I was recently called a ‘ricebag convert’ by some well-meaning folk on social media. This wasn’t a surprise, because the people doling out these labels were all supporters of a government that hands out rewards based on how abusive one can be. I didn’t react because I liked the idea of descending from people who had presumably abandoned a religion in exchange for bags of rice. I had no way of knowing if this was true, naturally, because none of them had published histories or commissioned portraits of the bag exchange ceremony, but it must have happened if so many patriotic well-wishers were pointing it out.
These were the same people who believed that banging thalis in our balconies would eliminate the COVID-19 virus, but I thought it would be churlish to remind them of this. So, I thought about rice instead, and all the things one could prepare with it. I like rice a lot, in all the million forms it is served up across India, from idlis to biryanis, and sent a silent prayer to my easily swayed ancestors for choosing this delicious route to enlightenment.
After a meal of rice and dal, which I enjoyed more than I usually do, I thought about why I had been called a ricebag convert. I am an atheist, but the people calling me a convert had no way of knowing that, which meant they wanted me to feel guilty about something someone in my family may or may not have done hundreds of years ago. Long story short, it didn’t work.
The interesting thing about living in a country as obsessed with religion as India, is how quickly it can turn anyone with a reasonably functioning brain off the idea of gods and goddesses. We use religion to determine almost every aspect of our lives, to the exclusion of everything else, even if this harms us in all kinds of ways. What makes this amusing is how it has been a collective obsession for as long as it has. One would assume lessons had been learned from the thousands of communal riots that have damaged our society since the bloody Partition, but switching through our many news channels on any day of the week shows that history has taught us nothing.
I was called a ricebag convert because it was meant to hurt me. It was meant to point out that I am different, simply because my ancestors had opted not to share the same religious beliefs as some of the people they lived with. A personal decision, to bow down to a god or goddess in the privacy of one’s home, is now a problem for millions of us.
The Gods themselves haven’t weighed in, but their supporters — all of whom happen to be supporters because of accidents of birth alone — feel the need to stand up on their behalf as if there is nothing else worth fighting for.
We are in the middle of a pandemic that has destroyed homes and livelihoods. Our economy has shrunk to record levels because of human mismanagement. Young graduates have no jobs and no signs of hope for the immediate future. Our healthcare system is in tatters, along with our public infrastructure. None of these things has brought us to the streets. Our demands aren’t for better lives, and we have held no ministers accountable. The only thing that has shaken us to act, over the past decade, are the religious beliefs of our friends and neighbours.
There may come a time when we wake up and find ourselves in a colossal mess of our own making, but it doesn’t seem as if that day will dawn anytime soon. I hope it does though, if not for us, then for the generations to come who shouldn’t have to inherit the hate that runs through so many veins.
One of the biggest mistakes that bigots constantly make is to equate everyone else with their religious beliefs. They reduce us to nothing but the gods we choose to worship, denying us everything else that makes us human. What they lose in the bargain is the ability to engage with us, learn from us, and celebrate life with us. What they also do is strip India of its essence, the magical plurality of what makes it so vibrant.
The loss is always theirs, which is why I don’t respond to comments on social media. I simply turn off my computer and eat something. It’s usually rice.
— First published in the Mid-Day