In the interests of integrity, a full disclosure first: I used to be a Freemason.
Five years ago, when I was living in Chennai, two friends—both senior members of the Freemasonry—nominated me into their lodge. For just over a year, I attended every one of the lodge’s meetings, togged up in the full, regulation suit and tie (vest optional). I remember clearly how that suit used to feel at the end of a classically humid Chennai evening, clammy from being sweated into. Once, a light blue shirt became so thoroughly soaked that it passed very nicely for a dark blue shirt.
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Soon afterwards, I left Chennai, and my active participation in the Freemasonry ended. In that time, I’d risen successfully through a couple of degrees, I’d learnt a couple of code words, and I’d ascertained whether or not there really is a secret handshake (there is). So while my first-hand accounts of those experiences wouldn’t exactly unleash a cloudburst of global sensation, they might set off a ripple in your millpond of Saturday-afternoon reading.
That I choose to leave the millpond unrippled puzzles even me. It isn’t as if the Freemasons have any prosecutorial powers, and in any case, I signed no non-disclosure agreements. The Freemasons are also emphatically not as fearsome as the mafia. Whenever a Masonic friend of mine is asked what it is the Freemasons really do, he turns the question genially aside, saying, “I’ll have to kill you if I tell you.” But he means it (I’m fairly sure) as a joke.
I can only surmise, then, that what Balaram Biswakumar says is true: that the cohesion and fraternity of the Freemasonry gets to you even during as brief a membership as mine, encouraging you to hold its secrets. “Real brotherly love,” Biswakumar says, that phrase sounding oddly out of place when spoken through the tufts of a fierce military moustache, “is something you’ll only feel in a Masonic lodge.”
Landmark: (top) The investiture ceremony of Balaram Biswakumar as the 14th Grandmaster of the Grand Lodge of India in November was the first Masonic event to be open to the public; and an engraving from 1805, based on an earlier work by Léonard Gabanon, shows the initiation of an apprentice Freemason into a lodge in England. Photograph: Grand Lodge of India
Last November, as he was being installed amid great pomp as the 14th Grandmaster of the Grand Lodge of India, Biswakumar launched his mission to share the love—to open up the Freemasonry. The investiture ceremony in Chennai was the first such, anywhere in the Masonic world, to be attended by the general public. A panoramic photograph of the ceremony, hanging on a wall of the Grand Lodge in New Delhi, shows an audience divided neatly into two: one section of 1,600-odd Freemasons, and across the aisle, nearly 600 family members, friends and curious strangers. Still more people, it is said, had to be turned away at the door because the hall was full. “It was just packed,” Premkumar Karra, a long-time Freemason and a friend of Biswakumar’s, recalls. “Even we were forced to stand at the very back, against the wall.”
Over the last decade, the Freemasonry around the world has begun, slowly, to acknowledge the drawbacks of its famously zipped lips—and although most Freemasons deny the direct connection, it is no coincidence that the decade has also been one paved with Dan Brown literature. “If enough muck is thrown at you, and if you don’t respond, then some of it is bound to stick,” says Bharat Epur, a senior Freemason based in Chennai and a fund of information about the fraternity’s past.
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For much of its lifetime, dating conclusively to the 14th century and conjecturally even to Biblical Jerusalem, the Freemasonry never shrank from publicity, Epur contends. “The Statue of Liberty, for instance, was a gift from French Freemasons, and it was received very publicly at the dock by the Grandmaster in New York,” he says. Only in the 20th century, hounded first by anti-Masonic factions in the US and then by Fascists in Germany and Italy, did the Freemasons begin to fade from the public gaze.
But while secrecy thus became an external mechanism of protection, it had always been an internal tenet of Freemasonry—a way of segregating its own members, such that an initiate learns more only as he attains higher degrees. When Karra first joined, in 1993, he remembers being puzzled by all the mystery. “But then I accepted it—I even saw that it was important, because the members are bound that much tighter because of it.” Epur phrases it as he would an aphorism: “The student is taught by a teacher only as much as the teacher thinks the student ought to know.”
In a television interview that aired shortly after he took over as Grandmaster, Biswakumar was asked: “Is it a secret that people drink from a skull?” The camera doesn’t catch Biswakumar’s reaction, but we hear him draw an indignant breath and exclaim: “Nooooo, rubbish!” The reference is obvious. In his prologue to The Lost Symbol, Brown writes: “The thirty-four-year-old initiate gazed down at the human skull cradled in his palms. The skull was hollow, like a bowl, filled with blood-red wine. Drink it, he told himself. You have nothing to fear.”
Biswakumar cannot blame anybody for nursing these inaccuracies about the Freemasons. “My own mother thought, for many years, that the Freemasonry was just a club of drinkers, and whatever I said, I wasn’t able to convince her otherwise,” he says, with a straight face. “Then she came to the ceremony and learnt a little more about it and said: ‘Oh, I didn’t know this was such a nice place, and I didn’t know Swami Vivekananda was a Freemason!’” Now, as the Indian Grandmaster, Biswakumar realizes that he is in a position to erase these misconceptions—even if, in so doing, he must beat back some inevitable opposition from within the Freemasonry.
In 1977, at a party, Biswakumar was introduced to some members of Lodge Vidya, one of the many such “craft lodges” in Chennai. Right there, he was invited to join. At the time, he was a practising neurologist, having retired from the Army Medical Corps as a captain nearly a decade earlier. “So I signed up to become a Freemason, and I was like a fish taking to water,” Biswakumar says. “Maybe it was the discipline, and the symbolic betterment of oneself, that reminded me of the army—I don’t know.”
Biswakumar, a barrel of a man even in his early 70s, is a marvellous compaction of industry. His friends, even those many years younger, talk with awe of how Biswakumar gets to the Madras Cricket Club so early, for his morning game of tennis, that he has to shake the watchman awake. He hasn’t given up his medical practice, and only in 2004 did he cease teaching on the side. “It’s been like juggling with five balls in the air,” Biswakumar says. “Right now, I travel practically every weekend, much of it for Freemasonry work.”
Asking a Freemason about what exactly “Freemasonry work” constitutes will usually draw forth a pre-ordained sequence of responses. The first will deal with “improving one’s own self”—morally, ethically and spiritually—and the second will touch upon commitment to one’s fellow man. However sincerely explained, though, both these responses can sound abstract and platitudinous, and so the Freemason will move on to the third, more tangible task: charity.
“The Freemasons in America do charity on the order of $1 million (around Rs 4.7 crore) per day,” Biswakumar says. “We’re not at that level, naturally,” he adds, before plunging into a nonetheless substantial recitation of the old-age homes, orphanages, hospitals, polyclinics and schools that the Indian Freemasonry supports. “We haven’t, traditionally, made too much of a noise about it,” he says. “But next year is going to be our golden jubilee, and I think it’s time we did make a noise about it.”
The Grandmaster’s own work, of course, goes beyond this. He is responsible for each of the 367 lodges and the nearly 18,000 Freemasons in the country, and part of Biswakumar’s plan is to expand that membership during his tenure: “That’s far too small for a country this size.” Ironically, he will have the benefit of Brown’s assistance in this. In the years since Brown’s novels hit their high-pitched whine of success, the Indian Freemasonry has received more and more applicants—some possibly hoping to spend Happy Hour swigging from skulls, but many who are genuinely interested.
In India’s smaller towns, Biswakumar says, you can find the local lodge only if you ask around for the bhooth bangla, the haunted house (this is, in fact, true: The Freemasons’ Hall in Pune, built in the early 1800s, is called precisely that). These are the towns Biswakumar hopes to tap for his new members, but he can’t if they think the Freemasonry to be a dubious cult. “The impression is that if it’s secret, it’s illegal or unnatural,” he says. “That’s why I want to open it up.”
In this, he has considerable support, but also significant opposition. Arun Chintopanth, who served as the Indian Grandmaster between 2003 and 2006, and who is still a member of the grand Board of General Purposes, remembers that when Biswakumar broached his vision for his installation ceremony, “there was a lot of debate about it. And naturally—it would set such a precedent.” The board needed multiple meetings before it was convinced.
Chintopanth was one of the board members who disagreed with Biswakumar, although he now phrases his memory of that dissent most tactfully. “We don’t need to dilute Freemasonry in the name of educating the public about ourselves,” he says. “We still need to figure out what we can disclose, what we can go to the public with. To throw a Grand Lodge meeting open like that to the public was perhaps a little premature. We aren’t still ready for such openness.”
John Reginald, a Chennai-based surgeon and a veteran Freemason, was—and is—another sceptic. “There are certain things that should remain sacrosanct,” he says, “and we went through with the installation only because he was very insistent and because his predecessor was also for it.” The ceremony congealed Reginald’s convictions further. “It turned out to be prolonged, and people got restless. I thought it didn’t have dignity. And I felt bad that, when he was being installed, we couldn’t salute him.” A Freemason’s salute reveals his rank, and is thus not allowed to be performed in public.
Reginald isn’t, in any way, against the Freemasonry discussing itself. “In fact, I give a lot of lectures myself about the movement, and there are other ways of disseminating information,” he argues. “The Grandmaster in England, for instance, went on the BBC to talk about Freemasonry. I just don’t think throwing our rituals open to the public is the answer.”
To Biswakumar, these apprehensions are natural, only to be expected of an organization that clings to tradition, that is so particular about its rituals being performed one specific, ancient way and absolutely no other. “Whether we like it or not, people have become curious about us,” he says. “We don’t have to tell them all about what we are. But we have to show them what we are not.”