No, I'm not writing this just because I watched PK last week. Though, in the midst of all the stereotyping and prejudices blatantly projected in the movie, the questions that were raised are very relevant to this post and also in life and should be pondered upon. I accompanied a Field Officer to a village in rural Tiruchirappalli, sometime in the second week of December, for recovery of the monthly installments from the groups of borrowers residing there. This was her third visit in this week for the same purpose as the members of a few groups were unable to make the payments on time, but they'd managed to mobilize the required amount. We met Deviga, the leader of one such group, outside her house where she was washing clothes and looking after the sunning, freshly harvested groundnuts. She had the money ready for her group of five members, each meeting installments of Rs.650 for a loan availed from GUARDIAN for the purpose of getting water connections in their homes. All the five women of the group are daily wage laborers. The Field Officer, Kishnaveni, inquired into the cause for the delay in payment. Deviga said that two of them couldn't find much work this season and so had to borrow money from a few people to meet their liability. It took them a few days to make the appropriate arrangements. By now all the five members had joined us. They apologized to Krishnaveni, and sat down to chat with me for a bit. They told me that the season has been really bad for them, it is every year. The only job they managed to find was that of harvesting groundnuts. Otherwise, they have been out of jobs for around two months now. They used to find employment under the NREGA scheme earlier in such situations, but that has been put on hold in their area for a few months now. I asked them if they had enough savings to survive till Pongal, a major harvesting festival in Tamil Nadu, when they are sure to find work, to which the two women who faced difficulty in making the payment said their husbands and sons had put on the malai which has severely affected their budget for the month. Every year, devotees committed to Swami Ayyappan wear either rudraksh or tulsi malai as a symbol of promising to go on pilgrimage to the holy Ayyappan Temple at Sabrimala. Sabarimala is a Hindu pilgrimage center located in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta District, Perunad grama panchayat in Kerala. This trip can be undertaken only by the male population and postmenopausal women. Lakhs and lakhs of people, particularly from the four Southern States, go on this holy yatra in the month of December and January. After wearing the malai they have to wake and wash up early everyday, pray and follow a strict diet of only vegetarian food, taken once or twice in a day. They aren't supposed to indulge in any sexual activities, wear slippers, or come in contact with menstruating women. They have to have some form of black clothing on them at all times. This continues for a minimum of twenty days before they set out on the trip. I was told that this would cost them at least Rs.6,000 per person. When I asked them why it was so important to put on the malai when they can't really afford it, they said, seeming extremely helpless, their husband wouldn't listen to them and insisted on taking their sons along as well. This encounter disturbed me a little. Why is not feeding and looking after your family and ensuring them a decent standard of living more important than chasing religious beliefs and practices? Even in a situation of hardship, is it wise to put faith before rationality, in the hope that God will make sure tomorrow will be better? These women didn't respond when I voiced these questions that were running in my head. They just smiled meekly. They were obviously a little put off. But I feel it is essential to be asked these questions, if you aren't asking them on your own. Fine, religion and faith in God is something that people derive utility from, but where do you draw the line? There are wars being waged in the name of religion; caste system is legitimized and validated by it; money is thrown at Godmen who strategically use God's name to surge ahead in their business. Religion often reinforces patriarchy and on occasions compromises on logic. Thank fully, sati and devadasi system etc have been legally put an end to, but there are still so very many such traditions that still exist and are celebrated. When I spoke to a few people about it, they said that such extremities is problematic, that in the name of religion you don't have to go beyond your capacity, that you can be modern about it. But is it possible to moderate the practice of religion and faith in God? Does not the tiniest of beliefs, perpetuate the extreme behavior, even if only gradually? I am not suggesting atheism here, but it worth our time to really consider, in cold-blooded calculation, the returns from such an investment. We need to first place faith in ourselves and the people we love, and do things to keep them happy. Life will automatically fix itself if we have our priorities straight.
Where is faith and religion leading us?