Hanging by the Sacred Thread

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Hanging by the Sacred Thread

Illustration: Akshita Monga

M

y Upanayan or thread ceremony was held in a large rented house in Calcutta. About a hundred-odd uncles, aunts, friends, and relatives were expected. The catering was from Bijoli Grill, and the ladies laboured over the ten-course menu. My elder brother, cousin, and I were having our ceremonies together to save costs and time. All three of us were at boarding school in Darjeeling.

It was the summer of ’78 and I was 12.

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As the pandit recited Sanskrit shlokas, we repeated them, dumbly and softly, a Chinese whisper that stripped the mantras of all meaning. The grand finale was the investiture of the sacred thread, the janeyu, or as we Bongs call it “poite”.

Afterwards, when the boys weren’t looking, I shyly approached the pandit and engaged him in my shaky Bengali. “Pranam guruji, what is the meaning of this thread? What can it do for me?” I asked him

The pandit spoke in a low baritone. His words had the certainty of stone. “It will protect you. It will guide you. It will show you wisdom,” he said. “The Gayatri Mantra which you must remember and recite at least ten times a day, is a very powerful mantra. It can reveal to you the nature of Brahman, the ultimate reality. But you are too young to understand this. Just wear the thread and do as I say and you will see what it can do for you.”

As the ceremonies progressed, it took considerable planning for us to steal away for a smoke amid the profusion of nosy elders. Afternoon was the best time. Everyone in Calcutta sleeps during the afternoon hours. Finally, sweating in a dark corner of the parking lot we lit up our Navy Cuts.

“Man, this ceremony shit is pissing me off,” said my cousin, expertly exhaling through his nose.

“Are you going to wear the thread?” I asked.

“Don’t know. I will I guess,” he said.

“Like, forever?”

“For a day, dude. Until my parents see I’m wearing it. I won’t be caught dead in school with it. And you?”

I tapped my cigarette and watched the ash crash into a million pieces on the dirty floor. “I’m going to wear it forever.”

Where I had earlier sought out the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I now turned to rationalists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.

In the 12-year-old’s imagination, forever isn’t a long way off. Obviously, I hadn’t told a soul in school about the whole thing. But the first night of the new term, as I was changing in the dormitory, someone saw the thread across my body and it started.

“Guys Run! The Brahmin is coming!! Our shadow will pollute him…”

“SanjayRay, the beef eating Brahmin!”

“Hey Ray! Why don’t you hang yourself with that thread – that’s the best use for it!”

“Let’s shave his head. Then he’ll be a real Brahmin!”

And they chased me round and round the dormitory until it ended in a mad tumble.

A year later when everyone had tired of the teasing, the swimming season started. I applied for the school team and was shortlisted. This was the last heat: If I came in first or second I was going to be on team. I wanted to win with all my heart.

The whistle blew. I dived into the icy pool. At the end of the first length, I was leading. I turned around for the second lap when suddenly I couldn’t move. My hands had gotten entangled with the janeyu. I started flailing and going under, glugging in a lungful of pool water. In those tense few moments, I thought I was going to die. By the time I managed to extricate myself from the coils of the sacred thread, the race was over. I dejectedly climbed out of the pool and chucked my sacred thread into a potted plant.

***

I think that’s where it all began – my flip-flop relationship with faith. But in my mid-forties is when it nosedived.

I was in the maddening fugue of a crushing midlife crisis even though I had everything I needed and wanted. I was secure materially and emotionally, but there was a hole in my soul. Instead of buying a red Ferrari, I bowed out of daily operations at my company and started writing a film with an old friend. We spent two years writing the script and approached a superstar who said yes after the first narration.

My midlife crisis instantly lifted like a hot-air balloon. I thanked God with all my heart and prayed daily for the success of the film. He did exist after all and my prayers had been answered.

Then began the test. The endless wait for the superstar.

There were harried meetings, pleadings, craven emails and SMSes, going back and forth. It was always the same: He would definitely make it happen after the next film, the next year. We waited and waited, watching the best years of our lives slip through our fingers like wasted opportunities. Every time we asked him he just said, “Keep the faith!” and we did.

I justified it by thinking that this was the true experience of being human. Ram, Sita, Jesus, Jacob, Siddhartha, Ramakrishna, they had all been tested before me. Except instead of 40 days and 40 nights in the wild, we spent four years – 1,500 days and 1,500 nights – waiting.

With so much time on hand, I had started reading again with the same fervour. Where I had earlier sought out the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I now turned to rationalists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. I took up yoga and meditation and endlessly browsed YouTube videos about the nature of consciousness.

At the end of this phase, I came to an important conclusion.

I decided that there is no grand conductor orchestrating cosmological events. It’s just energy arranging and re-arranging itself. The capital-T Truth is, there is no one upstairs who has got your back. You are nothing but a brief, random accident, a collection of atoms and molecules that will perish very soon – a tiny grain of sand in the desert of the Infinite. In the short time that you are here, you will surely experience pain, grief, and suffering. You might experience love and moments of happiness, depending on your luck.

I also decided to tell the superstar to fuck off.

In the intervening years after casting off my janeyu, I never wore my sacred thread again – and I never will. I’ve stopped seeking answers and have finally embraced the fact that I am a rationalist. But I still wonder at what point I decided to go down this path. And most times, the answer is the day of the swimming race.

On that night, I had wept silently under the covers. I couldn’t tell whether it was because I had lost the race or my faith.

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