In her epochal 1969 work On Death and Dying, Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler Ross defined five stages of grieving through which most human beings passed before coming to terms with the possibility of their dying — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. She clarified that these were not chronological stages and that people may experience them concurrently or switch between them during the process of grieving. In contemporary psychology, the ‘Kübler Ross model', as it has come to be called, is generally extended to include any catastrophic life event that leaves one helpless and forces one to face its emotional consequences. I was immediately reminded of Kübler Ross as I read Arun Shourie's Does He know a mother's heart?
This book is hard to review, for one is not sure whether to approach it as a psychiatrist (which I am), or as a religious expert (which I'm not) or as a humanist (which I possibly am), because its fountainhead is emotional pain and suffering of three people who were struck by misfortunes they had no control over. The premature birth of Shourie's son, Aditya, which resulted in Cerebral Palsy was the first of these. Although Shourie gives us few details of how he and his wife, Anita, came to terms with this, he does tell us, “Adit has bonded us closer together ... Not just Adit's tasks, his love has held us together,” thereby indicating that the couple had done so.
However, at the age of 42, Anita, following a road accident, developed a slowly progressive Parkinson's disease that limited her mobility. One can only imagine the depth and intensity of emotions and feelings of helplessness and frustration the entire Shourie family must have experienced. But nothing of these is to be found in the book. For Shourie is not, and never has been, a sentimental writer. He prefers, instead, to share with his readers, his thoughts rather than feelings, his intellectual processes rather than emotional quandaries, which helped him understand the pain and suffering he and his family had to go through, to reach Kübler Ross' stage of acceptance.
Shourie, an incisive writer and analyst of political and other macro-environments, takes us along on his personal journey of understanding the meaning of these events in his life, focussing — as anyone in his situation inevitably will — on the role of God and religion in the genesis of such misfortunes. Unable to accept the “He works in mysterious ways” platitude, in vintage Shourie style, he undertakes an in-depth investigation of scriptures from Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, as well as the writings and teachings of great spiritualists, philosophers, and psychologists — Ramakrishna, Gandhiji, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, S. Radhakrishnan, Baba Amte, Jiddu Krishnamurthi and Viktor Frankl, among others.
And Shourie being Shourie, he moves effortlessly between the micro and the macro, the personal internal process and the larger external environment. Almost every chapter is full of questions that arose in Shourie's mind, as they perhaps would in most thinking people's minds. Most of the latter may not pursue an investigation of the nature that Shourie launched on, but would probably be indebted to him for having done so. The bulk of the book is about, as the subtitle suggests, how human suffering refutes religions, and how religion leaves one with as many questions as answers (many of the chapters end with the residual questions in Shourie's mind).
I must confess that some of the narrative and descriptions from the scriptures are a tad detailed and may make the read a bit heavy. Honestly, I would have preferred to read more about Shourie's own engagement with the ideas described in the scriptures and his state of mind as he did so.
This notwithstanding, one of the greatest strengths of the book is that Shourie, after sketching the larger picture, offers no prescriptions; nor does he give a formula for dealing with such situations, and as he concludes, “Everyone struck a blow will find ways to cope ... I have listed some of the lessons that ring true to me ... I have sketched possibilities.” It's an unsentimental report of a personal journey. And if you find that his answers don't work for you, that's absolutely fine. But if he stimulates you to undertake a similar exercise of dealing with life events through understanding and insight rather than blind faith, then, I would imagine, the book will have done its work.