From Dollars to Deeksha: How I Lost My Friend to Religion

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From Dollars to Deeksha: How I Lost My Friend to Religion

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

 

I

have no distinct memory of the first time I met K, but it was most likely at the orientation party at IIM. We plotted our escape from the torpid chatter and tried a multi-cuisine buffet, only to land up in a smoky room, drinking tharra. Among all the academic overachievers, the IITians and CA toppers in the business school, K and I held the dubious distinction of graduating with mere BSc degrees and that too with a “second class”. We were also both loud when drunk, with a deep, single-minded dedication to get sloshed, as the evening wore on. But K also had intellectual chutzpah by the truckload, and he drove it right into the classroom, engineering head-on collisions with the academic jocks we liked to mock. He was brash, willing to take on the world, but not in an obnoxious way; the guy could have written the book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

K is a staunch vegetarian, which his growing group of friends assumed was a standard Gujarati issue, that influenced more than his eating habits. He felt he couldn’t marry a non-vegetarian. It was even a screening criterion for the women he would date. Looking back, that may have been the first trickle of conviction that coursed through the gulf within K.

He went through the usual grind post IIM – sales stints in tier-3 cities, followed by marketing stints in the packaged goods and entertainment industries. Approaching his quarter-life crisis, he started re-evaluating what he wanted. One fine day, a select group of K’s friends received an email enumerating his core beliefs, largely affirmations of Jain philosophy. We already knew that it was his inherited faith, but apart from being staunchly vegetarian, he’d shown zero interest in practicing Jainism. This email came at a time when the chatter had gone beyond veggies and tapped into things less perishable.

At the time, K was working in the US. I later realised this email was a way to paint himself into a corner. If he wanted to renounce his own renunciation, this public disclosure would make us question him. It was probably some self-reinforcement crap he’d learnt from team-building exercises at an expensive B-school in the US, where he earned his second MBA degree. While K continued to socialise, be his ebullient self, other cogs were whirring in his mind. He’d sworn off alcohol. Plus, his vegetarianism was veering toward obsession. We, his friends, pushed back, probed further, but whatever else was changing within him, he still hated to lose an argument. Our questioning drove him further toward Jainism; he studied its dietary rationale, justified his choices, and alluded to taking “deeksha” at some point.

I was driving to work when my phone beeped. It was K. I knew by now that he’d made his decision.

K began a regimen of Paryushan fasts that lasted two to three weeks. He followed that up with Chauvihar and Navkarsi – to fast without food or water from sunset until 48 minutes after sunrise. The trade-off was salvation from 100 years of torture in hell. When I expressed amazement, he countered it – he could go big and wait until Porsi, one Prahar (one quarter of the total daytime) after sunrise. That multiplied the good karma tenfold. All, he explained earnestly, was a drop in the bucket of a Tivihar Upvas, only boiled water from Porsi to sunset, which rescues you from a thousand billion years of life in the netherworld.  

K did all this in the bitter North American winter, where the sun often sets by 4 pm. He dropped nine to ten kilos in the blink of an eye. All the damn Yankees probably wanted to know if it was Atkins or South Beach. He did this for nine long years.

K eventually came back to India. This gave him an opportunity to have deeper interactions with leaders of his religious order. He was readying himself for his austere journey, giving his gurus a chance to assess his preparedness. Deeksha was a small world with big, colossal implications. It involved going barefoot, bare-chested, begging for alms for the rest of your life. Hair, grown out, was plucked, strand by agonising strand, twice a year. All material possessions would be gone. Friends, gone; family, gone. Life as you know it, ceased to exist.

I watched K gravitate toward his destiny with deep confusion. I couldn’t reconcile this hard-line philosophy that the man in front of me swore by. In other aspects of his life, K was unchanged. Dispensing job, life, and love fundas, mostly fun, sometimes maudlin, K continued to be interesting. He even fell back into his old commitment-phobe groove, getting into a relationship then backing off. When business clients were in town, he held meetings with big shots, talked them up in a way that only he could. He was still on top of the game, playing for master-of-the-universe stakes, and winning.

A few months later, he chucked it all.

***

I was driving to work when my phone beeped. It was K. I knew by now that he’d made his decision. Deeksha it was going to be. I parked the car on the curb, realising this might well be the last time I speak with him, probably the last time he’d be allowed to acknowledge me.

I was tormented. I wanted to be supportive, but I couldn’t wrap my head around his need to do it. Who wants to wander shoeless from house to house, beseeching strangers for jots of food, to avoid the violence of cooking? And why my brilliant, successful, and funny friend, of all people? Wasn’t there another way? Couldn’t he be integrated with the Jain faith and yet be a part of this world?

I asked him if there was something his friends could have done to stop him. He said he couldn’t wish for better than what he had decided. I joked that if he ever felt he’d made a mistake, we’d welcome him back like a prodigal son. He laughed and said goodbye. Just like that, in the middle of rush-hour traffic, our roads forked forever.

I pulled myself out of the curb and drove on, knowing that as long as I lived, I would never stop wondering what roads my friend would walk on, what doors he would knock on. I could only hope, one day, he’d knock on mine.

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