Life at home was different from the independent life in the northern metropolitan of India, New Delhi (also the capital). Home has deadlines dependent on sunlight; home has dressing codes which never include anything above the knee or without sleeves; home has strict prohibition of coloured liquids that unleash a novel side of the self. Rock and Metal- if ever played- are considered shor (noise) and the volume has to be limited so that it never goes outside my yellow coloured room. Late night movies are frowned upon and Hindi soap operas are hard to escape. Mobile phone and laptop are the two most hated objects while getting up after eight tops the list of most hated habits. “This child is out of our hands now,” is the dismissive guilt-inducing statement used by every Indian parent to end an argument with their young-adult child. But home is home. It is also the place where you can walk in the dark and still not collide with any furniture. It is a place where while sneezing and coughing, you don’t have to get up to make warm tea for yourself. Home is where you can sometimes forget that you have to grow up.
One eminent feature of most Indian households is the weekly visit to the mandir (temple). Growing up in a Hindu family that walked down to the closest colony temple every Tuesday and Thursday to take the blessing of Lord Hanuman and Lord Vishnu on their respective days, I was deeply religious till the age of sixteen, following all the customs, adhering to the rules of various fasts and walking down to the temple to make absurd teenage wishes to the huge decorated idol there. The temples fascinated me at that age not just because of my belief in the Almighty but because I found them beautiful. But as I grew up I gradually became a sceptic. Voracious reading and witnessing the inhuman harms done to people in the name of religion weakened my belief in the presence of God. I started to question all the rules and restrictions set by religions: Hinduism as well as others. Some incidents in my own life deteriorated my belief in a higher power looking over me and I embraced the ideology that I myself was the supreme commander of my own life with no supernatural interference in it whatsoever. I based my existence more on humanitarian values than religious customs and teachings and proudly proclaimed myself an atheist.
But pressures of family are something you cannot escape especially if you love them more than anything else. So, when I came back to live with my parents in Lucknow (a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh) after my graduation from Delhi, the mundane walks down to the temple became a weekly feature again but this time without much enthusiasm. I reluctantly gathered flowers for my mother, grumbling how she was destroying the beauty of the garden and killing flowers. I dressed up in traditional salwar kurta which was the dress code for the sacred place and I dragged myself to the temple along with my mother, chanting complains under my breath about how pointless this endeavour was for me.
Amidst the crowd of people folding their hands and closing their eyes in an attempt to connect with the orange idol they faced, I stood with my hand crossed across my chest. Down the stairs of the main temple area I stood sceptically, gawking at the blind faith people held on to so endearingly. Suddenly everyone was in a hurry to get to the main area because matches were being lighted and every temple bell had a man standing below it waiting for a signal from the main pandit (priest) of the temple. Suddenly, the aura of the temple changed and the time of the evening aarti (prayer and offering) became quite a breath-taking spectacle. The densely bearded man, clad in bright vermillion kurta and dhoti, held a huge diya (lamp) in hand that was ablaze with about thirty flames. The pandit swirled the diya before the colourful deities forming fire circles mid-air. The only light that caused visibility, came from the huge lamp that swayed to the united rding-a-ling rhythms of almost hundred huge bells all over the temple. This lighted orchestra was joined by two men beating and thumping two massive drums musically, like waking calls for fairies. Some pandits acted like polished musicians as they brought out lovely tinkling resonances with a number of ghunghroos (a string of tiny bells tied together). The musical arrangement of the religious custom had an absurd feature; much of the music was contributed by the clamorous but rhythmic beating of the steel plates with spoons and churning the spoons inside empty steel tumblers. The music from every instrument, identified and novel, was assimilated together to produce an enchanting symphony and the flames of the diya danced to tunes of the melody fashioned by the priests and the devotees. The soft claps of the people were synchronized with the tune of the musical presented by the pandits and all of them hummed beautifully a singular song in praise of Lord Hanuman.
That moment, like all the devotees, I was forced to close my eyes and explore the depths of the trance set forth by the enthralling harmonies. All questions, critical reasoning and scepticism disappeared for that moment and the only thing that my mind focused on was the music. I was transported into a different realm with the help of this genre-less music and I witnessed the supreme power of music. It was no more a tedious effort to please the God but a live concert for me; one in which I didn’t have to pay thousands of bucks, plus with great lighting.
No, I didn’t suddenly transform into a person with faith in God. No, I did not connect with some higher being in that musical trance. I did not feel that some supernatural power had control over my life in that moment. I was still an atheist; I was still the master of my own decisions and actions. However, I looked forward to Tuesdays since then because I wished to witness the symphony of the temple bells and enter a peaceful daze. Somehow it strengthened my atheistic streak. It made me believe that true peace and hope can be found within the material world through music, lights and beauty and there wasn’t a true need to believe in a supernatural being guiding humanity. Humanity might as well put its faith in things like melodies and rhythms of instruments and nature and create a better world. I wonder if people would kill each other if they like Rock music and the other prefers Blues? I don’t think so. I think that an atheists’ source of hope can be music and I bet Sonny John Moore (Skrillex) would agree and maybe use the aarti music for some of his works.