Jesus Never Fails

Long international flights, like the ones I just did from Seattle to London and back, are great times to nap, watch movies, read a book … and well, for me, often ponder important thoughts. This time, besides making considerable headway on Roger Martin’s The Opposable Mind and watching 3 movies, I thought quite a bit about … secularity, and what it really means. (Side Note: Amazingly, British Airways is now showing Bollywood and serving rajma-chawal even on Pacific flights!)

One of the pertinent childhood memories that floated back to me, was of our family acquiring its first ever car. I was about 5 years old, and I remember vividly, the day this baby blue Fiat came home, the pride and privelege of our little foursome family, and my father then making numerous trips from the small town of Kalpakkam to the big city of Madras for his driver’s license (they would fail him, presumably for want of a bribe, and he would simply return repeatedly … until they obliged). At 11 months age from its factory birth, the car had made its way from its first owner, a Christian man, to us. On the dashboard, closer to the passenger’s side on the left, a sticker with a saintly, benevolent face on it said 3 precise words: Jesus Never Fails.

I recall my mother suggesting, “Let’s just leave it there for a while.” My physicist father, who never talked of God or religion but knew several Gita verses by heart, obliged. (Once, when asked on a form “Religion…?” he taught me to write “N/A.”) It was implicit that since the car was a brand new purchase and a saintly oversight had come with it, it was only gracious of us to accept these blessings. One might have thought that the sticker would soon be removed, but none of us touched it, and it stayed on. That Fiat went on some brave long-distance journeys, not so commonly undertaken on Indian highways back in the 70s. The first time it took all four of us and my maternal uncle’s family of three from Kalpakkam to Bangalore and Mysore for a lovely, memorable holiday. Later, in the early 80s, it drove us to Hyderabad, when my father took up a position at the Central University. Once, when driving us in a mad rush to Kazipet to catch the Calcutta-bound train we had somehow missed at Hyderabad station, the car nearly suffered a fatal topple due to some huge boulders that my father couldn’t see, trailing behind a series of trucks that were high enough to drive right over the boulders. When we were safe, my sobbing mother touched the sticker on the dashboard with gratitude and affection.

In our years in Hyderabad, I slipped in and out of Muslim homes with comfort and ease. We partook of grand meals during Id celebrations. With my “good name” being a Muslim one, and with my being the only Hindu girl not sent to school with a “bottu” on her forehead, I was often mistaken for being Muslim. I was only pleased. Walking around with my older “Didis” in the gallis of Charminar buying glass bangles and eating the best Hyderabadi biryani thanks to the area’s majority Muslim population, I lustfully eyed the bright parandas at the ends of braids and the velvety sequined vests … wanting desperately to wear them in my next qawwali performance at school.

Several years later, after we moved to New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in the late 80s, the blue Fiat was in another near-accident on our way back from the holy Hindu pilgrimage spots of Rishikesh and Haridwar, which we had gone to visit along with close family friends. Once again, our family gave thanks not only to Mother Ganges, but also to Jesus, loyally watching over us. When I was about 12, my father, who often got me Amar Chitra Kathas on railway platforms for the summer train journeys to Calcutta, bought me a special edition on the life of Jesus Christ. I recall being so moved by the story that I cried for days and carried along this thicker-than-usual Amar Chitra Katha everywhere, reading it repeatedly, internalizing the goodness Jesus had exemplified and taught. I understood the teachings to mean that each and every one of us could follow in his footsteps. I saw the sticker on the dashboard in new light – Jesus Never Fails – because he always does the right thing, and he does right by all. I even wore a silver “T” (for Tana, my family nickname) around my neck, secretly glad that it resembled the cross on which Jesus had sacrificed his life for the good of others.

Growing up, my favorite Hindu festivals were Holi, Diwali and Durga Puja. As a child I was in love with Krishna, as many little girls might be, and later became well-versed like my father in his teachings to Arjuna on the battlefield of the Mahabharata – forming the essential core of the Gita. I also had a powerful fascination with Goddess Durga and all that she symbolized, so much so that I always drew her third eye in my artwork; it quickly became a trademark in all my scribbles. I loved the pujas, the incense, the prasad, the culture and music, and the goodwill and sharing around Hindu festivals. As I grew older, I also learned more and more about the Buddha. Here was a Hindu prince who deeply hurt by the misery of his people and disillusioned by the lack of answers in what he knew of Hinduism, set out in a quest for truth and enlightenment, which he achieved under the banyan tree in Bodh Gaya. Again, I was deeply moved by this young man’s story, his commitment, his benevolent grace, and his teachings.

As an architecture major in college, I studied the history of architecture in India, and all of this came together in a holistic, comprehensive way. Because it is in the architecture that one fully realizes how impossible it is to pull apart all the great religions and traditions that have co-existed and commingled in India. The Buddhist stupas, the Hindu temples, the Islamic dargahs and the Christian churches all learned from each other and the architectural expressions became interwoven. I recall vividly, understanding this best in the architecture of the Mughal era, when visiting Fatehpur Sikri on a college trip to the Taj Mahal. Walking in the magnificent sandstone courtyard with madrasas to one side and the marble jewel of Salim Chishti’s tomb glowing in the heart of the courtyard, I stared at the mix of Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic influences woven into a unified mass of beauty … and understood. And then I covered my head as would a devout Muslim, entered the dargah with the finest marble jaalis in the world, and returned kissing the red dhaga – a charm – that the Mullah inside had lovingly tied around my wrist.

Such is the grace of Mother India, who lovingly accepts every belief, every perspective, every tradition into her expansive lap. Her people may get confused and misdirected every now and again, fighting in the name of religion, but she never shuns any one of her erring children. Even Bollywood, where popular notions of the masses are portrayed in heightened melodrama, has repeated references to this intense and unique diversity. How many times in the cinema narrative has a church’s Father saved a Hindu man? Or a Muslim family adopted a Hindu orphan? Or a Hindu family saved a Muslim or Sikh brother amidst raging riots? One of our perennial family favorites, which we first saw in the theater and then converted into an annual tradition to watch together at home, was Amar Akbar Anthony. Not only did it make us laugh, it comforted us because despite the anti-Sikh riots of Delhi, the Babri Masjid incident, the Bombay blasts, the ghastly Gujarat riots or the terrible killing of the Staines family in Orissa, this silly film was replete with references to the foundational principles with which we were raised, a complex secularity that underpins the age-old concept of India, and overrides all divisive forces.

What, however, is secularity? It is easy to assume that it is simply the co-existence of diverse belief systems. At the basic level, this is true. But a truly secular spirit is not just one that permits diversity of thought and belief, but one that actively, intelligently and integratively accepts and admits into life diverse perspectives as equally valid, valuable and influential. In the book I was reading on the airplane, Roger Martin describes the evolved and sophisticated human’s capability for integrative thinking, in which seemingly opposite positions can be held simultaneously, and solutions or perspectives can be formed by integrating these apparently opposite positions, rather than oversimplifying and forcing either/or trade-offs. As Martin’s case studies reveal, every exceptional leader recognizes the opportunities presented by integrative thinking in situations where conventional thinkers would submit to either-or positions and concomitant decisions. Secularity, then, is integrative thinking practiced in the dimension of belief. It is the ability to look beyond surface level contradictions in religious scripture, reflecting on the deeper meanings and discerning how each religion’s perspective is but a slice of the whole pie, the integrated view of which is impossible to get from any one angle alone. Secularity is also a commitment – a commitment to study and admit the influences of not just a slice of truth, but to the integrated truth of human existence – actively and progressively zooming out in its search. Secularity is not simply the absence of rejection, it is the presence of acceptance. It is not simply the absence of prejudice, it is the active cultivation of a broader perspective.

I continue to celebrate Durga, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed … Guru Gobind. And I think of that day our family sorrowfully parted with our beloved little baby-blue Fiat in the mid-ninetees. With the advent of shiny, zipping Marutis, we sold the Fiat reluctantly to two Sikh brothers, the sticker on the dashboard somewhat faded but entirely intact. And my guess is … that the Singh brothers continued to drive our loyal Fiat into its dying days under the benevolent and loving guidance of Jesus.

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta



9 Comments

  1. Yasmin

    Tana, Lovely post…India is multicultural, multiracial like no other country in the world. We were lucky to be brought up in such a rich and diverse environment. The refernce to the ‘good name’ also brought a smile to my face as I too am a Hindu – ( a Maharashtrian Brahmin) with a Muslim name, brought up in New Delhi who enjoyed celebrating all the festivals.

  2. Anonymous

    Tana, I am feeling that religion is on your mind a lot now. I say go back to your roots of not thinking about religion. That is a great gift. Think about God if you like, but not religion. That is what your upbringing may have taught you. I believed for a long time the superiority of my own faith and the need to tell others about it. Now I am more at peace by not doing that. I am not saying you are doing that but I am saying dont think about religion at all.

  3. Tana

    Anonymous, thank you very much for your observation and recommendation. You are right – I was gifted with an irreligiosity – that allows me to be spiritual. While at times I regret allowing myself to be pushed into a polarized state, I sense that it may be necessary for me temporarily occupy this space, so that I can process and return by conscious choice to non-religion.

  4. Tana

    Yasmin, thanks for the smile, indeed we have this in common! 🙂

  5. Khushi

    Dear Tana, very nice post but made me very nostalgic. I have become more religious as I age, dont know why.

  6. Indrani

    Dear Tana,
    lovely post as always. I agree with Yasmin that we all who grew up in India got a taste of multi culture and different religion. As a child I grew up celebrating all… Holi, Diwali, Durga Pujo, Id, Christmas and I am continuing the tradition by talking about each and every one of them to my son and I hope and pray this continues forever.

  7. Tana

    Khushi, I can understand. A number of my friends who had children suddenly became more religious than they saw themselves before.
    Indrani, how wonderful that you’re able to share with your son the legacy of our upbringing.
    Love, Tana.

  8. Anonymous

    Tana, long time no news. Everything OK with you and your boyfriend and his family? Dont let things get you down.

  9. Tana

    Hello Anonymous,
    How kind of you to inquire! Thank you so much. I am well, working hard on starting a business and performing in two challenging productions, which is why it has been hard to write! I shall do so soon.
    Best, Tana.

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