Sixty years ago today -- at the stroke of midnight, August 14-15 1947 -- Britain ceded India to the Indians, having agreed to a partition of that country with the Hindu leader Nehru and the Muslim leader Jinnah. Thereupon, fifteen million people migrated from the reduced Hindu state of India to the newborn Muslim state of Pakistan, and vice versa. One million of them died amid rioting and looting. As I write, I am looking at a photograph of Nehru and Jinnah, sitting to either side of Lord Mountbatten, the British facilitator of partition. From the photograph alone, I would not be able to tell you who is the Hindu and who the Muslim. Ah, religion.
In The Soul of the Night, I quote lines from a poem that described the effects on the poet of a Catholic education at the hands of priests, passed on to me by a friend, himself a cleric: "They flushed sin from the coverts of our souls with/ fear and drove God's sacred plover crying into the upland rain/ where it remains." To the poem, my friend had affixed a note: "Is this what happened to your plover too?"
Well, not exactly. My Catholic education was by and large a rewarding experience. It was not so much what happened to me at the hands of my teachers that drove God's sacred plover into the upland rain, as what was happening in the world around me at the hands of people of consuming faith. The religion-based savagery that accompanied the partition of India was a case in point. Shias and Sunnis, Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims and Christians in the Balkans: The story is ongoing.
No wonder God's sacred plover absconded. No wonder it hides. No wonder it choses the upland moors and barren heaths where humans have not yet set their proselytizing plows. No wonder my own lifelong attention has been to the hidden bird, and not to the fundamentalists of any stripe who believe they know God's will. I was raised to believe that only baptized Christians had a crack at achieving the Beatific Vision, and Catholics the best crack of all. I will settle for the rustle of the wind where a bird is hiding in the wet grass.