An atheist is a half-hearted theist. His father’s last words were written all over the dark sky as his own body lay in a pool of blood beneath a pile of ashes. And despite the pain, all he wanted sorely was this one last wish. He was prepared for the end. Almost. What about a last-minute miracle? A few Bollywood climaxes of his favourite movies crossed his mind like a montage. He didn’t quite like them. If there were God and if He chose to save Him, that wouldn’t qualify for the miracle he wanted. As he tried to move, he felt the weight of his body acutely. If only he could find ‘chhota’. His heart sulked more in despair than in pain. He never felt more atheist than now when he found himself hanging between faith and disbelief.
Faith is a matter of choice. He had made the choice years ago when he held his first ‘chhota’ on his palm before his proud father. Only yesterday he had the first. Only yesterday he had held the 28th and compared him with ‘badka’. One fetched him money, the other bought him happiness.
Only this morning that now seemed like ages ago, he was painting them. His most expensive ‘badka’ must have golden eyelashes, he had decided. As he deftly balanced the thinnest brush between his first two fingers, a tiny dot of black had clung to his pinkie while he tried not to disturb the brows. This one had a light pink complexion. The trunk – slightly darker in the middle – rested on his fat belly as he sat criss-crossed on an elaborate golden chair.
Later as he stood in awe of his eight-foot creation, he had sighed. Farewell, my son. This had always been the hardest day of the season. The day before all his ganpatis would be gone.
They weren’t gods, they were his babies who would soon be left to rot in an already rotten Narmada. As he named each of them, he knew he was sealing their fates too. The standing one with a beautifully crafted chakri was called ‘dhawak’, the three-foot long sleeping one was ‘sustraam’; the laddu-gobbling greedy one was ‘chatora’. They could take care of themselves. Once dhawak, legs all gone, had swum near the bank while badka always managed to carry some of his ‘remains’ to the shore. It was the ‘chhota’ who bothered him much. Weighing less than half a kilo and only five inches tall, this god had zero chance of survival.
Ironic as it seemed to his devout neighbours, his love for ganpatis always surpassed his atheism. Year after year, his disbelief won, his love survived. Belief seemed like the property of either the fools or the ruthless. Love seemed like a panacea of all pains. Either he viewed the world from an agonistic eye or that the world failed to look at itself, he could never decide. The ruthless believing world was funny to him. Once Pujaariji was crossing the street when he stepped over a cowdung. He went back home to ‘purify’ himself. “But isn’t cow considered a mother? ” he had asked the priest point blank. Not that he wanted to go there, but he was debarred from entering the temple ever since. Pujaariji worshipped the God of Rituals. Another time there was the maulvi who he had seen eyeing young Najma during the Sarvadharm Sambhaav meeting. She was raped that night and she refused to tell who did it. The maulvi, who never let his four wives go out in the open, worshipped the God of Lust. Then there was the wealthy Brahmin who wouldn’t let a shudra enter even his backyard and who chose housemaids like people chose wives according to their castes. His kshatriya driver would fetch mutton every Sunday from the butchers shop, picking up a carton of alcohol on the way. The Brahmin’s was the God of Pleasure. Or the Shiv devout MLA who would spend three hours on his morning pooja and beat his wife every night as her father didn’t have enough dowry left to pay. He worshipped the God of Money. The god-maker made gods out of clay, the rest of them made gods out of their desires. He almost always stopped himself from saying: Thank God I don’t have you!
The foolish believing world, on the other hand, pained him to the core. The sheer innocence of their beliefs just put him off. Like the Christian widow who gave away a tenth of her meager income for the orphanage every month out of love for her God. Or Sardaarji who always gave a stranger a free ride in his truck as a gesture of service to his God. Or little Rahim. Despite being the son of a devout Muslim, Rahim loved to celebrate each Hindu festival. “Hindu gods are fun gods chachu. Mamma says all gods are the same,” the six-year old had told him once, much to his father’s annoyance. Chhota belonged to Rahim every year. They both just so beautifully fit in his mental Bollywood picture. How the kid held the tiniest Ganapati in his little hands reverently and how he and his friends sang ‘Ganpati bappa morya’ as they ceremonially carried the idol on their palms taking turns. Ah a sight for his atheistic sore eyes. He dismissed it as a pure human emotion. Yet he revered Rahim’s faith. He loved watching the boy’s eyes lighting up the moment he saw chhota. While the creation evoked faith in the son, the creator himself bred hatred in the father.
And now he was ready to forgive the father for burning down his workshop if only he could find chhota. He had done everything to stop the fire. Strange no believers came to the rescue of their gods. They abandoned their gods tonight and chose love for their own lives. God and love can be a tricky set of options, after all. And why both cannot be part of the same sanctuary was beyond him. Was he really thinking God? He checked himself with a start.
He couldn’t feel his right hand that smelled of burns. He felt like he needs an enormous set of hands to lift him up. The wetness of blood had reached his neck now. He felt disgusting and helpless. The moment he closed his eyes, all he could see was his ‘chhota’. “Oh you are not god,” he said aloud. And suddenly he saw images of the many gods he had created over the years. Ganpati, Laxmi, Krishna, Durga. The climax of his favourite movie ‘The Guide’ was now playing in his head. He spat a curse for watching it too many times. He could see Raju guide closing his eyes and seeing a deity as he prepared to die. The entire scene came alive. Even in unconsciousness, the atheist in him hurled logics. “Don’t be a foolish believer.”
And almost instantly the scene changed. There was darkness again. No halo. No God. No Raju guide. He felt a hand touching his forehead. This man didn’t resemble any deity he had ever created. He was just that, a man smiling back. The touch of the hand felt real. He was drifting into a pit and still not falling as the hand held him. Hallucinations for sure, the atheist told him.
Days later, he woke up in the district hospital. He didn’t feel his right hand. The horror struck him. “That’s not the miracle I wanted. Now I wouldn’t be able to make gods,” he said aloud the moment he realized it. A clichéd end to the story, he mumbled cynically.
“Chachu,” Rahim burst in shouting, followed by his gang of friends. He turned his face, not wanting to face the kid. “Will you not forgive my father?” he demanded. He had difficulty in believing what he heard next. Well he always had. Rahim had brought a policeman to the burnt workshop next morning. He was then rushed to the hospital. He had woken up three days later. Rahim had told the policeman that his father was behind the fire.
And then Rahim put his hands in his pocket and took out ‘chhota’. Just like that. The idol looked just the way he had made it. Intact. Its size had saved it. The kids had found it lying beneath the remains of badka.
Hot tears welled down his cheeks as he looked at the tiny palm that held his chhota. He looked up to catch the smile that spread through Rahim’s eyes. That’s when he decided. He wouldn’t be able to make gods anymore. It was impossible to ‘make’ Him after all. He exists. He is what He is. He would trust in that unknown God who had given him ‘his’ miracle. A tiny miracle that he could believe. Faith is a matter of choice. And this time he chose to have it.