19 October 2011

The story of an Indian atheist

The October 10 issue of The New Yorker has an article by Akash Kapur about an Indian cow broker named R. Ramadas (‘The Shandy’, online abstract here). Kapur writes about Ramadas’s line of work in the context of a rapidly modernising India. As expected of a New Yorker piece, Kapur’s journalism is engaging, eye-opening and full of pathos without being condescending or mawkish.

The article takes an unexpected turn when the reader discovers that Ramadas is an atheist. I say ‘unexpected’ because Ramadas is a poor, uneducated man born into the Dalit, or ‘untouchable’, caste of a highly religious and superstitious society. The trend is for religion to be more prevalent among those who share Ramadas’s demographic traits. Yet, amazingly, he bucks that trend.

Kapur writes:

[Ramadas] said people always talked about gods and the miracles they’d supposedly performed. People believed the gods could heal a disease. But where was the proof? Ramadas believed only in what he could see. He believed in science. He believed in doctors and their injections.

I find this very heartwarming. Here is someone who breaks the stereotype of the poor, uneducated person struggling to make ends meet in a developing country who finds hope and comfort in the bosom of religion. Kapur provides some background to explain Ramadas’s atheism:

Ramadas was a Dalit – a member of the “untouchable” caste – and, as I got to know him, I realized that his atheism had been shaped by the discrimination he had suffered and seen all his life. Ramadas could remember standing outside upper-caste homes as a boy, and being forced to drink water from his hands so that he wouldn’t contaminate the household vessels. He wasn’t allowed in the ur, the part of the village where the upper castes lived.

When he was around sixteen, he discovered the teachings of E. V. Ramasami Naicker, or Periyar, a twentieth-century social reformer and activist considered by many to be the father of modern Tamil culture. Periyar (“great man,” in Tamil) fought against caste and gender discrimination. He was a committed rationalist and atheist; he believed that religion was often used as a tool to oppress minorities and women. Ramadas was struck by Periyar’s observations that the discrimination faced by Dalits – along with the religious justifications provided for it – was really just a way for the upper castes to maintain their dominance.

Of course, being an atheist in India is not without its hardships. Ramadas’s wife and children are devout Hindus. His occupation involves the selling and buying of cows for consumption, a sin according to Hinduism, and thus a source of friction between him and his family. When Ramadas’s elder son died in a traffic accident in 2001, his family saw his son’s death as divine punishment for his sinful work, and said as much. This particular passage makes me very sad.

I asked [Ramadas] how he felt when he heard that kind of thing. “I don’t care,” he said. “People might say that, but I don’t believe it. It’s nonsense. I told my son not to go out that early morning. I told him not to go driving in the dark. Had he listened to me nothing would have happened to him. I don’t think it had anything to do with my job. I don’t care what people say.”

“You don’t care?” Varun [Ramadas’s younger son] asked. “What do you mean, you don’t care?”

“You want to know the truth?” Ramadas said, and he looked at me. “The truth is it makes my heart feel hard. It makes me feel heavy.”

He said that when his son died he participated in all the religious ceremonies. He didn’t believe in any of it, but he participated because he didn’t want people to think that he didn’t love his son. He performed all the pujas that the priests asked for, and he scattered his son’s ashes in the ocean. He tried to throw himself into the ocean; he wanted to die.

“What can I say?” he told me now. “How do you think it makes me feel that my family believes my work killed my son?” He pointed at his chest. “It pains me here. That’s how I feel.”

Ramadas’s personal tragedy was compounded by the superstitions of others. Here is proof, anecdotal though it may be, that religion can be used to hold people’s emotions to ransom. Unless you perform the scripted rites, you will be considered a cold, heartless bastard. Unless you act out the farcical rituals, you will be viewed as somehow inhuman. Unless you acknowledge the existence of sky fairies, you will be seen as being incapable of love. Or grief.


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