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Chapter 23
Alas, the sense of community that a common faith brings toa people spelled trouble for me. In time, my religious doingswent from the notice of those to whom it didn't matter andonly amused, to that of those to whom it did matter – andthey were not amused.
"What is your son doing going to temple?" asked the priest.
"Your son was seen in church crossing himself," said theimam.
"Your son has gone Muslim," said the pandit.
Yes, it was all forcefully brought to the attention of mybemused parents. You see, they didn't know. They didn't knowthat I was a practising Hindu, Christian and Muslim. Teenagersalways hide a few things from their parents, isn't that so? Allsixteen-year-olds have secrets, don't they? But fate decided thatmy parents and I and the three wise men, as I shall call them,should meet one day on the Goubert Salai seaside esplanadeand that my secret should be outed. It was a lovely, breezy,hot Sunday afternoon and the Bay of Bengal glittered under ablue sky. Townspeople were out for a stroll. Children screamedand laughed. Coloured balloons floated in the air. Ice creamsales were brisk. Why think of business on such a day, I ask?
Why couldn't they have just walked by with a nod and asmile? It was not to be. We were to meet not just one wiseman but all three, and not one after another but at the sametime, and each would decide upon seeing us that right thenwas the golden occasion to meet that Pondicherry notable, thezoo director, he of the model devout son. When I saw thefirst, I smiled; by the time I had laid eyes on the third, mysmile had frozen into a mask of horror. When it was clear thatall three were converging on us, my heart jumped beforesinking very low.
The wise men seemed annoyed when they realized that allthree of them were approaching the same people. Each musthave assumed that the others were there for some businessother than pastoral and had rudely chosen that moment todeal with it. Glances of displeasure were exchanged.
My parents looked puzzled to have their way gently blockedby three broadly smiling religious strangers. I should explainthat my family was anything but orthodox. Father saw himselfas part of the New India – rich, modern and as secular as icecream. He didn't have a religious bone in his body. He was abusinessman, pronounced busynessman in his case, ahardworking, earthbound professional, more concerned withinbreeding among the lions than any over-arching moral orexistential scheme. It's true that he had all new animals blessedby a priest and there were two small shrines at the zoo, oneto Lord Ganesha and one to Hanuman, gods likely to please azoo director, what with the first having the head of an elephantand the second being a monkey, but Father's calculation wasthat this was good for business, not good for his soul, a matterof public relations rather than personal salvation. Spiritual worrywas alien to him; it was financial worry that rocked his being.
"One epidemic in the collection," he used to say, "and we'll endup in a road crew breaking up stones." Mother was mum,bored and neutral on the subject. A Hindu upbringing and aBaptist education had precisely cancelled each other out as faras religion was concerned and had left her serenely impious. Isuspect she suspected that I had a different take on thematter, but she never said anything when as a child Idevoured the comic books of the Ramayana and theMahabharata and an illustrated children's Bible and otherstories of the gods. She herself was a big reader. She waspleased to see me with my nose buried in a book, any book,so long as it wasn't naughty. As for Ravi, if Lord Krishna hadheld a cricket bat rather than a flute, if Christ had appearedmore plainly to him as an umpire, if the prophet Muhammad,peace be upon him, had shown some notions of bowling, hemight have lifted a religious eyelid, but they didn't, and so heslumbered.
After the "Helios" and the "Good days", there was anawkward silence. The priest broke it when he said, with pridein his voice, "Piscine is a good Christian boy. I hope to seehim join our choir soon."My parents, the pandit and the imam looked surprised.
"You must be mistaken. He's a good Muslim boy. He comeswithout fail to Friday prayer, and his knowledge of the HolyQur'an is coming along nicely." So said the imam.
My parents, the priest and the pandit looked incredulous.
The pandit spoke. "You're both wrong. He's a good Hinduboy. I see him all the time at the temple coming for darshanand performing puja."My parents, the imam and the priest looked astounded.
"There is no mistake," said the priest. "I know this boy. Heis Piscine Molitor Patel and he's a Christian.""I know him too, and I tell you he's a Muslim," asserted theimam.
"Nonsense!" cried the pandit. "Piscine was born a Hindu,lives a Hindu and will die a Hindu!"The three wise men stared at each other, breathless anddisbelieving.
Lord, avert their eyes from me, I whispered in my soul.
All eyes fell upon me.
"Piscine, can this be true?" asked the imam earnestly.
"Hindus and Christians are idolaters. They have many gods.""And Muslims have many wives," responded the pandit.
The priest looked askance at both of them. "Piscine," henearly whispere............
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