‘Mumma, What Is Muslim?’: My Relationship With A Religion I Don’t Identify With

Posted by Arastu Zakia in Society, Staff Picks
July 17, 2017

This is the story of my relationship with religion.

I was in class two at an excellent Jesuit school in Ahmedabad, when my class teacher, Mrs Sinha, asked, “How many Hindus in this class?” It was for some government count, as far as I can remember. A majority of my classmates raised their hands. Then she asked, “How many Muslims in this class?” A few more students raised their hands. She then proceeded to ask one or two more questions.

I didn’t raise my hand at all. I didn’t know what those words meant – I didn’t know ‘what I was’. My partner noticed this and complained at the end: “Ma’am, he didn’t raise his hand.” “What are you?” Mrs Sinha barked at me. “I don’t know,” I replied. She looked into my admission documents (as I’d just joined that school) and got back to me, saying: “You’re Muslim!”

That day, I returned home and told my mother what had happened. I asked her: “Mumma, what is Muslim?” “It’s a name beta, we are Muslim,” she replied. That was how I discovered religion.

“Our Muslim identity was never an issue with our neighbours in the first locality we lived in.”

I was born and raised in an elite locality of Ahmedabad which was predominantly Hindu, but also had a mix of a few other communities, at that time. My first few years were spent in Shri Krishna Apartments – where, in the 300-odd apartments, we were the only Muslim family. However, this never became a problem with any neighbour. Our neighbours loved us and we loved them too.

Then in 1992, my grandparents’ home was burnt down in another ‘mixed’ locality in Ahmedabad, right behind the famed IIM Ahmedabad. Some neighbours also came and joined in the loot, they were told. By this time, I had also learnt that my great-grandparents’ home in the old city of Ahmedabad had been burnt a good five or six times over the years!

Coming back to the topic of my immediate family, in 1992, our neighbours still stood by us but some people in the adjoining neighbourhood had noticed that we were Muslim. They began threatening my parents to leave the place. They would wait outside our gate to threaten us when we passed. The builder of our apartment, Kiran bhai, stood by us and told us, “Don’t you worry, I will deal with them.” But things kept building up.

A few days later, when my father was driving his car, he was brought to a stop thanks to a huge jam. It turned out that some BJP/VHP workers had stopped all cars and were climbing on to the windshield of each car to paint a swastik. He was obviously shit-scared, but he stayed calm, waited for his turn to arrive, quietly got the swastik painted on his car too, and then sped away like a madman.

On another scary night, when rumours of more riots across Ahmedabad were growing, we ran away to a family friend’s place. He taught at IIM Ahmedabad, and my parents must have thought that his home on the campus would be a good place to hide. Somewhere in the midst of the conversation with our hosts, loud noises from what seemed like a large group of people started coming from a distance. My parents were certain that a mob had entered IIM-A. Maybe they’d heard about us hiding there!

Our hosts too were obviously scared – and the predicament we had put them in further troubled my parents. Then our host got an idea and said, “Let me dial the watchman at the gate and ask where the mob has reached.” When he called, the watchman told him that the noise was from a basketball match that was going on in the campus.

Eventually, things took a decisive turn. When we returned home one night, there was a paper stuck on our door, which said something along the lines of ‘last warning – leave, or else…’ This was the last straw, and my parents relented. Still, my mother was adamant that she did not want me to grow up in a ghetto. Hence, we moved to another mainstream locality, near the famed National Institute of Design (NID) this time.

Our lane had a mix of Hindus and Muslims at the time. One of the first neighbours we befriended was a lovely inter-religious couple – Indian architects who studied in Paris. Their home in a similar Hindu-majority locality had just been attacked – they too had fled and come to this new place.

“Even though people have questioned my religious identity, I never felt as if I belonged to any religion.”

Although I was just four at the time, all these things made me more aware of religion as a concept. As I grew up, I was often asked: “Arastu? Are you Parsi?” Initially, I used to say, “No, I’m Muslim.” As I became older, I would often lie: “Yes, I’m Parsi.” Sometimes I would say: “No no, I am Hindu!”A few times when I dared to let the truth out, I got the response: “Oh! You don’t look Muslim.” Sometimes, there would be no response but just a weird look on their faces.

But regardless of whatever I said, I never felt as if I belonged to any religion. My family didn’t pray or fast. The only times I went to a mosque was when my father took me on Eid mornings. I’d look around and rise, kneel and appear to murmur – basically copying whatever others around me did!

Post 1992, in the new society we had moved to, gradually all the Hindus moved out and it became a Muslim-only lane. So, all of the boys used to gather, pray, fast and stand outside the mosque. But not me. They’d bully me from time to time, although my father’s hostility to everyone also contributed to that.

I remember being bullied for things such as wearing shorts! “Maulana says we shouldn’t wear shorts,” they’d say. “Maulana says we shouldn’t watch TV.” Sometimes, when the maulana from the nearby madrasa used to drive by on his bicycle, they’d abandon the cricket match that was being played, and hide inside the car parking area waiting for the maulana to pass. I’d be the only one still standing there wondering what had happened!

For a while, we had two lovely dogs. During this time, multiple complaints were made since dogs and their drool are considered unholy in Islam. I remember being called a kaafir (infidel), and more, multiple times while growing up. Consequently, my relationship with religion could be best described as ‘indifferent’.

I remember two more instances during that period. Once, when we made a rare visit to one of our Muslim neighbours, their daughter tried to confirm the rumours she’d heard about me: “Tum namaz nahi padte (You don’t read the namaz)?” I said, “Nahi (No).” She went on: “Tumhe pata hai na ki do Jumme tak namaz na pade toh Musalman nahi rehte (You do know that if you don’t read the namaz for two consecutive Fridays, you don’t remain a Muslim any longer)?” My father, who is usually ultra-aggressive, was also stunned at this, remained shut and just made an awkward face.

“I was told that if I didn’t offer namaz for two consecutive Fridays, I would no longer remain a Muslim.”

“Namaz nahi padhoge toh yeh hoga, aisi saza milegi, waisa gunaah chadega. (If you don’t read the namaz – this will happen, you will receive this punishment, you’ll be adding this sin to the list of your sins.)” – I have heard this umpteen times and I have always yearned for someone to tell me what good it will do – or at least, expected them to tell me to pray out of gratitude and not fear. However, no one ever did this – not even a single time!

The second instance was when I got into a fight with a classmate from school over something on our football ground. He came, pushed me to the ground, and yelled: “Saale miye, ghar jala dunga tera. (You disgusting fellow, I’ll burn your house.)” I remember my first reaction to this: “Shit, now the others too know that I’m Muslim.” After all, this fact had been considerably concealed otherwise, because my name seemed secular (and deliberately so – my mum had insisted I have that kind of a name). Neither did my appearance or accent betray signs of matching any stereotype people may have had.

I don’t remember ‘seeing’ a Muslim girl in my lane after I turned 10 or 12. They were either in their burkhas or just indoors. The only time I saw them was during their weddings – but there too, like always, their faces and heads would be hidden.

I remember another instance from this time. I have addressed my mother as ‘Mumma’ my entire life. At times, that ‘Mumma’ would get abbreviated to ‘Mu’ (pronounced as ‘Mo’ like in ‘Mother’). The auto that dropped me at school had come to pick me up. As I went out, my mom waved goodbye, and I said, “Bye, Mu.” Hearing this, my Muslim mate in the auto laughed and said: “Yeh toh Hinduyo ki tarah mummy ko ‘Maa’ bolta hai (Like the Hindus, this guy also calls his mother ‘Maa’)!”

Then, I also remember that day (in or around 1998) when I heard that my best friend’s parents’ general store had been burnt down. There hadn’t been any riot in the city. There had just been a minor rumour of a communal nature somewhere. Just that one shop had been burnt down. I also remember going to their rival’s store next door to buy something the following day. As I stood there, the shop owner was speaking to another man. Their conversation went along the lines of “You saw what I did!” “Ya, but I gave the kerosene,” came the reply.

Sometime around this, I also discovered that my father, who had a habit of making powerful acquaintances, had been communicating with the then RSS chief KS Sudarshan, through inland letters. He used to keep some of these letters with him, whenever a communal rumour flew around. He used to think that these letters would help him escape a potential mob.

One night, Sudarshan called us for dinner to an RSS headquarter somewhere near Ahmedabad. We were escorted in a car, and reached the destination at around 8:30 PM. I remember walking past a group of about 20 to 30 stick-wielding men in Khaki chaddis practising their drills. As a child, I was really scared by this.

While we walked in, Sudarshan was seated on a sofa in a room which seemed to be reasonably austere. Three or four people sat around him. The first question he asked us was: “Aap ka ghar aur office kaha hai (Where is your house and office)?” My dad replied, and two men got up and went to another room. They returned after a while. Till this day, it is my suspicion that none of our properties were ever targeted because of something those men noted down that night.

“My father’s links to the RSS saved us big time in 2002.”

This was what possibly helped us a few years later. It was around 4:30 PM on February 27, 2002. I was about to leave for my tuition class, when my mother called me from office. “Beta, don’t go, there’s news of a riot. We too are returning home.” By then, I knew the drill. I cancelled all my plans and just stayed indoors. I remember my parents coming home soon after and having a very interrupted sleep that night.

When we woke up the next morning and stepped outside our home on the ground floor, I saw thick, black smoke rising from many sides. One of those spots seemed to be quite close by. We suspected that it was from the building where my father’s office was located as it was near the next crossing. Soon, we heard from our neighbours that every single Muslim establishment in that building had been burnt down, except my father’s office. Maybe it was the note those two men made that night that helped or maybe, it wasn’t.

The local TV channels were playing “Gadar” that day. Soon after, people started to gather in the entire lane. Despite being raised by an abusive father, the tension I felt at that moment as a 14-year-old was new to me. I was scared for my life – and that was because some people suddenly wanted to kill everyone who had the name I was born with!

People around me were talking in a language I didn’t understand. There were conversations about where we could run, who lived in which direction and which religious community stayed in which lane. I had never felt more aware of my surroundings! Women and children were asked to go to the terraces to prepare kerosene bottles and throw them in case a mob attacked. Some of the more enterprising men said that they would stand guard on both sides of our lane. “Mob aa bhi gaya toh yeh aadmi kya kar lene waala hai (Even if the mob comes, what will these men be able to do)?” was the hushed response to that offer.

I remember my father trying to be brave and walking to one end of the lane that evening. He returned soon after, and said he saw the BJP Leader Haren Pandya leading a mob that was gathering at the crossing close by. Many years later, when my father happened to meet Haren Pandya, he (Pandya) told him (my father): “Had I not been there that evening, your lane would have been burnt. I was trying to pacify the mob and steer them away.” But seeing that mob back then had obviously scared my father.

In the meantime, my mother tried calling a family friend, who was a senior policeman. In the past, when we had called him in similar situations, he had always immediately managed to get a police point set up just outside. However, this time, to my mother’s astonishment, he replied: “Sorry, this time there’s nothing I can do.” My mother knew that right then, this was different! After 10 years, it was now time for us to run again.

The same couple who were our first friends in the whole lane approached us saying that one of their friends leads the Police Academy and that he lived in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura in Ahmedabad. Apparently, he had offered to host us at his farmhouse. We tried asking some families in our lane if they wanted to join us, because some space could have been arranged for them too. All of them said no. Some said that they were worried about the black money and jewellery in their homes. Some said they didn’t want to run, while the others just didn’t like my father.

“The couple with whom we became friends on moving to the new locality, and the chief of the Police Academy, cleverly helped us move to Juhapura.”

The chief of the Police Academy was smart – he had his watchmen dress up in police clothes. They also drove down to our home in the chief’s police car. Leaving our home behind once again, we rode in our car escorted by them. I remember seeing a burning flame in a provision store owned by a Muslim uncle, right outside our lane. I also remember seeing two or three mobs of four or five men on our way. They all had trishuls in their hands and all of them wore saffron headbands.

Suddenly this mystical area of Juhapura seemed to be a saviour. I had never visited this area before. As we entered Juhapura, I remember someone in the car saying, “Yeh border hai, hum aa gaye Juhapura (This is the border – we have reached Juhapura).” The relief I felt entering a place I’d never been to still remains fresh in my mind!

I remember the following nights. We used to stay awake late into the night, sitting on our host’s porch. We could see burning yellow lights (flames, perhaps?) and hear loud noises and chants of mobs from around two or three kilometres away. I discovered ‘new practical laws’ of science!

The days would be no different. Every now and then, black clouds of smoke could be seen in the distance. Then it’d be a guessing game: “Woh Cargo Motors jala hoga (That must be Cargo Motors up in flames)”, “Woh so-and-so dukaan gayi hogi (That must be so-and-so shop burning).” Of course, the phone too kept ringing.

The Gujarati newspapers too did their thing. I recall one popular Gujarati daily having a photo of a terrace taken from far away. It featured what seemed to be the vague figure of a man wearing something white, having something in his hand, and the following headline (translated) on their front page: “Who is this gun-wielding Muslim?”

We returned to our home after a week or so. When I was about to enter our home, one of our next-door neighbours saw us and screamed aloud: “Lo bhagode aa gaye vapas (See, those who ran have returned)!”

No damage had been done to our lane, but a few homes had been vandalised in the vicinity. One of them belonged to one of my classmates. “One of the neighbours took our TV,” he told me much later. A few days after returning, my mother spoke to a family friend from our previous home (the one we had fled in 1992). She said that they were so scared for their lives that they had even stopped going for their morning walks – all because they had heard strong rumours of trucks full of Muslims coming to burn them from Juhapura. I think I almost laughed!

I also remember how, one night many months later, my mother woke up startled, stood up and started howling at the top of her voice, when my father and I had opened the door to the room where she was sleeping. She thought that we were rioters who had come to kill her. We had to pacify her then – but we have eventually been able to laugh the incident off, over the years.

Additionally, two other memories stand out from this time. I think it was somewhere around March 2002. During this time, we barely used to leave home, and everything seemed gloomy all the time. However, in the midst of this, I got a call from a classmate of mine inviting me to his birthday party. I simply couldn’t understand his frame of mind – and I think he couldn’t understand mine, either!

The second memory relates to yet another major change in my life. My parents didn’t feel comfortable sending me to my beloved school anymore, as it was in a Hindu area. It is to be noted that the final exams were close and I was in class 9. My father made a few calls to the school’s administration, they understood the issue and gave me a promotion for the year. For the next academic year, I was moved to another Jesuit school in the old part of the city, which had a healthy Muslim population. I have been asked several times why I made this strange move of moving out of a school that everyone wanted to get into. Each time, I have cooked up different stories.

Soon after, my parents began working at riot relief camps. I remember my mother going to those camps quite often. I also visited the camps once. Some NGO was asking the kids there to draw. I remember this one girl, who drew a red-haired monster.

After some time, my dad revived his old NGO, and took it up full-time with my mother. I remember this one survey my father conducted on some pedestrians around Ahmedabad. One of the questions was: “What do you think of Juhapura?” Some of the answers were: “It’s mini-Pakistan” and “There is a helipad there, where helicopters from Pakistan bring missiles for war with India.”

I also remember coming across certain pamphlets, somewhere. They claimed to be published by the VHP/Bajrang Dal and their text (in Gujarati) was something along the lines of: “These Muslim boys are very handsome and they fool and take away our Hindu girls, later converting and marrying them. Let us open gyms and beauty centres in Hindu areas too, so that our boys also become handsome.”

“A meeting with a woman at a riot relief camp, and moving away from my father were what saved me and my mother from our wretched existence.”

Life moved on. Social activists began coming to our home – as did a few folks from the world of films. In general, there was lots of activity. A year later, however, mom and I finally left my father. Much later, I discovered what had triggered that high sense of empowerment and confidence within her, after having been trodden-upon for so long. She told me that in one of her visits to the relief camps, a woman came up to her and began howling: “Aap educated Muslim aurat hai – aap hamari haalat dekho. aap hamari madad nahi karenge toh kaun karega (You are an educated Muslim woman – you should look at my plight. If you do not help me, who will)!”

That was the moment when she was liberated! The pain of 2002 and the pain of that woman gave her a strange sense of empowerment. She realised that she did not need to bear anything – her pain wasn’t the largest, she could be free and could also empower others. More importantly, she realised that she could still have a happy life! Eventually, she joined an international non-governmental organisation (INGO) and soon started the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. Some of you may know its name from the recent Haji Ali and Triple Talaq cases.

I was 15 when we left my father. Life became shockingly kind to me ever since I got out from those clutches. It was truly beautiful – I wasn’t a good-for-nothing as I had been made to believe. I also had skills, and I was liked. After this ordeal, a lot of my acquaintances also opened up to me regarding their domestic issues. I realised that I wasn’t alone. After a period of selfish enjoyment to satiate my sense of deprivation, I became really passionate about empowering young people and started a non-profit. We worked for six years with around 6000 college youths, educating them about issues such as communalism, gender, citizenship, and even something like happiness.

I remember this one time when we took a group of Hindu youths from a mainstream college to Juhapura for an interaction with some 20 local girls out there. On the eve of our meeting, many of their parents warned them: “Are you sure you need to go?”, “Be careful, very bad people stay there”, and so on. Most of them still came, and we made the trip.

“Despite their parents’ warnings, the Hindu students interacted wonderfully with the girls of Juhapura.”

That interaction was amongst the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced. The folks connected with those girls on so many levels. They laughed and shared anecdotes. The girls said how they had never gone out of Juhapura. The youngsters shared how their problems seemed so much like their own. As we left, they hugged and invited each other for their respective social functions. The walls had been broken, at least for those 10 or 15 people we had taken with us, that evening.

I remember this other time when I took the same group to visit the worst-hit Naroda-Patiya riot victims. Every single victim, without exception, said: “Hindus aren’t the problem. There are good and bad people amongst both. This was the work of politics and politicians.”

On the other hand, I remember this time when my grandfather came home one evening. Although he once prided himself on being ‘irreligious’, by this time, he had a long beard and was always dressed in a traditional white kurta-pyjama. He told my mother: “Beta, yeh NGO ka kaam toh thik hai, par Arastu ko bol thoda deen ka bhi kaam karey (Daughter, all this NGO work is fine, but do tell Arastu to also do religious work).” My mum replied: “Papa, aap ne jitna religion ka kaam apni zindagi mein kiya hai, usse zyada isne itni umar mein is NGO se kar liya hai (Father, whatever religious work you may have done throughout your life, Arastu has done more work with the NGO at his age).”

I also remember that members of the Tablighi Jamaat would come to my home sometimes. Their job was to propagate Islam further. Despite knowing I have never once prayed, fasted or gone to the neighbourhood mosque, they kept coming and tried to patronise me into coming to the mosque. I remember a particular statement by an elite member of this group: “Aaj kal Musalman bachho ka dhyan bohot zyada science aur technology pe aa gaya hai. Woh sab toh theek hai, par deen pe dhyan do pehle (These days, Muslim kids are focusing too much on science and technology. That is all right – but one should always pay attention to religious matters, first).”

With time, my mother finally met a kind, loving man, and they got married. He happened to be a Brahmin. Interestingly, he devours chicken, while my mother loves dosa. Meanwhile, on the work front, things were moving at a decent pace. I was selected as an Indian delegate to a workshop in Bangkok. This was my first international trip.

I remember the time when I was walking through a flea-market – and all of a sudden, this cart full of ducks and pigs came in front of me! I felt gross. That entire trip was a struggle, in terms of food. A fierce non-vegetarian back home, I struggled to find chicken to eat. Instead, there were other kinds of animals, which I found creepy. At that moment, the whole veg/non-veg debate back home took a whole new turn in my head, especially given its religious flavour in Gujarat. I realised that it had nothing to do with religion or with perceptions of right and wrong – it’s simply a habit!

Soon after, the Public Affairs Unit of the American Embassy backed the NGO I was leading. Somewhere down the line, they selected me for their International Visitor Leadership Program and sent me for a trip to the US. We were meeting with senators and people from the UN and the US government. We also met INGOs, and more.

Towards the end of the trip, I discovered that the introductory page, which had been given to all the guests, listed me as a ‘2002 riot survivor who was working with the Muslim youth on preventing them from getting radicalised’. Everyone was nice to me – I was the star! It was ‘positive discrimination’.

“At an event in the US, I was incorrectly introduced as a 2002 riot survivor. I wasn’t comfortable about it.”

But that introduction couldn’t have been farther from the truth, I was not a ‘riot survivor’. There were people who had lost people and property of their own – I hadn’t. And I wasn’t working with ‘Muslim youth on preventing them from getting radicalised’. In fact, I was going around colleges, trying to educate Hindu youths on communalism and more.

I remember telling an American friend: “I don’t think I have been made to feel as a Muslim in India as I’ve been in America.” Towards the end of the trip, I called my mother from America and told her: “Mum I’m done, I’m leaving the non-profit world.” She replied: “Whatever you feel is best, beta!”

Moving on, I remember a thing which an ex of mine used to tell me: “Tu Muslim nahi hai! Please! Maine keh diya bas (You are not a Muslim! Please! There, I’ve said it)!” It made her more comfortable to think of me that way. In my case, romantic relationships started only after lengthy discussions on my religion. Some didn’t even start because of the same reason. I am also aware that intense struggles await me in the future.

I have often been told “…par tu waisa nahi hai (…but you are not like that)” after a barrage of insults about Muslims. Furthermore, when an out-station trip was being planned, a friend of my girlfriend asking her: “Yaar, can we go with a Muslim!”

I also remember that time during an event in a college, when students are supposed to be dressed according to particular themes. I was wearing a turquoise kurta and blue jeans and a student came up to me and asked: “Tumhare group ki theme Al-Qaeda hai kya? Kurta pehena hai (Is Al-Qaeda the theme for your group? You are wearing a kurta)!” To this day, I feel uncomfortable wearing a kurta!

By this time in life, I knew that I was an atheist – fiercely and irrevocably so. At a trekking camp in Manali, some co-travellers asked me, “Aap ka kya religion hai bhaiya (What’s your religion, brother)?” I said, “Guess.” They tried everything – from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist to even ‘Indian’ and ‘Human’ – but they couldn’t guess ‘atheist’. I let it remain that way.

I distinctly remember what one of them did, when we returned to Ahmedabad. We got off the bus and were waiting for the parents to come and pick everyone up. A boy kept nagging me: “Bhaiya, bolo na, kya religion hai aap ka (Brother, please tell me what’s your religion).” In response, I kept playing around and kept avoiding the question. Soon after, his dad arrived. As he sat behind his father on his scooter and the scooter sped away, the boy turned around and screamed one last time: “Bhaiya bolo na, kya answer hai (Brother, please tell me the answer)!”

“People in my family have married Hindus, Christians and even a Dalit. Personally speaking, I have visited more temples than mosques in my life.”

Over the years, people in my family have married Hindus, Christians, even a Dalit. I remember wearing a Sikh kara (a steel or iron bracelet) on my wrist out of some fascination I once had. At times, I have kept a tiny Buddha statue in my pocket. Besides, there are idols of Hindu gods in my home that were gifted to me and we also have some gorgeous Madhubani artworks of Hindu lords. There is also a stunningly beautiful janamaz (on which Muslims offer namaz) in my home.

I have been to more temples than mosques, in my life – simply by not saying ‘no’ each time I’ve been on a tourist visit to a new place. I have also accompanied people to temples and mosques when they asked me to. They said that this made them feel good – and I didn’t mind!

Later, I started-up in 2012. Out of the three co-founders, I was the only one who couldn’t have his name on the office lease agreement. We wouldn’t have been allowed to procure that place if I did. To this day, a lot of my Hindu friends in Ahmedabad have no clue about this long-lasting, cemented phenomenon – and their shock never ceases to amaze me!

Today, most 20-year-olds in Ahmedabad (at least) have hardly interacted with Muslims. This is because, after 1992 and then 2002, most of the ‘ghettoisation’ is now complete. Muslims escaped or were forced to leave, so that they can live only with Muslims – while Hindus moved out to live only with Hindus. Pull up a map of Ahmedabad and I can show you exactly who lives where, barring a few countable exceptions.

And this is not just in Ahmedabad. My cousin in Bombay was made a ‘product’ for TV debates on the one hand, and right-wing trolling on the other, when she expressed how it’s been tough for her to get a home because of her religion. I also remember the time when one of my co-founders was warned by friends: “Be careful, you are about to get into business with a Miyabhai!”

Even after 9/11, the many global terror attacks over the years, and now Trump, I am sometimes told by friends – “Hey, you have wanted to move to Silicon Valley at times, right? Do you think you will be allowed to, now?” I have had several debates with Muslim acquaintances (online and offline) on how killing innocents in the name of religion is plainly wrong, and is also harming Islam itself!

“Islam isn’t flawed, some of its practitioners are” – this has been a common answer. On a political note, the ‘Congress or BJP?’ question has been put up to me, with visible expectations that I would choose the former. To this, a line which I read somewhere on Facebook sums it up best: “Main Musalman hu. Main marna nahi chahta. Is liye filhaal main corruption se kaam chala lunga (I am a Muslim. I do not want to die. That’s why, for the moment being, I’ll get the job done through corruption).”

After 2002, the Gaurav Yatras, and more, it seems that a lot has been thrown my way. But now, it is made to seem as if these never happened! I remember this conversation between a Gujarati Hindu gentleman and a curious non-Gujarati traveller in a train compartment back in 2003. “It was necessary to teach a lesson to these Muslims. They used to kill our cows, they used to convert our daughters but now they are scared. Haan yeh aurato aur bachho ke saath thoda zyada ho gaya par overall theek hi hua (Yes, it seems that they went overboard with the women and the kids – but overall, this was for the good).” the Gujarati gentleman was saying. When the other gentleman seemed to disagree and then went to the washroom, this guy told the others: “Lagta hai Muslim hai (It seems that the guy was a Muslim)!”

Somewhere around last year, the struggle over the triple talaq issue, which my mother and her courageous colleagues had been fighting for over 10 years, picked up steam. Their interactions with tens of thousands of Muslim women across the country had convinced them of the damage done to women in the name of religion. The fact that even the Quran, the holy book that all Muslims consider to be reverential, had no mention of triple talaq added further fervour to the fight.

In response, hundreds of Muslim men and even some women would attack my mother and her colleagues at events, meetings and on TV debates. WhatsApp messages were broadcasted by the thousands – not just about her but also about her ‘atheist son and Hindu husband’!

“Our life came full circle when the same people who used to threaten us were accused of being our friends and supporters.”

Somewhere along the way, Prime Minister Modi and the ruling BJP climbed onto the triple talaq bandwagon. Now those Muslims who had felt threatened by my mother and her colleagues got a new weapon to target her with: ‘RSS Agent’. Life had indeed taken a full turn! And all of a sudden, the same people we felt threatened by all our lives were being accused of being her friends and backers. Soon, the political sloganeering and posturing died down – but her struggle, rather their struggle, continues and will keep doing so.

Before writing this post, I called her to ask: “Mumma, if I write a post about my relationship with religion, can it harm you or your work?” She replied instantaneously: “Your thoughts are your own, and they should absolutely be shared, fiercely and openly. Don’t you ever worry!” The day I decided to drop my father’s secular-sounding surname and use my mother’s first name instead, I knew my identity would become a lot more visible. But it is too small a price to pay for the respect I want to give her.

My latest tryst with religion was when I went to the #NotInMyName protest at Jantar Mantar with my new employers and friends, a few days back. Several innocent people had been lynched in the name of religion. This time, the reason was beef. And then, just a few days later, there was the terrorist attack on innocent Hindu pilgrims on their way to Amarnath – and I remember the same old, familiar feeling coming back yet again!

Who am I fighting? Who do I hate? They’re all the same, regardless of their name or appearance!

Who is ‘mine’, and who is the ‘other’?

What is the solution? Is there a solution at all?

Is one religion the problem? Are all religions the problem? Is ‘religion’ itself the problem? If ‘religion’ didn’t exist, wouldn’t the perpetrators just create something else to use?

Who do I belong to? Do I belong to anyone? Who am I? Interestingly, the answer to these questions have been the clearest out of all the above. The others absolutely evade me.

Most of my good friends today are ‘atheist’ or ‘irreligious’. Most of them are scarred and have their own stories. I remain an observer of religion, and this is an account of all it has done to me so far! Let’s see what more you have to offer, dear religion!

This post was first published by the author on Facebook.

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