A personal account of how the millstone of being identified with a religion hangs heavy much of the time
I was born in a liberal Muslim family in 1950. There was nothing liberal about my name, though: Mohammed Nadeemullah Khan. The mixed neighbourhood where I grew up never found it worthy of notice. But some children in school found its association with a religious community a source of entertainment – at my expense. Digs on beards, lungis, skull-caps, Friday baths, and – the perennial favourite – circumcision.
It never descended to fisticuffs or a brawl; probably I was too timid, probably I needed their friendship. So, no serious damage done. Evenings of high-energy romps in my lane with friends helped flush out whatever trace of inadequacies I might have carried home. This “innocent” ragging decreased as I moved to the higher classes, and disappeared in college.
Meanwhile, the world of my private thoughts and beliefs was describing its own trajectory. The earliest I can remember is a vague, unconscious acceptance of the benevolence of all supernatural beings across the religious board. This changed during my mid-teens to a sharp appreciation of the singularities of the faith I was born into. I got into occasional fasting and prayer and recitation of the Holy Book. In my late-teens, scepticism gathered strength. I was muddled, yes, afraid, yes; but I preferred confusion and fear to unsupported certainties. This was the result of the company I kept, the books I read.
Well before I married at 27, I was a full-blown, hard-core, unrelenting atheist; which also meant I would marry someone who, at the very least, sympathised with my state of (un)belief. It thus happened that my daughter and son arrived to parents for whom any kind of unsupported belief was anathema. If they were to grow up as free-thinking persons, why, then, should they carry the mill-stone of being identified with a religion to which they bore no allegiance? I had carried its weight around my own neck, albeit mildly. I had managed by deliberately projecting a secular persona. The aggressive, intolerant fringe within and without the Muslim community had started gaining strength, and we could foresee the demonisation of the entire community on account of these lunatics. We didn’t want our two kids to have to pay for a faith they wouldn’t even be buying. So we chose religion-neutral names for them and rolled them out for easy assimilation in a name-obssessed society. The plan was that they would marry outside the concern of religion, and free themselves and their progeny of affiliation with anything except good sense.
They grew up with an indulgent irreverence for handed-down wisdom. The daughter, a 35-year-old careerist now, does not want to marry only because society expects her to. She hasn’t met the right man yet. The son, now 31, is happily married to a girl born in another (un)faith. Before he met her, I had asked him whether he would marry a Muslim. “Why not?” he replied. “All I would care for is compatibility!” It revealed to me my own insecurities that those “innocent” raggings had engendered.
It occurred to me that as a first-generation atheist I carried with me the passion of a neo-convert. My children often call me the Osama bin Laden of atheism. They are completely in consonance with the rational position, but they do not carry the same abhorrence for the faith their father does. They didn’t have to hack their way into a world of human beings out of the smoky, suffocating, spooky, soul-destroying, yet strangely mesmeric space of gods and demons and prophets. Could their neutral names have shielded them from the ravages to which I was subjected in school?
Our foresight, it appears, helped them slip past the emotional vulnerabilities of childhood and adolescence. It could not insulate them, though, from the morbid curiosity of a name-obsessed segment of society.
My daughter recently took up a job in Ahmedabad. She had been alerted to the unbridgeable polarisation that has taken place between Hindus and Muslims since the 1985 riots, and later the Godhra riots in 2002. But it was only when broker after broker showed either unwillingness or helplessness to find for her a cosmopolitan area that the dimensions of the divide hit her. “Tamey Juhapura nu ghar dekho ne ben, ek dum a one chhey!” Or try Jangpura, or Jamalpura, or any of the ghettoes. Jodhpur? No! Vastrapur, Ambawadi, Bodakdeo, Satellite? Mushkil chhey, ben, mushkil chhey.
The girl, however, was determined. She planted herself in a guest house and lived out of a suitcase till she finally landed a decent flat in Prahlad Nagar, owned by a Delhi Sikh. “Prahlad Nagar?” said the astounded Muslim autorickshaw man chatting me up from the railway station to my daughter’s flat.
“What’s a girl from a good Muslim family doing there?” Why didn’t my daughter hide behind her religion-neutral name? Because Prithviraj Chavan’s Mumbai had exposed its inadequacy to cover her culpability from end to end. Before signing a tenancy deal in Santa Cruz, she was required to go for police verification. That required identity proof. She flashed her passport which, alongside her sanitised name, carried her father’s name. The landlord was livid.
“Kai tumhi? Itkya mahattvachi gosht saangat naahi?” (What did you mean by concealing such vital information?) We just don’t rent our house to Muslims. The Society rules don’t allow it.” My son did better while looking for a flat in Mumbai. He used his company-issued identity card, that didn’t carry his father’s name.
In Bengaluru some years ago, the story was the same. It had driven both my children up the wall with its “Saary Amma, Saary Saar, we cannot give our house to Muslims.”
Yet, whether in Ahmedabad, Mumbai or Bengaluru, my daughter and son have always managed to find gracious landlords, all Hindus. For them the name has been only for the purpose of identifying an individual, not to get a peep into the secret gods that animate their beings.
Yet, I don’t consider myself any worse a victim of social vagaries than all of us who share this earth with other human beings. I have earned decent money, lots of respect, and phenomenal friends — all of them Hindus! I write only to raise consciousness about the people who have suffered because of our vicious human kinks. I only desire to raise awareness about the demon that can so easily take charge of every one of us.