It was a curious episode across two weekends and a random conversation in between that has got me thinking. Both of these involved religious places – the first a temple and the second a choultry right next door. And the conversation was with my son about his own belief systems. And all three are different facets of the way religion plays in the lives of the young people today. Actually I am not sure that it is a matter of age as much as it is a matter of belief.
The first episode at the temple was at a puja at the temple last week. After having made it early in the morning, I ended up still being late thanks to a family that had gathered there for a prayer, all three and a half generations of it. The granddad was there, old and doddering in his dhoti but still firmly independent. He was holding onto his walking stick like it was a part of him and yet refused anybody’s help to stand or sit. His son was there, dhoti and shirt, doting and ever attentive to any word from his father, taking him around the temple and trying to hold him and walk, even though the old man pushed his hand away each time. The daughter in law of the old man sat silently in her 9 yard traditional sari while the puja was going on, telling her two daughters aged about 15-18 what to do and when to do it. She had a peaceful authority about her, a calm sort of confidence that made everyone around comfortable in the knowledge that she was taking care of everything and that they could ask her anything if in doubt.
The younger son of the old man was apparently recently married and with his bride, was the reason for the puja on that day. He was slightly uncomfortable in his formal shirt and trousers while his newly married wife was significantly better off in her salwar suit. They sat silently through most of the proceedings. The two daughters were mainly taking care of everything around – running errands, taking care of granddad’s whims or taking orders from the mother. The one noticeable thing about them and the mother was that they seemed to know every single bhajan that was being played in the temple and were singing it alongside. Both the girls were extremely comfortable in the temple environs and knew the right mantras for each god. The temple pujari knew the family and the daughters and addressed them by name. When it came time for the aarti, the chanting grew louder and the pujari smiled his approval at the lilting voices of the two girls rising in prayer. The two girls did everything by the book – down to the direction from which they prostrated before the idol. And were as geeky and technology addicted at the end when they stepped out of the temple and started playing a game on the phone while the dad brought the car around. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way they were so comfortable with both these ends of their lives but also at the way the boundaries were defined.
Cut to today’s scene at the choultry where there was a similar family with the two sons in their mid-40’s with their wives and kids – all there to pay their respects at the first year anniversary of their father’s passing. The sons were bare chested and wore the traditional dhoti and the wives the traditional 9 yard sari. By contrast there was a grandmother in this case who was authoritarian and amused at the same time. They were waiting for the priest who was a little late in coming, the slightly cold morning causing some discomfort all around. Three kids completed the picture, one girl of about 8 in a pretty frock with spectacles and two boys of about 15-18 in jeans and jackets sporting wristbands with various bits of wisdom sprinkled on them. The boys and the girl soon grew tired of waiting and while the girl was escorted by the women to the temple next door, the boys started playing a game on a phone. About half an hour later, the priest was yet to make his appearance and patience was wearing thin around. The girl had become as restless as children who have nothing to do, are apt to become after five minutes of sitting still or trying to do so while the boys were still engrossed in their game.
The priest showed up about 15 minutes later and the ceremony started with the homam fire being lit and smoke making its presence felt soon after. The family had gone into the room for the prayer while the boys were outside, still on their game. I could hear the little girl complaining that the smoke was making her eyes burn. Her mother quickly told her to shush up but the little girl couldn’t bear the irritation from the smoke and the complaining soon started. The grandmother could be heard telling the girl that the smoke from the fire was considered to be sacred and cleansing, but the sacredness of the smoke didn’t seem to make it any better for the little girl. The boys in the meantime had started on listening to songs with a noise reduction speaker, oblivious to the smoke inside. One of the women soon escorted the girl outside to the fresh air and sat down with her while the prayers went on. Soon afterwards, the boys started taking selfies and comparing their degrees of photogenic-ness. The grandmother came outside for a brief while and tried telling the boys to come inside to offer prayers but gave up soon after and retreated to her spot inside. The selfies and music continued unabated until the prayer ended and then everybody packed up and went home with the two boys not having entered the prayer hall – they could have stayed at home for all the difference it made.
The stark contrast of the two behaviours of the teenagers in the two situations brought back into relief a home truth. My own son is a lover of mythology, a buff who loved to read up on it and knows weird facts that I myself haven’t heard about. But he prefers not to pray to an idol or wear his sacred thread – making it a pointed habit of ignoring repeated instructions on occasion. He does come to temples with me sometimes but does not really pray or participate. However, he exhibits a keen curiosity about rituals and their meaning and sits through them sometimes asking questions. Having been a convenient believer in religion myself, a person who searches for god at my time of need, I find myself puzzling at the differences in interpretation, belief, practice and adoption of religion by the young people of this day and age. From a support structure that used to guide and provide a way to live, has religion come of age in this day of modern science enough to become redundant at best? Is it depicted as a series of rituals and practices that no longer matter? The several mores that we see around us with religion at the core – are they just last vestiges of a society trying to enforce a code that has ceased to become relevant?