Essay: With Missionary Zeal

By Devraj Kalsi

When parents admit their child to an English medium school run by the Catholic community, the primary objective is to instil in the child discipline and moral values, gain access to the best environment to gain proficiency in English, and develop a liberal mindset that prepares the young mind to face the challenges and complexities of the modern world. The pupil is told again and again that he is here to imbibe the best. But as the young impressionable mind enters the teenage years, the school authorities find an irresistible opportunity to start talking about issues that should not arise inside a secular campus. The missionary institution, though it behaves secularly as much like any elected government in the country, ends up vitiating its professional pursuits with personal agenda.

Although I learned to see God as a more amiable persona in the Catholic school, it wasn’t too long before I realised that this was the beginning of a subtle crash course to preach the merits of their religion. My first awakening happened when I was told to love God more than fear Him. Usually, in traditional North Indian households and many others perhaps, there is a deeply ingrained, though flawed tendency to view the creator as a temperamental dictator who can turn your life upside down any moment. His power is something to be feared all the time.

Here was the first opportunity to view the Omniscient as someone who has created me to enjoy his creations and I should, therefore, be fond of Him all the time – just like a friend to reach out to. From the ivory tower, the creator was brought down to my level – just for me. I did feel an urge to share dreams and desires and wishes without nursing doubts that He would deny those to me. God himself became a temptation for me. The relationship with Him developed along friendly and compatible lines; I saw Him as user-friendly because human qualities were given priority and the complexities and conflicts between believer and provider had been fairly rationalized and sorted out through prayers and monologues.

Whatever I know today is because of the formative years of comprehensive education that opened my mind. I do not blame my parents for admitting me to a missionary school because they believed in good faith that these institutions were established with a broader vision to build the foundations of a progressive society. Comparisons are odious, but the eminent institutions established by other religions and religious sects were worse. They also gave priority to the indoctrination of young minds in various parts of India and the ways of doing so were primitive. Besides, they also indulged in seeking donations from students to build a large corpus of funds in the name of infrastructural development and it was siphoned off to start religious trusts or make statues in gold and silver. This has been allowed to fester because the noble intent of providing education eclipses other malpractices.

I feel happy that the missionary school broadened my thinking and therefore failed to restrict me to the missionary position it prescribed with missionary zeal. Inside the classroom, for the first time, I heard Bro J discuss religious matters. Much to my chagrin, his was not a liberal voice. In hindsight, I am able to identify the soft communal undertones when in front of fifty-odd students he called it a matter of shame that people in this country do not have the freedom to choose religion. He reduced religion to the level of finding the right life partner. I could not establish whether this fervour existed prior to his conversion or was injected into his bloodstream after tasting the bread.

Questions began to rise in me. Why do we prefer one religion over another? Just like tea to coffee? Just like a city to live in? Why do we need to discard the one we are born into?  When all religions are equal and same, what is the need to change one? Does one particular religion promise better returns or a better life? Does one religion hold the master key to open the gates of Heaven? Does one religion alone have the power to congregate sinners in paradise? Does one religion guarantee human life in the next birth? Does one religion promise rebirth into a royal family? Does one religion deliver mercy to all sinners? I squashed these questions real hard against the wall of my mind to understand the chief attraction. Bro J introduced us to a sophisticated way of making the distinction. Not all religions are perfect. In his less than thirty years of life, he had found the perfect one. Or perhaps, by saying so, he meant some religions are less imperfect, less traditional, less discriminatory, less puritanical, more modern, more human, more progressive, more reform-oriented, and therefore a better choice to make and follow. Surely, it was a dangerous proposition, something lethal to spark communal unrest. He laid thrust on the premise that one should get the freedom to choose the religion one feels like following, and not inherit the one followed by parents. He was alluding to voluntary conversions when one turns adult. None of us followed his words but some of us have turned atheists, which is another big loss for all religions, a strong ground for all of them to unite and protest against.

I loved the idea of following a religion that allowed rebels, which did not have rules and commandments to follow. But no religion gave the freedom to have unconditional love. Such a character in any religion is explosive material that could upset the balance achieved by organised religions over the centuries with the committed and dedicated efforts of the clergy. How can any religion officially grant me the freedom to soar above it? Since I found no religion so enterprising and entrepreneurial, I rejected the idea of being a puppet rebel. There was no kick in it. I realised that no religion would allow me to have a one-to-one relationship with the creator. There were no mediators or preachers to explain how to approach the creator, how to behave with Him, how to follow the correct posture to pray and adopt other such formalities during mass gatherings in order to call myself a licenced practitioner.

Bro J was himself a convert and he certainly did not regret his choice. He flourished since then. He rode a fancy bike and wore a costly wristwatch that showed that he liked to have a good time. That is why he wanted to spread the message and show us the way to cherry-pick the best in the material world. I do not blame Bro J for his warped thinking, for making religions sound adversarial. The practice to judge the growth and size and spread of a religion should have never been allowed. But he was not the one to initiate that. The likes of Bro J are there in every religion, in every democracy, quite fascinated with numbers. And their population is on the rise everywhere.

During free periods, we were not allowed to indulge in anything creative. Instead, we were herded to the nearby church. We prayed for more marks, for more holidays, for easy questions, for more rainy days. We did not seek anything special from the Lord. The lady teacher who took us there was trying her best to appease the Principal for her career advancement. I thought he would advise her to teach more, but a free period meant thirty minutes of prayer. In a single day, we prayed in the morning assembly for bread and butter, in the afternoon assembly a short prayer . . . we prayed more in school and knew the prayers by heart, every word of it, but we did not know the basic prayers of our own religion. We could get away without doing that inside our homes, not inside school. Lips that did not move were noticed.

We knew there were some unavoidable compromises and adjustments to be made because we studied there. We were not silent or passive hate-mongers yet. But with growing exposure to overtly critical views and partisan takes, we were turning more defensive about our own religion. I note this stage as the phase when we started taking offence and began to shout within – this is not right. It was time to seek umbrage. For every religion, and for every religious practitioner, it is important to keep religion in the personal domain, as personal as any other personal act or possession. The open spaces where all communities interact because of the pluralistic nature of our society should be kept free from religion. Sadly, this intrusion damages the secular fabric.

As a Sikh, when I see politicians and celebrities from other religions performing sewa at the Sikh temple, I feel happy that s/he is respecting my religion. Ideally speaking, I should not react to it – just press the ignore button. By cheering or criticising, I am taking a stand, something that has bothered me since schooldays, and something that I am objecting to since childhood. But I find myself totally helpless. S/he did it because s/he felt like doing it and it is entirely his/her matter of choice, for whatever reason – for expiation or succour.

A festival like Raksha Bandhan vexed the Principal because many fell ill that day. An excuse in the diary like a stomach ache or loose motions or one-day fever made him angry but he had to sign. All those who came unwillingly wore Rakhis on the wrist and these were objected to. A critical speech was delivered on the impossibility of a simple thread ensuring protection to sisters. We were asked to go and learn martial arts instead. It was the kind of frivolous response generated by teachers subscribing to another faith. We immediately took off the iridescent threads and put them in our pockets to avoid their scornful looks. I was living in free India, which gave me the freedom to practice my religion and the rituals that I liked. When inside the school, I was not allowed that freedom. There I had to follow the rules that were laid down a bit heavily on other religious festivals. Absenteeism was not tolerated unless it was a state or national holiday.

The school told us through its rules that religious lines matter a lot and we are divided along those lines. We were told to pray to Jesus, but we were not told to pray to the Almighty. Almighty is not a God, though all gods from all religions are supposed to be almighty. There has never been a competition to test their individual strengths and special powers. When nature attacks, it attacks all without discrimination. We have never done a comparative analysis of which god delivers best but we know the creator of this world must be pretty good at his job.

We sang the national anthem fervently. But when it came to prayer, many of us mumbled and skipped lines. The collective pitch disappointed the cassock-clad mentors. An assembly of thousand students following various religions was difficult to tame. Do I conclude that it is impossible to study in a Catholic institute with an equal opportunity to celebrate your own religion? Perhaps it is better to study in a school where no mention of god is ever made, from any religion. But is there such a non-religious school? Can we hope to raise our generations where even mild and tolerable forms of religious exposure are prohibited inside the campus like other addictions?

If one has to learn about forbearance and courage, give students examples of achievers who have done a lot in life. Talk about modern human lives, showing enough of it instead of saying that courage is a sky-dropped bonanza or infused within you through prayer alone. Human values and qualities do not have any religion and are easily available to all. Inculcate such ethics. When you see someone promoting his religion, discussing it in superior and glowing terms, you tend to feel an urge to talk about yours as well. Are we light years away from establishing schools where no reference to religion, prayer, and god is ever made?  Will any amendment in this regard prove efficacious? Or like other amendments in the past, will this also remain a part of the vision document?



Devraj Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata, India. His short fiction and articles have been published in Earthen Lamp Journal, The Bombay Review, Open Road Review, Deccan Herald, Tehelka,, The Assam Tribune, and The Statesman.

His first novel, Pal Motors, will be published this year.