In Amitav Ghosh’s novel, Sea of Poppies (which I reviewed yesterday), there is a very interesting character named Paulette Lambert. Her father is a scientist who does not believe in God and religion. He brought up his daughter “in the innocent tranquillity of the Botanical Gardens.” He did not allow her soul to be corrupted by religion and God. The only altar at which she worshipped was that of Nature. The trees were her scripture and the earth her revelation. “She has not known anything but Love, Equality and Freedom,” her dying father tells another character from whom he seeks the favour of taking her out of the British colony. “If she remains here, in the colonies,” he says, “most particularly in a city like this (Calcutta), where Europe hides its shame and its greed, all that awaits her is degradation: the whites of this town will tear her apart, like vultures and foxes, fighting over a corpse. She will be an innocent thrown before the money-changers who pass themselves off as men of God...”
Mr Lambert had understood clearly that religion, god and the moral systems created by them are nothing more than structures invented by shrewd men for keeping the not-so-shrewd masses under control and also for exploiting them. Right now in independent India, we have certain political and religious organisations which work hand in hand employing gods and religion with the same shrewd motives of manipulating people and exploiting them. Criminals wear the garb of ascetics and organise mass murders. They are exonerated in the courts of justice for want of evidence. Evidences are suppressed. Truths are fabricated. History is rewritten. This is what religion and gods have always been doing.
Mr Lambert’s prediction comes true. After his death, the nubile Paulette is adopted by Benjamin Burnham who is a crook donning religious garbs. Mr Burnham decides to teach her the scriptures of his religion (which is the only civilised religion, according to him and the other colonisers). But controlling his lustful desires for her becomes a bitter struggle within him. Lust is not his only sin. He is greedy, cruel and dishonest. Yet he thinks he is closer to god than Paulette who is actually innocent in every way.
Mr Kendalbushe, the judge who decides to send Paulette to the Burnhams, is another person who thinks of religion as a socio-political tool. He is shocked by Paulette’s ignorance of the scriptures. “Miss Lambert,” he declares to the hapless girl, “your godlessness is a disgrace to the ruling race: there is many a Gentoo (Hindu) and Mom’den in this city (Calcutta), who is better informed than yourself. You are but a step away from chanting like a Sammy and shrieking like a Sheer.” Soon Mr Kendalbushe will propose to her though he is old enough to be her father.
Eventually Paulette has to run away in order to save herself from such religious people. But her innocence cannot be sustained anywhere because religion is all-pervasive. God is omnipresent. How can anyone save herself from such omnipotence? She has to lose her innocence and discover the potential within her that will help her cope with various gods and their earthly demons.
The situation never changes. The players change. The white man left the country. His place is taken today by people who have replaced his God with new gods and goddesses. But the game goes on.
As another character in the novel says, the rulers are all the same from time of the Pharaohs and the Mongols. It’s the same game of wielding power over others. The only difference is that the Pharaohs and the Mongols were not hypocrites. They didn’t pretend that they were marauding and killing for any noble cause such as god or religion. Our leaders pretend that they are working for gods. “It is this pretence of virtue ... that will never be forgiven by history,” says Captain Chillingworth in the novel.