I am a child of ‘Cosmos’. It was the ’80s when Carl Sagan’s Cosmos played itself out on our local television network. The setting, where in the following weeks my life would change in more ways than I could express then, was a light-blue living room bathed in warm light-bulb glow, lined with couches and my mother’s potted dumbcane.
From an armchair, I soaked in the haunting synthesizer-born theme music, which struck a spiritual chord somewhere inside me and made me soar. Science turned out to be beautiful and transcendence-inducing, with the exciting caveat that nothing came from authority. Every statement had to be tested and proved, and even after that some allowance had to be made for future advancements. No one was sacrosanct, and that was a new kind of enlightenment.
With Cosmos, I set off on a journey of discovery and I am still journeying today. It was in that blue room that I began to discern the shape of an awful flaw buried at the heart of human nature, the thing that makes us believe in the darndest stuff belying all common sense – our suggestibility. I like to believe I am fairly logical and that I am not superstitious. Ay, there’s the rub.
The common Indian myna is a brown city bird with strong English-mustard yellow around its eyes. Many years ago, as we were waiting for a bus home, aimlessly watching the birds flock nearby, my friend told me about a popular urban superstition concerning the myna. It goes like this: One for sorrow, two for joy. If you spot one bird you can expect some sadness in the coming hours, if you see two then you’ll be happy. That was the basic premise, from there it got complicated. In case you spot one bird, you can alleviate your misfortune by waiting patiently to sight a red mail van followed by a black car, which should neutralize the bad karma. This was all innocuous enough, funny even.
But somehow this particular superstition found itself a pathway in my brain. Casting back, I remember how it happened. One morning on my way to the bus stop, I saw a myna flying overhead. And I thought to myself flippantly, expect some sadness today. In college that day, we found out that a friend’s parent had passed away. That day, my brain managed to connect two unrelated events one innocuous, one profound. I didn’t know it yet, but I had set myself on the path to superstition.
At the kitchen window waiting for my morning coffee to brew, sometimes I catch myself in the act of feeling portentous after I have caught sight of a single bird. I went through all my bird photographs hunting for a photo of a myna for this piece and I couldn’t find a single one. I had somehow managed to photograph all the birds in my neighbourhood, all excepting the myna. I couldn’t even bring myself to photograph one.
Behind all the rituals that make up our religious practices there is this obsessive compulsion. There are ways to rewrite that insidious pathway in the brain but it takes time, being able to catch yourself in the act every time and telling yourself “no it’s just a bird”, or some such for each individual cherished piece of astrology we profess.
I realised I had to find ways to battle my suggestibility. I have some very superstitious friends and family members who take comfort in their gurus, certain places of worship and astrologers’ prognostications. They believe in all kinds of things, even furniture placement or feng shui becomes important or the positioning of doors and windows in certain directions in an as yet un-built house—an Indian practice known as vastu. These well-meaning friends are full of solutions for my life and I often find myself going la-la-la silently as they warn me about the hours in the day when it is unsafe to carry out important tasks according to Hindu beliefs. I tune them out, because I know I am suggestible and just like them I too have a knack for connecting unrelated events and finding causality where there is only correlation.
Friends inevitably take offence at what they perceive as scorn for their way of life. This is what makes most of us not say anything, lest we appear condescending. At the heart of every group and gathering lies this kernel of fear. The fear of loneliness. It shakes me awake in the middle of the night. And we are usually ready to do anything to not wind up alone. Most especially, never diverge in opinion from the collective ideas of our group.
We will do what we are told. We gather, make money, become a couple, then a family, even have children in a bid to have our own loyal pawns, because we are so afraid of that day looming, when we will be completely bereft, adrift.
It’s the fear I see in the pulsating sound and migraine-bright light emanating from the snaking religious processions choking our streets and roads. As the nameless, faceless mob gathers together to trance dance, they gain in strength and ferocity, but I can also smell the acrid fear drifting in the tight spaces between them. At any moment they will feel a surge of might and hit out at the vulnerable.
Sometimes, I pass by a house of religion and a gentle luminescence from within lands on my weary face and I am drawn inside into its hearth once again. I sit in a pew, looking down at the commemorative family stones, and I begin to miss the warmth of friendship and family. Then I remember the manipulations and power plays, the exhortations to have faith no matter what, and once again I am forced to move on, leaving that glowing portal behind, into a world that lets me be, free of compulsive rituals except for the daily whistling call of my kettle, a world that lets me ask questions of it, and seek.