Flames leaped into the horizon. My parents, my sister, Shalini, and I abandoned our dinner to race up to the terrace and watch the blaze. It was Holi, the Hindu spring festival, an explosion of mischief celebrating the god Krishna’s shenanigans with the cowgirls. Flung water balloons gushed vermilion; water pistols squirted indigo. Stranger smeared stranger with silver paint stolen from construction sites. Buckets — dishwater? urine? — were emptied from high apartment windows onto passersby. Riotousness and devilry burst forth, a ripe sore.
Durga, our tiny, curly-haired cook, cycled into town and returned, panting with news. A procession of Hindus, chanting bhajans, statues of Shiva, god of destruction, hoisted on their shoulders, had marched past the mosque and forced a pig into it. Rumors of Muslim vengeance for this desecration flew around the town. “I won’t tell you in front of the chhota memsahibs,” Durga said. The Hindus retaliated. Jamshedpur, my North Indian home town, was 82 percent Hindu and 11 percent Muslim. The fire engines were silent as Muslim slums, homes, and businesses burned.
Mesmerized by the flames zigzagging into the horizon, I sat on the parapet, my legs dangling over the edge. In the boredom of boarding school, I had read of front-page disasters wistfully — hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, floods, war. But nothing happened, except in the movies. I was seventeen and had just graduated from Saint Mary’s Convent, Nainital, a century-old boarding school in the Himalayas run by German and Irish nuns — staid, staid.
I gazed down: fire devouring houses, crashing rafters, distant screaming. The effect was hypnotic, as in a cinema rustling with peanut-crunching, betel-nut chewing, enthralled throngs. But these were not sound effects — I snapped out of reverie — these were real people, just like me burning to death. Suddenly sickened, I ran downstairs and locked myself in my room.
The police slapped a curfew on the town: A glare, a curse, a flung stone could spark a riot. Police stood at every street corner, their rifles cocked. The market shut down. Home deliveries of bread and milk stopped. The cook sifted out insects to make parathas from old whole wheat flour. It was romantic in a way, the Indian Family Robinson.
The Hindu-Muslim riots held little personal terror: I was Roman Catholic. My forebears from Mangalore on the west coast of India were converted in the mid-sixteenth century by Portuguese missionaries, backed by the Inquisition. It was the prospect of boredom that bothered me. At the first hint of violence, libraries closed their stacks as too-easy targets of arsonists. Though we lived in faculty housing on the campus of Xavier Labor Relations Institute, a business school run by American Jesuits at which my father taught, it was impossible to get books. How would I get through curfew without them? A compulsive reader, I went through our bookshelves: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, I had read them several times. I shrank from rereading The Return of the Native, Far from the Madding Crowd, or The Mill on the Floss, though I loved those “classics.”
I settled down with the books I had not already read: Christian books. My father bought them at parish jumble sales as though there were virtue in the purchase. He never read them. To my surprise, I was fascinated. The Cross and the Switchblade, David Wilkerson’s tale of Christ’s radiance transforming young gangsters and drug addicts in New York City, and Catherine Marshall’s Beyond Ourselves were vivid accounts of Christ bursting into everyday life, setting it to music, making it sweet. This felt very different from the fossilized Catholicism forced on us at boarding school.
My childhood had been totally immersed in Catholicism — saints, angels, rosaries, novenas, litanies. It was punctuated with those rituals — baptism, first confession, first Communion, confirmation — that can so entwine themselves with the fabric of your spirit that to slough off Catholicism is to shiver in uncertainty. It’s like stripping off your skin. As a child, I unquestioningly accepted Catholicism, and believed what I was taught; that it was the only true faith. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: Outside the church, there is no salvation.
When I was eleven, I read through a compendium of General Knowledge during the winter school holiday and discovered a new passion: Greek mythology. I abandoned my stamp and postcard collections to read everything I could find on the enchanted universe of Greek gods and goddesses. Then, I chanced upon an idea that shattered my religious complacency.
I read that primitive men and women, often devastated by nature, imagined it was God. They worshiped the sun as Apollo; corn, fickle in blight or plenty, was Ceres; the raging sea, they imagined, was the mighty god Poseidon; the north wind, Boreas. Flabbergasted mortals elevated the forces of erratic, uncontrollable nature into gods to adore and placate. I understood. And was Catholicism any different from this awe-struck, foolish approach to nature? I doubted it.
I became an atheist and fed off the secret knowledge of intellectual superiority. How benighted they were, these parents, grandparents, priests, and nuns who ran our boarding school — they and their rattling rosary beads and boring Masses, their sprinklings of holy water from Lourdes, their relics, holy pictures, apparitions of the Virgin, prayers both to and for any good soul that left this earth. Just eleven, I knew better. I whispered to cronies, “I am an atheist,” as one might confide, “I am a murderess.”