• Associate Sponsor

First, a question

Philip Pullman’s books hold an important lesson — faith must not be blind.

Written by Aniruddha Ghosal | Updated: November 13, 2017 12:59 pm
Philip Pullman, Philip Pullman books, author Philip Pullman, British Council Library, Philip Pullman Northern Lights Philip Pullman’s latest offering, La Belle Sauvage, is not just a chance to enter this world of a repressive state attempting to control ideas

A large part of my summer during school was spent at the British Council Library in Delhi. More specifically, the large, well-lit room designated the “Children’s Section”. Inside was a tiny wooden house — just large enough to fit young readers who could nestle inside with a book. Until I couldn’t.

It was the summer of 2000, eight years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and two years before the post-Godhra riots, when I stumbled across Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights — the first in His Dark Materials trilogy. The unalterable fact that I no longer fit inside the wooden house and this book that introduced me to ideas of fanaticism and sustained incredulity marked the realisation that I wasn’t a child anymore. I was completely unaware of the religious and political controversy surrounding the book, caring only about the surprisingly dark themes that it dealt with. It was my first experience of reading a book that sought not to spell things out, but to challenge me to think differently. Afterwards, I got myself a grown-up membership.

Like an old friend one turns to at times of doubt, I have returned to the trilogy repeatedly since. It doesn’t just present a simple dichotomy between believers and non-believers, but delves into the nature of dogma itself — painting the picture of a world where assumptions are given the garb of fact, deemed incontrovertibly true.

Pullman’s latest offering, La Belle Sauvage, is not just a chance to enter this world of a repressive state attempting to control ideas. This alternate universe is eerily familiar now. The question of how people respond to swiftly changing realities is one that is at the centre of conversations globally — from refugees to terror. La Belle Sauvage takes this a step further. The book presents a nuanced understanding of this question. Belief — when coupled with blind, unquestioning adherence — is dangerous. But faith itself is not at odds with the spirit of inquiry.

Blind adherence can take on many forms. Take, for instance, a video than an uncle from Calcutta forwarded. The video wasn’t surprising — the usual cocktail of misinformation, venom and provocation. What was surprising was that he sent it. Years ago, this uncle had gifted me a beautiful, leather-bound copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s Home and the World — at its core, about questioning. When asked about the video, he replied, “I knew you’d say this was untrue. But you need to see this. They are taking over the world.” He was no longer interested in arguments and counter-arguments. His worldview was weighed down by fear.

In Pullman’s world, adults are not to be trusted. Their failure forces children — who have the least power — to be the heroes. What allows these children to resist, is not the innocence that the adults in the books revere, but the sheer force of their curiosity. From Lyra Belacqua’s curiosity about an instrument to Malcolm Polstead’s desire to travel on his boat.

La Belle Sauvage, and the earlier trilogy, for me are constant reminders of what I had chanced upon in 2000: That obstinate curiosity is essential. That in a world where election campaigns are as much about fear as they are about promises of change, one needs to constantly question one’s assumptions about the world. To ask questions is not a privilege, but a necessity.

For instance, questions such as why was the GST released at the midnight session of the Parliament and dubbed the biggest tax reform in Indian history. But the death of 15-year-old Junaid Khan, stabbed to death on a train by a group of men who hurled religious slurs at him, failed to spark off a similar conversation. If the GST is the state’s success, then was his murder, and similar incidents of mob violence, not a failure of the state?

In the trilogy, what made Lyra Belacqua unique was her ability to read the alethiometer — a device that can answer any question when properly manipulated and “read”. Aided by her imagination, she interpreted the symbols on the instrument and arrived at conclusions, through a process of trial and error. But it has to begin with asking a question.

aniruddha.ghosal@expressindia.com

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

More From Aniruddha Ghosal
  1. J
    John Joseph
    Nov 14, 2017 at 12:28 am
    Hindu school girl kidnapped in Bangladesh for forced marriage and conversion. Bristi Rani, aged 11, a Hindu girl has been kidnapped by perpetrators on 08.05.2016 with the intention of rape and forceful conversion. Bangladesh Minority Watch (BDMW) is investigating the case and as per the information it released, this Hindu kid was the student of class VII Pang Nagar A.M. Secondary High School situated in the Shibgonj Upazila at Bogra District. On May 8, 2016, the victim was studying in her home, when one girl named Shirina Khatun called the Bristi Rani from her room and lured her to a nearby road where the accused were waiting and as soon as she arrived they forced her into a micro bus and kidnapped her. The names of the perpetrators are: 1) Md. Azizul Sheikh (25) 2) Md. Belal Hosszin(27) 3) Md. Shariful Islam Sheikh (55) 4) Md. Helal Hossain Sheikh (37) 5)Md. Md.Anwar Hossain Sheikh (60) 6) Ms.Zaheda Begum (60) 7) Ms. Shirina Khatun (15)
    (0)(0)
    Reply
    1. J
      John Joseph
      Nov 14, 2017 at 12:25 am
      Bangladeshi Hindu Abducted, Forced to Convert to Islam: By Dr. Richard Benkin —— I previously reported on the abduction of a young Hindu woman from her family’s home in northern Bangladesh (Bangladeshi Hindu Abducted, Forced to Convert to Islam. At 12:45am on June 13, five Muslims broke into a home in the village of Ghosai Chandura, vandalized it, and grabbed the 21-year old the college student Koli Goswami from her bed. She cried out, but the muslim men easily overpowered her. They covered her head to muffle the screams, but not before others in the house heard them and came to her aid. But the perpetrators drove them off with gun fire and carried Koli off even as she struggled to break free. Her family has not seen her since that night. Now the abductors will rape her convert her and then marry her off to an old muslim mullah as his 3rd or 4th wife.
      (0)(0)
      Reply
      1. J
        John Joseph
        Nov 14, 2017 at 12:20 am
        The case of Rinkel Kumari also made international headlines. The 19-year-old went missing in mid-February. The sunni muslim kidnappers, associates of influential local sunni muslim politician Mian Abdul Haq, alias Mian Mithhoo, of the Pakistan Peoples Party of the National Assembly, abducted hindu Rinkel at the crack of dawn from her home. She was dragged away to a madrassa headed by Mian Mithhoo. According to the ACHR, this madrassa, Dargah Aalia Qadria Bharchoondi Sharif, is known well in Sindh province for converting Hindu girls and has openly touted its goal of converting 20,000 Hindus to Islam every year.
        (0)(0)
        Reply
        1. J
          John Joseph
          Nov 14, 2017 at 12:19 am
          In Oct. 2011, the Daily Mail, a UK-based media outlet, covered the frightening case of a 12 year-old Christian girl for whom a shopping trip to the Pakistani city of Lahore with a muslim friend turned into nothing less than a living nightmare. The girl’s muslim “friend” was part of the kidnapping plan and lured the young Christian to her kidnappers who took her to a village more than 100 miles away. There she was beaten for refusing to convert to Islam, raped, and forced to sign papers that married her to her rapist. Then for the next eight months, she was repeatedly raped by the rapist who was, at least on paper, her “legal husband,” as well as others. Short of a year of captivity, this brave little girl managed to escape and immediately called her parents to save her.
          (0)(0)
          Reply
          1. J
            John Joseph
            Nov 14, 2017 at 12:18 am
            According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), every month some 20,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan alone. These forced conversions are usually in conjunction with kidnapping, rape, and forced marriage. If they are not married off to complete and often times, far older strangers, they are beaten, maimed, raped, gang-raped, sold off or thrown into pros ution. Thus, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Shia, and Ahmadiyya families throughout Pakistan live with the constant fear of their daughters (or wives) being snatched. All too frequently, families choose prophylactically to curb the freedom and movement of the females in their respective households, thereby perpetuating a whole other cycle of problems related to illiteracy and financial dependency. When the fear becomes a dreaded reality, families must live with the fact that they will be helpless in securing their loved ones’ safe return.
            (0)(0)
            Reply
            1. Load More Comments