September 28, 2023
I spent my primary school years in my Parish’s church school. Being a largely Catholic crowd, we had daily Catechism. That meant ‘break time’ for the Non Catholic students, whom we anyway rarely got to mingle with as socializing with them was discouraged by our elders. I did sneak out to a few Janmashtami celebrations though!
Soon enough I was in High School run by a Hindu Organisation with a predominantly Hindu crowd. Day one, I had to choose one optional language from Hindi and Sanskrit. Being fluent in Hindi, I opted for Sanskrit with the intention of learning a new language. However, I was forced to change the language from Sanskrit to Hindi by my elder sisters who said “Sanskrit is the language of Brahmins. It is not for us!” Sadly, we also ended up skipping annual day celebrations at the behest of our elders .The annual day cultural performances were based on Hindu mythology and we would stay home, listening to the distant beat of their drum.
College years dawned on me (at the same institute) and I found myself the proud recipient of the first prize at the Annual Science Quiz. As soon as the Prize distribution ceremony ended, I walked excitedly out of the hall, unable to resist unwrapping the coveted first prize. Just as I was opening it, I felt a pat on my shoulder. I looked back up to find the President of the Science Association looking down at me, worriedly. He said “I am so sorry Jerald, I did not expect you to win the prize. Had I known, I’d have selected another item for this prize.” I was puzzled and even more curious about the prize! I hurriedly unwrapped it to find a book - the ‘Ramayana’. As I ran my fingers over the glossy over and flipped through a couple of pages, I looked back at him saying “Sir, I am happy to receive this prize” at which the lecturer let out a sigh of relief.
Two decades later, I was posted as the Head of Sales in a remote area in Andhra Pradesh. One Saturday morning, during my first week at the new Office, the local unit In-Charge requested me to join them for ‘Puja’. Unfamiliar and curious, I went along to a Puja room within the Office, adorned with pictures and idols of Hindu Gods. This fifteen minute ritual with the entire staff ended up becoming a part of my routine, every Saturday at the Office. While the fragrance of the incense engulfed my senses, I would get lost in the echoes of their chants, feeling the heat from the burning lamps and silently pray the Catholic prayers I was brought up on. The Puja would conclude on a sweet note with delicious ‘prasad’.
Six months later, a group of excited employees came to me with a package and requested me to unwrap it. It was a framed picture of three distinct images - one of Goddess Lakshmi, one of the Crescent and one of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which they wanted to display in the Puja Room! A Holy Trinity of sorts, but secular! Needless to say, they had realized I wasn’t a Hindu and wanted me to feel included. From then on, the sight of it every day reminded me of their thoughtfulness.
After all these years of varied experiences in multi-cultural environments, I have grown to believe that no matter what the religion, every Puja, every Mass, every Namaz, all lead to the singular objective of getting closer to God. Our diverse nation gives us the rare opportunity to celebrate a multitude of cultures, to respect every ones beliefs, peacefully co-exist and grow spiritually, together as one community. How blessed are we!