Taxicab Proselytization

“You’ve driven me before.”


That was how it began, one of those chance conversations with a taxi driver who definitely had driven me to the airport before. Yes, Cambridge is small enough for that to happen. I remembered less of his face than the constant murmuring and  the distinctive style of driving that consisted of lurching forward, or to the left or  right, treating the vehicle less like a car than a primitive bludgeon poking at a mob closing in on all sides. Cab drivers often offer surprising information about the taxi business in Boston and Cambridge, and sometimes they talk about their lives outside the taxi, but this one took a strange turn.

“What did we talk about?”, said he.

“We didn’t talk much actually, There was a traffic jam that day on the pike”. It was true, and I remembered the lurching, the murmuring, the cursing.

“I usually talk about what I’m learning and studying.” He began.

“Well, what are you studying?” I became interested. Eager young cab drivers can, to your surprise, tune out the mind-numbing cacophony that is a Boston traffic jam, and talk enthusiastically about vocational courses they are taking in community colleges; their plans to attend university or to send their kids to one. They speak with feeling about living double lives, studying in the evening or night classes so that they and their families – often composed of hardworking immigrants – can have a more comfortable existence in a new country. But, this was not one of those conversations.

“I study the Bible. The world is changing. It’s not natural … weather like this in December? … but it’s all in the prophecy. Here, take this. It’s all in there.” he said, handing me a booklet. It was thin and orange, with a sketch of a beautiful young woman with a rapturous expression on her face. This was the November edition of The Watchtower, a periodical published by Jehovah’s Witness. Inside, there were articles which spoke of how one’s life will improve immeasurably, and how the meaning of life will become self-evident, if only one became a member of the church. None of us are rational all of the time, but our sense of rationality asserts itself in the presence of what we consider irrational. While leafing through the pages, I began instinctively fisking the articles; nearly every sentence appeared to justify itself not on logic or evidence but based solely on its occurrence in the Bible.

Growing up in a country like India that is simultaneously secular and religious,  one becomes aware of the tension between the political need to be secular and the citizens’ attraction to particular religions. For the most part, the country is peaceful when it comes to religious differences; religious customs and traditions stay within families, fortified by marriages within particular castes, pickling over the generations. The public space is dominated more by people’s concerns with opportunities for livelihood and the scourge of systemic corruption than with fighting for religious primacy. Politicians and mobsters, however, know this tension all too well, and the most cynical of them keep it carefully sheathed in their holster of tricks until the time is right, exploiting it when the opportunity presents itself. These are what led to the shameful and religious massacres related to Babri Masjid in 1992-93 or Godhra in 2002. At these times, many people abandoned the secular ideals of the country’s founders. Many of our comfortable living rooms — insulated from the pogroms and horrific deaths in Ayodhya or Gujarat — became venues for expressions of repressed religious exclusivism. Wives would listen to their husbands blithely pontificating over their umpteenth unproductive cup of tea with friends, and then their children would echo those pontifications the next day at lunch break.

My childhood years remained sheltered from religious or political strife as a result of the parents’ choice of the cities in which we lived in the period from 1978 through 1999. We were fortunate to be far away from the flashpoints, and religious diversity was a more or less normal fact of my life, as it is for many Indians. For a time, I attended a school run by Catholic missionaries near the town’s railway station – an area of working-class residents with a higher concentration of Christians and Muslims than one is likely to find in most of India. Thus, friends and teachers hailed from families that practiced rituals of different religions, and partaking in the customs and celebrations from outside the Hindu religion was natural; this illusion of normalcy became apparent only after the fact, when we moved to more homogenous communities.

For better or worse, though I believed in God as a child, I do not recall thinking too carefully about my particular religious identity, nor can I recall a single experience of being in the presence of overt evangelism by a Muslim or a Christian. When I was a little older, I remember visiting Bombay for exams; There, my father showed me the traces of burnt walls and destroyed houses – after-effects of the 1993 riots. Eventually, I would read about the heavy-handedness of the Shiv Sena in the name of the Marathi identity. To my surprise, many discussions in college revealed that classmates relished taking sides; some even proclaimed the legitimacy of religious rioting — a phenomenon that I now attribute more to the overheard conversations of their elders who sat in the aforementioned comfortable living rooms, than to independent thinking. For my part, I doubt that I was thinking independently either, but the specter of violent death associated with these riots poisoned my mind against religious jingoism. This did not have much to do with a logical or rational rejection of religiosity; that would come later.

In the United States, fortunately, religious strife has been largely absent for a long time. Evangelism abounds, but it is not too threatening. Peaceful conversions happen all the time, such as in weddings. This probably causes some friction within families, and at the political fringes, but in the most difficult of times, the country appears to be remarkably resilient to religious upheaval. Having never witnessed evangelism before, my first experience of it was quite educational – it happened when I was a graduate student and was living near a Mormon Church. Many of us remember being approached by two exceptionally well-dressed and equally well-mannered male members of the Mormon Church asking you politely if you were interested in a conversation about God. One eventually loses count of the leaflets received on casual strolls to the supermarket or to the subway station, pointing us to a nearby church and its free sessions. As a commuting cyclist in Cambridge, you sometimes return to your parked bicycle to find a granola bar perched on the saddle, and a discreet note with information about a nearby church. Bizarrely, even though Hindus do not have an obligation to evangelize, many students on US college campuses have been offered a free Bhagvadgita or Isopanishad by the Institute of Krishna Consciousness.

In this latest episode of proselytization, the fault was primarily mine. I had begun the conversation; the cab driver merely took the chance offered him. A prospective convert was in the back seat, and the medicine would have to be administered before Logan airport came into view. It became immediately clear what the intent of ensuing conversation was, but sitting in the car weaving through the tunnels of the Big Dig, I could not have guessed the method that would be employed to convince me of the omniscience of God and the plans He has for us: Arithmetic. It involved the calculator app on an iphone.

“See, Revelation tells us that a year is 360 days. Seven years is how much?”, and he began doing the multiplication on his phone.

I was slow on the uptake, and puzzled because I didn’t know where 360 or 7 came from, so before I could multiply, he was flashing “2520” at me as we took the exit into Logan.

“Then we remove 607 years for Jerusalem”, said he, referring — as I later found out — to the year 607 BC when Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jerusalem was destroyed. The subtraction done, he pushed the phone backwards towards me, but then took it back and looked quizzically at the number 1913, wondering whether he had made a mistake.

“Oh,” he said suddenly, “and we add one for Jesus”. As far as I can tell, he was adjusting for the transition from BC to AD, but I could be wrong. Then, satisfied with the answer, he proudly displayed “1914” to me, and asked triumphantly, “Do you know what happened in 1914?”

“Yes”, said I, intrigued and eager-to-please, “The First World War began?”. All those history lessons about Ferdinand and Sophie came back to me.

He gave me a strange look, and I couldn’t tell if he was irritated. But, we were at Terminal C already and I was not to  discover if my answer was correct or not. I hastily gave him the voucher, packed the Watchtower booklet into my laptop case, and went to the back of the car to retrieve my suitcase.

“Pay attention”, he said as he handed me the suitcase from the boot, “The prophecy says that the UN will destroy all the world’s religions and try to unite all the people of the world, and (paraphrased) that will be when God will act.”  I was, at this point, utterly bamboozled by the mention of the United Nations and its connection to Armageddon. I said something silly: “Alright. I’ll keep my eyes open,” and entered the terminal. Only afterward did I realize that, in my state of amazed puzzlement, I forgot to ask him when this world-changing event was supposed to take place.


Musings on Tolkien: Art, Myth and Religiosity

The books of J. R. R. Tolkien comprise one of my fondest literary experiences during the time I have spent outside India. I have come at the works in a sequence that the venerable professor would probably not approve of, reading first The Lord of the Rings, followed by The Hobbit, and now The Silmarillion. Over the years, I have often wondered why I love the books, and the movies and most of the art that derives from Tolkien’s works so much. I have often put this fascination down to a love of language of a certain musical kind, and an attraction to myth and story. Indeed, it is impossible not to admire JRRT’s dedication and artistic drive in creating multiple languages, landscapes and cultures to hold together a mythology of such intricate detail that it was never complete and was being refined to the very end of his life.

Many of us, especially readers of fiction, also identify with the attraction to story and myth. In the telling, Tolkien’s stories flow in the manner of tales handed down the ages, not so much in written form, but in the form of song and verse. This quality of his prose first became tangible to me when I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring, specifically the part in which the company journeys into Lothlorien after losing Gandalf to the Balrog of Morgoth. In my mind, that attraction of song-lore extends outward from the books and into derivative artwork, including the beautiful and distinctive styles of Alan Lee and John Howe, and the blockbuster movies that – some would hasten to point out – changed the book far too much. I do not mean to say that I like everything in the movies, but even with the ridiculously extended movie adaptation of The Hobbit, my fascination with the original work does not yet brook snobbery at the mercenary imagination of film-makers.

Now, as I read The Silmarillion, I become even more conscious of the incongruence of my fondness for Tolkien’s work. The professor was a devoutly religious man and the influence extends to the fictional world that he created, with  God (Illuvatar), the angelic powers (the Valar), and creation of Arda (Earth) as an expression of the music of Illuvatar. I don’t subscribe to any supernatural creationist view in real life, and am extremely uncomfortable in religious settings, or when asked to perform any religious activity [1]. Yet, I am enthralled by Tolkien’s descriptions of the creation of Arda, the music of the Valar, the discordant notes of Melkor. The only obvious explanation I have for this is that I compartmentalize Tolkien’s world as being distinct from reality, and that within it, these unscientific things not only make sense, but do so beautifully, musically, and bravely.

Embedded in these tales is Tolkien’s love for simplicity and goodness that most of us aspire to. What exactly constitutes simplicity and goodness is admittedly a tough question, but it is fair to say that we find those ideals more difficult to attain in our technologically augmented world. There seems to be in Tolkien’s work, a component of the moral fable, such as that found in Aesop’s stories or The Panchtantra [1]. And like the great religious epics of Europe and Asia, there is a more or less clear demarkation of good and evil, instances in which good turns to evil, and few (if any) cases in which an evil entity redeems itself; In day-to-day existence, I am quick to repudiate such a black-and-white characterization of human personality and human activity. Yet inside the pages of the Silmarillion, compartmentalization happens effortlessly as I read – sometimes aloud as if I am reciting the words to someone else – of the doom of the Elves and the proliferating darkness of Morgoth and his hordes.


[1] I recall reading that Tolkien did not consider The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit as moralistic fables, so he would not have liked the above characterization, despite the parallels with the other myths of our time. He was creating an alternative world, as consistently and meticulously as he could and that, it appears, may have been more important to him than any allegorical interpretations.