God as a plot device

‘Saving Grace’ is a new show on TNT where a foul- mouthed, morally challenged police detective tries to get her act together with the help of a tobacco-chewing redneck angel. I watched the debut episode yesterday. The show is very well written and entertaining and Holly Hunter, who specializes in angst-ridden characters, gives an excellent performance as Grace Hanadarko. Then why did I feel so uncomfortable?

God as a plot device is very familiar to Indians, brought up on a steady diet of Manmohan Desai movies. In fact, his blockbuster should have been named Amar, Akbar, Anthony and Allah, given how much prominence the deity has in the movie. Remember Nirupa Roy’s blindness being cured by the levitating flame?

But somehow, in India, we know how to take our religion with a liberal pinch of salt. We regularly visit temples and pray copiously but maintain a healthy dose of skepticism about whether our prayers are going to be answered. Our concept of Hell is rather vague; after all, as the Amar Chitra Katha comics informed us, poor Yama was just a sad neglected child of Surya. The notion of the duty here and consequences for negligence in the afterlife is completely open to interpretation, there being a singular dearth of scripture that lays down the rules in black and white.

So when a laser beam comes out of Santoshi Ma’s palm to smite the unbeliever or deliver a faithless husband back to his long-suffering wife, we throw coins at the screen, applaud vigorously and even, moved by emotion, undertake fasts for nine consecutive Tuesdays(or is it Friday?). Miracles on screen are fun to watch and extricate many a hero from crushing logic, but we certainly are not expected to believe that they really happen. We Indians are, ultimately, practical about religion – believing that God can be your personal genie and deliver you from your troubles is rather like a lottery – you play it just in case, but don’t get too upset if you don’t win. In a country of a billion people, it would be surprising if He/She had the time to zoom in.

Maybe it is the light-hearted way I’ve approached religion that makes me squirm when I see the almighty on screen in the US. They just take it too seriously. The angel admonishes Grace “Enough with the drinkin’, whorin’ and cussin’, coz you’re going straight to Hell if you don’t shape up quickly.” The crucifix is prominently displayed, the bible is treated reverently and the angel, for all his redneck ways, is rather like a stern elementary school teacher. “If there is a God,” asks Grace quite intelligently, “Then why is there hunger, disease, death..” “If I gave you the answers,” answers the smug angel,”where is the room for faith?” If that isn’t a cop-out, I don’t know what it is.

Thanks, but I’ll stick with my polytheistic, joyful, irreverent religion where the gods don’t presume to have all the answers(and not share). And if a stray plot appearance on TV reminds me to pray, I’ll just send a mental SMS to my favorite one.

R u there, Gd?

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