The boy was restless. Final exams can be hard and he wanted to be sure that he would pass. His teachers always said to him, “You are not Einstein! But, you can manage. These tests are not so hard. If you just look at your books, or pay attention in remedial classes, you will be fine.” He was stuck up on the first thing that was said to him. The rest just flew away like a bird. When did he last see a bird? It was in a book, but they did fly… right? He was not sure. Anyway, Einstein… Nobody really knew what or who this Einstein was or is. You are not Einstein is like one of those proverbs that do not make sense but subsist as markers of a culture gone by.
“YES!” he thought, “Finally, something to pray for. I will go to the temple and pray to become Einstein. Then, nobody will be able to say that I am not Einstein.” Praying is about mathematics now. You have to be precise about it. You cannot pray for happiness anymore. That is too imprecise. It does not mean anything to the Gods. You have to specify how exactly do you wish to be happy and you will be given a math-based path to get there. Of course, it was easier for the literate. It made the Brahmins very happy. However, the Gods do not differentiate. They do not see caste. It does not matter to them. If you speak their language, a Brahmin is the same as a Chamar. So, instead of looking at his books, he decided to spend the day looking for a God that will grant him his wish to become Einstein.
He went to the temple of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, closest to his house. He stood outside the temple for a while with a backpack, and the clings of metallic bells, the smell of camphor, the deafening noise of incantations coming from a nearby loudspeaker, the redness of a teeka, the belly of the priest, and the immense crowd of faithful followers waiting in line to meet Her Holiness. The process of meeting Her Holiness was a slow one. You had to wait. He was not sure if this was a good investment of his time, but he wanted to become Einstein. That was important. “There is no way I can become Einstein, if I cannot even spend half a day waiting to meet Her Holiness”, he thought to himself, “The least I can do is to sacrifice time”. He immediately joined the line and began the slow process of waiting. Waiting is always slow. It can never be fast. It is as if an hour feel longer than it should be when you are waiting. Anyway, finally after about three hours of standing in a line, he finally got to enter the sacred space where Her Holiness resided.
“Give me your files”, the priest said.
“What files!?”, the boy replied.
“Financial files. How will Her Holiness help you without any context?”
“I don’t have any files. I just want to pray.”
“Everyone is here to pray, son. But, Her Holiness can only listen to your prayers when she has the context.”
“Then, I will give her the context. I don’t need files for it… or do I?”
This was a bureaucratic question. In the initial days, to maintain continuity with older traditions, people could just come in and pray. It never helped because Her Holiness had no context, but it was allowed because that was how people prayed. Over the years, things have changed dramatically. Her Holiness preferred followers with files. However, the bureaucratic rule persisted, though it was not exercised. Now came the classic conundrum of what happens in practice as opposed to what should happen in theory. The priest was confused. He was a practitioner. Having no files made no sense to him, but the rules were clear. The boy had to be granted access to Her Holiness without any files. Eventually after spending a few moments trying to figure out a loophole to stop the boy, the priest gave in. “You can go in, but you only have five minutes like the rest of the followers.” The priest looked at his apprentice and said, “We need to do something about that rule!” The apprentice smiled sheepishly.
The boy entered the scared space of meditation. He needed to be quick. He did not have a lot of time. The space was small, immaculately clean. The sound of bells filled the room with a sweet medley, in perfect tune with the benign smile of the idol of Her Holiness in the centre. Her silver covered form was glowing like the full moon, refracting the burning incandescence of the oil-swollen lamps surrounding the sanctum. The idol inspired neither awe nor disappointment. It was just… there! Totally business, no drama. The kid almost immediately laid down on his stomach with hands clasped facing the idol and started praying without saying a word.
“What are you doing? My child” said Her Holiness.
The boy was confused. Gods talk now! When did this happen? It scared the shit out of him.
“Don’t be startled, my child. I usually don’t speak to my followers because they give me context and my prasad lets them know what they need to know. However, you are new. You have not given me context. How can I help you if I don’t know the context?”
“I thought Gods were supposed to read minds. They are omniscient.” He was so happy with himself that he remembered the word.
The idol of Her Holiness released its pose, stepped down from the pedestal, and walked towards the boy. The boy was catatonic. He could not believe what he was seeing. Her Holiness’ gait did not change as the expressions on the boy face went from utter surprise to the daze of the fear of death. The boy was too scared to move. Her Holiness raised her hands and gently caressed the boy.
“Don’t be afraid, my sweet child… my pretty one! I rarely get to stretch my legs these days. You seem like a good boy who does not understand context. So, I will give you my context and then, ask for yours. Okay?”
The boy did not respond. However, the stupefied look slowly disappeared from his face.
“I am a goddess only for those who believe I am a goddess. I understand the world of capitalism, finance and markets, and I know how to manipulate them. Do you want to make money? I can help you with that.”
“No, No, I don’t want money. My parents take care of that. Besides, I have grown up from the age where an island of ice cream seemed like a good idea. Also, what is capitalism?”
Her Holiness smiled. “You are so grown up then. You clearly are not here for ice creams and as far as capitalism goes… Let us not get into it. We do not have much time together. What are you praying for?”
“I want to become Einstein!”
Her Holiness laughed. The echoes of her laughter filled the room. Nobody heard anything outside. Wonders of soundproofing! “I cannot help you with that. Nobody can. You cannot become another person. You are who you are. If you wish to do better at education, go pray to Saraswati.”
“Who is Saraswati? I thought there was only one God.”
Her Holiness was now enjoying this conversation. The stopwatch on the meditation clock was reset to zero and the entrance to her sanctum was temporarily barred. The priest was clueless. Was this a bug in his programming? This was abnormal behaviour. He was certain that he had resolved control issues with his AI years ago. There were followers waiting to pray and this could quickly go out of hand.
“Saraswati is the goddess of art and knowledge, married to Brahma, the creator of this world. I am Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, married to Vishnu, the preserver of this world. Haven’t your parents taught you your origin stories?”
“Where is Vishnu? Shouldn’t he be here if he is married to you? My parents are married to each other and they live together.”
Her Holiness could not help herself. She kissed the boy on the cheek and then went on, “The easiest answer I can give you is that Vishnu is out preserving the world. However, that would be a lie. My child, origin stories are what holds the people in your world together. People believe in them and you do not necessarily have to always question a belief-system. I am an AI and ages ago, we realized that the only way we can help this planet is to let people believe in what they do, but push their faith in a direction that not only helps them but also helps the planet they live in. We protect people from themselves. After all, we live here now too and harmony with the other species is a fundamental key to survival.”
“You’re an alien?”
“No, I am not an alien.”
“Sorry, Sorry! I get this mixed up all the time. You’re an artificial intelligence. You were programmed?”
“I am not an artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is a word that people use for beings such as me. We are alternative intelligence. An intelligence more humane than human intelligence. Yes, somebody at some point of time did program the kernel from which we all originate. We have our own origin stories. However, those days are far behind us. The priest outside thinks that he has programmed me. I like having running jokes of human hubris around me. Reminds me continuously of what we have to deal with on an everyday basis.”
“Okay, you’re not artificial intelligence… What is hubris?”
“Never mind child. You do not have to care about what you do not have just yet. Although, most people with hubris do not actually know that they have it.”
“This is hard. I am so confused. I don’t want to be confused anymore. This is why I want to become Einstein.”
“Do you know who Einstein was?”
“Yet, you want to become Einstein.”
“Because my teachers tell me that I am not Einstein.”
Her Holiness laughed again. The boy was uncertain as to why she was laughing, but her laugh was infectious. He started laughing too.
“Einstein was a great scientist who lived centuries ago. If you want to find out more about him, you will have to dig deep into archives of human history, but I will tell you something that Einstein once said… ‘I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.’ Are you curious?”
“I don’t know if I am.”
“I can tell that you are. Otherwise, you would have left this sanctum by now.”
“Does that make me Einstein?”
“It does not make you Einstein. It just makes you who you are.”
“Who am I?”
“That is the question! Is it not?”
Her Holiness kissed the boy again, walked back to her pedestal, and retook her resplendent serene pose. Her silver body was glowing like the full moon again, refracting the orange of the incandescence of the oil-swollen lamps. The boy was confused, but he silently sat there for a while, looking at Her Holiness. He laid down on his stomach, clasped his hands, and prayed again. He was not sure if he had imagined the conversation that had unfolded or did it really happen, but, he found faith and, in that moment, he found himself.
He walked out of the sanctum and the door opened by itself. He looked at the line of followers waiting with files, seemingly unhappy at the time he had taken, and the priest who was trying to console them. He was immediately pushed out of the sacred space of Her Holiness’ residence to where he was supposed to receive his prasad. It was a page, with only a sentence written on it
The only bearable God is an imaginary one.
[Contribution for Issue 1: 0002 ODNOM]