In Nashik, with the Humanists

We drove three hours outside of Mumbai. The highway to Nashik is nice and polished and pretty. We stopped at a rest stop, where the two Mr. Nayaks drank coffee and ate. I was still so full from breakfast. I never wanted to eat again.

Rest stop along the highway

It took us another 45 minutes to find the building where the meeting was taking place. This particular meeting was the annual statewide meeting for Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANiS), which is known as the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith in English. Its founder, the late Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, was killed by religious extremists two years ago. The meeting was not in English, so I understood little. Mr. Nayak No. 2 told me that they were discussing something about newsletters, and that the conversation was not very interesting. The walls of the room were a dusty pink, and there were about twelve ceiling fans. A guard holding a large gun sat to the left of me, which was disconcerting. I learned later that he was the bodyguard for Dr. Dabholkar’s family.

First meeting

I was offered tea and I spilled it all over myself. Five people came and hovered around me, offering water with which to wipe. I wanted to hide in a hole and never come out.

“You don’t speak Hindi at all?” A man asked. I shook my head, and felt guilty. I know three words: namaste (hello), pani (water), and dhanyavad (thank you). I should work on learning more Hindi, but internet is hard to find here, and I don’t know where to find the right books.

Mr. Nayak encouraged me to speak with Mukta, who is the daughter of Dr. Dabholkar. She is handsome and intimidating and brilliant. She is a lawyer. I wrote down a couple questions to ask, and approached her. A lot of other humanist women came and sat with us. I am not sure what I did wrong, but she said she didn’t want a formal interview (I did not ask for one) and that this was a public space so I should respect that (it was a public conversation, involving many people). I asked two questions: “what do you do, as humanists?” and “what drew you to humanism?”

She asked if I read a book about superstition in India, the name of which she could not recall. I did not know what book she meant, but I did not read such a book so I told her no. She replied in a rather annoyed manner, “I urge you to read the book and then you can come back and we can speak.”

I probably should have done my homework and read the book. But the main thing I wanted to know was not about the movement in particular. Not about superstition. Not about India, even. I wanted to know what the faithless believed in: what it was that powered the moral convictions of a humanist. I wanted to know why they were personally drawn to the movement, rather than the philosophy behind it. So I told her all that. I also politely said that I will check out the book.

The other ladies started talking to me about their personal investments in the movement, and Mukta got up without saying anything. Before she could leave for good, I thanked her for her time, even though I did not enjoy speaking with her at all. She is very busy. And in any case, it must be hard to continue on with the movement after her father’s death.

We had another meeting to attend in the evening, but we had some time in between, so we stopped by at Professor Deshpande’s house. He teaches political science and is also a humanist. He has four kids. I wrote in the study room while the two Mr. Nayaks slept in a guest room. The children followed me, and sat quietly behind me while I typed.

“You can ask me questions about America if you want,” I told them finally, shutting my laptop, “Don’t be shy!”

“We don’t want to disturb you…but we would like to speak with you,” said Mudra. She is the third child. She just started eighth standard.

So all of us talked, for two hours, about food, Indian attire, hobbies, music, etc. They pulled out their school books to show me what they were learning in school. Rushikesh, the oldest, described to me what a mango pickle is. Mudra brought out her Salwar Kameez and showed me how to wear it. Yeshuanti, the older sister, placed a bindi on my forehead. They wanted me to take a whole package of bindis but I told them I couldn’t do that, because they were too pretty and I was too sweaty all the time. I showed them pictures of my brother and friends from home. The littlest one wanted to see a picture of my dad, which I could not find on my phone (my dad doesn’t really like pictures). I gave them lollipops I had brought from home and my email address and phone number, in case they ever wanted to chat again. They asked to take pictures, and I said yes. The girls rushed to the bathroom to wash their faces and rub on some talcum powder. My conversation with them made me forget about the less pleasant conversation with Mukta.

The Deshpandes

The evening meeting consisted of a showing of a play, which compared the work of Dr. Dabholkar with that of Socrates and Tukaram. It was more of a musical than a play, with singing and dancing. And then people talked about the environmental harm of Kumbh Mela, which is a Hindu ritual and also the largest gathering of people in the world. People wade into the Ganges to have their sins be washed away. It leaves the water with e. coli and other pathogens.

“We do not interfere with any faith,” Mr. Nayak spoke, “But any one individual’s belief may not harm another person or his or her society.” He also talked about the necessity of separation between church and state. I now know not to take that for granted. The caste system is still very much prevalent here.

Second meeting

I sat for most of the day, but the discussions I had with people caused a lot of emotional turbulence. I slept the entire 3 hour car ride back to Mumbai. Tomorrow, I am meeting more humanists, which is wonderful and exhausting at the same time. Sometimes I wish I could be alone in silence. But I know I’ll miss all this when it passes.

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