When I announced to my family that I intended to marry a Hindu, my aunt came up with an unusual objection. “They (the church) won’t allow you to be buried in the cemetery,” she warned. An acquaintance had married outside the religion and years later, when she was terminally ill, her family had to go through many hoops to fulfil her dying wish — that she be buried in her church’s cemetery.
At 26, I wasn’t sure what the moral of that anecdote was. Would the woman in question have traded her life with a man she chose with a hassle-free burial? The husband was the one who went through much of the trouble to arrange for the burial, so it seemed a pretty win-win situation to me.
Then there was the other question: What religion will your children be? This, according to me, was a no-brainer. In a society like ours, would my kids be treated as anything other than followers of the father’s religion? At that point, I had not considered the scenario where my child would choose Halloween over Christmas and Diwali. Yet, here I am, forever counting down to October 31 and dealing with demands that the date be made to come earlier. In a year in which we all have had to confront mortality — of our own and loved ones — perhaps it makes sense to be invested in a holiday that is about remembering the dead and celebrating death.
In the first half of 2020, I regularly woke up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat from a nightmare in which I saw my child in danger. I went through different stages of mourning, unable to cope with my fears. Psychologically speaking, I was dealing with anxiety, but no amount of deep breathing and ‘I’m-grateful-for...’ lists were helping me rein it in. It was in some state of desperation that I began to read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead . Set in the 1950s, in a small town in Iowa, Gilead is a long letter from a father to a son. The dying father, a 76-year-old reverend, writes for his seven-year-old son, so that the boy has memories of his old man to hold on to.
The reverend, John Ames, describes the joy of seeing his son grow up, a joy every child brings to attentive parents. He writes, “I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle... If only I had the words to tell you.” I, too, think of my child as a miracle and the thought of her mortality was causing in me a crisis of faith. Faith, not in a religious sense, but in the way we make sense of our lives.
Robinson won the 2005 Pulitzer for Gilead . I suspect it is for how effortlessly she reaffirms our faith. “I don’t know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out themselves... I used to say it was like going home. We have no home in this world, I used to say, and then I’d walk back up the road to this old place and make myself a pot of coffee and a fried-egg sandwich and listen to the radio, when I got one, in the dark as often as not,” Ames writes to his son.
It is not death that I needed to make sense of. I could accept the sheer randomness of it. A relative of mine died at 30 because of a coconut that fell on his head. He was leaning against the tree. As Howard Zimmerman says in Season 3 of Fargo , “We’re all just particles. We’re floating out there. We’re moving through space. Nobody knows where we are. And then, every once in a while — bang! We collide. And suddenly, for maybe a minute, we’re real. And then we float off again. As if we don’t even exist.” It was existence I couldn’t make sense of. But reading Ames talk about a pot of coffee or an ordinary Sunday allowed me to come to terms with some of that senselessness. Gradually, I woke up less often at night.
It was months later that I happened to watch The Two Popes , a movie that portrays the friendship between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). There’s a particularly striking scene in it. Cardinal Bergoglio (he wasn’t Pope Francis yet) is trying to convince Pope Benedict not to resign. Benedict explains that he can no longer hear God’s voice. As Bergoglio continues with his objections, the Pope shouts with frustration, “I have been alone my whole life, but I have never been lonely, until now.” Hopkins is a majestic actor. Few men can ever have the charisma he has on screen. As he raised his voice and thumped his cane, the constant chatter that goes on in my head stopped for some moments. I envied this man who claimed he had always heard God’s voice. It’s a fantastic thing to believe in, delusional but fantastic.
All my life I was surrounded by people, but I was always lonely. I do not choose it, the Pope did not choose it. It’s something because of which we suffer. Perhaps that suffering has been collective this year.
I cannot look for my faith in the Bible or towards the church. I can only recognise it in the anguish and joy of others like me. I can only identify it when it is expressed in all its honesty — in works of art such as Gilead and The Two Popes , or Monet’s Water Lilies . It’s only in these brief moments that I — a particle — can collide with someone else, be made real. Faith is a search for those moments.
Do I want to buried or cremated? I’m still baffled by the irrelevance of this question. It would be in good faith to donate my eyes so that another can experience the joy that sight has given me.
Blessy Augustine is a writer and art critic based in Delhi
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