My mother has taken to calling me ‘donkey’. “Hello, donkey,” she says brightly when I pass by, or, “Donkey, could you pass the salt?” when we’re dining, or “My little donkey!” when she’s feeling fond. I asked hopefully if it might be short for Don Quixote, the great tragic dreamer, but she said no, she just meant the obstinate braying beast.
She conferred this name on me not long after a dinner conversation that segued into the realm of god and religion. I spoke in favour of the motion that ‘God is a Construct, a Powerful Psychological Sweetener/Opiate, and the Perfect Instrument for Mass Terrorisation and the Exercise of Power’, and she spoke in favour of the motion ‘Have Some Respect for the Things You Don’t Know’.
It was one of those chats that can easily replace your regular cardiovascular workout: it raises the heart rate, colours the cheek, pearls the brow, and makes you talk a little louder than strictly necessary. I remember a lot of mutual headshaking and eye-rolling and bitter regret that the other person could be so imprisoned in her own misguided views. (Some days later she read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and began to agree with me; but by then we’d both gotten used to ‘donkey’.)
It just goes to show that there’s nothing like religion to make asses of us all, as has recently been made clear by the events of the last few thousand years and again, if you weren’t paying attention, in Jammu and Kashmir and Orissa. Luckily, as a family we agree that we can scream and shout at each other and call each other the most vile and frightful names until we’re blue in the face, as long as we don’t get physically violent. That is the essence of democratic discourse, after all: protest and argue all you like, but non-violently.
The trouble is that this only works if everyone is on the same page. India would be well on its way to some stripe of democracy, were it not for our rich national surplus in ravening lunatics. We have them in a vast array of stripes and kinds, and since we’re a big place with lots of dissimilar people living cheek by jowl, they’re always very busy: there’s always one more house to burn, one more place of worship to demolish or desecrate, one more exhibition to vandalise, one more book to burn, one more bomb to set off, one more person to rape or maim or kill or all three.
Even that might not stop us from being a democracy, except that every night before going to bed these people must get on their knees and give thanks for the self-serving gutlessness of state and central governments, which put the ‘fun’ back into ‘fundamentalism’ by abandoning innocent citizens to their fate rather than hauling the offenders off to jail or the gallows, and risking a heist on their vote banks.
This is because government and law enforcement agencies are equally communal and undemocratic. Let’s face it: democracy simply isn’t native to humans, who are best known for their appetite for domination, destruction, and death. It has to be taught—at home and in schools, because it works better as an individual attitude than as a state regulation. Fundamental to this education is that a child should be free to choose his or own religion, having been exposed to many; or decide that there is no god, so it’s best to quit smoking and get on a monthly investment plan.
The world looks a whole lot better when it’s full of squabbling people calling each other ‘donkey’ than when one homogenous pack is left stamping on the smouldering corpses of their neighbours.