“Religion?” was the next question on the hospital admission form. I had come in for an angioplasty on the advice of my good friend and physician, Dr. Georoge Ommen. My family hadn’t been told, for I did not want to alarm them.
I wrote : None.
The hospital clerk, who was watching me filling out the form with all the interest that a hospital clerk could possibly muster, looked alarmed. She stretched her bangled hand and stopped my bare one right at the end of the word, not allowing me to proceed writing something even more preposterous in the next blank.
“You have to write the name of your religion,” she said.
“But I have none,” I persisted.
None was a religion she hadn’t heard of. She phoned for her supervisor.
The suited-and-booted young supervisor lent his ears to the girl, who poured a soft whisper into them. It was evident that the guy enjoyed the proximity of the whispering lips to his ears despite the alarming situation. Who ever heard of a patient with none for his religion?.
“Sir,” he turned to me. “There are reasons why we ask for the religion of a patient being admitted for an invasive procedure. Particularly when you are not accompanied by a close relative”
“I know”, I said. “You would want to know what to do with my body if I kick the bucket. Whether to bury or to burn”.
Now the girl was truly and surely shocked. The man wore an embarrassed smile.
“”I am not putting it that way,” he said.
A prime need for religion is the fear of loss, failure, catastrophe. Death is a concoction made of all that. Whether to bury or burn the dead is important because, if one’s religion consoles the dying that soon he or she would be resurrected to be forgiven by God simply because a man called Jesus had paid for his sins even before the dying one had committed them, there is the other that says that the dying body is a mere garment to be discarded, that one would get back one’s life in some other form, hopefully a better, handsomer and richer form provided the right praises had been showered on God and his Wife before dying. If you are facing death, you need a religion. Here I was, probably facing the very thing, and yet being frivolous.
I knew I simply had to have those painfully thumping blocks in my heart opened out, but I wasn’t prepared to let the girl and the supervisor know that even a patient with none for religion is not in a hurry to die. So I wrote out a note for them to keep:
1. I am aware that although the doctors and the medical staff involved would do their best, there is a possibility that I might die during the procedure. They shall not be held responsible if such an event happens.
2. If I become serious or die, I want so-and-so and so-and-so to be informed by telephone numbers such-and-such.
3. If I die, my organs may be donated to any poor and needy patient; if there is nothing that can be usefully recovered, I shall have no objection to the body being donated for educational purposes in a non-commercial medical college.
3. The remains of the body might be cremated in an electrical or gas-fired crematorium. Please don’t cut a tree or a piece of sandalwood. I might have broken a twig or cut a flower, but have done no major damage to trees while living. Don’t change that my one good habit.
4. Nobody – not even my wife – will be allowed to read to me or my body a religious book while I am lying in the process of dying or awaiting the funeral. If a book has to be read to my corpse, one may read a Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde or Changampuzha Krishna Pillai.
5. Never let a priest of any religion or caste near my body. Gita, Bible or Quran are absolutely forbidden, Please, I have read them all while alive. KNOW ALL MEN HERE PRESENT THAT TO ME SCRIPTURES BELONG TO A MORE PRIMITIVE AGE THAN THE PRESENT.
6. Do not allow anyone to noise-pollute the air around my body by chants of any kind. I include Gayatri, Salaat or the Lord’s Prayer in the forbidden list. If my loved ones want to shed a few tears, let them make it short, even if poignant. Thank you for being good to me while I was around and possibly irritating .
7. Please add no animal products to my body to speed up my travel to heaven or hell. I include milk and cow dung or cow urine in the banned list.
By the time I finished writing, a small crowd had gathered around the table. Some chuckled, others looked less amused. A sensible intern brought a form, meant for eye donation to another hospital, for me to sign. I obliged him.
My dentist friend who stood in for my family until I allowed him to inform them later told me sarcastically : “You could have written ‘Atheist’ instead of a senseless ‘None’ “.
“No,” I said, “I do not know what I am – an atheist, agnostic, rationalist or whatever. My objection is not to the concept of God as a placebo, even a credible source of solace and rescue. But gods of any religion do not fill that bill.”.
That said, my angioplasty ended in disaster.The surgeon concluded that I was among the statistical five percent whose stenting procedure tended to fail. My wife decided that those five percent must be the ones who had no religion.
A couple of months later, I was admitted to a heart institute. A deft and deservingly reputed surgeon re-wired my arterial grid, educating me in the process that even men have mammary arteries and that I could usefully employ my left hand after donating a major part of its artery to my heart.
At admission in that hospital, I had again written that my religion was None. When I recovered, the kindly anaesthetist congratulated me on what he called my ‘will’.
It has been many years since. I still carry a copy of it in my wallet.