The Last Appalam

Miscellaneous May 1, 2020

I have had several disagreements with my grandmother over the years, on a plethora of topics – on propriety, (“Don’t sit like that, you’re not an indecent woman!”) on faith, (“How can you not believe in the Gods that created you, you faithless monster child!”) and even on who took the last appalam (“I know you did it!”). Her concluding statement to justify her arguments would invariably be: “It is the mandate of the holy texts.” (Yes, even for the appalam one- she said whatever the elders say must be accepted, can you believe that?)

To her, it was the ultimate excuse to fall back on, an undebatable truth that could not be argued with. Her vedas are holy scriptures, and hence a law above common sense. When I questioned the logic in her approach, she was enraged. “Disputing the wisdom of elders is not acceptable!” she exclaimed, with a whack on my head for good measure.

What I would like to note here, is that her anger was so sudden, so unwarranted, that I realised years later- it was borne from her inability to explain what she thought was obvious. How do you describe music to a deaf child?

To be clear, the topic of my discourse is not religion or God(s). It is our outlook on ‘faith’ in general. It is on our acceptance of norms, on our understanding of our limitations, our compromise between what we know and what we don’t, the imbalance of tolerance we give others’ opinions compared to what we expect from them. This is very clearly demonstrable when we talk about religion.

People are obsessed with how the world began, whether it was the cosmic explosion known as the Big Bang or the creation of an entity like God. There are always these two sides, forever battling their opposition’s logic or the lack of it; It’s a constant debate of Science (or as most people interpret science- “What I see is what I believe”) versus Faith (“Just believe it”).

Neither appears to be the optimal status quo.

The world is changing, yes. We have now upgraded from paper letters to electronic transmission, horse carriages to cars, monarchies to democracies; But we have also grown from herbs to cocaine, faith to terrorism, trust to suspicion, swords to hybrid rifles, greenery to smoke-spitting nightmares and global warming. Sometimes, I’m scared at the thought of some of our recent ‘advancements’- The Taliban’s legitimization, for one- and the truest horror, concocted in the depths of brain-dead hell: Tik Tok.

Change may be the only constant, but not all of it is desirable.

As a child, I didn’t doubt that the world- which I envisioned as a roomful of people holding hands and singing about unicorns- would grow out of its distasteful habits and unify.
Now, as an adult, I know better- and yet, I hope.

In every ‘religion’, there is a general encouragement to ‘believe’, to ‘have faith’ in God. The sincerity of our devotion is measured by the amount of blind belief we have in the customs of our culture and the extent of our trust in God. No matter how preposterous something sounds, be it the resurrection of an ordinary man, however revolutionary he was, or the creation of a child with an elephant head- we are expected to trust that it happened.

While religious stories can be interpreted as metaphors, I heard these stories as just that- stories. It didn’t matter if I believed or not. But when we are told repeatedly, that 1 is 2, then 1 plus 1 equals 4.

I am told, that the Gods preordain everything, nothing happens on its own, life is a thiruvilayadal of sorts- playing by the script handwritten by the greater beings… and yet- when we succumb to humanity’s vices and commit sins, it is not God’s doing.

And here we have reached the scientist’s favourite step in proofs: a contradiction.

When contradicted- as everyone who has passed tenth grade Math knows- we revisit and correct an assumption. So what was our incorrect assumption?

Most people these days don’t believe in God at all. And yet, on the days before final examinations, temples, churches, and other places of worship see donations in thousands.

We believe. Just not all the time.

I always thought that religion itself, as a concept, was the problem. If we were to overlook our different understanding of Gods and just raise our children with either all or none of the religious traditions in the world, we would live in a utopia free of wars in the name of Gods. Then I think of the kolams my grandmother drew on our doorstep each morning, the music that is so entwined with our culture, the sweets, the festivals, the stories I marvelled at as a child- and I know it won’t be possible. I can’t preach what I can’t practise.

And then I realised why there was so much disparity in the world’s perception of God(s): everyone has their own God.

Not only are we separated into religions- Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism- but we are also further divided within those sects- Sunnis and Shias, Catholics and Protestants- and even within those sub-divisions we each have our own interpretation of the Gods’ will.

There is no universal consensus on the matter of faith- and there never will be. So why bother trying to pause the tides on the beach or rotate the earth from east to west?

Isaiah Berlin, a renown British philosopher and historian, proposed the “Two concepts of Liberty”- Negative liberty (Which is the freedom for us from others, like the freedom of speech, of religion, etc- an individual is free if they aren’t physically prevented from taking action) and positive liberty (which is the freedom for us, from ourselves, from social constructs such as sexism, racism, etc- an individual is free if they are liberated from addictions or fears or beliefs and have control of their own mind) which are the two concepts of liberty that represent valid human ideals. Both forms of liberty are necessary in any free and civilised society and often overlap.

I have hypothesised a third concept- let’s call it the concept of neutral liberty- which is the freedom for others, from ourselves. Confused?

Negative and positive liberty surmise what we, as individuals need, to be ‘free’. And yet, to function as a society, one has to account for our unshakeable faith in certain “certainties” and the dangerous things we do in support of it. This ingrained surety is what we need to uproot. One can be sure of a truth and still be wrong.

Assumptions in science have often been refuted and revised. I suppose it is unconventional to approach a matter of faith as a science, but there are striking similarities between the two that we often overlook.

What I mean, is that we need to constantly reinterpret our understanding, be open-minded and accept that perhaps, more than one person can be right. As illustrated in the familiar motif of several blind men describing an elephant- there are several facets of truth to one concept.

It’s not a duality- right and wrong, good and evil, black and white, truth and lie- it’s a multiplicity.

Hence, the neutral concept of liberty preaches this which we have long known: never be too sure of anything.

So I reiterate my question: What was our incorrect assumption?

Gods’ existence? Or our interpretation of the Gods’ commandments? Was I right to refute my grandmother’s infallible logic? Were either of us right?

And the most important question: Who really took that last appalam?

Featured image: Papads by Charles Haynes, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/ Opacity changed, text added to original