All thinking men are atheists
— Ernest Hemmingway,
A Farewell to Arms
Haryana revokes ‘atheist’ certificate to man a week after it was issued. That was the headline that caused me to spill my morning cuppa all over my joggers. It would have taken a stronger man not to pore through the rest of the copy. In case, dear reader, you missed this item, here’s a succinct encapsulation of what reportedly happened. Ravi Kumar, a 30 something individual residing in Fatehabad district in Haryana, decided one day during his callow youth that he had no use or time for God. Left to himself, the young man might even object to my deification in affixing the capital letter G for God, but I thought I’ll play it safe in case the Almighty suddenly descends on my humble abode spewing fire and brimstone. ‘What, no capital G? You disrespectful twerp. You shall burn in hell for this.’ Better safe than sorry.
However, no such idiotic qualms held the estimable Ravi Kumar back. He was granted an apocalyptic vision during early childhood, not of God shining his benevolent light from heaven, but of the non-existence of God in any shape or form. Why and how did he come upon this ‘moment of clarity?’ Apparently a few nasty bullies set about him in school and gave him a painful thrashing. While the blows were raining on the young lad, he did what any decent child was taught to do by his devout parents. Eyes tightly shut, he started praying fervently to all the Gods he knew so that they would release him from his inferno on earth inflicted by Satan’s henchmen. As you might have observed, I am quite even handed when it comes to dishing out capital letters.
Ravi Kumar’s prayers went unanswered, and he returned home a physical and mental wreck and instantly decided that god was a fraud (you see, I’ve already dropped the capital G in simpatico). He didn’t just stop there. As he grew to man’s estate, he publicly declared himself an Atheist (a well-deserved capital A), artistically tattooed his forearms with the A word. Not just a man of strong views, but one with an eye for typeface niceties. The amazing thing was he even managed to get the Haryana courts to issue him a ‘No God, No Caste, No Religion’ certificate. Courage and chutzpah rolled into one. He deserves to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Alas, this is where things begin to unravel, and not very favourably, for our hero. Having got the courts to officially change his name to Ravi Kumar Atheist, which they astonishingly agreed to do (perhaps the judicial beaks in Fatehabad did not know what ‘atheist’ meant), somebody who possessed a better English vocabulary told the courts that this won’t do. The administrators, on a sudden whim, changed their minds. It was laughably explained that some junior lackey in the court’s administration had misunderstood and misinterpreted the court’s direction and thus, their approval of his changed name and ‘No God, No Caste, No Religion’ status stands untenable and revoked.
What a farce, eh? However, our anti-hero Mr. R.K. Atheist has vowed that he will not take this lying down, and certainly not kneeling down either. In his own words, ‘This is my identity now, and I am ready to fight this to the end.’ So be warned, all you legal eagles in Haryana. Anyone trying to declare the original decision null and void will have the pugnacious Mr. Atheist to contend with and a serious fight on their hands.
I am beginning to develop a sneaking admiration for Ravi Kumar Atheist. Taking on the administration is one thing, but going head to head against the divine supremo takes some doing, particularly in a country where religion permeates every microscopic fibre of our being. As a weakling child, he might have had to worry about bullies hounding him, but grown to adulthood, he is more than willing to take on anyone, god included.
If he needs any further inspiration to spur him on, he need look no further than the late Christopher Hitchens’ book, God Is Not Great. In which, the brilliant polemicist, writer and yes, atheist and agnostic rolled into one, says amongst other things, ‘We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books.’ Next time Ram Kumar Atheist gets a court summons, I would strongly urge him to read Hitchens’ book, or at least, to use this particular quote. If our judges are erudite enough, it might make them stop and think.
Nearer home, the late Tamil satirist, playwright and political gadfly, Cho Ramaswamy wrote a brilliant play titled, ‘Is God Dead?’ In which the protagonist turns from non-believer to believer to non-believer again, in the face of rampant corruption and venality. Ram Kumar Atheist asks the same question at the violence inflicted on him without reprieve. Only his question is, ‘Is there a God?’
At the end of the day, what’s in a name? It’s just a jumble of letters. In our country, most of the names do have some connection to the pantheon of characters from our religious texts, but many of these names are reduced to inane pet names which are generally meaningless. Kittu for Krishnamurthy, Gopu for Gopalakrishnan, Bibloo, Tubloo, Gubloo, Chintoo, Pappu, the list is endless. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Though Ravi Kumar was pushing the envelope with Atheist, his rights are inviolable and his provocation inarguable. As celebrated filmmaker Woody Allen famously said, ‘If God exists, I hope he has a good excuse.’