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.