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Chapter 17
First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in theimpression made by the first. I owe to Hinduism the originallandscape of my religious imagination, those towns and rivers,battlefields and forests, holy mountains and deep seas wheregods, saints, villains and ordinary people rub shoulders, and, indoing so, define who and why we are. I first heard of thetremendous, cosmic might of loving kindness in this Hindu land.
It was Lord Krishna speaking. I heard him, and I followed him.
And in his wisdom and perfect love, Lord Krishna led me tomeet one man.
I was fourteen years old – and a well-content Hindu on aholiday – when I met Jesus Christ.
It was not often that Father took time off from the zoo, butone of the times he did we went to Munnar, just over inKerala. Munnar is a small hill station surrounded by some ofthe highest tea estates in the world. It was early May and themonsoon hadn't come yet. The plains of Tamil Nadu werebeastly hot. We made it to Munnar after a winding, five-hourcar ride from Madurai. The coolness was as pleasing as havingmint in your mouth. We did the tourist thing. We visited aTata tea factory. We enjoyed a boat ride on a lake. We toureda cattle-breeding centre. We fed salt to some Nilgiri tahrs – aspecies of wild goat – in a national park. ("We have some inour zoo. You should come to Pondicherry," said Father tosome Swiss tourists.) Ravi and I went for walks in the teaestates near town. It was all an excuse to keep our lethargy alittle busy. By late afternoon Father and Mother were as settledin the tea room of our comfortable hotel as two cats sunningthemselves at a window. Mother read while Father chatted withfellow guests.
There are three hills within Munnar. They don't bearcomparison with the tall hills – mountains, you might call them– that surround the town, but I noticed the first morning, aswe were having breakfast, that they did stand out in one way:
on each stood a Godhouse. The hill on the right, across theriver from the hotel, had a Hindu temple high on its side; thehill in the middle, further away, held up a mosque; while thehill on the left was crowned with a Christian church.
On our fourth day in Munnar, as the afternoon was comingto an end, I stood on the hill on the left. Despite attending anominally Christian school, I had not yet been inside a church– and I wasn't about to dare the deed now. I knew very littleabout the religion. It had a reputation for few gods and greatviolence. But good schools. I walked around the church. It wasa building unremittingly unrevealing of what it held inside, withthick, featureless walls pale blue in colour and high, narrowwindows impossible to look in through. A fortress.
I came upon the rectory. The door was open. I hid arounda corner to look upon the scene. To the left of the door wasa small board with the words Parish Priest and AssistantPriest on it. Next to each was a small sliding block. Both thepriest and his assistant were IN, the board informed me ingold letters, which I could plainly see. One priest was workingin his office, his back turned to the bay windows, while theother was seated on a bench at a round table in the largevestibule that evidently functioned as a room for receivingvisitors. He sat facing the door and the windows, a book in hishands, a Bible I presumed. He read a little, looked up, read alittle more, looked up again. It was done in a way that wasleisurely, yet alert and composed. After some minutes, he closedthe book and put it aside. He folded his hands together on thetable and sat there, his expression serene, showing neitherexpectation nor resignation.
The vestibule had clean, white walls; the table and bencheswere of dark wood; and the priest was dressed in a whitecassock – it was all neat, plain, simple. I was filled with asense of peace. But more than the setting, what arrested mewas my intuitive understanding that he was there – open,patient – in case someone, anyone, should want to talk to him;a problem of the soul, a heaviness of the heart, a darkness ofthe conscience, he would listen with love. He was a manwhose profession it was to love, and he would offer comfortand guidance to the best of his ability.
I was moved. What I had before my eyes stole into myheart and thrilled me.
He got up. I thought he might slide his block over, but hedidn't. He retreated further into the rectory, that's all, leavingthe door between the vestibule and the next room as open asthe outside door. I noted this, how both doors were wideopen. Clearly, he and his colleague were still available.
I walked away and I dared. I entered the church. Mystomach was in knots. I was terrified I would meet a Christianwho would shout at me, "What are you doing here? How dareyou enter this sacred place, you defiler? Get out, right now!"There was no one. And little to be understood. I advancedand observed the inner sanctum. There was a painting. Wasthis the murti? Something about a human sacrifice. An angrygod who had to be appeased with blood. Dazed women staringup in the air and fat babies with tiny wings flying about. Acharismatic bird. Which one was the god? To the side of thesanctum was a painted wooden sculpture. The victim again,bruised and bleeding in bold colours. I stared at his knees.
They were badly scraped. The pink skin was peeled back andlooked like the petals of a flower, revealing kneecaps that werefire-engine red. It was hard to connect this torture scene withthe priest in the rectory.
The next day, at around the same time, I let myself IN.
Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment thatcomes down heavily. My experience with Father Martin was notat all like that. He was very kind. He served me tea andbiscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch; hetreated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Orrather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story.
And what a story. The first thing that drew me in wasdisbelief. What? Humanity sins but it's God's Son who pays theprice? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, "Piscine, a lionslipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas.
Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two ofthem ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks andgrey herons. And who's to say for sure who snacked on ourgolden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Somethingmust be done. I have decided that the only way the lions canatone for their sins is if I feed you to them.""Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do.
Give me a moment to wash up.""Hallelujah, my son.""Hallelujah, Father."What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology.
I asked for another story, one that I might find moresatisfying. Surely this religion had more than one story in itsbag – religions abound with stories. But Father Martin mademe understand that the stories that came before it – and therewere many – were simply prologue to the Christians. Theirreligion had one Story, and to it they came back again andagain, over and over. It was story enough for them.
I was quiet that evening at the hotel.
That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand.
The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies,kidnappers and usurpers. What is the Ramayana but theaccount of one long, bad day for Rama? Adversity, yes.
Reversals of fortune, yes. Treachery, yes. But humiliation?
Death? I couldn't imagine Lord Krishna consenting to bestripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streetsand, to top it off, crucified – and at the han............
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