It was January and sister Leela, an old friend and a nun from India, was with us that evening. Marco and Atam, my son and daughter in law, had come for dinner. Leela recited her prayers asking God to bless all the persons sitting around that table and made a sign of cross. All others murmured "Amen" and made signs of cross, including my Sikh daughter in law. I didn't.
A few days later, we were having dinner in the evening, when I told my wife what was troubling me. I had grown up in India, where I had learned that we respect all religions. As a child and a growing up man, in India, if I visited a Gurudwara of Sikhs, I would cover my head and kneel before Guru Granth Saheb, if I visited a church, I made a sign of cross, if I visited a temple I would fold my hands and accept the vermillion mark on my forehead.
We were not a religious family. Rather, I would say that I heard much more criticisms about Hinduism. My mother often complained about "hypocrisy in the temples and wasting precious milk and ghee on stupid rituals that can feed so many poor". My paternal grandmother, wrote "Ram, Ram" countless times on sheets of paper to espiate her sin of being a widow and read religious books. We would go to all Ramleelas and Durga Pujas with very non religious excitement of "having a good time" and hoping to get some tasty prasad to eat.
In Rajendra Nagar, where we lived, on one side we had Sajid bhai and his wife Ireen with their two children, and above them the very religious Sharma family. There were many Sikh families in our street. But my closest friend was Sam, who had come from Hyderabad to stay with his aunt, Mrs. Rock. With him, I had gone to a few mid-night Christmas masses.
Yet, religions of the persons were not something so clear in my mind. Like Akhtar bhai, who must have been just 5-6 years older to me and who used to come to our home to meet my father, I had never thought of him as "Muslim". When I had to go to Udaipur for an interview, I stayed with Haseena ji's family, a friend of my father, without really thinking that I was going to a "Muslim" house.
Perhaps those times were different and today religious identities and differences have become much more marked, but I often find myself thinking of the past and classifying persons by their religions, like I did above for Sajid bhai, Akhtar bhai and Sam. It feels wrong to me yet I can't stop myself from doing it. And it all started about two decades ago, when I decided that I will not make the sign of a cross.
Coming to Italy was what started this change. People here are more used to sharp religious boundaries and perhaps most of them expect persons to follow those boundaries clearly. "If you are not Catholic and you are not even a Christian, why do you make the sign of cross?" an Italian priest once asked me. I tried to explain that it was normal in India, that going to a church or making the sign of cross did not make me less Hindu, but it showed that I respected the others, but he was clearly not convinced.
That priest was not the only one. It happened a few more times. They said that it was "hypocrisy" or "ambiguous" or "dishonest" or "an attempt to conform and to ingratiate". I was angry and hurt and I stopped making the sign of cross in a church. Thus, whenever I accompanied my wife to a mass, I would stand stiffly, showing clearly that I was not Catholic.
It hurt me inside and every time I entered a church as a tourist, I felt that I was disrespecting God by not stopping to pray for a few moments. I knew that it was not rational. How does it matter to God if I pray inside me or I show it with folded hands or with a sign of cross? A temple or a mosque or a church is just a building and God is no more or no less there than in any other building? I tried to explain it to myself, to justify it, but I felt as I had violated something at deeper level inside me.
It was the first time, I was actually talking about it. I told my wife all this. She felt that I should not let myself be influenced by what others say or think about my religious ideas, but I should behave in the way I wish.
In April, when I visited India, I talked about it with Daisy and like my wife, she had the same advice for me, to behave in the way I felt inside me and not let myself be influenced by others.
Understanding something rationally is perhaps different from the emotional understanding, when something comes from deep inside you? I had the rational understanding but I was waiting for my inner self to understand it.
Finally it came on last Sunday. I was in Rome, visiting an old church. There was just an old woman sitting and praying. I made my peace with myself as my hands made the gesture of cross.
Actually I have not changed my way of thinking. The statues or the temple or the church or the mosque, do not make any difference to me, since I feel God is there in everything, in all beings live or inanimate. But I feel happier, I have reclaimed my right to respect the religions in way I feel right. If others feel that I am being a hypocrite or ambiguous, they are welcome to think what ever they wish.