Growing up Catholic, three things are sacrosanct: Country music on a Sunday afternoon, jiving at weddings, and abstaining during Lent. Abstinence takes many forms, to some it’s as simple as not doing your favourite thing during Lent; to others, it’s about going an extra mile. Like putting a blanket ban on smoking while only drinking water, and for extra piety points, donating the money saved on alcohol and cigarettes to the poor. Somehow, this deprivation is supposed to make your passage to heaven a tad easier.
At my home, Lent was usually observed in the form of a diet devoid of meat and fish. Every year for 30 whole days, my family of three would sit down to dinners of dal, rice, roti, and seasonal vegetables cooked to a mush that would make a toothless geriatric salivate. To break the monotony, there would be the occasional papad, because fried food was viewed as a luxury. This seems like a mild change, but for my meat-loving self, it was nothing short of torture. I’d crave meat like a crackhead – I needed my fix, but for the love of Jesus, my mum, and my soul, I’d hold off.
I went along with this whole dog-and-pony show until I was 14. Then I went full throttle into a phase of my life that I like to call, the “Fat Little Asshole” chapter. I acted out, threw fits, watched my first porn flick, smoked cigarettes on the sly, while acquiring the vocabulary of a truck driver. Yet I’d still go to church and confession, wracked by guilt, and tell a priest about that time I swore at a friend or had dirty thoughts about a girl from church – only to step out and do it all over again.
It was during this strange, confused age that I, in a typical act of rebellion, teamed up with my friends to put the “stain” in abstain. On Ash Wednesday, the day that kicks off this whole shebang, we decided to get a steaming hot plate of kheema pav immediately after the 7 am mass (did I mention I was an altar boy?) A tsunami of thoughts rushed through my adolescent mind as I watched the waiter bring me that plate of hot, oily, succulent minced meat studded with nubbins of fat. What if my mum found out? What if someone saw me on their way home from church? What if God and Jesus got angry and personally told me that I couldn’t come to heaven? What if my mum found out?
I broke a piece of bread, dipped it in the oily mess, and piled on a sizeable helping of kheema on to it. I then raised it to my lips and gingerly chewed, letting the flavours take control of my tongue. And in a gesture reminiscent of the last supper, I passed the plate along to my fellow diners. Sacrilege never tasted this good. The rush that came with breaking a rule that was enforced by my Gestapo-esque parents with a Stasi-like policy was indescribable. The only experience that remotely came close to that would be losing my virginity many years later (nine to be exact).
I found the courage to ask my parents the big questions, like why we really went to Sunday mass and why religion was such a big deal in our lives.
After the meal, I stepped out of the restaurant fully expecting to be smitten by the wrath of the almighty, but nothing happened. I crossed the road extra carefully, just to be sure divine intervention wouldn’t cause a driver to lose control and turn me into the kheema I had just consumed. But here I am today.
The repercussions of that episode led to me finally growing a pair. I found the courage to ask my parents the big questions, like why we really went to Sunday mass and why religion was such a big deal in our lives. My mum simply looked aghast and said, “That’s the way it is. Our parents told us and we never questioned them.” My dad, however, let his fists do the talking with a swift ninja-like backhand to my face.
I had my answer. And the answer was that religion and my parents didn’t have all the answers.
Over time, I continued my enquiry by reading books other than Bible Stories for Kids and Noddy Goes on an Adventure. I listened to heavy metal and rap music – gleaned mostly from my father’s collection – which my mum and my religious-fanatic aunt called “Devil music”. But ironically, I really found peace when I turned back to a priest.
At a family gathering that Easter, I ran into a family friend who happened to be a man of the Church. After the customary small talk about my future and my burgeoning weight, it was my turn to pose a question. “Father, why do we not eat meat before Easter? And if we do by accident are we bad people?” I fully expected him to guilt-trip me like other priests, but I was in for a surprise. When I narrated my little Ash Wednesday adventure to him, he simply smiled, patted me on the head, and said, “Eating meat during Lent doesn’t make you a bad person. Not eating meat but being a bad person during Lent definitely does. It’s ok if you’re a bad Catholic and a good human being, rather than a good Catholic and a terrible human being.”
Those words have stuck. I have quoted the man at least a quarter of a million times over the years when the topic of religion comes up. And as a non-practising Catholic, the thought of not making it to heaven doesn’t scare me anymore. Nobody’s perfect and the world would be a better place if we all just admitted this and moved on.
As for my mom, she still asks me to abstain. But yesterday, ahead of Maundy Thursday, I got a chicken sandwich from Candies on my way to work, some mutton rogan josh for lunch, and finally spare ribs with a drink post-work. Just like any other day. Am I worried she will find out? I wager she already knows.
Damian used to be a cook who wrote, now he’s just a writer who cooks.
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