The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A sphere, a rod and the gods

It all started in the temples of modern capitalism ' German department stores. There were patterned spheres of all sizes on display everywhere. There were vests of all colours. There were wigs in the same colours. It was a celebration of purchasing power ' and none of the equipment it was spent on was of any practical use.

But that was only the tip of the iceberg, for there were other goods that were not displayed until the right moment ' and the moment came when the twelve stadia specially outfitted by the Germans for the World Cup opened. In streamed the spectators. Some wore the outfits that were on sale in stores. Some had little chits stuck on their cheeks in the colours of their national flags. Some had painted their entire faces. Some had covered their torsos with torrid graffiti. Some wore technicolour manes in the manner of Red Indians. Some wore little.

They sat down and began ritual chants. The more primitive ones simply chanted one sacred word like 'Nippon! Nippon!' Some chants were to the point, like 'Grandpa! What's the score' Whoe-oh-oh!' Some were replete with subtle irony, like 'Can you hear the English sing' I can't hear a f*****g thing.' Some were relevant. For instance, when the noise got too much, some chanted, 'Stick ur trumpet, stick ur trumpet, stick ur trumpet, up ur arse.' Some were too advanced for my ears.

If you looked closely, you would have noticed that there were usually followers of two cults mixed together. They were distinguished by their body paints ' yellow and green for Brazil, red and white for England, blue for Italy, etc. As far as I could make out, the colours were not edible ' at any rate, no one tried to lick off someone else's paint. By and large, the cultists displayed admirable religious tolerance. The English are reputed to be bloodthirsty fanatics, but they went home early after their gods were defeated.

After the gods entered the field, their worshippers changed the ritual. Some swayed one way and another like a cornfield ' obviously a fertility cult.

And the gods! Obviously, fashions have changed since gods sat on thrones and solemnly blessed or cursed their worshippers as required. These gods ran up and down the field. Sometimes they all ran in one direction, sometimes in the other ' obviously signifying the battle of good and evil. Evil was represented by a sphere which every god tried to kick. Since there was only one sphere and many gods, they had to run a lot to get anywhere near it. And when they did, they fought like devils to keep it. They kept dancing around it and got in the way of anyone trying to get close to it. Obviously these were young gods who had not learnt godly behaviour fully. So there was a divine elder who corrected them from time to time. He had a whistle so piercing that the gods immediately dropped whatever nasty things they were doing and froze when they heard it. Then the elder gave the ball to whoever was his current favourite, who could play with it for a few seconds. But soon he had to throw it, and the mayhem broke out once more. Shirts were pulled, shins were kicked, and bodies writhed on the ground. It is no longer like in the old religions, where gods were supposed to set a model for their human followers. Now they set examples that no human could follow without being thrown into a prison.

The sphere had a hard time being kicked around all the time, so a god took pity on it once in a while. He took it to a corner and let it rest for a few seconds before kicking it. But this momentary deprivation was so trying for the other gods that they got into a huddle and panted like dogs waiting for their master to throw a stick. When it was thrown ' I mean kicked ' they went berserk. They tried to catch it with their heads, which seemed a strange thing to do; since both the sphere and their heads were spherical, and the two were quickly parted. Sometimes two gods, both trying to catch the ball, banged their heads and fell unconscious on the ground.

The best thing for the sphere would have been to rest inside one of the capacious tents erected at two ends. But there was deep discord amongst the gods on the desirability of this eventuality. A half of them tried desperately to send the sphere into one home, the other half the other. A truly awesome god guarded each tent and tried his best to keep the sphere out. The energetic contentions amongst the gods ensured that the sphere never got a quiet moment.

These nightly ceremonies went on for weeks. At their end, on the basis of some mysterious rules, one team of gods was declared victorious, and awarded a curiously shaped rod. They called it the cup, but it could not have held even a pea. To me, it looked like a phallic symbol. It was taken to the Circus Maximus in Rome, which played host to a similar cult 2000 years ago. At that time, beastly sports were a part of the cult. Men were set to fight against ferocious animals, charioteers drove horses round and round, and followers of Christian and other cults were ceremonially killed. The new cult is not so bloodthirsty. The violence is confined to the games; and no arms are allowed. Even a venerable god was expelled from the field because he used his formidable head as a battering ram against an abusive little god.

At the final ceremony, there were bright lights and cacophony, but no violence. Everyone waited, shouting and drinking, swaying and swooning for hours. Then the winning team of gods arrived. They had brought along the so-called cup they had won. The young gods really thought it was a cup, they kept trying to drink from it. But it was a you-know-what, so they only managed to give it rather wet kisses. But their followers were in a trance by now; every kiss gave them unmentionable thrills, and sent them into a frenzy. They danced into the early hours of the morning. So ended the strangest religious festival I have seen.

Although this new religion is not everyone's cup of tea, I think it is an improvement on the Western people's earlier religion. For till recently they were worshippers of Mammon. They accumulated money, and buried it in impressive buildings called banks. They worked themselves to death collecting and burying money. The new cult retains vestiges of the old one. For instance, when they are not participating in the international rites that take place every four years, the gods attach themselves to temples scattered all over. There are frequent auctions in which these gods sell themselves to the temples; with the money they live in great luxury. It will be interesting to see how the old cult transforms itself into the new. Meanwhile, the spectacle will go on, to the amusement of us incurable agnostics.

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