To believe or not to believe…

John Barrymore as Hamlet (1922)

To be, or not to be, that is the question

— Hamlet, Shakespeare, Act 3, scene 1


To believe or not to believe has become the dilemma of the twentieth century intellectual with Stephen Hawking paving the way to disbelief.

As we bow down under the weight of existentialist dilemmas and develop six packs and slim abs, we profess not to believe what we cannot see. Some even trace it to religion being divisive, creating barriers and brainwashing humankind with ritualistic and typified role playing.

The term atheism has its etymological roots deep in 5 th century BCE. However, it came into play only around the French revolution. And then as the disbelievers grew in numbers, people did surveys. According to studies done in the last decade, less than fifteen percent of the world population do not believe.

Looking at the historic evolution of disbelievers, I would say they have been and continue to remain a minority, except perhaps in China where the red revolution wiped away all gods except communism. Even if the current government is restoring holidays during older festivals along with Mao’s birthday and Chinese new year, the wounds that lacerated the theists will take time to heal. After Mao and free thinking took its toll, a survey taken in 2015 stated 61 per cent of the population were atheists!

I feel in most of the non-communist world,  disbelief has remained the privilege of those who have the education and time to debate and question.

However in China, where I spent eight years, my Ayi ( my housekeeper, literal translation aunty) from Xian told me how she remembered the soldiers coming and destroying their family altar and asking them to replace it with Mao’s picture. That must not have been a very easy situation for believers. The post Mao university educated youth in China mostly informed me they were ‘free thinkers’. I really do not understand what that means since all of us are free thinkers. We are all free to think what we like. Though I did notice one thing, the mass sterilization of religious beliefs made people more docile and tolerant; or was it centuries of subservience, first to emperors and then to political ideology( twentieth century guru Harari called communism a ‘religion’), that had made them docile?

I wonder if Mao could have converted all of the population in the area we label India now into becoming disbelievers or free thinkers as in China? Would the people have forgone centuries of belief and spiritual quest to take on the yolk of a new belief system?

The vehemence with which people react to belief and disbelief is in itself astounding. Mobs form, political parties make it their agenda. There have been Klu Klux Klan-like reactions all over the world towards religion or the lack of it. The nineteenth century white supremacist group was not only anti-black but also developed sentiments that were  anti-Catholic and anti-immigration. Though there were laws to subdue the hate group, did these sentiments die out or are they still simmering secretly?

The rise of Modi in India has brought to the fore the large divide between the formerly voiceless non-monied and the monied with loud voices. In The Billionaire Raj (2018), James Crabtree talks of how the non-monied masses reacted to speeches directed against the divide that existed between the unschooled non-affluent masses and the elitist, affluent population, who despite being lesser in number were more vocal. Religion or perhaps, we should say practices and rituals, for the non-monied was a way of life and continued being so; the fanning of differences already having been instilled by the divide and rule used by the the erstwhile British Raj.

Dominique La Pierre and Larry Collins in Freedom at Midnight (1975)  talk of how independence for each Indian meant a different thing. Some rejoiced. And some wept. Eminent lawyer and journalist Khushwant Singh who had lost his home in the other nation recalled:“I had nothing to rejoice about. For me and millions like me (in both India and Pakistan), this Independence Day was a tragedy, They mutilated Punjab, and I had lost everything.” In this case, it was called religious rioting.

Did the difference in beliefs exist all along and, therefore, could be fanned leading to a state of orgiastic frenzy that ultimately led to mass killings? Was it any different from what the Red Army did in China? Historically, is it differences in faith that lead to war or is it a lust for power, land and wealth cloaked behind a system of beliefs?

The thing that frightens me most is the intolerant violence with which people believe or disbelieve — perhaps much in the tradition of big Endians and little Endians (from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).

In China, the Red Army has been quietened. There are no strong reactions or mobs. These have all been outlawed. People seem happy. Once, in a while, the government subdues protests or anger against some people or situation. But, more or less, all is quiet on the Chinese population front, with due apologies to Erich Maria Remarque. But on the other hand, few young university educated free thinking Chinese friends told me that dilletante activities like writing books had also been purged in China… Intellectuals had been purged…

While my atheist friends continue to disbelieve, I wonder, is it only in God, or in things related to creation myths, to the existence of light and dark, to the existence of anything they cannot see or invent themselves? It is good to question. However, I do not fancy reinventing the wheel or the alphabet. I would much rather use one for travel and the other for writing out my ideas.

Sometimes, I wonder how ideas come into my head? Who creates thoughts? Who or what puts it there? Why is it I have an urge to write and Madonna sings like a lark? What is the phenomenon that created DNA? Who decides how and when life forms are created  to populate earth? Who or what made the Big Bang happen so that we all came into existence? Who or what creates and destroys life? Do we have right to destroy that which we cannot make?







Leaving China


Chapter 8

The best place for imitations was Shanghai. It had a fake market that most expats loved. What I loved most about Shanghai was the way the city looked. The skyline downtown reminded me of the planet Corsucant from Star Wars. Shanghai, like it’s movie counterpart was essentially a cosmopolitan city with people of varied origin living in and visiting it.

Shanghai, like all big cities, was incredibly crowded. It had some interesting museums, restaurants, theatres and stores. International schools from Suzhou often brought their students to Shanghai for theatres and museum visits. In grade twelve, Aditya’s English class was taken for dinner followed by a performance of Shakespeare.They had to wear formals… How Aditya hated his outfit and loved the food and play! Surya was taken on museum visits from school. We often spent our weekend in Shanghai. It was after all just a little over an hour’s drive from Suzhou! We had once been for a visiting Indian classical concert to Shanghai. Marta had come with us that time and she fell in love with the sitar!

Shanghai also had a couple of nice English bookstores, which we often frequented.

They had this underground market downtown where you could pick up anything, from fake caps of the red army to imitation antique and designer watches to magic kits. Once we met a fantastic ‘magician’ there who inspired Surya so much that we had to buy his magic kit. It was a fun place to visit.

There was an overpriced Madam Tussaud’s which we did visit a couple of times. It had wax figures of Einstein, Audrey Hepburn, Sylvester Stallone, popular film and pop stars, world leaders and sports persons. The regular museums with Chinese porcelain, silks and antiques were not as outstanding as some of the other less well-known museums.

The most interesting to me was the Propaganda museum. It was a tiny museum which nestled in a private condominium. They had posters from the Red Army days… propaganda posters. They also had copies of Mao’s books, especially the little Red book that was used like the Bible by the Red Army. We saw books that were used to teach English. They were written in praise of Mao and his policies in simple English. There were interesting posters of Fidel Castro, Lenin, Stalin and a host of other world leaders and so many posters depicting the happy faces of the Red Army and Mao Tze Tung. Visiting the museum had given me a glimpse of Mao and his Red Army at such close quarters. It was an intense and priceless experience, gave one a feel of how passionate people could be about a concept or a cause. It made one think!

The other thing that I found amazing was a vehicle called a People Mover that took us across the Huangpu river to the Oriental Pearl Tower. It joined the two sides of the Bund, the waterfront area in Central Shanghai. The Bund was beautiful, open with a skyline of fascinating buildings, both new and old. On one side were futuristic buildings. On the other, were buildings from the colonial era of the former foreign settlement. It was in a way very representative of Shanghai…the old and the new, looking on to the future. This was the place where visitors could take a stroll to savour the flavour of Shanghai, not gastronomically but spiritually. This was the place that gave me a sense of excitement as I watched the varied crowds mill around. This was the place you could fly a kite in the strong breeze or watch the cruise boats drift by…this was also the place where interesting toy makers hawked their toys setting them up on the floor. They could charge anything from 10 rmb to 100 rmb, depending on how gullible you were. I remember once Antonio, Aditya’s friend, bought a kite from Shanghai downtown at 80 rmb! They were on a school trip and Aditya was aghast.

I found the Bund beautiful and breathtaking. You could also see the gates that opened and closed damming the water so that Shanghai would not be flooded as it was in the 1970s. The Bund was raised well above the street level by a Dutch architect,  probably to help contain the waters of Huangpu. In certain ways, it reminded me of the dykes I had seen in Holland.

A little distance from the bund was the Urban Planning Exhibition centre, one of the last museums we visited. It had the town planners projections of what Shanghai could be like in the future.They built huge models of Shanghai. We could walk across theses futuristic models. They had lighting on the models to enhance their depiction. It was quite impressive.

Shanghai was an interesting place to visit but not to live in. It was too crowded and big. I liked Suzhou with it’s lakes and waterways and less congested traffic flows. Shanghai was hectic. Suzhou was peaceful. I could sit peacefully in my garden and dream. Suzhou had the title of the Venice of the East. There was a really narrow river in the town centre. I had thought initially it was a drain. Then I was told it was not an open drain but a river. The houses on two sides of the river had fluted roofs and looked quaint. The bus stops looked out of a story book…truly Chinese. People visiting Shanghai did a day trip to Suzhou often.

The Suzhou river cruise was very nice. It took us for a tour of the old Suzhou starting from Panmen. This is a gate that was a part of the ancient city wall. The first structure in this area was built around 541 BCE. What we see today was built at the end of the Yuan dynasty, around the 14 th cent CE. The Panmen gate housed cannons, costumes guns and artillery from that era. It was an interesting place to visit.

Suzhou had a museum with ancient artifacts, a silk museum, endless number of ancient gardens, temples and water towns to visit. All these places of tourist interest had little shops that sprang up alongside. I found these little shops very quaint.They sold scrolls of paintings, cushion covers and Chinese costumes with ‘traditional embroidery’, bags, wood works and endless curios representative of Chinese culture. There were calligraphy shops which painted your name in English but made it look like Chinese calligraphy. You could get a personal seal made in some of these stores. I remember outside the Great Wall in Beijing, I picked up a huge batik of the Great Wall in orange and blue and my sons picked up Red Army caps. Another time I picked up a wooden angel from outside Great Wall.

When we went to Xian, we had a guide who steered us away from the small hawkers and took us to authentic stores. It was much less fun but we bought a set of Terracotta warriors and the Yellow emperor made from the mud of the original Li Shan mountains from which Shi Huangdi ordered them to make his warrior tomb. The yellow emperor, Shi Huangdi, always fascinated me. He was the ancestor of the Han people of China. From what I have read, I discovered that he was paranoid, dictatorial and short. I wonder how many dictators of the world would fit this bill? In the set of statues I have, he is depicted to be half the height of the warriors. It is said he died looking for the elixir of life. It seems he sent a bunch of boys and girls to look for the Penglai mountains, the legendary hilly heaven where the eight immortals resided and where they would find the elixir of life. The mountain had trees made of gems and palaces made of gold and platinum. Food and drink were free flowing. There was no winter and no disease. The young people who were sent on the quest found their way to Japan and stayed there.

Perhaps, we are all in our own ways questing for Penglai or Eldorado… longevity and wealth… And in the process sometimes we lose out on what is most important and precious to us. Did the Yellow Emperor also lose out on some things…I wonder? Was he happy, despite his wealth and fame? Were the people manning the Red Army happy?