Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: India could learn from Northern Ireland that the path to progress is not defined by religious belief

What the countries have in common is that each was carved up to cater for a sectarian majority

I am currently in India where they do things differently, and this Thursday, the fourth day after the first full moon after the autumn equinox, is Husband Worship Day
I am currently in India where they do things differently, and this Thursday, the fourth day after the first full moon after the autumn equinox, is Husband Worship Day

By Malachi O'Doherty

I have had a most unusual invitation. A friend has asked me if I would like to see him being worshipped by his wife. By worshipped he does not mean being loved and adored in the normal way of a besotted young person enrapt by the charms of a lover. He means that she will go down on her knees and prostrate herself before him. Light a votive candle and raise it to him in the manner of an abject devotee offering a sacrifice to God. And she is not the only one.

I am currently in India where they do things differently, and this Thursday, the fourth day after the first full moon after the autumn equinox, is Husband Worship Day.

It is Karva Chauth, when Hindu wives all over northern India fast until the moon appears, then perform their worship rites before the - no doubt smug - husband.

The wife ends her fast when the husband deigns to offer her a glass of water, her first of the day, unless she has had the good sense to sneak a few while he wasn't looking.

But there is another side to Karva Chauth, Husband Worship Day, and you can see it in the market towns of the Punjab. The shops are stocking up with fine sarees and jewellery, for the devout wife expects a nice present in return for her devotion. "So," I said to my friend, "it's a racket."

What use, after all, is a God who doesn't answer prayers? This one does and can be reminded of his failure if he doesn't measure up.

But Indians take religion seriously and this creates problems. For the visitor unused to the noise through the night, the incessant chanting and praying at ceremonies beyond the hotel grounds can make sleep difficult. Indians can sleep through noise.

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I was in Kolkata in January and had to rise for a taxi to the airport, but the hotel front door was locked. I rang a bell at reception. No luck. I called out softly. No luck. I went upstairs and shouted. No luck. I kept this bellowing up for half-an-hour without anyone rising from their slumber to see what was bothering me. It's as well there wasn't a fire.

The British and Irish have adopted a few customs from India. Our language has a huge Indian-sourced vocabulary, from "bungalow" to "pyjama".

Hippy-style clothes are Indian in origin, though mindfulness seems to have taken over from meditation. Yoga classes are everywhere.

It isn't all the yoga of the Hindu classic, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, from which the practice is sourced.

In that book, you can learn exercises that are probably not taught in your local leisure centre; like how to remove the wax from your ears, clean your gut by swallowing a strip of cotton and drawing it back out again, and even how to release the lower bowel so that you can wash it by hand, usually standing in a river.

Not that standing in a river is a good idea in India, now that they are so badly polluted.

And that creates more problems for the devout. There are several ceremonies during the year in which processions carry icons to the rivers and immerse them in the water.

Like Eleventh Night bonfires, these tend to get very big and become more of a nuisance and a threat to the environment as they do.

It might be worthwhile for some east Belfast loyalists to come out to India and see how the government deals with this problem. There was a big news story about it in the Hindustan Times the other day.

The government has been digging huge ponds to substitute for the rivers and lining them with plastic to prevent seepage. Our guys balk at the idea of having a council-funded beacon to replace the towers of toxic tyres concealed behind wooden pallets. Community groups in Delhi, which are every bit as serious about their cultural traditions, have consented to parade to these "ponds" and dip their icons of the gods and goddesses, as appropriate. Last week, it was Durga, the goddess of terror.

This isn't easy for either side of the arrangement, the parade organisers, or the officials.

What if the pond is not big enough for every idol? Well, you provide cranes to lift the already-immersed idols back out of the water, but you take very great care not to break them.

We think we are unduly accommodating of bonfires because we send in the fire service to hose down houses, rather than the fires. In Delhi next month, staggered working hours will be introduced for public servants and traffic will be restricted to ease pollution after the fireworks of Diwali on October 27.

The whole population will be inconvenienced to alleviate a problem that wouldn't arise if millions of people weren't so irresponsible as to fire rockets into the smog.

What this tells me is that there are circumstances in which a government can be very obliging to community groups with cultural traditions that are potentially a nuisance. And there are circumstances in which community groups organising bothersome events can be flexible.

I suppose one of those circumstances is a government which shares the basic ideology of the communities and the current government of India is ardently Hindu.

Ireland and India have a common experience. They were both partitioned by the British to preserve religious majorities on each side of a line. We logically should keep an eye on each other, learn from each other.

What India could learn from us, apart from the fact that women don't worship their husbands, nor their husbands expect them to, is that one path to peace and progress includes secularisation, the decline of religious ardour and the ending of any prospect of defining the nation by religious belief.

Life is, no doubt, more genial for Hindus under an indulgent Hindu government, as it was for Orangemen in a Protestant Ulster and for Catholics in an Ireland that gave a special position to their Church.

But I tell my Indian friends that we are happier now that those days are over.

Even so, a secular liberal India is currently inconceivable.

This is a country in which most homes have shrines and in which a prescribed rite of worshipping a husband is loyally and eagerly maintained.

In Ireland, we still see occasional Marian shrines, or crosses at the side of the road to mark an accident.

Here you find them on the road, for the traffic to go round.

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