One of the consoling facts for both V’s and my parents when we decided to get married was that despite our cultural differences, we shared a religion. Never mind that both of us had stopped going to church regularly by then.
Unfortunately for them, instead of bolstering each other’s faith, we progressively lost it. Nevertheless, I planned to raise my children as Catholics as I was convinced that it would give them structure and community.
However, as I increasingly came to see belief in God and religious rituals as anything more than quaint practices as being as silly as unflinching belief in Harry Potter, I found it would be quite hard to answer “yes” with a straight face questions such as “does God really exist?”.
So, much to our parents’ dismay, religion fell by the wayside.
The result, though, is that my children have been exposed to a much wider set of mythologies than they would have had been insisted on belief in one faith. They never quite took to the Bible, instead been drawn to Hindu mythology. Reading those stories to them, I ended up educating myself and becoming a fan of the sheer fantastic quality of imaginative storytelling. I can see why the Judeo-Christian tradition paled in comparison.
When the government declared schools closed this month, one of the unforeseen side effects was the lack of books. Due to a lack of space, I’ve pruned our bookshelves and relied more on the school and public library. However, even the public library has shut down, so we were forced to turn back to our bookshelves.
And we found Muezza and Baby Jaan, a collection of stories from the Quran by Anita Nair. It had been rejected in the past for being too wordy and having too few pictures, but it seems to have caught on this time (it is a tad worthy and could do with at least one illustration every couple of pages).
While my knowledge of Hindu mythology had been sketchy, my knowledge of Muslim mythology was pretty non-existent, save for knowing the background to some of the festivals and the difference between Sunni and Shia. I tended to fall back on the idea that since the Muslim Holy book shared many stories with the Bible.
Muezza and Baby Jaan tells its religious stories through a series of conversations between a cat and a djinn that takes the shape of a camel. This nesting of stories within the narrative makes it a little complicated, but the kids enjoyed the Muezza-Baby Jaan conversations as much as the Quranic stories, possibly more, so I can’t complain. They also surprised me by remembering some of the common biblical stories, so I guess they aren’t as devoid of Christian mythology as I had thought.
Despite V and I being quite open in our lack of faith in the existence of the divine, our helpers are believers and have done some amount of indoctrination. Mimi, by personality, is more drawn to spirituality and insists she believes in god, though which one keeps changing.
At some point in Muezza and Baby Jaan, Muezza said that when he gets angry, he recites the ninety-nine names of God and then the book proceeds to list then. I read a few and can see the point of this recitation as it has a calming effect as such recitations tend to.
Mimi surprised me by deciding she would read all the ninety-nine names (her reading skills are actually poor, so I was not optimistic about her getting through the Arabic names but she progressed further than I would have expected). She knows she has a tendency to fly into rages and I think she wanted some divine intervention to help her calm herself.
While I have no objection to her reciting the ninety-names of God, I think it would be easier to teach her the Hail Mary and Holy Mary. Apparently, both my children are familiar with the rosary, thank to our helpers. I suggested Mimi could say these prayers when she needs to. Despite my own lack of faith, I can see the value of prayer for a restless child and I have already taught her a nightime prayer (which she seemed fascinated by at the time though I’m sure she’s forgotten now).
The next day Mimi had a fall on her scooter. Suddenly, she said: “I know why. It’s because I fought with you.”
“What?” I asked.
“I said the ninety-nine names of God and said I wouldn’t be angry, but I fought with you. So God punished me by making me fall.”
I was gobsmacked. “That’s not how it works. God – if he exists – doesn’t punish,” I told her.
But then I realised that all the stories we had read recently were of God punishing people. The idea of a vengeful God is so powerful that even children who have never been exposed to it take to it like fish to water almost as soon as they encounter it.
Perhaps to them it is comforting to think that someone out there is controlling things, even our misfortunes. But it is also deeply flawed.
In fact, Catholic catechism has sort of outgrown this idea even before I left the church. The vengeful god of the Old Testament, we were told, was not as important as the forgiving God in the New Testament.
It’s been a long time since I heard the words “God will punish you”. Ironically, the last time I heard it was at my in-laws 50th wedding anniversary mass, where for reasons unknown, I volunteered to do one of the readings and to my horror ended up having to stand before the community enjoining wives to submit to their husbands. I considered coughing over that part, but settled for a smirk.
Maybe the priest heard that in my voice because he decided – to my surprise, because in fact obedience has been left out of wedding vows – to stress that point. Perhaps he saw that his audience was rather unresponsive to his message because he ended with a menacing, “if you don’t, God will punish you!”