Texas Tech University

The Enchantment of Ritual in South Asian Postsecular Fiction

Roger McNamara

When one thinks of religion across the world today—especially from within our secular academy—it may be with predominantly negative associations. These range from images of Islamic fundamentalist movements in the Middle East and North Africa, to controversies regarding blasphemy in Europe, to the United States in the debates over the rights of religious institutions between the state, religious groups, and civil rights advocates.

Of course, there have been numerous attempts since the late 1990s to challenge the assumption that religion be equated with fundamentalism, beginning with Talal Asad's radical critique of secularism in Genealogies of Religion (1993), through William Connolly's Why I am not a Secularist (1999), to the more pragmatic concept of postsecularism popularized by Jürgen Habermas, and explored by literary critics like John McClure. [1]

I want to focus on South Asian postcolonial writers who have entered this debate, specifically about India and Sri Lanka, where secularism has not only failed to protect minority groups but has also created an opportunity for the rise of religious fundamentalism. These authors rethink our understanding of religion in order to replace the vacuum that secularism has left behind but also to challenge religious extremism. They explore how religious ritual can create enchantment that not only provides personal solace to individuals but also offers alternate ways of being to the more rigidly defined identities associated with nationalism, race, and ethnicity. However, they also recognize that an excessive dependence on ritual can lead to fundamentalism.

But I'd like to begin by first explaining the major terms I will use. The first distinction I want to make is between "religion-as-ideology" and "religion-as-faith." According to the political scientist Ashis Nandy, religion-as-ideology is closely aligned with religious fundamentalism. It attempts to propagate a religious identity and practices that are prescriptive. Religious texts become the absolute authority and must be followed literally. By contrast, religion-as-faith is more flexible and focuses on the relationship between the individual and the divine. To put it succinctly: in religion-as-ideology, religion is something that needs to be protected from the outside world, whereas religion-as-faith does not need to be defended. Instead, it helps to protect the individual or the group from the vicissitudes of life. Nandy, of course, acknowledges that this division is schematic, that in fact, the two—ideology and faith—can co-exist. However, it becomes a good starting point to think of the complexity of religion and religious identity.

It is within this context of religion-as-ideology and religion-as-faith that I wish to explore ritual in two South Asian novels written at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters (2002) and Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost (2000) explore specific rituals to examine how faith can offer alternatives to secular narratives. At the same time, both novels are aware that rituals can succumb to religion-as-ideology. What is distinctive about the way in which Mistry and Ondaatje explore these rituals is that they emphasize aspects of ritual that are pre-secular. In his book Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (2003), Asad points out that in a pre-modern world the Bible was "the letter of divine inspiration," where as in the modern world the Bible is "a system of human significances." Before modernity, the divine word was material and the devotee's body was "taught over time to listen, to recite, to move, to be still, to be silent, engaged with the acoustic of words, with their sound, feel, and look. ... The proper reading of the scriptures that enabled [the devotee] to hear divinity speak depended on disciplining the senses (especially hearing, speech, and sight)." This relationship between the devotee and scripture changed with the introduction of Higher Biblical Criticism that "rendered the materiality of scriptural sounds and marks into a spiritual poem whose effect was generated inside the subject as believer independent of the senses." By the time of the Reformation "an unmediated divinity became scripturally disclosable, and his revelations pointed at once to his presence and intentions" (38, emphasis added). To sum up Asad's argument, whereas in the modern secular era the divine speaks to the individuals without any mediation and ritual is simply the external sign of an essential idea, in the medieval period the different aspects of the ritual—from pray, through the movements of the body, to modulating the voice—had to be perfected in order to access the divine.

And this leads me to the third and final term that I'd like to briefly introduce—enchantment. Charles Taylor, following Max Weber, has argued that secularism creates a disenchanted world, where the instrumental use of the sciences and a rationalized bureaucracy becomes the means to determine "the good." This has replaced a pre-secular world filled with enchantment—one that was infused with magic, mystery, awe, and the non-rational. [2] In response to Taylor, critics like Akeel Bilgrami and George Levine have argued for a secular re-enchantment of the world, but they remain silent as to whether religion itself can continue to be a place of enchantment. [3]

I'm suggesting that these South Asian novels explore pre-modern rituals that tap into the divine, and in turn create a space of enchantment—of magic, mystery, and awe—that opens a range of possibilities, from providing solace for individual trauma to challenging the dominant structures of modernity such as national, religious, or ethnic identities and the logic of linear narratives. At the same time, these texts also show how ritual can lead to religion-as-ideology.

Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters is set in Bombay, India during the rise of Hindu nationalism in the early 1990s. Against this backdrop, it foregrounds the story of an extended Parsi family. The plot is launched when Yezad is forced to look after his wife's ailing father. Yezad is barely able to sustain a middle-class lifestyle for his family of four (including his wife and two children) in a cramped one bedroom apartment, and when his father-in-law enter the home it strains the family's emotional bonds and financial resources. Hard pressed to make ends meet, he schemes to provide for his family and begins a dangerous plan to encourage his employer, Mr. Kapur, to increase his salary. This act of betrayal is ironic given that Mr. Kapur has hired Yezad because he accepts the stereotype that Parsis are more honest than other Indians.

Ultimately, Family Matters becomes a critique of Parsi masculinity—embodied in Yezad—in its inability to deal with the strain of financial and emotional crises. Parsi masculinity—with its connotations of virility, strength, and honest—was constructed in the colonial period in imitation of the British. However, with India's independence and the dominance of an Indian (Hindu) national culture, this model of Parsi masculinity came into crisis. The novel thus questions the value of honest, not in order to question its virtue, but when it becomes a means to affirm and essenialize one's identity as Parsi.

In the midst of this turmoil in his life—between the arguments with his wife, his frustration at returning to a noisy and crowded apartment, his shame at being unable to provide the basic necessities for his children, and his guilt at scheming against his employer—Yezad decides to visit the fire temple. Being secular, Yezad previously had been contemptuous of religion. Now he visits the fire temple simply to get away from the tension at work and home. However, his visit becomes significant because he finds himself drawn to carrying out the rituals that he had ignored since his childhood. The two lengthy descriptions of Yezad's visits to the temple chart out his transformation from agnostic to a devout Parsi and are some of the most powerful passages in the novel.

During Yezad's second visit to the temple, the novel goes into a detailed description of the ritual: from the formal elements (wearing the cap with the seams at the back) through the structure of the ritual (beginning with the prayer before offering the sacrifice) to the physical exercises involved (tying of the kits or thread). These are represented as a rediscovery of a past that Yezad had thought he had forgotten but gradually recalls: "And now, to [Yezad's] amazement, the words of Kem Na Mazda rose silently to his lips as though he'd been reciting the prayer all his life, morning and night, without missing a day. Phrase upon phrase, into the next section, through Ahura Mazda Khodai and manashi, gavashni, kunashni, into the final preparation for retying the kusti" (294-295).

At a basic level, this ritual becomes an example of religion-as-faith because it provides Yezad a sense of relief from his emotional and financial struggles at work and home. However, the physicality of the ritual, carrying out its steps in the correct order, chanting the prayers involved, and the movement of the body are reminiscent of Asad's description of the pre-modern ritual as the means to access the divine. Thus, it becomes a means for Yezad to enter an enchanted world filled with mystery and awe. While carrying out the ritual, Yezad is taken back to his past: "How still it was, how restful. And the fire burning ... burning continuously for almost a hundred and fifty years, since this atashbahram was built ... the same fire his parents had gazed upon, and his grandparents, and his great grandparents. The thought filled him with quiet reassurance" (295-296).

By recollecting the past—the one hundred and fifty years since his ancestors have been worshipping at the sacred fire—Yezad enters into an enchanted space that circumvents the homogenous linear time of the Parsi community. Within linear time, the Parsi community remains trapped because when it constructed its identity in the colonial period, it defined itself in opposition to being Indian. Now with the dominance of an Indian culture in the public sphere, Parsi identity has come into a crisis—to embrace the dominant culture against which it had defined itself, would mean to uproot its own core beliefs. Furthermore, the economic status of the community has changed. While it received a favored status and was highly successful during the colonial period, in contemporary India the community is only middle-class. [4] However, when Yezad performs the ritual, he enters into an enchanted world, into a "higher" time, as the ritual connects the generations of Parsis outside the logic of linear homogenous time. Thus, the questions of Parsi masculinity, ethnic purity, and even the lament for a glorious past and the craving for a grand future, are irrelevant here.

But ritual is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows the individual solace and provides an alternative to the dilemma associated with a political identity. On the other hand, it can also lead to religious fundamentalism. As the novel progresses, Yezad's scheme to earn a larger salary unintentionally leads to Hindu fundamentalists murdering his employer, Mr. Kapur. Horrified, Yezad refuses to accept that he is responsible for Mr. Kapur's death. He begins to rationalize his actions—his scheme that resulted in Mr. Kapur's murder—by claiming that it has led him to God. He becomes a religious fanatic who defends rituals and imposes them on his family in the name of protecting the racial purity of the Parsi community.

Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost is situated in the early 1990s, in Sri Lanka when the country was in the midst of a civil war that involved three actors: the state, representing the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority, the Tamil militants in the north, and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front) in the south. The novel begins when the United Nations sends Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist, to investigate the genocide as a result of the conflict. She is joined by Sarath, the State's representative and an archeologist. When they discover the skeletal remains that they suspect is a victim of the war, they hire Ananda, a painter and artificer, who will help them reconstruct the victim's face.

While the framework of Anil's Ghost is that of the detective story, it soon becomes apparent that Ondaatje is more interested in exploring on how people cope with the trauma of the civil war: witnessing the violence, the constant fear of being tortured or killed, and the lack of closure when loved ones have gone missing. The "secular" characters turn to science and human rights in order to deal with the conflict. However, the trauma filters into their personal lives and they abuse themselves. By contrast, it is those characters that turn to religion that ultimately deal with the trauma in a healthy way. For instance, whereas Anil—a secular character—is confident that human rights will help resolve the conflict, in her personal life she constantly enters into unethical and violent relationships. By contrast, Sarath, a devout Buddhist, achieves solace by turning to a mythic Buddhist past.

However, I'd like to focus on Ananda and on the ritual—the Netra Mangala ceremony—to explore how religious characters deal with trauma. Though Ananda has been commissioned to reconstruct the face of their skeletal victim, he is in reality a specialized artisan who can perform the Netra Mangala ceremony—a ritual through which an inanimate statue of the Buddha is turned into a God. The transformation occurs when the artisan paints the eyes of the Buddha. However, when painting the eyes, no one can directly look at the God being created. Instead, the artisan must turn his back to the statue and paint the eyes by looking at the statue's reflection in a metal mirror. This ritual of painting the eyes is important because "[w]ithout the eyes [being painted] there is not just blindness, there is nothing. There is no existence. The artificer brings to life sight and truth and presence" (99, emphasis added). Critics, of course, have pointed out that Ondaatje is drawing parallels between the artificer and writer—for just as the artificer paints the eyes to convert an inanimate statue into a God, so does the writer construct a narrative to provide the truth of the situation. [5] However, for the purposes of this presentation, I'm particularly interested in the Netra Mangala ritual and its impact on Ananda.

Towards the end of the novel, Sarath and Anil discover the victim has been executed by the State. In retaliation, Sarath is killed and Anil must flee to the United States. But the novel ends with a glimmer of hope. In the last scene, Ananda has been commissioned to carry out the Netra Mangala ceremony on a statue of Buddha that is one hundred and twenty feet in height. At one level, the ceremony reinforces religion-as-ideology. Commissioned by the government, the ritual consolidates Buddhism as the official religion of the state. However, Ananda re-interprets the ceremony and evokes religion-as-faith: "[a]s an artificer now he did not celebrate the greatness of faith. But he knew if he did not remain an artificer he would become a demon. The war around him was to do with demons, specters of retaliation" (304). Thus, even though Ananda carries out the ceremony, he does not do so to celebrate "the greatness of faith," or the ideology of the state. Instead, he recognizes that the ritual will bring him a sense of peace after the emotional trauma he has experienced during the war. This is crucial because Ananda's wife, Sirissa, is another missing victim of the conflict. Being an artificer—one who is involved in the world and in the creation of Buddhas—becomes the means through which Ananda can come to terms with her absence and death. In the final scene of the novel, Ananda carries out the ceremony, and as he paints the eyes of the statue, turning it into God/Buddha, Ananda momentarily takes on the gaze of the God: "And now with human sight he was seeing all the fibres of natural history around him. He could witness the smallest approach of a bird, every flick of its wing, or a hundred-mile storm coming down off the mountains near Gonagala and skirting to the plains" (307).

These perceptions are (humanly) impossible because Ananda is standing one hundred and twenty feet above the ground as he paints the eyes of the giant Buddha. However, this is another example of enchantment, for at the culmination of the Netrra Mangala ceremony that has began the previous night, he now has divine insight. As he continues to hear the fluttering of the birds, he hears their "hearts ... beating exhausted and fast, the way Sirissa had died in the story he invented for her in the vacuum of her disappearance" (307). Thus, the parallels that he draws between the birds and his wife help him to reconcile himself to her disappearance.

In conclusion, I want to point out that I know it is problematic to apply Asad's critique of pre-modern Christian practices to South Asian fiction written about rituals in the early 1990s. However, there is also the danger of simply reading into these literary examples from Mistry and Ondaatje our contemporary conception of ritual that is simply the external representation of an idea. So I find Asad's work productive, as it is able to pries open certain aspects of these texts that are otherwise ignored.


[1] See Jurgen Habermas's "Notes on a Post-secular Society" and John McClure's Partial Faiths.

[2] See Charles Taylor's "Western Secularity."

[3] See Akeel Bilgrami's Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment and George Levine's Darwin Loves You.

[4] See T. R. Luhrmann's The Good Parsi.

[5] See Chelva Kanaganayakam's "In Defense of Anil's Ghost."

Works Cited

Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003. Print.

---. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993. Print.

Bilgrami, Akeel. Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Connolly, William. Why I Am Not a Secularist. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. " Notes on Post-Secular Society." Signanddsight.com: Let's Talk European (18 June 2008). 15 April 2015. <http://www.signandsight.com/features/1714.html>

Kanaganayakam, Chelva. "The Anxiety of Being Postcolonial: Ideology and the Contemporary Postcolonial Novel." Miscelánea: A Journal of English and American Studies 28 (2003): 43-54.

Levine, George. Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008. Print.

Luhrmann, T. M. The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a Postcolonial Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Mistry, Rohinton. Family Matters: A Novel. New York: Vintage International, 2002. Print.

McLure, John A. Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2007. Print.

Nandy, Ashis. "The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance." Secularism and its Critics. Ed. Rajeev Bhargava. New York: OUP, 1998. 321-344. Print.

Ondaatje, Michael. Anil's Ghost. New York: Knopf, 2000. Print.

Taylor, Charles. "Western Secularity." Rethinking Secularism. Ed. Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. New York: OUP, 2011. 31-53. Print.