I Was a Teenage Atheist

Memoirs of a naughty Catholic girlhood

Flames leaped into the horizon. My parents, my sister, Shalini, and I abandoned our dinner to race up to the terrace and watch the blaze. It was Holi, the Hindu spring festival, an explosion of mischief celebrating the god Krishna’s shenanigans with the cowgirls. Flung water balloons gushed vermilion; water pistols squirted indigo. Stranger smeared stranger with silver paint stolen from construction sites. Buckets—dishwater? urine?—were emptied from high apartment windows onto passersby. Riotousness and devilry burst forth, a ripe sore.

Durga, our tiny, curly-haired cook, cycled into town and returned, panting with news. A procession of Hindus, chanting bhajans, statues of Shiva, god of destruction, hoisted on their shoulders, had marched past the mosque and forced a pig into it. Rumors of Muslim vengeance for this desecration flew round the town. "I won’t tell you in front of the chhota memsahibs," Durga said. The Hindus retaliated. Jamshedpur, my North Indian home town, was 82 percent Hindu and 11 percent Muslim. The fire engines were silent as Muslim slums, homes, and businesses burned.

Mesmerized by the flames zigzagging into the horizon, I sat on the parapet, my legs dangling over the edge. In the boredom of boarding school, I had read of front-page disasters wistfully—hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, floods, war. But nothing happened, except in the movies. I was seventeen and had just...

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About the Author

Anita Mathias lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. She won a 1998 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to work on Wandering in Two Worlds, a memoir of her Catholic girlhood in India.