Write Angle Ziya Us Salam

Leap of faith, twice over

Book jacket of “The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism” by Deborah Baker   | Photo Credit: 20dmc convert

In this winter of discontent there is so much discussion on conversion and reconversion, ghar vapasi (coming home) and shuddhi (purification). At one level my mind goes back to Dayanand Saraswati; at another to Dilip Singh Judeo, the BJP leader who much before the current batch of sakshis, sadhvis and sadhus had undertaken prolonged ghar vapasi exercise in Jashpur, Madhya Pradesh. His focus was on tribals whom he brought into the fold of Hinduism through a series of rituals that involved washing their feet. The media was not outraged; it merely reported the events as they took place. The tribals were considered easy targets. Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister then and not many thought Judeo had his blessings in the whole exercise. This time the aspiration is higher; hence Agra and Aligarh have been sought to be used as laboratories of Hindutva. Again there is talk of ghar vapasi, the underlying belief being that all Indians were born Hindu and people, down the centuries, converted due to inducement or coercion. While the argument makes a mockery of human spirit of enquiry and exploration, it also reduces human beings to sheep, not reasoning thinking beings.

The talk set me thinking; Muslims too believe everybody is born one and the aim of life is to complete the journey from being a Muslim to a momin –– one following Islam as a religion to one following it as a way of life. The Christians too believe that faith provides a way of life. And Christian missionaries have in the past often sought to better the lot of the dispossessed and the deprived by providing education, giving access to better opportunities in life, and promising an egalitarian society without the prejudice of caste. In fact, over the years, the opponents of ghar vapasi programmes have wondered aloud about where the fresh converts would be placed in caste hierarchy in the Hindu society where one’s station in life is determined by the caste in which one is born.

All these heated discussions led me to Deborah Baker’s book all over again. This one too is about conversion, not the kind the media highlights with usually the poor and uneducated crossing from one faith to another without understanding either, but about an American woman who left her free society with all the attendant material benefits for a fathomless life in an alien country where nobody spoke her language, nobody dressed up like her. Yet, she felt like one of them.

The story that Baker recounts in “The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism” is a well known one of how Margaret Marcus, an American Jew ,became Maryam Jameela. Through the letters Margaret/Maryam exchanged with her parents and adoptive father, Sayyid Abul Ala Maudoodi, Baker talks of Margaret’s early years with all the love of her family, her troubled youth, her sympathy for displaced Palestinians after the formation of Israel, and her decision to leave the U.S. and spend the rest of her life in Pakistan, initially at the home of Maudoodi.

The book opens on a most pertinent note to our times with Baker reproducing the letter Maudoodi wrote to Maryam –– yes, he addresses her by her new name –– wherein he cautions her about the vast change in culture and way of life in the two countries, and religions. “As you must know, our way of life and social conditions are vastly different from those in America. We lack many facilities and amenities that Americans take for granted. Therefore, the first months here will certainly prove fatiguing and taxing upon your nerves. Unless you have patience and are resolutely determined to mould your life according to ours…you might find it extremely difficult to reconcile yourself to our ways.” He then goes on to offer his family’s hospitality to her, and requests her to introduce him to her parents. The following despatch from Margaret’s father bears out his concern for her welfare yet a willingness to let her sail out for her dreams, her contentment. Interestingly, as Baker highlights a little later, “Self-taught, untraveled, and unlearned in any foreign language, Margaret Marcus had sacrificed the supposed freedoms and privileges of a Western lifestyle to live in upright exile in Pakistan,” adding, “the choice she lays out for her readers is stark and familiar: a life lived by the sacred laws laid out in the Holy Quran or one blackened by hell-bent secular materialism.”

Not unsurprisingly, Baker had not heard of either Maudoodi or Maryam when she went to the archives division of the New York Public Library where she stumbled upon the family portrait of the girl who was to revolutionize the way the West would interact with the Islamic world. The transformation of Margaret to Maryam was gradual, she noticed. “I noticed that as Margaret Marcus grew older, the photographs became less forgiving. Awkwardness radiated from her. Trussed in fancy dresses, she stood apart from her respectable-looking parents and lipsticked sister, gamely smiling and looking as if she wanted to disappear. By mid-twenties, she began wearing a scarf to cover her hair. Finally, a news photo taken soon after her arrival in Pakistan showed her in a burqa posed standing in front of a sunlit door, only her hands and feet visible….It was a photograph of a woman, who, after a lifetime of hiding, now wanted to be seen. It was a photograph of someone who would only be herself beneath a pitch-dark burqa. Twenty eight years into her life, Margaret Marcus had been transformed. Through this veil Maryam Jameelah saw the world and her place in it with absolute clarity.”

Will Margaret’s journey to being Maryam classify as ghar vapasi? Or will it fall into the category of conversion through inducement? Probably neither. It is simply the result of a human exploration of life beyond the immediate.

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 3:54:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Ziya_Us_Salam/leap-of-faith-twice-over/article6707981.ece

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