"If you want to know what water is, don't ask the fish." So goes an old Chinese proverb. In other words, total immersion deprives the mind of a counterperspective and, for that matter, an honest evaluation.
To be born in India is to arrive into the world swimming in religion.
I was born in the southern city of Chennai and raised in the northern city of Delhi—more correctly New Delhi. My father was from Kerala, located in the deep south, my mother, from Chennai. My ancestors belonged to the highest caste of Hindu priests called the Nambudiris. When we read of the apostle Thomas going to India, he seems to set out with the goal of reaching the Nambudiris, since reaching the priests would reach the people. Thomas paid with his life. In Chennai stands a memorial to Thomas, and Kerala hosts other landmarks of his work. Despite the fact that only 6 percent of Indians today identify as Christians, the gospel arrived in India very early in church history.
Growing up, I knew nothing of this tradition. My family and I went to church, celebrated Christmas, and observed certain rituals on Good Friday, but I was never taught the gospel or its significance for my life. I attended more Hindu festivals and celebrations than I did Christian ones. Only many years after coming to Christ did I learn, from a grand-aunt, the backdrop to our ancestral story: Several generations ago, through the work of German Swiss missionaries of the Basel movement, a young woman was the first from our branch of the Nambudiris to profess Christ as Lord. I like to think that the missionaries gave the new surname Zacharias to represent and honor her priestly background.
My earliest encounter with "holiness" was watching a sunburnt mystic with matted hair and coarse skin soiled by the dirt on the road. He was a lanky figure with piercing eyes, his voice bellowing from the streets as he literally rolled the full length of his body under that torrid sun. As a young boy I would watch him in terror from behind a barred window. He was "a holy man," I was told, ever seeking to draw near to God. Carts and pedestrians alike would roll by or walk around him, each keeping a busy pace surrounded by a religious outlook on life. Such is India.
A Quiet Exit
While all of this holy activity formed a backdrop, it was never the focus of my life. By the time I was a young man, I lived with two deep struggles: I longed to become a cricketer, and I performed miserably in school. Cricket and tennis were all that I lived for. In India, this was a formula for failure. Indian children are raised to live with books and get to the top of the class, or else face failure and shame. My dad used to say sarcastically of me, "Center forward in football, fullback in studies." I was relieved when he said this only in jest. His fury over my report cards incited humiliating thrashings, one of which was so severe that had my mother not intervened, I'm not sure what irreparable harm would have come.
Whenever our family went to church, my one thought was the cricket match that would follow. I did well in sports but I am certain I would not have made it in professional sports either, as nothing in my life had gone well. I often pondered life's meaning. I was the jokester of the group and knew all the funny stories to tell. Rich in friends, impoverished when alone, I was well on my way to an isolated me.
As young teenagers, my sisters were invited to a Youth for Christ rally. I was not sure what it meant but joined them for the promise of refreshments. It was at one such rally that I first heard the gospel. The preacher was a man named Sam Wolgemuth. When the invitation was given, I walked forward. I didn't know what it meant, but I knew that I wanted what he had. A kind of half-hearted commitment was made, like a speck of salt being dropped into a vast tub of water. Still, my life of failure in studies continued to haunt me.