Sunday, August 21, 2011

When the Heart Speaks


Does He know a mother’s heart?
By Arun Shourie
Harper Collins
Rs 599/

At the core of this book lies a heart. A heart that is in shock, in grief and alight with anger. It pines for answers. But the heart is a useless instrument to summon when it comes to rationalizing, to seeking explanations for excesses. It is more so the case when the target of those excesses is your beloved child and you remain a helpless spectator. And when you are told that the tragedy has been visited upon by God – and He knows best – your heart sighs and accepts the explanation without a contest. But the mind does not, often. The heart is so giving, so magnanimous that it is ready to “forgive” God, but the mind is less charitable. It demands credible answers; it demolishes established theories and seeks a way out of the emotional muddle. Thus, the mind and the heart enter into a confluence of conflict – as they do in the book – resulting in a touching yet seemingly detached scholarly study of why God (or religion) cannot be the answer to everything.

Does He know a mother’s heart? Arun Shourie does not pose a question here, he taunts. Of course He does not, is what the author really means to say. Because, if God did He would not have allowed an innocent boy – the author’s son – to be struck by a debilitating physical illness at birth, immobilizing him for life. Did the Almighty not have concern for the boy – who has not, could not have, done any wrong? Did He not pause for a moment to imagine the pain He had caused to the mother, for whom her child is the world? And what wrong had the mother done, by the way? Struck by the multiple shocks, the author could have easily turned this book into a personal journey of pathos that begged sympathy and drew tears from the readers. But Shourie, seizing this moment of private grief, launches into a detailed critique of various religious texts in a bid to be enlightened. Sadly, he finds no solace, and the effort only ends up raising uncomfortable questions.

We may or may not accept the author’s premise or his conclusions, entirely or partially, but we should not impute insidious motives to him, as some have done. One theory is that, politically frustrated, Shourie has exploited his personal grief to corner attention and sympathy – and makes some money in the process. This is a downright mean interpretation that can come only from a sick mind. The book compels you to think, re-evaluate earlier held beliefs. The end result may still be different from what the author has arrived at, but that does away from the importance of the process.

Also, as the author says early in the book, “It is not just one child. Millions and millions of children suffer, as do millions and millions of adults. That has to be explained. That apart, does the argument not work the other way? Assume that only one child is suffering, our Adit alone. As Allah has the power to create this magnificent and infinite universe, can’t he help that single child?”

There is no disputing the fact that the book is indeed a personal – and personalized –journey that the author has undertaken. We can relate to some of his observations, we cannot to others. Yet, there are notes that sink us into the depths of thought, a passage like this one:

“‘Let go,’ we are taught. But let go of what? The condition that confronts us is not curable; it is not going to go away. So, it is not that condition that we can ‘let go’. In the end we learn that it is the reactions to that condition that we have to let go. The condition lasts. The need for serving lasts. The reactions invade our mind again and again. As we observe them over the years, observing the mind becomes a habit. And we are transformed.”

If pain attracts more pain, the pained also gravitate towards those similarly afflicted. Shourie digs out passage after passage from our ancient scriptures cutting across religions that depict the sufferings of not just ordinary people, but those considered by God Himself to be close to Him. The author’s argument is two-fold: if God decides to be brutal to even his most faithful followers – at times to test them, on occasions to merely reiterate His omnipotence – what can the lesser mortals expect of Him? Secondly, why should even God have the right to devastate you without offering solid reasons, hiding behind vague excuses like: the human being deserved it for some sin he had committed, if not now, surely in a previous birth? Shourie is dissatisfied, and that he demonstrates in one scathing dissection after the other of our scriptures.

But for all the religious incorrectness the author shows throughout the book and his emphatic tone, one is left wondering whether he has actually dumped religion as an illusion, and God as non-existent. Or does he acknowledge their presence but dismisses the theory of their compassion and fairness? After all, the acceptance of a divine force does help in closing arguments as well – as much as it did in opening new lines of dispute for Shourie. If there is no God, compassionate or otherwise, whom do you blame for your troubles in desperation – the next door neighbour? Where do you take your very private grievance for redressal? Who will the author hold accountable for Adit’s condition?

Of course, the issue appears less complicated if we accept the author’s following premise:
“Suffering is a problem that requires an explanation only if we posit a God. Otherwise, it is just what Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary of State would say, ‘Stuff happens’.”

Grappling with unresolved issues, Shourie finds some relief in the teaching of the Buddha. That is welcome. In dismissing the role of some past karma to justify present sufferings, the author is absolutely right in saying that “the deed that is required to overcome the effects of karma and chance is not a havan or a pilgrimage, but one that unweaves the consequences of our original deed and of chance, here and now. Abandoning everything to serve and love the child, not running from one holy place to the other.” But this is a hard lesson he learnt through experience; he went through the motions of visiting various places of worship in the desperate hope of a miracle for his son.

Buddhism is also a religion, and Buddha is God-incarnate. The great man was moved by the human sufferings, but even after his Enlightenment he could not wipe off those sufferings. In the end, there is a lot to be learnt from such sufferings. The author is so right when he observes: “No reader will think that I have learnt the lessons fully, and I hope that no reader will think that I think that I have learnt even a fraction of them.”

Read the book with an open mind and a critical eye, by all means. You will find flaws and discover faults of reasoning. But read it with your heart, and you will melt.

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