The SAS, that is to say the Secular Association of Socialists, had first been formed during
the dark days of Indira Gandhi's Emergency, by a group of brave academics, as a way of
showing up the falsehood in Mrs. Gandhi's political protestations, and establishing for the
Indian public the true meaning of both secularism and socialism. Feverish closed-door
midnight meetings were held in several campuses, notes passed from hand to hand in
complete secrecy, a code elaborately constructed, which turned out to be too complex for
any intellectual, and much drinking of coffee and whisky in several cafes and bars. And
though many professors had willingly agreed to join, and sacrifice careers, and even life,
for the sake of truth, somehow none of them could find time to address public meetings.
Sharmaji had been a student in those heady days, and with the commitment and the rash
courage for which he was to be known in later years he agreed to be the founding
president of the SAS. He eloquently addressed several open meetings, though only on
campus, and mostly in the student hostels, and consequently he was picked up for
questioning by the police.
The next ten days were the worst he ever was to experience, and he remembered for the
rest of his life that while upholding democratic principles was the duty of every citizen,
such acts, or for that matter any act that might draw the attention of the police, was best
carried out symbolically, like a religious ritual, for instance. He then understood the
practical wisdom displayed by his elders in the `movement.' Though in fact, the police
had merely amused themselves by making him go through all the early phases of
interrogation, while demonstrating to their new recruits how a prisoner goes from
defiance, to sullenness, to pleading, and then abject surrender. None would ever know,
except for a few senior officers, what effect a mere visit to the `electrical room' had on
him, and while they perfunctorily took down what information he had, all and more
already known to them, he left their premises, the college, and the city, thoroughly
shaken, and retired to his uncle's house in his ancestral village.
A few months later Mrs. Gandhi lost the elections, and overnight he became a national
hero, as the martyred founder-president of the SAS, and started his rapid advancement as
a spokesperson, and a budding leader, of civil society. The SAS was de facto
discontinued since there seemed, at that time, no further need for such an organization.
One can imagine Sharmaji's surprise then, when several decades later, a delegation of
lawyers, retired judges, and active academics came to his flat one morning to suggest a
revival of the SAS, now that globalization threatened the very values for which he had
sacrificed his liberty. In the past he had spoken with his usual eloquence about that earlier
threat to Indian democracy, and how he had taken all that a neo-colonial system could
fling at an Indian with Gandhian courage, and he spoke of it again. He assured the
delegation that despite his failing health, and the pressure of enormous duties on his time,
he would undertake the re-formation of the SAS.
A few phone-calls assured him that Christians Everywhere would be proud to fund such
an organization, and that he should not be his usual parsimonious self when working out
the budget for the founding conference. With Dasgupta's help a generous proposal was
dispatched, and he was able to acquire in short order a couple of air-conditioners, a
washing machine, a micro-wave, and a large flat TV, which made his wife very happy, as
well as communication equipment for the office. He was also able to take on long lease,
and very favourable terms, the Conference Center of the Federation of Textile Industries,
which could no longer afford such excellent facilities.
Global Event Managers, run by his cousin, were hired to promote the International
Conference of the SAS. The BBC, Associated Press, CNN, German radio, France One,
and all the local and national TV stations and Press were to cover the event. Lady Scilly
decided to come with a small staff, but only as an observer, since she said she came only
to learn and hear. Every evening would be graced with an ethnic cultural performance,
and a dinner hosted by a leading business house of the city. The municipality arranged for
fireworks on the opening night.
Sharmaji beamed at the great circle of distinguished academics, jurists, doctors, and
activists, around the conference table, with supporting students, and staff seated behind
their leaders. After media had taken all the pictures they wanted, they retired behind the
glassed off cubicles arranged for them, and the conference got under way with a stirring
inaugural speech by Sharmaji. As they broke for coffee, he was able to see in the TV sets
placed in the corridor grabs of his speech being relayed by several networks.
" You have arrived," said Pauline Lefevre smiling down at him, and he smiled back and
moved away uncomfortably, for memories of that unsuccessful evening he had spent in
her flat in Paris still haunted him. Robert's praise was unequivocal, without any tinge of
sarcasm. "You laid into them, old man, great show!" said the lanky Brit, dipping his
biscuit into his tea, village fashion. "They will have to take notice of SERVICE and
Christians Everywhere now. Grand job. I wish I was an orator like you!" and he moved
off, thumping Sharmaji on the back. All his other guests wanted to meet him then, and a
few anxious students asked complicated questions, which he could neither hear nor
The main plenary discussion turned on what was meant by secularism, particularly in the
post 9/11 age. Anti-spiritualism was rejected out of hand by all, but none could agree on
what `spiritualism' signified. Even accepting that the term meant something, which they
all understood, or better still felt, in a non-inter-subjectival way, they asked what
signification should be given within the political context of secularism? Swami
Vithalananda referred to several texts that a saffron-clad acolyte sitting behind kept
handing to him. After fifteen minutes the gist emerged that nothing existed but the Spirit,
and that `spiritualism' was the recognition by the Mind which itself was an ephemeral
creation of the Spirit of this sole Truth, and secularism could be an approach by which
all could share this Truth. The academics respectfully would have none of this
simplification. The discussion returned to the Problematic.
After tea-break, David Kriegmann of the New York Dialogue Committee showed a ten-
minute clip of the fall of the World Trade Center. He said that this film should be shown
in all madrassas along with another, which he had with him, showing Moslems, Jewish
people, and Christians all praying near each other in Jerusalem, but his ramble was cut
short agitatedly by Angela Hanley of the New Age for Peace, who broke into tears, and
stammered: "It is not so much the death of three-thousand people that shatters me,
horrifying horrifying though the very thought is, I mean I could mourn, Mourn, for a
friend, but my God, three-thousand? but then Death is the billowing debris in David's
film, don't you see? darling, this is not a criticism of your film but the thought that
humanity is Billowing towards Destruction, global warming melting huge glaciers, tigers
gone within the decade, all those magnificent creatures has anybody seen house
sparrows lately? and every morning I get up with a single image etched in my mind, the
face of that lovely African child, with his large eyes, dying, dying in his mother's arms
..." and then she ran out of the room, followed by Kriegmann, and a dozen girl students.
Retired professor Godbole, his shiny bald head sticking out over wispy white hair, tried
to bring the group round to what worried him. " I have a great difficulty in accepting,
without challenge, the Nehruvian concept of Secularism," he said in a whisper. " All
societies are basically religious I will qualify my statement they follow certain
cultural practices, which have grown organically out of their own religious beliefs. To
negate this is to negate a vital element of their cherished identities... If we are to bring
peace between communities and that is the purpose of the secularism project we must
remember what Gandhiji said: ` There is no path to peace. Peace is the path,' and so..."
Vyjayanti Iyengar, Professor of English, broke in sharply, as she always did when Gandhi
was mentioned: " I thought Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said that?" she challenged.
Dr. Susie George, Director of the Institute of Immunology, lifted her patrician head with
its beautifully coiffured halo of white hair and said softly but decisively: " Sir Syed
Ahmed first mentioned it at the inaugural of the Anglo-Mohammedan Oriental College at
Aligarh, in 1886, was it...?" and she looked round for corroboration.
At this point, Sharmaji decided to up the ante, and take charge: " That quotation has been
used by several great people, but you first find it in Kabir's 14th century poems," and
since there was no one in the group of intellectuals who had read Kabir, he launched into
an oration about the need of the hour for everyone to come together under one banner,
irrespective of caste, creed, or colour. Out of the corner of one eye, he saw Lady Scilly
silently applauding. " I work with the simple people in the villages," he continued. " In
our villages they are all one, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or Gond. We should not confuse
the religion the religiosity of the urban middle-classes" he gave a short laugh " with
the true religion of the simple people. For them it is a way of life, it is not an opium of the
A delicate cough reminded everyone that Dr. Feroz had sat silent throughout, incessantly
smoking one cigarette after another, each lit from the stub of the one preceding, a deep
frown between his hooded eyes, with their faraway look. Everyone knew he had
staunchly maintained his communist principles despite a trying twenty-five years with the
Ford Motor Company in Detroit. The delicate cough also brought to mind the whispered
rumour that Dr. Feroz had not long to live, though he had always stoically refused to
speak about his health, much to the admiration of his friends.
" Marx said religion was an opiate," he said with aristocratic precision, and continued in
same nuanced style. "Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of
real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed
creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions."
A pin-drop silence followed, as everyone took in not only the words but the manner of
The delicate cough was repeated. " This is, perhaps, the one unsolved the one
unsolvable question that has revolved in my mind," said Dr. Feroz, fixing his eyes
steadily on the flowerpot in front of him. " How do we ease that sigh? How can we bring
`the soul' back? Back to soulless conditions?" And then he looked at them all as if
waking from a dream, and laughed softly till a cough blew out a cloud of smoke. " It is a
torment of mine," and then as if no one existed, he got up and went out into the verandah
to smoke a fresh cigarette. A large girl with a large bosom rushed out to be of assistance.
The discussion was picked up again. A thin-faced spectacled activist, with a thin straggly
beard asked Sharmaji loudly: " Are you saying then that you, you, you support all kinds
of religious ideas, actions? Do you support fundamentalism?"
"Certainly not!" said Sharmaji stoutly. " The very meaning of my remarks makes it clear
that I oppose fundamentalism, of all kinds, religious, economic the Americans are
economic fundamentalists, cultural..."
Farook Ali Khan Sahib, the curator of the Hyderabad Medieval Records Library, could
not let this pass: " Sharma Sahib, there is a distinction we must make here between
correct religious belief, and erroneous religious belief. A person with correct religious
belief could also be termed a fundamentalist scholar, and he could lead a completely
Sharmaji squirmed a little. " Well words have different meanings in different contexts,"
he said. " I am referring to fanatical behaviour, which I condemn."
"What do you call fanatical behaviour?" challenged the activist with the thin straggly
Loud voices cut in from all directions at this stage, with a consensus being reached after
ten minutes that they would accept violent behaviour as fanatical behaviour.
A girl in some kind of religious robe, who had been looking fixedly at a long-stemmed
rose she held in her hand, now got up, allowing her unbound hair to fan around her to her
knees, and asked Sharmaji: " Do you now regret that you ever were a revolutionary, and
do you reject and condemn all revolutionary acts?" Many young men glared at her and
him in turns.
Sharmaji tried to use all his skill and tact in trying to work around the question, when Dr.
Shankar Rao, the chair of The Voice of the Dalit Nation, and head of the Department of
Political Science, jumped up, and shouted: "God damn it! I am sick of this Brahmin-
Baiya farce. I came here only because I thought some few of you may have the guts to
Demand Social Change. I will have nothing further to do with such trickery!" He kicked
back his chair and made for the door, but professor Godbole held him back by main
force. A number of young men shouted: "Inquilab Zindabad! Long Live Marxist Leninist
Mao Ze Dong Thought!" The girl with the rose shrilled: " China Out of Tibet!"
Sharmaji looked round helplessly for Dr. Feroz, but he along with the large bosomed girl
Lakshmi Srivatsav, the doyeness of the feminist movement, was standing and tinkling her
pen against her glass. Silence fell over the room. She was a large woman, `nobly
planned,' as Wordsworth would have said, and she commanded the gathering with little
" Whenever we discuss political matters, or matters of faith, as we did today," she said
with impeccably regurgitated received pronunciation, as if she was chewing on
something tasty, "we tend to forget that there are others in the world apart from the men"
she paused to let that sink in " who take all the decisions. I have been sitting here all
day listening to you debate this point and that, and not one of you have voiced, or
realized, what hardships women have to bear because of your decisions. You talk of
peace as if it concerns only you almost as if everything is a game I am sorry, but it is
not. It is women who are killed, and tortured, and not you comfortable gentlemen." Lady
Scilly went up spontaneous and kissed Lakshmi Srivatsav, and their eyes were glistening
when they unclinched.
It was time for SAS to come out with a concrete action plan, suggested professor
Godbole. Mr. Krishna Prasad, Head of United Publishing, adjusted his elegant tie, and
said they should bring out a book, or even a series, well researched, and using modern
terminology, which would highlight the similarities of thought in all religions. He could
help with publication, if some financial help were guaranteed, he said. All the students
seemed to think it was a great idea, while the religious leaders sank glumly into silence.
Sharmaji quickly saw the dangerous shoals to which such an enterprise could lead, and
cut short the debate by saying roundly that they did not have the expertise to make
summaries of religious books without giving offence, or even the skill to modernize the
texts, which itself would require years of work by qualified religious leaders. Farook
Sahib nodded assent, and the matter was dropped.
It was close to dinner time, so they adjourned, asking Sharmaji to draft out a release for
the Press. After a sumptuous dinner, he drafted out a carefully worded innocuous
statement out of the mish-mash of notes presented to him by the rapporteurs.
He got up late the next morning, and sat in his favourite chair, overlooking the busy
street, waiting for coffee to be served to him by his wife. He picked up the first
newspaper out of the neatly laid out pile on the side-table. There was a flattering colour
picture of him speaking. "Sharma of Service condemns fundamentalism" read the
caption.The short account of the conference, written hastily by the reporter, focused
largely on him, he saw smugly no doubt as a return for the lavish bar he had kept open
all day but as he read on he was appalled to find himself made out into some sort of
heroic crusader against fundamentalist religious fanatics, of all religions. The reporter
made him out to be a fearless opponent of all bigots, and who wanted to cleanse society
of all religious superstitions. Not a word of his Press Release had been used. With a
nerveless hand he picked up other papers, but all the rags carried a similar theme, written
by worthless, drunken idiots. They put in words he had never used, or remembered using.
It was all taken out of context.
The telephone jangled his thoughts. " Sir, there is some crowd gathering here outside the
office," said Dasgupta's voice. " I don't know what the problem is, but I am closing the
office and I have called the police."
He was sunk deep in thought, as his wife brought him his coffee. He took her hand. " I
am very tired. I need a holiday, and I want to give you a holiday. Let's both go to
Darjeeling for two weeks no, three weeks. Let's leave today this morning!""
She looked at him in amazement. What had come over him? They didn't have the money,
and in any case they would need time, to make all arrangements... but he brushed aside
all her objections like a eager young lover. They would go to Darjeeling that very day,
that very morning. He would ring Indian Airlines and they could collect the tickets at the
" But it is November!" she said half in doubt, half happily.
" The best month to go to Darjeeling," said Sharmaji. " All the tourists would have gone.
And you have never seen snow, have you? We will roll in it!"
And happily, hand in hand, they went off to pack their bags.