Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Obama and Warren

President-elect Obama has decided to have Rick Warren perform the invocation at his presidential inauguration in January. Warren, the pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in California, is well-known for his conservative views, falling sharply in line with the traditional evangelical stance on 'social issues,' but is touted as something of a centrist because he believes that global warming may actually be a problem. On pretty much everything else, he's a run-of-the-mill conservative evangelical: Right to Life, anti-gay marriage, etc.

The debate surrounding Obama's decision, though, has been interesting. People on the left are angry because of Warren's position on gay marriage and California's recent Proposition 8. On the right, Warren is being criticized for accepting the invitation at all. Obama apologists like E.J. Dionne at the Post have been hailing the move as the kind of conciliatory, centrist politics that will keep Obama afloat.

But as far as I can tell, no one in mainstream media has asked the question of why Warren is going to be there at all. In years past, no one appearss to have asked why Billy Graham was there either. Why are these men here to invoke the blessing of their (presumably, Christian) god on a presidency- a presidency of a country filled with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and atheists? Does Warren represent all their religious views, or the lack of them?

But there's a larger issue beyond respect for pluralism or the gay rights movement. Why is a religious leader anywhere near the podium? Why does a pastor have to be around to 'invoke' the divine and legitimize a president through prayer, however symbolic? The last time I checked, the only legitimation a democratically elected government needed is the consent of the governed. People who would urge me to "lighten up, dude, it's just a prayer" miss the power that religious symbolism can have in perpetuating the insidious intermingling of Church and State.

Democratic states should invoke the blessings of their citizens, not of a parochial divine.

Monday, September 15, 2008

RIP Richard Wright

It's been a couple of years since I posted a rock obituary. Ironically, the last one was in honour of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett. This one is a tribute to the memory of his colleague, keyboard-player Rick Wright. I initially hesitated before writing this one: most of the musicians I grew up admiring are well into their sixties, and if get sentimental each time one of them passes, I'd have to devote an entire blog to them over the next few years. But Wright is too close to my memory of rock music to be ignored. I expect I'll feel the same about most other classic rock musicians too.

Wright was the 'quiet Beatle' of Pink Floyd. His keyboard playing (listen to 'Echoes') was as understated as his singing ('Wearing the Inside Out'). He was the first keyboard player I listened to. But, as I discovered, I hadn't listened to him enough. I was into Floyd during my 'guitar only' phase, long before I was hooked to keyboard players like Jon Lord, Rick Wakemen, and Ray Manzarek. Indeed, for a time, I listened to nothing but keyboard players, and Rick Wright was NOT among them. He didn't have the gusto of those players, and I had ignored him early on.

But for the last couple of years, I've been journeying back to the albums and bands I listened to as a kid, reliving them from a different perspective. Inevitably, Floyd surfaced. And I began to realise why I had ignored Wright: he was all texture. It took me much too long to appreciate texture, and subsequently, Wright. His keyboards were always swirling, careening left-to-right, swelling just below the surface, and never stepping out of place. It takes years to find that space in every piece of music; Wright was there every time. He will be missed.

Monday, August 11, 2008

On Faith

I've tried to avoid posting things that are too obviously autobiographical, though most of these pieces are oblique references to people and events in my life. This piece will be less veiled, but perhaps no clearer than the others: my thoughts on the matter at hand are far from clear. In this post I turn to (or away from) faith.

I started to think about my faith seriously, like many others, during college. I decided that, if I was to engage my faith in any relevant manner, that I'd best reconcile it with the imperatives of rational, reasoned thought. Once that stage was over, I could move on, I figured. I didn't pick this process arbitrarily. My life and identity have, for as long as I can remember, been intertwined with the church. My grandfather is a minster. My father is also a minister who spent most of his adult life teaching History of Christianity at the United Theological College in Bangalore, where I grew up surrounded by young men and women who wanted to be ministers. No less than 3 uncles, 1 cousin, and 1 grand-uncle are ministers. In some ways, the priesthood is the family business.

But as I grew older, I soon became aware that not only had the church defined a large part of my identity, it had circumscribe my own mental awareness of the church as an institution, and Christianity as a worldview. I knew no other way of approaching the divine. I was so steeped in the church, that 'rethinking' it could only follow thinking about it seriously and critically. This realisation coincided with my slow disillusionment with the church, youth meetings, services, liturgies, the Lord's Prayer, Vacation Bible School, and bible quizzes. I soon attended church less and less, and the 'Evangelical' turn my youth group had taken only made it easier for me to mentally and emotionally disconnect from the church.

This period was very refreshing to me. The pleasure of not having to wake up for Sunday service was coupled with the realisation that, for the first time, I had found some spiritual breathing room. The more I disconnected from the church, the more I was able to think about my faith. Thus, I came to the decision that I could flex the muscles of my reason within the realm of faith. Till then, faith had merely sulked in the back of my head as an entity that was vast in its scope and importance, yet something I was only dimly aware of. In this period, I started to drag my faith out from the shadows into the harsh light of my intellect. The closest analogy I can think of is the scene in The Two Towers where Gandalf reveals Grima Wormtongue to be the snivelling schemer he truly I was. I resented my faith, much like Gandalf did Grima. I resented the circumstances of birth, societal pressures, and plain dumb acceptance that had led me to this state. After all, I wouldn't accept someone's political views without some reasonable justification, why should my faith escape scrutiny? The systems of knowledge that I had been brought up to know, especially the sciences, would scoff at the notion of Newton following his Laws of Motion with the following proof:
Trust me, it's true. God told me so.

It seemed to me that all through my Christianity-soaked childhood, I had lapped up many such proofs for the elements of my faith: praying to an unfeeling, unresponsive ether; thinking about a heaven that included me, and excluded my Muslim best friend; standing up during 'testimony' and spouting how good it had been now that I had 'accepted Jesus Christ as my personal saviour.' Why should I pray, go to heaven, or accept a saviour? I began asking these things, and the answer was, "Trust me, it's true. God told me so." When I asked people who knew better about the rational basis for this faith that they held so dearly, they quoted the Bible. The circularity was both troubling and amusing to me. What's the use of quoting the Word of God to justify God?

And so I now come to the present day; I am agnostic. There. I said it. To clarify, I hold this position because it's inherently impossible to prove the non-existence of God. It's just as indefensible to say "There is no God." as "There is a God." Instead, I am what others have called a 'tooth fairy agnostic.' I think there's as much a chance of God existing as the tooth fairy existing. I am not the kind of agnostic that believes that some amorphous being exists that can account for this world's existence, however far removed from the Judeo-Christian god that entity may be.

Also, this is not a rejection of my Christian heritage, which has had many positive outcomes, but no more than a Muslim, Hindu, or atheistic heritage could have provided. I can no more reject this heritage than I can reject being an Indian, a Malayalee, or a man. Instead, this a rejection of a system of belief that posits as its basis an essentially unknowable, non-falsifiable divine.

A friend of mine commented that it's a difficult time to be a believer nowadays with all the subtle and overt scorn for religion and people of faith. That may be so, but I come from a different realm of difficulty. I was born into a desert of indoctrination that has asked me to take so many things on faith, and has proved nothing to me. Yet it threatens the apostate with hellfire. If that's not scary, I don't know what is. I once saw a TV special about a Methodist who had become an atheist. He described the moment of his rejection of faith as a moment of freedom and liberation. (Interestingly, that sounds like so many people who have 'accepted a personal saviour.') I don't feel the same freedom. My rejection of faith is, perhaps, more furtive. The furtiveness does not stem from uncertainty about my position, but is instead the shadow of the faith I leave behind. That shadow whispers in the background the words of John 3: 18 "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of God's unique Son." I am comforted by the fact that, like so much of my past faith, that's just plain illogical. I feared its repercussions, but we all get over the monsters under our beds sooner or later.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Su Do Nym

They had known it all along; the moment was fated to come. And come it did. The month of October ushered in a toothless, long-limbed wonder. All parts (and spares) in good working order. Thank god for the spares, his mother thought. There must have been some deep wisdom in deity for it to decree, not one, but two kidneys. If one failed there was the other, ready to take on the duty of purging piss with doubled vigour. If both failed, then we can always get him a transplant. After all, what’s one kidney from another? But the name sticks forever, his father thought. If the boy’s name was in bad shape, he would be stuck with it forever. Unlike a kidney, if he changed his name at the age of eighteen, his high school friends would say, weren’t you called Abhimanyu in school?

Abhimanyu? What type of name is that? she asked. Her boy wasn’t going to have a vile, common name like that. Her son would be named for enigma, for beauty, and for victory. Enigma Shenigma! his father said. He’ll have a good Indian name, one that honours his family. After all, he is our firstborn. My firstborn’s fate will not be decided by your whimsy. Whimsy? She had dreamt all her life of naming her son after someone great. Maybe for Milan Kundera. Maybe for Alexander the Great. Something lofty, beyond the parochialism of her small-town life. Milan!? That’s a bloody girl’s name. Or a city.

But, as in all things, they managed to make a deal. A compromise acceptable to all concerned parties. They had decided upon a good name, the best kind of name, with tradition and spice, and everything nice: Avijit Arthur Michael.

*Note: any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Onus

The Onus is on us, my dear
To wring the wretchedness,
Even a Penny's worth,
from this grotesque distance
between us.

Even a Page from you
Would do.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


I have endeavoured to keep this blog largely free of political content, but I feel compelled to break with 'tradition.' Let's keep it simple: if you vote in any US state, I urge you to vote for Barack Obama.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Subjectless poetry
Is objectionable.