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Excerpt: 'In Good Faith' by Saba Naqvi

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Dec 06, 2012 at 12:47pm IST

In an age when the idea of religious community is determined by stereotypes and old fault lines, Saba Naqvi takes a journey across the country in search of her own identity among people, communities and shrines that challenge our pre-determined notions of what makes a Muslim or a Hindu. Along the way, she finds places and people on the periphery of absolute identities, culling out a unique space for themselves in an orthodox, exclusivist society. "In Good Faith" is a journalistic account of the discovery of an India that at times defies belief - the India of faraway shrines in quaint little places, and of communities and individuals who reach out to a common God.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

GIVE MONEY, MEET GOD

Excerpt: 'In Good Faith' by Saba Naqvi

"In Good Faith" is a journalistic account of the discovery of an India that at times defies belief.

It would be a mistake to romanticize religious practice and local traditions. All too often, the crass co-exists with what is believed to be holy.

God comes in many shapes and sizes in India, and proximity to God is often determined by the amount of money in one's wallet. For example, visit the Meenakshipuram temple in Madurai. After taking in the gorgeous sculpture and

architecture, all Indian visitors queue up to enter the sanctum sanctorum. At any given time of the day, there is a long line of devotees waiting to have a darshan of Meenakshi Amma. But the purchase of a special 'ticket' allows one to jump the queue.

Helpful pujaris usher these fortunate few right next to the idol, while the non-paying devotees have to make do with a somewhat distant darshan.

On the day I visited the temple, an intrepid Bengali made a vocal protest against paying to see the goddess, but unable to whip up any support among the local devotees, he left with his family without the darshan. The Bengali should be equally appalled at the hustling at Calcutta's premier temple, the Kali Bari. Though payment is not institutionalized here, the hustling is merciless.

Thousands visit this temple, famous for its Kali in black stone with a golden tongue. As I stood riveted before this magnificently fearsome image, a pandit popped up behind the idol and said in Bengali: 'Hundred rupees or move on.'

I refused to pay and he refused to give me any prasad. An argument followed. The pandit stuck to his guns: 'If you don't have money for the goddess, the goddess has no time for you.'

The caretakers of the more popular Sufi shrines share the same approach. Take the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. Usually a visit to this shrine on Jumerat is a pleasure - a host of qawwals sing in praise of the saint, who was one of the most important Sufi philosophers of India. So detached was Nizamuddin from worldly attainments that the most famous quote attributed to him is: 'When the king comes in from one door, I leave from the other.' His self-proclaimed 'khadims' have a more practical view of life and the annual Urs festival presents them with ample opportunity. As the pilgrims pour in, they stand there blocking their path and demanding donations. These supposedly voluntary donations are demanded in an almost menacing tone. The threat is implicit: if you don't give a donation, we'll see how you get past us and our men. Harassed by the crowds and eager to enter the tomb, many pilgrims are intimidated into parting with large sums.

The holiest of Muslim holies in the subcontinent is the dargah of Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. Moinuddin Chishti was one of the earliest Sufis to arrive in the subcontinent and founded the Chishti silsila. Nizamuddin Auliya, too, was one of his followers. Like Nizamuddin, Moinuddin Chishti too, led an exemplary life, characterized by simplicity and detachment. Thousands crowd his dargah from all corners of the country and the Indian subcontinent. But as the old saying goes, 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'

So the more popular the shrine, the more energetic the hustling. And at Ajmer Sharif, extracting 'donations' from hapless pilgrims has been honed into a fine art. Refusal to pay up can lead to nasty exchanges, veiled threats or outright intimidation.

Refusal to hire a guide, for instance, led to a nasty exchange with one of the self-proclaimed 'khadims' at the dargah. 'We don't want people like you, who don't want to give anything for the saint.' When his threats did not work, the man satisfied himself with following us throughout the dargah with a group of men who looked less like 'khadims' and more like bouncers.

At the popular Sai mandir in Delhi's Lodhi Road, a gang of pickpockets operates quite ruthlessly. The police keeps making announcements on loudspeakers to guard one's possessions.

But the pickpockets are so skilled that they can open a shut bag, whisk a wallet out of a back pocket without the victim realizing it. While doing my research for this work, I had my wallet deftly taken out of my purse at this Sai temple. 'Sabka malik ek', as they keep repeating at the temple. When I filed an FIR at the local police thana, they informed me that several purses went missing every single day.

Intimidation at a dargah, theft at a temple, and I can never forget the sheer harassment at Puri. Here's what happens when you disembark from a train at Puri station: You find yourself immediately surrounded by a group of Pandas. 'We will take you to the Jagannath temple,' they declare, trying to elbow out each other. They remain unconvinced by declarations that we are not pilgrims and have come to Puri to laze around on the beach. Attempts to shake them off are futile as they follow the traveller's rickshaws on their bicycles. I escaped the Pandas after finding safe sanctuary in a hotel...only to confront them again when I set off for the temple. Again, the ubiquitous Pandas descended, demanding to know my caste and gotra.

'Madam, I think you are Brahmin lady from Bengal. I do puja for all Bengalis... But perhaps you are living abroad for many years.' Or 'I do special puja for only fifty rupees... For foreigners like you, madam, I have special rates...you have lived abroad for many years, yes? Your gotra please... I will tell you if your forefathers are visiting Puri and having blessing of Lord Jagannath.' It is simpler to hire a Panda than to fight off the entire tribe. For, the minute you place your destiny in the hands of one Panda, it is his job to fend off the other. But the demands for money do not end here. As one is soaking in the

beauty of this temple, your Panda will keep prodding you to pay for 'special' prasad, or 'special sindoor' to 'bless the ladies'.

Be they Muslim or Hindu, devotees of a Sufi saint or Goddess Kali, the caretakers of the more popular shrines in our country are all worshippers of Mammon. Big religion is after all, big money.

(Rainlight Rupa; Rs 395; Non-fiction)

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