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The Rationalist

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Chased from his native India, Sanal Edamaruku contemplates the power of offense and accustoms himself to his new homeland.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/David-lg_Top.jpg
Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku.

When the temperature climbs to 16 degrees Celsius in Helsinki, café owners scrape chairs out onto the sidewalk and sails lift in the harbor. But on one such afternoon last summer on the eastern outskirts of the Finnish capital, the air was cool and subdued. The streets were lined with cars, there were no people about.

On the second floor of a block of ’80s residential apartments, Sanal Edamaruku, a thickset, clean-shaven man in cuffed blue jeans and a pristine white t-shirt, sat straight-backed before a computer screen scrolling intently through an Indian news aggregator. He was anxious to ascertain the political pulse. On the sixteenth of June it will be three years since he has seen India. Every day he hopes to find out it is safe to return.

In March 2012, Edamaruku, the president of the Indian Rationalists Association, exposed a “miracle” drawing hundreds of people to a Catholic church in the city of Mumbai. They came to see and even taste the water dripping down from a Christ statue—or, as some claimed, the tears of God.

Edamaruku was a familiar face on regional-language Indian TV, which regularly features “god men” performing mystical feats. They pluck amulets from the air, to soaring ratings. Edamaruku, who wore a goatee then and favored waistcoats, would be called upon by rival TV channels to reveal the miracles for the hoaxes they were. As a rationalist—one of several who gained media prominence around that time—he made it his mission to urge scientific thinking. (Other Indian rationalists go further still, campaigning for social reform by calling for an end to the caste system.)

One morning after the Christ miracle was announced, Edamaruku caught a flight from Delhi, where he then lived, to Mumbai. Arriving at the grounds of the Our Lady of Velankanni Church he traced the source of the leak to a blocked drainage pipe.

When he appeared on a live TV show to say that the “Christ tears” were likely the mundane consequence of a water leak—implying that the Church was encouraging people to consume sewage—the air thrummed with tension; his fellow panelists were soon shouting into their microphones. But it was after Edamaruku accused the church of being anti-science that prominent Christians leveled complaints against him for hurting their religious sentiments. The charge is enshrined in a so-called blasphemy law and carries a punishment of imprisonment of up to three years.

Edamaruku fled Mumbai, hiding first in friends’ houses and later holing up in a small room on the campus of a well-known university in Delhi. He was afraid that were he to be arrested, he would remain in custody for years—regardless of the preposterousness of the accusations—which is often how long it takes for cases in India to go to trial. A friend padlocked the door from the outside.

It was only after ​friends warned him that his life was in danger that he decided to stop hiding and start running.

Summer in the concretized Indian capital is rather different from Helsinki. Temperatures soar to 45 degrees Celsius. The electricity comes and goes. Edamaruku remained alone in his room beneath a slow whirring fan. He trimmed his hair, grew a beard, and borrowed clothes in order to modify his appearance. But it was only after ​friends warned him that his life was in danger that he decided to stop hiding and start running.

Close friends in an organization called the Finnish Humanist Union—a group similar to Edamaruku’s, that argues in favor of rationalist thinking—offered him refuge in Helsinki, a city he’d visited before. Edamaruku, who has two adult children from a lapsed marriage, tried to take the flight in stride. “I thought the dust would settle in fifteen days or so and that I could return home,” he recalled, over coffee in his living room, leaning back against his orange couch.

Then he shrugged as if to say, “Who knew?”

*                      *                     *

It has been three years and the 60-year-old rationalist doesn’t believe the dust has settled. He is in exile, but as a resident of Finland, with the right to live in the country and travel freely within the EU. “I never asked for asylum,” he said, “because I would have had to surrender my Indian passport.”

Edamaruku recently started attending a Finnish language course. “It’s complicated,” he pointed out, understatedly. (Finnish has no roots in Indo-European languages like English, and is considered enormously difficult for non-native speakers). He is now more likely to cook himself a lunch of salmon and vegetables than he is rice and sambhar. And while he continues to Skype with friends from India every morning over breakfast, he has made new friends in Helsinki whose company makes him feel as though everything is okay.

It isn’t, of course. Edamaruku is far from his family, his house, the many familiar things he had built a vigorous and full life around over six decades. He has exchanged visits to TV studios for a Finnish suburb and is under pressure to rebrand himself. He had to ask the rationalist group he founded to bring in other people to fill the vacuum he left behind.

The son of a historian, Edamaruku was born in Kerala. His father, Joseph, a Christian, was threatened with social ostracism by a local church for publishing a booklet questioning the origins of Jesus. His mother, Soley, was born into a Hindu family, but became an atheist. As a boy his parents told him that the “spirits” some of the villagers claimed to see were merely manifestations of their fear of the dark. But it was when a neighbor’s daughter around the same age as he developed blood cancer that he came to understand the hard cost of superstition. The girl required a blood transfusion, but her parents—who belonged to a conservative Christian sect—refused to give in, on religious grounds. She died. Stunned, Edamaruku organized a group of like-minded friends into what he called the Rationalist Student Movement. He had just turned fifteen.

He was pitted against a man who claimed to be able to use magic to kill a person in less than three minutes.

It was some forty years later, in 2008, that the now well-famous rationalist attracted national attention, after he was pitted against a man who claimed to be able to use magic to kill a person in less than three minutes. Edamaruku offered himself up as a victim. The tantric’s attempts at murder were telecast live and continued deep into the night, but Edamaruku, to his great mirth, survived unscathed.

He enjoyed such theatrics, the capacity to scandalize, but he also believed in the power of TV to uncover superstition and deliver truth to small towns and villages. In the same way that charlatans preyed on people with falsehoods, Edamaruku offered science and verity. In exile, he lost these opportunities. But he has suffered other, still greater losses for his efforts.

When his daughter gave birth to her first child—Edamaruku’s only grandchild—he wasn’t there to celebrate with her. Then last year when his mother died, Edamaruku heard the news over the phone. In his quiet Finnish suburb, he felt the weight of the distance between his old home and new.

“But,” he added with equanimity, “I adapted. Finland is my new homeland.”

*                      *                     *

The western Indian state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, has seen a seemingly coordinated series of attacks against high-profile rationalists in recent years. In February, 82-year-old Govind Pansare was shot thrice in his chest and neck. He didn’t survive. His wife, who happened to be with him, suffered a skull fracture from bullet wounds. Pansare had urged people away from hard-line Hindu ideology toward a more inclusive and liberal outlook.

A little over a year earlier, in August 2013, the activist Narendra Dabholkar was also murdered. Similarities between the two killings suggest the same group of people is behind the attacks. Their assailants shot both men repeatedly at point-blank range before fleeing on motorbikes. The police have been unable to solve either case.

At the time of his death, Dabholkar, sixty-seven, was pushing through an anti-superstition bill in the Maharashtra state legislature. The bill prohibited the practice of black magic and made it illegal to dispense “magical” remedies. The punishment for breaking the law was set at a maximum prison term of seven years. After Dabholkar was killed, the state government did pass the bill, but critics say that without independent oversight—of the sort that an activist like Dabholkar would have provided—it is unlikely to have an impact in a state increasingly keening toward socially regressive ways. In March, Maharashtra banned the consumption, sale, and even the possession of beef to protect cows, which are sacred to Hindus. The punishment for breaking the law is greater than that for sexual harassment.

Although Christians filed the charges against Edamaruku, the murders of the two social activists have been linked to Hindu fundamentalists. Kumar Ketkar, a prominent political commentator and close friend of Dabholkar’s, said the motive for killing his friend was ideological. “Organizations that profit from perpetuating superstition,” he said, “had a vested interest in stopping him because he made an impact on their constituency.”

Dabholkar struck a blow at the enduring relationship between entrepreneurial tricksters and the desperately vulnerable. But it was because he urged social reform and called for the dismantling of the caste system that he triggered anger in Hindu far-right groups whose survival is based on identity politics. Some of these groups had targeted him with increasingly violent rhetoric on social media in the weeks preceding his death, claiming he wasn’t anti-superstition so much as he was anti-Hindu.

Four days later the man who wanted to protect him was himself dead.

Dabholkar’s murder shook Edamaruku, and not only because the two rationalists were acquainted. “Come to Bombay,” Dabholkar had urged in an unexpected phone call. “I will protect you.”

“I immediately considered it, because I wanted to return to India,” recalled Edamaruku. But four days later the man who wished to protect him was himself dead.

The idea of Indians as susceptible to fortune-tellers is a popular one, but people everywhere, said Edamaruku, are vulnerable to what he calls “magical thinking.” “India isn’t any more superstitious than the rest of the world,” he argued. “Walk down any street right here in Helsinki and you’ll find a store selling good-luck charms. India has merely been exoticized by the West.”

He does feel that rapid economic and social transformations are leaving people vulnerable to irrational fears. “Large sections of society are moving from ‘poor’ to ‘middle class’ and they worry about remaining there,” he said. “They feel the need for a ‘safety belt’ to keep them in place. Superstition is that safety belt.”

Political leaders exploit this atmosphere of unease, giving prominence to gurus and religious oufits. The impact is being widely felt. Last December, the hard-line Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) targeted the critically acclaimed writer Perumal Murugan for a work of fiction they claimed offended Hindus. Passages in the novel, Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) describe a Hindu temple ritual that may have once taken place, involving consensual sex between married women and anonymous men. In January, after RSS members had burned his books in public and forced him to publicly apologize, Murugan announced that he would never write a book again. “Writer Perumal Murugan is dead,” he said on Facebook.

*                      *                     *

The charges against him, Edamaruku said, have not been dropped, and he will not return to India until they are. “Only when my freedom and safety are guaranteed by the government will I go back,” he said. The possibility that he may never return home is one that he must now consider. He tries not to dwell on the matter, and sometimes he is successful—able to enjoy the gains of his new life, instead of mourning the losses.

In September he will speak at Think, Helsinki, Think!, a Finnish charity that produces events modeled on TED Talks. He is working on his memoirs and developing a TV show. But when his daughter recently visited Helsinki he realized anew the sacrifice he’d been forced to make. She had brought along her child, and the newly reunited family celebrated the little girl’s second birthday with a Finnish specialty—salmon cake. They went for a walk in a nearby forest. Edamaruku hadn’t met his granddaughter before, but he had named her. She is called Sanchi, after a historic Indian town where the Buddha preached his message of tolerance.

G

Sonia Faleiro is the author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars and 13 Men. She is the cofounder of Deca, a global writers’ cooperative. She can be found at www.soniafaleiro.com and @soniafaleiro.

To contact Guernica or Sonia Faleiro, please write here.

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