Sunday, July 15, 2007

Goodbye, Columbus and the dilemma of faith

After seeing his books on the reading list of some people whose reading tastes I hold in good esteem, I finally picked up my first book from venerable Philip Roth. Incidentally, Goodbye Columbus was also the author's first book and earned him significant respect and a National Award.The book is a collection of a novella and 5 other short stories- all of them dealing with the lives of Jewish people in modern America.

The book is named after the novella, which is a love story of sorts, taut with the pulls of class distinction and the couples' different ways of life. The young couple, from accross this class divide, struggle to have a normal courtship, but a power tussle continues to strain their relations. The relationship is further pressured by the conservative Jewish sentiments. Perhaps if I had never watched hindi movies with the same cliched theme, I might have been able to appreciate the story better. But it turns out that I have grown up on such movies like an average Indian, and find nothing remarkable in Mr. Roth's tale.

However, the five stories that follow almost make-up for the interest that the novella could not generate.Roth has outlined the confusion of a Jew in a modern society very well, sometimes by exaggeration. Particularly noteworthy stories were "The Conversion of the Jews," "Defender of the Faith," and "Eli, the Fanatic." Mr. Roth was widely criticised by the Jewish community who did not find the portrayal of certain Jewish characters in the book very appealing, especially in his story "Defender of faith", where a trio of devout jew draftees in the army exploit a Jewish sergeant on religious grounds.

Though Roth's stories talk about the cultural identity of Jews, I think the dilemma that he poses is one faced by people from many different faiths. Irrespective of the ethnic identity, people feel threatened to lose it in the face of a seemingly unifying world. In such cases, they feel compelled to hold on to this identity with exaggerated vigour. For example, Indians living abroad feel a greater necessity to celebrate Indian festivals and gather together on such occassions, while these days may go unnoticed by many young people living in India. As the world
tilts towards unipolarity, it is not surprising to find the springing up of so many religious fanatics.

At the same time there are many who have adopted religious/cultural indifference and are contend to be a part of a neutral modern race. However, often even these people foster a feeling of guilt/remorse and sometime when they come accross devout followers of their faith (like the drill sergeant of Roth's story), the guilt forces them to either unjustly favour these people or turn unusually unfair to them. An impartial treatment under such encounters is often not possible. Perhaps religious and cultural conditioning from birth plays an important part in keeping the faith alive, even if dormant.

What keeps people from following an assimiliated faith and a unified religion? After all The ideas in the religions are not so distinct from each other. Perhaps it is the same threat as faced by two merging companies - one of them always rules the other.

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