Monday, October 31, 2005

An Atheist among Gods and Ghosts

“Janaki Lenin, are you a Christian, Hindu or Communist?” This question was the bane of my growing years. The questioner said the word “Communist” sinisterly and although I didn’t know what it meant, I clearly understood it was evil. I was very confused about why I should be associated with evil and didn’t know how to respond. However, only a few knew the significance of the name. Most frequently I was asked if I was a Hindu or a Christian. To a Hindu, any foreign sounding name that wasn’t overtly Muslim was a Christian name. So the Hindus assumed I was a Christian and the Christians thought I was a Hindu.

When I was seven I was sent to a Catholic convent school. During the first hour of school every day all the Catholic kids attended catechism while all the “heathen” (Protestants included) did Moral Science. The majority of the kids were Hindus but there were some Muslims, Sikhs, and Jains too. We were taught about Jesus Christ and that the Christian God was the only true god and the Pope the only intermediary; and we sang hymns. The rest of the time we filled scrapbooks with pictures; I cannot remember what these exercises were about but they were very boring. When I looked around the class, the other kids were variously engaged in something other than what we were meant to be doing – some were completing math homework that had to be handed in later in the day, some were tearing note paper and making rockets and various projectiles, others were reading story books, some gossiped in whispers. Nobody took Moral Science seriously.

I daydreamed while gazing out of the window at the sea. A fishermen’s village was below the window on the beach and there were always some interesting goings-on to watch. At that time of the morning the men would be mending their nets while their wives were away at distant markets haggling over that mornings’ catch. If the catch was late it was exciting to watch the catamarans pulling in; all the fishermen in the colony would pitch in and drag the heavy nets ashore. Their kids didn’t go to school and hung around the settlement amongst the adults helping with the chores. The rest of the day the kids just ran around on the hot sands flying kites or romping in the waves. I remember wishing I were a fisher-kid who didn’t have to go through the drudgery of learning math and science and geography.

Every time I moved up a grade in school I had to explain my strange name to my new teachers. They wanted to know whether I was a Christian or Hindu; I didn’t know what I was. To simplify things they asked what god we worshipped at home and I said none. What festivals did we celebrate at home? I stood there tongue-tied, pinned like an accused criminal under the interested gaze of the teacher and all my classmates. The teacher suggested “Christmas or Diwali?” I nodded yes to both. Were my parents of two different religions? I didn’t know. This was a country where everyone wore his or her religious identity obviously and sometimes flamboyantly. So the teachers couldn’t be convinced that I was unable to explain my religion and would ask the same questions for the next few days until they got tired. I hated these public trials. I wanted to conform as much as possible. I would have given anything to be as interesting as plain cardboard. I didn’t care which religion I belonged to as long as I belonged to something just like everyone else. When I complained to my parents that everyone, but I, had a religion, and that the teachers were always troubling me about it, they replied that religion was a private issue and shouldn’t unduly concern my teachers. They weren’t convinced I needed a religion to gain acceptability and I had no choice but to grit my teeth and put up with the endless questions.

It wasn’t just the teachers who were curious. When I got friendly with another girl, her parents wanted to know what religion I belonged to. I never had a lasting friendship, as the parents were suspicious of my background. It seemed like a big deal to everyone except my parents. I felt miserable as I seemed to be the only one not part of any gang. I melodramatically contemplated running away from home. Perhaps a fisherman would adopt me and I could fly kites all day long. It remained a mid-day reverie and I was too chicken to actually run away.

At home I looked in the phone book. There were Leenas, Legays, and a column of Lekhas. Finally there was the lone beacon Lenin, the only one in Chennai, a city of 4 million people. Why did Father not have a common name like Venkatasubramanium, or Hussein or Thomas?

When I turned thirteen, I realized that I was born a Hindu but my parents had strong socialist leanings and were practicing atheists or rationalists or whatever fancy word Father came up with. I asked Father how I got my name and this is the story he told me:

Back in the 1930s the Justice Party, a political group from the South, was not only fighting for freedom but also grappling with socially oppressive practices plaguing Tamilian (a people in South India) society at that time. People of the lower caste were treated abominably, women were little more than heir producers and the condition of the serfs under the feudal agrarian system was worse than animals. The Party proclaimed atheism as a revolt against the religious hegemony of the Brahmins. Mr. Ramanathan was an office bearer of the Justice Party.

In late 1931 Ramanathan and Periyar, the father of the Dravidian movement wanted to study the political systems of other countries. Periyar came from a wealthy family but did not know English. He made a proposition to Ramanathan that if he would be the interpreter, Periyar would finance the trip. So both men embarked on a journey that covered almost every country in Europe. They had wanted to visit Soviet Union as well but the British Government refused them permission. When their ship dropped anchor in the Russian port of Odessa, Ramanathan and Periyar jumped ship and traveled to Moscow. They had heard so much British propaganda about the Communist regime that they were curious to see the country for themselves. Coming from a nation where grinding poverty in the villages was common, the visitors were overwhelmed by the seeming prosperity of the Soviet countryside and the emancipation of women and serfs. The Indians returned home determined to kick-start reforms.

Soon after his arrival in 1933, Ramanathan visited his family; he had been away for months and while he was abroad one of his sisters had delivered a son. The house was festive and bustling with activity when Ramanathan arrived. The naming ceremony of the baby was to be held soon and the foreign-returned gentleman was given the honour. He named his nephew, Lenin. There are no records to suggest whether the family was shocked or dismayed by this unorthodox name. Some of Father’s aunts and uncles couldn’t even pronounce this funny name – they called him a lilting “Lelin.”

Tamilians do not have a tradition of family names. We, however, have an intricate system of initials – my name under this system would read L. Janaki and I formally belonged to the house of the oldest living patriarch of the family. This curious practice had one interesting consequence – women didn’t have to take on their husbands’ name. I would be L. Janaki, whether I married or not, until I died. I was the only girl born in my father’s family and was hence named after my grandmother, Janaki, meaning “daughter of the earth.” When I began going to kindergarten, the Western system of taking a family name came into vogue. Many took on their caste affiliations as their family name. Some made family names of their father’s given name, like my parents did for me. So I became Janaki Lenin. How I wished later in life that I were an anonymous L. Janaki instead of the shocking Janaki Lenin!

At about the time I was learning about this history, Moral Science became interesting. I paid attention to what the nuns were saying. They narrated several parables from the Bible, which highlighted the omnipresence of God. It was all based on having faith – only if I had faith could I know God and if I didn’t have any, I would be blind to His Presence. I told Father that even if he didn’t know if there was a god or not, the nuns were sure there was one.

Father asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?”

“I think so.”

He asked, “Have you seen any?”


“Then why do you believe in them?” he countered. I was baffled. “Besides,” he added, “God and the Ghost are the same thing.”

And he quoted, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”.

Those were the years when we girls scared the wits out of each other with ghost stories and rumours of impaled mutilated bodies ran through the school like a gas line on fire. The school was situated in the middle of a vast woodsy property. We walked the narrow path among the trees watchful for legs or headless bodies dangling from the branches or for malevolent apparitions who might appear unexpectedly out of the dark corners. I never saw anything out of the ordinary but the vivid descriptions of some of the vile things that the others had seen made me uncomfortable. Mother had been reassuring me every night for several years that there were no ghosts. After each report of a sighting, we’d all rush over and, of course, there was nothing. Most of our lunch hour was spent chasing ghosts. A lot of the girls swore that they had seen ghosts and I thought since I wasn’t seeing any, I had no faith. That’s exactly what the nuns said too – I wasn’t seeing god because I had no faith. Or was it the other way around? When classes resumed, we’d struggle to calm our nerves down and concentrate on some complex mathematical problem. Several times a girl would go into a complete panic about a ghost she had seen and the nuns would be called in to calm her down. They would lecture that there were no ghosts and only people who worshipped the Devil believed in or saw ghosts. Now I was really confused.

During Moral Science hour the next day I muddled an explanation about gods and ghosts. As I saw the nun’s expression getting stranger and stranger, I abruptly clammed up. The trouble over my spiritual soul had begun. Every evening brought a new argument from Father and the next morning I would get into a fresh dispute with the nuns.

The question of god, devil and faith was to occupy my thoughts so entirely that I gazed off into the sea trying to figure out what Father meant – How could God be the same as the ugly, scary headless ghosts? And the nuns said ghosts were the Devil’s work. So what was this strange relationship between God and Devil? This tendency to daydream got me in trouble with everybody. The teachers complained to Mother that I was a dreamer.

None of my friends were having a problem with God and they somehow remained immune to the religious preaching of the nuns and disinterested in Moral Science. I felt I was being put to the test by being torn between two didactic polarities. Out of exasperation one evening I asked Father “So is there a God or not?” and he answered “No one can prove there is one and no one can prove there isn’t one and we all have to live with that.” And he loved to quote Mark Twain, “God created man in his image and man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.” Or this one by Oscar Wilde was another favourite: “Most religious teachers spend their time trying to prove the unproven by the unprovable.” While I considered this exploration seriously, Father was always a tease and was deliberately tripping me up.

The nuns said we needed God to keep away from evil and to receive pardon for our sins. That seemed reasonable and I was willing to accept it. Just like I needed my parents and teachers, everyone needed a god to discipline us. After mulling over it for a while I came up against this: If there was no God to pardon my sins, would that not keep me from committing sins in the first place? What was the point in committing a crime and then seeking forgiveness for it? By this time, the nuns had privately nicknamed me The Devil. I was at an age when I was questioning authority and doubting everything my parents as well as the nuns said. So I set out to find out for myself.

I started to read the Bible but didn’t get very far beyond the first pages of the Old Testament. All of us got free copies of the Bible every year. Like any other book I began with the first page of the Old Testament and promptly got tangled, like so many others, in who begat who begat who and who girded his loins to do what. I visited the cathedral every evening after school. I didn’t know Mass was held at certain times of the week; I would open the creaky massive door and let myself in. This disturbed a bunch of blind bats that eerily swooped around me. Keeping one eye open for bats and other spooky things, I’d imitate the nuns in Moral Science class and murmur “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Soon the brush of a bat’s wing or the deadening silence would send me running out. Besides I didn’t want to walk across the woods alone. I copied every gesture a Christian made and pretended I was one too. I hung pictures of Jesus on my wall, crossed myself when one of the girls swore, and refused to wear the red bindi on my forehead. No doubt the nuns were delighted with my transformation from a combative “Communist” to a devout soul that they had had doubts of saving from hell fire. I can’t remember how long this phase lasted but it’s no wonder that it got me nowhere.

I next tried being a Hindu. I didn’t know what the Hindu spiritual book was. Father said there is not one but several. I didn’t want to cloud my confusion any further by involving Father and kept my quest a secret. If I asked him too many questions then I’d have to divulge the whole thing. With no one to guide me, I had to settle on going to the temple every evening. It was moderately fun as it was very social. All the men, dressed in white sarongs, sat under the sacred tree and name-dropped; the women, in colourful saris, sat on the cool granite corridor of the temple, with fragrant fresh jasmine flowers in their hair, singing while the kids ran helter-skelter. Inside the temple, the priest began the evening by bathing the idols of the gods with sacred water. He then decorated them with sandal wood paste and vermilion and gold jewelry. After he was ready, everyone gathered for the puja (prayer ceremony) around the sanctum sanctorum. There was the sonorous chanting of Sanskrit verses, and bells rang. Everyone clapped their cheeks in reverence and joined their hands in prayer. The priest then brought out the offerings – some ash and vermilion that was promptly applied to the forehead. Once the main puja was done, you walked around the temple corridor clockwise paying respects to all the minor gods installed in their own niches along the corridor. This held my interest for a few days but again it didn’t do much to explain the nature of god, much less enlighten if there was one.

I asked my Hindu friend what she thought. She went along with what her parents taught her about God and that was all there was to it. I asked her if what the nuns said during Moral Science made her think again. With a peculiar look she said, “I’m sent here to study, not pay attention to their Christian teachings.” And I realized that was probably the attitude of my parents as well.

Late in March Indians celebrate a boisterous festival called Holi (the Spring Festival). While on every other festival we wore our best clothes, for Holi we wore the oldest, because friends will soon dust and drench you in gaudy colours. This festival was widely celebrated in North India but when I was fifteen, South Indians were slowly adopting it too. They restricted themselves to throwing colours on each other but didn’t get into drinking bhang (a sweet milk drink spiked with marijuana). In North India, everyone from grannies to little kids got harmlessly high on it. That year, some friends and I decided to celebrate Holi. After school got done that day we ran riot smearing virulent pink and nauseating green colour powders on each other. The powder mixed with sweat left an indelible mark that lasted a couple of days. Into this wild party walked a group of nuns in their immaculate white habits and in sheer exuberance I threw some colour on them. Suddenly everyone came to their senses and the gaiety stopped abruptly. I knew I had made a terrible mistake. The nuns suspected some devious religious infraction had taken place but weren’t really sure. Since I, of indeterminate religious breeding, was the culprit; there could be more to it than met the eye.

I was marched off to see Sister Teresa, the head of the school. I must have looked a sight – my hair in disarray, my face and clothes smeared in garish colours while I tried to look as repentant as possible. Sister Teresa was a morose person and would always reprimand us for laughing or running “too much” as she made her way sedately like a giant penguin around the school at recess. Her nickname among the girls was Sister Grumpy. A terse letter of complaint was written to my parents about my abominable behaviour, my arguments about the existence of god with some oblique comments about their own godlessness. I smirked to myself thinking that should surely get Mother going. But instead she shouted at me. Why was I bringing dishonour on the family by behaving wildly? Why did I have to throw colour on anyone? I really wished I hadn’t taken part in the rowdy party and brought all this unpleasantness on myself. It had just seemed like simple fun then. I was allowed to return to school the next day if I apologized and I did. But something soured inside me; I didn’t think it was such a big issue that they had to complain to Mother. I had been apologizing from the moment I realized I had made a mistake but instead they made a scene at school and at home before I was finally let off. The nuns singled me out for special attention during Moral Science, preaching with renewed vigour while making snide remarks about the devil in our midst. The more the nuns tried to stuff religion down my throat, the more I rebelled against the Christian god. Mother forbade me from getting into any arguments with the nuns. Since I wasn’t making much headway on the issue of Gods and ghosts I relapsed to a semi-comatose frame of mind during Moral Science and resumed watching the fisher kids flying their kites.

Our Board examinations were coming up and we had to get down to the serious business of studying and doing well. The pressure was on to not only do well, but to do really well. Moral Science class was scraped for the weeks leading up to the exams and God was relegated to the low priority corner of all our minds. We attended special classes in school over the weekends, had long assignments to do in every subject; it was tedious. There was hectic competition between schools to outperform each other in these examinations. The more First classes the students achieved, the higher the school’s prestige. Teachers and parents invested a lot of time and effort in every student. The day before the examinations began, as we all began suffering from pangs of anxiety, God suddenly figured prominently. The Christian girls went to the cathedral and the Hindu girls appeared at school with the holy marks of having visited a temple. I didn’t pay any attention to what the girls from other religious backgrounds did. I felt completely alone with no god of my own to look down on me but realized that if there was anyone I could rely on, it was I. Being an average student academically, I surprised the nuns by outdoing myself. Even Sister Grumpy happily commented, “Even the Devil did well!” That was the first time I heard my nickname. We had done the school proud and there was a lot of backslapping. The moment passed but I was never to forget the nasty nickname and hereafter always equated nuns with the moniker.

The last two years of school were spent in a daze of cultural activities, meeting boys, parties, discovering make-up, and developing deep crushes on movie stars and sports heroes. God still remained low priority. Parents didn’t interfere anymore in their daughters’ lives and so finally I had friends. I went to film school after graduating from high school and I was thankful that nobody there really cared about religion. That was when I resumed that unfinished business.

I had just turned eighteen. This time I knew which books to read and I covered a vast spectrum. I settled finally for the agnosticism of Zen Buddhism combined with elements of Sufi mysticism as it calmed my parched restless soul. I suppose this is what my parents wanted for me – to not take any religion for granted and to seek my own crutch (or faith as some would have it). I am now thankful I got that name because not only did it help me find my non-conformist feet but taught me to scrutinize everything – question, question, question.

The only time I felt any trepidation about my name was when I first traveled to the United States years later. I wondered what the Immigration officials would say. I stood quaking in that queue exhausted from the long flight and unsure of myself in a strange land. There were strong socialist parties in Europe and I hadn’t felt out of place or unwanted there. But in America, Communism was an evil word. I convinced myself that I was going to be deported. When it was finally my turn, the official merely commented “Interesting name” and then wanted to know what I was doing in the country. “I’m going to Jackson, Wyoming for a film festival, sir,” I squeaked through my tension-clenched throat. He exclaimed, “Really! I’m from Jackson. Oh! You’ll love it there. It’s the most beautiful place in the world,” and stamped my passport. I remember thinking, If America can accept me, I must be all right.

These days if any one asks me about my name, I say, “Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you about it.” Depending on my mood I might either spin a yarn or tell them the simple truth.


Ranjana. said...

hey Janaki,
that was most interesting!
[....what happened to the article you were working on in El Cielo?] said...

Ranjana's views endorsed.
ou deserve a drink sure.

WHat was the film fstival in Wyoming? said...

HAve you read "the life of Pi".
It has a similar story?
Pi patel tries to practice a no. of religions much to the annoyance of his father who invites the moulavi, the priest and the pandit for a meeting on the beach. ANd all the three lay fierce claims to him in front of his parents.
His elder brother however is not impressed and teases him with
"so swami Shyam,WIll you go for hajj before or after Christmas ?"

Roopa said...

Did you read "the life of Pi"
It had a similar tale. Pi patel, hobnobbed with the moulavi, pandit and the pastor of his area. One day his father called all the three religious men at the same time for a rendesvous at the seaside. All the three began to lay emphatic claims on the sincererity of Pi towards his faith.
Pi's brother however wasn't impressed
He would tease him with "So Swami Shyam, WIll you be going for hajj after or before Chrismas ?"

Janaki Lenin said...

Hi Roopa,

There is a once in two years wildlife film festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming - that was the ref.

bythewindowsill said...

:-) :-)
loved the story. cheers to the name that made you.
~ window siller :-) :-)

Warren said...

Hi Janaki!

You're a great writer! Your wildlife adventures are captivating and beautifully told. I appreciate your openness about religious confusion at Catholic school; your description of being an outcast at the hands of sanctimonious overlords has universal appeal that transcends geography or religion. Keep it up!


Welcome said...

awesome Janaki, i am your class mate, you have felt the same way as i did. i have tears in my eyes.

Jerry Waxler said...

I love the whole theme of religious ambiguity, not something I ordinarily associate with India.

As for being nervous about your name in the U.S. by now you probably have found that because communism is evil in the United States, John Lennon is much more widely known than Vladimir.

Nice life writing. Thank you.

Memory Writers Network

Anonymous said...

Dear Janaki,
Enjoyed your talk at NCBS this afternoon and loved the post about your name.

janaki said...

hey Janaki
I am your name sake another Janaki (named after my grandmother like you) always waiting for your Saturday article in The Hindu. I have admired your captivating write ups and the openness in all of them. You are awesome I tell you.:)May you continue to write such beautiful articles for ever.

Akshay Kumar said...

Well written.

Nallamai Lakshmanan said...

Have always looked forward to reading your articles. Keep writing!