs) and puja (rituals) could be performed more effectively by him. I strictly told my mother that I was not going to follow any such rituals. But she told me sweetly that I had to sit still for just 10 minutes. I blatantly refused. She replied, “I will spy on you and will perform the Puja whenever I find you sitting.” She was cleverer than I thought and before I could retort or scream, I was being worshipped wholeheartedly by my mother!
Every morning and evening Bhajans were sung by pundit ji and maids in an extremely annoying and cacophonous voices. And amidst all this was an atheist in whom ‘Goddess’ resided! I guessed at the reason behind such rituals. In olden days, Chicken Pox must have been a dreadful disease. With no antibiotic medicines available this highly infectious disease must have brought untold miseries on people. It ultimately was given Godhood.
It is a well known that most of us fear God rather than love Him. This fear makes us weak. It is said that faith has immense power. I do believe in it. But illogical beliefs have immensely destructive power, I believe in that too. There is a thin line between the two…one has to tread carefully!
The time has come to think rationally. The time has come to question God and Religion. The time has come to question our own beliefs. History is full of instances when men have suffered the brunt from the ideologies of Slavery, Whiteman’s Burden, Superiority of Aryan Race, Jihad etc. These ideologies justified every action of the perpetrator. The perpetrators had immense faith in their actions. But we all know that they all crossed the line and caused destruction. The world needs rationality and tolerance or Samuel Huttington’s “Clash of Civilization”. It’s time to call ‘Mata’ by its actual name loudly without fearing any sort of wrath.
Tomorrow, to my relief, chicken pox will be given farewell or to say in respectful tone, “Mata will choose her new abode”. The Neem leaves will be disposed in a Pond as done earlier. I just hope that the Goddess doesn’t return.