The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman; Penguin; Price: Rs.499; 245 pp
The body of evidence which indicates that religion is indeed the opiate of the masses, as Karl Marx famously observed, is mounting. One would have thought that in the new age of technology and science, the influence of received religious creeds over the hearts and minds of humankind would be negligible, and that a new era of reason and rationalism would dawn. But the weight of evidence seems to indicate the contrary. The world over and especially in countries where Islam is the official religion, the power and influence of clergy, clerics, priests and godmen is rising rather than declining. Which is not a happy augury for global peace, harmony and/or prosperity.
Given the innumerable crimes and atrocities that have been committed in the name and cause of organised religion, it’s difficult for an indifferent atheist to choose between them. Yet it is arguable that Christianity which enunciated — even if most of its adherents don’t practice it — the basic injunctions to love thy neighbour as thyself and to turn the other cheek — is perhaps the most rational of the lot, notwithstanding the convoluted logic of the virgin birth. Certainly blasphemous utterances and contemporary novels questioning the basic tenets of Christianity don’t invite sinister fatwas, death threats and rampaging mobs. Latter day Christians tend to take blasphemy in bestselling fiction such as the Passover Plot, The Da Vinci Code and other writings questioning the divinity of Jesus with amused tolerance and move on. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is another novel (“names, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously”) of this genre.
According to this provocative story penned by Philip Pullman, described as the winner of many literary awards and the Queen’s CBE (‘Commander of the British Empire’), Mary, the mother of Jesus, bore twins — one named Jesus and the other a sickly, second-fiddle Christ. The virgin birth of the twins is explained thus: An angel assuming the form of a young man who had tried to chat up 16-year-old Mary (betrothed to Joseph, an elderly widower) earlier at the village well, persuaded her of his divine mission to make her conceive. Mary acquiesced and the twins were born.
In simple everyday prose, the author narrates how Jesus grew into manhood and transformed into a robust, itinerant anti-establishment preacher, whereas the sickly Christ grew into a scholar taking notes as Jesus, the fiery reformist lashed out against the clergy which dominated the lives of the simple, uneducated people of Judea. As such, according to this narrative, it was Christ the scholar — not Jesus — who as a 12-year-old amazed the priests of the temple in Jerusalem with his knowledge of the Old Testament and got his brother off the hook for defacing the temple’s walls.
Yet the unique sales proposition of this novel which has remained surprisingly uncontroversial, is that it alleges that the ministry of Jesus was hijacked by the scoundrel brother Christ who transformed the reformist rhetoric of Jesus into the Gospel, which in turn facilitated the establishment of the multi-billion dollar organised business that is the Church — God’s kingdom on earth which Jesus had prophesied.
This master plan is revealed in the famous temptation of Jesus (as recounted in the gospels) when before starting his ministry he fasted for 40 days and nights in the desert, and was tempted by the Devil to impress the people with miracles and establish a terrestrial kingdom of God. The twist in this tale is that the case for establishing a kingdom of God on earth is advanced by Christ (rather than the Devil) who tempts Jesus to perform tawdry miracles to build up a “body of believers, a structure, an organisation already in place” — in short, a mighty Church. Jesus angrily rejects this empire-building proposal as “like the work of Satan”.
This philosophic and ideological clash between the twins leads to a rupture. From then on Christ is content to chronicle the ministry of Jesus and record the miracles he performs. In this pursuit he is encouraged by an angelic stranger who advises Christ to embellish, edit and interpret the message and ministry of Jesus so that the common people — including Gentiles — will understand it better and be inspired by it. So great is the influence of this scheming stranger that drawing on the biblical story of Abraham, who was prepared to sacrifice his son Issac on God’s command, he persuades Christ to betray his brother to the high priests of the temple for whose liking Jesus has become too popular and too anti-establishment. Thus in this narrative it’s not Judas Iscariot, who according to the Gospel(s) surrendered Jesus to the authorities, but his twin brother Christ.
True to the traditions of popular ‘faction’, The Good Man Jesus recounts the trauma of the crucifixion of Jesus. But in this narrative after his body is interred in a tomb prepared by Joseph of Arimathea, it disappears and on the third day, Christ appears before Mary Magdalene in the guise of Jesus and later mingles with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Through his stratagem orchestrated by the angelic stranger in which Christ is a weepy, gullible accomplice, the New Testament was written. In the last chapter of this novel the stranger arrives at the home of Christ in a coastal town here he has married and is “working as a maker of nets”. The stranger returns the scrolls (notes) that Christ had given him of Jesus’ministry and advises Christ to use them to begin “putting the story in order”, informing him that the “vessel that will carry the precious love and teaching of Jesus Christ to the ages of the future is the church, and the church must guard that love and teaching night and day, to keep it pure and let it not be corrupted by misunderstanding”. Christ is drawn to the idea of “improving” and embellishing the biography of Jesus contained in the scrolls which anyway, the stranger had told him had been copied so that Jesus’ story “would be told many times”.
Reading between the lines, The Good Man Jesus is not a simple conspiracy tale. It has been prompted by Pullman’s personal philosophy. Quite evidently an opponent of organised religion, the author believes that faith and belief should be a private matter between individuals and divinity, and doesn’t need the intervention of a mighty establishment of popes, priests and prelates steeped in pomp and ceremony. Therefore to show up the Church, he has combined fact and fiction to craft this intriguing narrative, which debunks the New Testament and the Gospel(s) and brings them down to earth.
The Widow of Vrindavan by Kusum Ansal (translated from the Hindi by Masooma Ali); HarperCollins; Price: Rs.250; 260 pp
Like pervasive and unsparing corruption, the pathetic socio-economic condition of widows is another dirty secret of shining fast-track India. Scores of widows countrywide continue to lead brutal, sub-human lives — victims of institutionalised cruelty legitimised by religion, tradition and custom. This sensitively-crafted novel details their pitiable plight — and implicitly the indifference of society.
Tapasi, the central character of this novel, is a child widow from a village in Bengal. Daughter of an impoverished woman forced into prostitution, she is raised by a man whom she regards her benefactor but who treats her as a slave. While slogging for him, she struggles to school herself, fired by an innate curiousity about the world and an irrepressible urge to learn. But that quest is abruptly cut short when her master sells her to a widower twice her age. She is forced into a marriage that she cannot refuse. But her new home is not the nest of comfort that Tapasi is promised. Her aged husband turns out to be a monster who repeatedly rapes her. Fortunately, he dies not long after their marriage. Still in her teens, she is sent to a widows’ home in Vrindavan.
Vrindavan, the town so glorified in Hindu folklore as the home of Krishna and his consort Radha, where the divine cowherd is said to have sported with the milkmaid gopis, hosts a vast number of widows’ homes. Most of their inmates are women driven out of their homes by relatives anxious to grab their property. In the widows’ homes of Vrindavan they are forced to shave their heads, don the drab, demeaning white garb which proclaims their widowhood, and suppress their surging emotions. The home into which Tapasi is admitted is managed by a matron who projects herself as a social worker, but has no compunctions about appropriating the donations meant for inmates to fund a thriving business, purloining the things people offer as gifts for the women in her care. The women in the home survive on a bare diet of gruel, while the matron successfully solicits donations from well-meaning benefactors who assume she’s a pious altruist.
Tapasi soon discovers that Vrindavan is hardly the centre of piety and religiosity it is believed to be. The widows’ home where she lives is a den of corruption and vice. Tapasi is subjected to unrelenting torture, routinely raped and beaten by other inmates, forced into unpaid labour and almost starved to death by the matron for asking embarrassing questions.
To her credit, Tapasi refuses to buckle under the horrors she has to endure, even though they are sanctified by custom and religion. She resolutely refuses to believe that God could sanction the blatant oppression and greed of the priests, or the bizarre customs they pass off as divinely ordained. She nurses dreams of escape and finally gets her chance when a ‘social-worker’ takes her under her wing, and appoints her a teacher in a school she runs.
Here, Tapasi blossoms into a completely new being. She finally finds a new meaning in life by helping children to learn about the world, while doing the same herself. She enrols in a college, where she tops the examinations and even wins a scholarship to an American university. But her new-found happiness is short-lived. The social worker proves to be her greatest enemy. Just days before she is to leave for America, she wakes up with excruciating pain in a hospital room. With the connivance of an unscrupulous doctor, the woman she had regarded her saviour has forcibly extracted one of her kidneys.
Her dreams of launching a new life in America dashed to bits, and having no one to trust or turn to for help, and nowhere else to go, Tapasi travels back to the village of her birth in Bengal, although, as a widow, she knows there she will be treated as a pariah. But even that desire remains unfulfilled as she meets with an accident on the railway platform and there breathes her last, after a lifetime of injustice.
Although written as a fictional narrative, this powerful and poignant book is a heart-rending portrayal of the plight of the vast number of India’s widows, transcending caste, class and religious divides, a subject which the media, government and NGOs wilfully ignore. It’s also a much-needed critique of the tyranny of institutionalised religion which is off limits in secular India.