I have recently joined a rural immersion Fellowship. For an initial research report, we are advised to visit and interact with all the stakeholders, major or minor, in the community we’ll be working with eventually. Hence, during one of my field visits to this village, in rural Gujarat, I happened to catch the lead doctor of the village’s Primary Health Clinic. He was just leaving for a meeting when I arrived with the Sarpanch and seeing that my escort was the mukhiya of the village himself, he had to get down and greet us.
Inside his clinic, we interacted for good half an hour. At the end of my endless list of questions, he began to ask about me. A point to note here – in Gujarat, there is an extremely prominent culture of addressing people, by default, as Bhai and Ben, depending on their gender. In fact, when you ask someone their name, they’ll say it as ‘Kalu Bhai’ or ‘Savita ben’, without going to the trouble of saying their last name. I even have bills from shops and hotels that say my name is ‘Saumya ben’; the last name is irrelevant, I suppose.
So, this lead doctor asked me my name, and without thinking, I replied as Saumya ben. He then asked what my last name was, and I told them ‘Omer’. I kid you not, there was pin drop silence of 20 seconds, before he just point-blank asked me whether I was a Muslim. His eyes pierced through me, daring me to say ‘yes’. I looked at the stoic face of the Sarpanch, and I could see the tension clear the air and hear the sound of their breath as they heaved a sigh of relief, when I told them that I am a Hindu. Where I come from, an ‘Omer’ holds the same meaning as a ‘Gupta’, a safe last name belonging to Hindu religion.
This wasn’t the first time that I was put under a scanner as my last name sounds like that of a Muslim’s. I have dealt with such hounding looks at the airport, offices, in different communities. My cousin, who shares my last name, had a tough time in school, explaining his background to teachers and students alike. I specifically had to ask my parents to explain the entire concept to me, considering the blatant questioning I had been receiving.
It saddens me, and then it angers me.The questions on my last name irk me so much now, that just to ridicule the blind emphasis on religion that people place, I affirm myself as a Muslim.
It often reminds me of the fact that we maybe a secular nation, but probably only in ink. Is being from a certain religion a character certificate? I am a Hindu, so I must be a nice person.
I fail to understand the judgment the society passes on an individual’s background and character, based on their religion/caste/gender. I never have, and I never will. I do not know how to change this mindset, that has been engraved so religiously over decades.
Maybe, it’s my fault. Maybe, it’s too soon to expect people to move towards unconditional acceptance.