By A. Kasvari
14 October 2016
This must have been a little short of forty years ago, maybe when I had just about entered my teens. Sijo, our home-help, was dusting my writing-table when he accidently caused an object that I considered ‘holy’ to fall on the ground.
And do you know what I did?
I slapped him!
And do you know what happened then?
Right there and then, Sijo began to cry!
Yes, I slapped a man much older than me and I made him cry all because he had let an object I considered ‘holy’ to fall on the ground!
Can you imagine? How much more disgusting can one get?
I can’t remember now—although I wish I could—if I immediately realised what a terrible thing I had done and apologized to Sijo. I can only hope that this is what I did.
As I type out these lines, forty years or so later, Sijo, who is now almost 60, is swabbing the floor in front of me while I replay the events of that day in my mind. What a faithful man Sijo is—kind, cheerful, compassionate, helpful and honest. I wish I could fall at his feet and ask him to forgive me. But I hold myself back. It might be just too embarrassing for him, I think. In my mind, though, I bend down and touch his feet, and in my heart I say to him, “Sijo-ba, I want to tell you something. Remember that day, many, many year ago, how cruel I was to you? I hit you, and you started crying. Yes, I, who think of myself as very compassionate and kind, had the nerve to slap you—somebody almost old enough to be my father and such a loving and caring person—just because of something minor that you had done, and that too by mistake. I had the cheek to do that only because you were what they call a ‘servant’, who, for that reason alone, could never retaliate or even complain about anything. I wouldn’t have dared to do that to anyone else. I beg you to forgive me.”
I can imagine Sijo saying, “No, No, Baba! I don’t know what you are talking about! Nothing of the sort happened. You didn’t do such a thing. You keep imagining all sorts of silly things all the time!”
Or, he might say, “Oh ho Baba! Such things keep happening in life, and I’ve long since forgotten it. Why do you remember such things and make yourself unhappy? Forget it, and now tell me, what do you want for lunch?”
That incident is a lasting reminder to me that I am not as compassionate and kind, especially to the economically-poor, as I sometimes love to imagine I am. It also continues to remind me of how vulnerable domestic servants are to abuse by their employers and their families and how powerless they are to speak out when their rights are violated.
There is more to it than that, though. The fact that I had got so worked up over an object I considered ‘holy’ being allegedly profaned that I was willing to violate a fellow human being’s very dignity with such impunity should forever remain a compelling reminder to me of how easy it is for us to make an idol of our religious beliefs and practices, so much so that we are sometimes willing to completely dehumanize others, and ourselves, too, for their sake.
The memory of that awful incident forces me to remain aware that if in our devotion to beliefs, ideas, prejudices, practices, dogmas and objects that we have fashioned ourselves (and that we install in that place in our hearts that God alone should occupy) we demean, degrade, detest and despise our fellow human beings with no compunction whatsoever, we can be sure that religion has become for us a mere idol and that we have strayed far, far away from God.