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Churched

As mentioned earlier, I’m a self-confessed church lurker. I visit them for their peace and quiet (especially on Saturday afternoons) and because I just can’t go through fifty pages of a book without dozing off on my mattress at home (I know I’m hopeless). Aided by the fact that the pews are just so darn comfortable to sit on, and the last instance I fell asleep while I sat was in an overcrowded ‘Virar fast’ train (the rhythmic rocking of the bogies is an overpowering, unsung lullaby!), I get a lot of reading done inside churches. There are three that I frequently visit on weekends—the nearest takes about five minutes from where I live while the farthest is a good 40 minutes away on foot, which I don’t mind given Bangalore’s fantastic weather.

Yet I don’t view churches as an excuse for public libraries—minus the public, of course. Right from the moment my puny-but-cute self stepped inside St Thomas Cathedral—Mumbai’s first Anglican church—all those long years ago, I’ve been smitten by their architecture. Tall bell towers, grand doors, long naves, high vaulted ceilings, wooden pews, arched pillars, arcades, clerestory windows (with stained glass work), prominent altars, chapels, choirs—there’s so much to take in and marvel at for unsuspecting eyes. Every visit to Horniman Circle ever after hasn’t been without a quick pitstop at St Thomas. It attracted me, this structure of stone and mortar, and I couldn’t resist stepping over its threshold time and again. I was curious to know more.

Churches of course are places of worship, but I was never tickled by their divinity, only by their structural grandeur. I got a little more insight into churches while reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth, a novel about the building of a grand cathedral church. I read two-thirds of Pillars between time spent among couple of churches, and it helped me appreciate the structural nuances of the church, as a building, and correlate it with Follett’s commentary on masonry and construction. In some ways it saved my poor head the trouble of visualizing Follett’s written word, if I had read it anywhere else. Believe me when I say that a church is an apt setting to devour Pillars in—been there done that, hence.

Despite my preference to sit in empty churches, they are seldom completely empty. People keep coming in their ones and twos to offer prayer, and there’s the church staff that keeps waltzing in every now and then. However, churches are almost always quiet (unlike temples – ring any bells? Precisely!) unless on occasions of choir practice or music lessons, which I’ve had the chance to witness and enjoy. I fondly remember this one instance where my “crazy church fixation” got me an invitation to attend a Sunday School Christmas function at St John’s—best free entertainment I’ve had on consecrated grounds. Ever.

Yesterday, I took my relationship with churches beyond the realms of mere structural fascination. You see I had been toying with the idea of attending mass for some time now, just to see how it felt. Throughout my time spent in churches, I couldn’t help notice people walking up the nave, some kneeling at the altar, others sitting on the front pews, their heads bowed in silent prayer. I wanted to do all that without emotion, with no strings attached, and I wanted to do it in front of the congregation. Madly exciting, don’t you think?

Sunday service begins at 7 am at St Mark’s Cathedral, I attended the one at 8.30 am. The church’s dominating features include a striking dome and a marble altar I had never seen before. I saw people enter the church through its two facade doors and main entrance on the west end. I sat in the second from last row, my view of the congregation and most of the church unfettered. An organ started playing somewhere in the chancel, its music deep and resonating—it reminded me of Lurch and the opening theme of The Addams Family. Just before 8.30, when the church was packed to full capacity, a priest entered through the main entrance. He carried a staff long and high, followed by the choir and other office bearers of the church. He walked along the central nave and placed the staff near the altar. That was the cue for the presbyter to take over proceedings.

What followed was a series of sung hymns, quoting scriptures, listening to sermon, praying (in song), confessing, and receiving holy communion—the moment I was waiting for. I followed the line of people walking towards the altar, my palms sweating. Was I doing something wrong? I abandoned that thought and went with the flow. As I knelt in front of the altar, and swallowed the bread and wine the priest offered, I felt relieved. My intention in attending mass was to observe and learn, never to offend. Will I still continue visiting churches? Absolutely.

If by now you’ve guessed I had “receiving holy communion” written down in my bucket list, give yourself a bournville. You’ve certainly earned it.

Originally published: January 25, 2010

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Books

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

No sooner is it Saturday and there goes the nutter, rambling about his obsession for football yet again. It isn’t hard to imagine such observations from people around me, especially the ones who’ve grown to know me all too well. And as football hibernates for three agonizing months after today’s FA Cup decider between Everton and Chelsea (which Chelsea won 2–1), and as symptoms of football withdrawal kick in, I couldn’t help but write something about an obsessed football fan’s account I finished reading today.

I laugh at the thought of labelling myself an obsessive. If I’m a Manchester United fanatic by merely restricting my view to a measly television box or an Internet location streaming live games from halfway across the world, and concerning my sense of gratification with a team’s exploits that I have never witnessed in person, then Nick Hornby is nothing short of an all-knowing guru (and by that same analogy, most of Britain a land riddled with soccer-snuffing, foul-mouthed addicts). He’s someone who has seen it all—home, away, and at neutral territory (a feat I can only dream of)—as an ardent supporter of Arsenal his entire life and lived to recount his tale firsthand in the gripping football memoir, Fever Pitch.

The book is a fascinating extract of Hornby’s fixation with football and all-things Arsenal. Right from the moment he went to attend his very first game at Highbury (the original hallowed turf, today’s Emirates Stadium is just an imitation) to the dull nil–nil draw against Aston Villa in the post-Championship winning season of ’90-91, a performance that epitomized the under-achieving, boring Arsenal he grew up to love, Fever Pitch has all that and more. The abundance of heartbreak that comes with the territory of a sports fanatic, those rare moments of sporting triumph catalyzing tumultuous fan euphoria (and erasing memories of all past shoddiness), and most importantly the inner turmoil of a fan coming to grips with his obsession—Hornby captures the quintessential football fanatic and relives his life not in years but in seasons. And with a good bit of humour, too.

Seventeen years after it was first published, it will be fair to say that Arsenal’s fortunes have changed since Hornby penned down his essays that comprise Fever Pitch. But a recent five-year streak in the Premier League’s wilderness, with no silverware to boast of, Arsenal might have re-entered the barren mould Hornby grew up watching. The book is still a hit, though, and a must read for anyone loosely interested in football and the emotions it evokes.

Originally published: May 30, 2009

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Books

A romance of many dimensions

Perhaps one of the weirdest books you’ll ever read. Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, a tiny book written back in 1884, theorizes about inhabitants of a two dimensional world, drawing striking parallels with 19th century Victorian social hierarchy. What’s noteworthy is that it’s not just an allegory of a bygone era or an endless discussion on geometrical figures and their nuances, but a warning (in Alan Lightman’s thought-provoking foreword) for physicists and scientists, in a time riddled with scientific breakthroughs,  to be on guard against complacency and the tendency to rest on their laurels. Not to worship established wisdom as gospels of the ultimate truth, but instead ask questions that could lead to the discovery and validation of several more.

I like the premise of the book. Flatland challenges you to imagine a world where thickness is unheard of, where people exist in the likeness of geometrical figures on paper: triangles, squares, pentagons, and so on; much like shadows on the ground. The book is recorded as a first person narrative by A. Square, a distinguished Flatlander himself, giving us Spacelanders a perspective into his unimaginable world. Looking from above, for us Spacelanders, the two dimensional geography reveals a chaos of living, breathing geometry all around. But there’s method to this madness. If you look closer, as the author points out, you’ll notice people segregated in classes based on their shapes; priests who are perfect circles enjoy life at the apex, while women as straight lines compose the dregs of society. 

The social commentary is insightful to say the least, and invites your curiosity to study the finer points of Flatland’s day-to-day life and satires, to some extent, our own world. How people (lines, triangles, squares) there perceive and identify others (also lines, triangles, squares) when all they see is a flat line; how everyone adores symmetry of shape and abhors irregularity of one’s physical appearance. But that’s not all. If you’ll read the book, you’ll realize how the writer takes great effort to discuss at length the land’s physics and history, customs and beliefs, and reveals the philosophy of its inhabitants who appear to be self-content and lacking adventure. Where scientific and artistic excellence is taking a back seat and the minds are falling into decay. 

But all that changes with the appearance of a Spacelander! 

It’s a small book of hardly 100 pages, and one that I recommend to everyone who wants to take a break from their fantasy and non-fiction novels. It’s not a mathematical school book full of diagrams and jargon, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s a good read. Here’s the Project Gutenberg link to download a free ebook version.

Originally published: April 27, 2009