ARASTU ZAKIA | 18 JULY, 2017
I remember this one time when we took a group of Hindu youth from a mainstream College to Juhapura for an interaction with about 20 local girls from there. On the eve of our meeting, a lot of their parents warned them: “Are you sure you need to go?”, “Be careful, very bad people stay there” and so on. They still came, we still went. That interaction was amongst the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced. These folks connected with those girls on so many levels. They were laughing, sharing anecdotes. Those girls said how they have never gone out of Juhapura, these youngsters shared how their problems seemed so much like their own. As we left, they hugged and invited each other to their respective social functions.
The walls had been broken, at least for those 10-15 people we had taken that evening. I remember this other time when the same group had gone 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 opposite end, I remember this time when my grandfather came home one evening. Although he once prided himself on being irreligious, by this age he had a long beard and was always in a traditional white kurta pyjama. He told my mother: “Beta yeh NGO ka kaam toh thik hai par Arastu ko bol thoda deen (religion) ka bhi kaam karey”. My mum replied: “Papa, aap ne jitna religion ka kaam apni zindagi mein kiya hai, us se zyada isne itni umar mein is NGO se kar liya hai”.
I also remember how members of the Tablighi Jamaat would come to my home sometimes. Their job was to propagate Islam further and despite knowing I have never once prayed, fasted or gone to the neighbourhood mosque, they kept coming trying to patronize me into coming to the mosque. I remember one particular line said by an elite member of their group: “Aaj kal Musalmaan bachho ka dhyaan bohot zyada Science aur Technology pe aa gaya hai. Woh sab toh theek hai par deen (religion) pe dhyan do pehle”.
As time passed, my mother finally met a kind, loving man and they got married. He happened to be a Brahmin Hindu. Interestingly, he devours Chicken and my mother loves Dosa. On my work front, things were moving at a decent pace. I was selected as Indian delegate to a Workshop in Bangkok, that was my first international trip. I remember this one time when I was walking through a flea-market and all of a sudden this cart full of hanging ducks and pigs came in front of me! I felt gross. That entire trip remained a struggle in terms of food.
A fierce non-vegetarian back home, I struggled to find just chicken to eat but there were all other kinds of animals there I found very creepy. That moment, the whole Veg/non-veg debate back home, especially the religious flavour it is given in Gujarat, took a whole new turn in my head. It has nothing to do with religion I realized, it's just 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 US Govt, we met iNGOs and more. Towards the end of the trip, I discovered that the introduction page that had been given to all the guests listed me as a “2002 riot survivor who was working with Muslim Youth on preventing them getting radicalized”.
Everyone was nice to me, I was the star! It was ‘positive discrimination’. But that introduction couldn’t be further away 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 getting radicalized’. I was in fact going to Colleges trying to educate mainstream Youth on communalism and more. I remember telling an American friend: “I don’t think I have been made to feel as Muslim in India as I have in America”. Towards the end of my trip, I remember calling my mother from America one night to tell her: “Mum I’m done, I’m leaving the non-profit world”, “Whatever you feel is best Beta!” she replied.
Moving on, I remember one thing an ex of mine used to tell me: “Tu Muslim nahi hai! Please! Maine keh diya bas!”. It made her more comfortable to think of me that way. Romantic relationships have started for me only after lengthy discussions on my religion, some didn't start at all because of the same and I am also aware that further struggles await me. I have also often been told “…par tu waisa nahi hai” after a barrage of insults about Muslims.
I remember a friend of my girlfriend’s asking her during the planning of an outstation trip: “Yaar, can we go with a Muslim!”. I also remember that time when I was at an event in a College when students are supposed to be dressed by themes. I was wearing a turquoise Kurta and blue Jeans and this one student came up to me and asked: "Tumhare group ki theme Al-Qaeda hai kya? Kurta pehena hai!!!". To this day, I feel uncomfortable wearing a Kurta!
By this time in my life, I knew I was an atheist. Fiercely and irrevocably an atheist. I remember being on a trekking camp in Manali when some co-travellers asked me “Aap ka kya religion hai bhaiya?”, I said “Guess”. They tried everything from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist, 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 just returned to Ahmedabad.
We got off the bus and were waiting for parents to come and pick everyone up. One boy who was amongst the group kept nagging me: “Bhaiya, bolo na, kya religion hai aap ka?”, I kept playing around, avoiding. Soon after, his dad arrived. As he sat behind his father on his scooter and his father sped away, the boy turned around and screamed one last time: “BHAIYAAAA BOLO NAA KYA ANSWER HAI?????”.
Over the years, people in my family married Hindus, Christians, even a Dalit human being. I remember wearing a Sikh kada on my wrist out of some fascination I had once. I have kept a tiny Buddha statue in my pocket at times. There are idols of Hindu gods in my home that were gifted to me, there are gorgeous Madhubani artworks of Hindu lords we have, there is also a stunningly beautiful Janamaz (on which Muslims offer Namaz) in my home. I have been to many more temples in my life than to mosques, simply by not saying 'No' each time I've been on a tourist visit to a new place. Have accompanied people to temples and mosques when they asked me to, they would feel good they said and I didn’t mind!
Later, I started-up in 2012. I was the only founder out of the 3 co-founders who didn’t have his name on the office lease agreement, we wouldn’t have been allowed to get that place if I did. To this day, a lot of my Hindu friends in Ahmedabad have no clue about this long-lasting and cemented phenomenon and their shock never ceases to amaze me. Most 20 odd year olds today in at least Ahmedabad have hardly ever interacted with Muslims, because after 1992 and then 2002, most of the ghettoization is complete. Hindus escaped to live only with Hindus, Muslims escaped to live only with Muslims.
Pull up a map of Ahmedabad and I can show you exactly who lives where and there won't be more than a few countable exceptions. And not just Ahmedabad, my cousin 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 in Bombay 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”.
After 9/11 and lots of global events over the years, I am sometimes told by friends "Hey you have sometimes wanted to move to Silicon Valley, right? Do you think you will be allowed to now?". Have had several debates with Muslim acquaintances online and offline about how killing innocents in the name of religion is harming the world and Islam itself! 'That's not religion, that's other things' has been a common answer. On a political note, "Congress or BJP?" has often been a question put up to me with a visible expectation of me saying the former. To this, a line 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". After 2002, the Gaurav Yatras and more, a lot more got thrown my way but now it is made to seem as if it never happened.
Somewhere around last year, the Triple Talaq struggle my mother and her courageous colleagues were 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 being propagated to women in the name of faulty religious interpretation. That even the Quran - the holy book they all consider themselves reverent to, had no mention of Triple Talaq added further fervour to their fight. In response, hundreds of Muslim men, even some women would attack my mother and her colleagues at events, meetings, on TV debates. WhatsApp messages were broadcasted by the thousands about not just her but about her "atheist son and Hindu husband".
Somewhere along the way Prime Minister Modi and the ruling BJP climbed onto the Triple Talaq bandwagon. Now those Muslims who felt threatened by my mother and her colleagues got a new weapon to target her with: “RSS Agent”. Life took a full turn, made a complete circle! 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, 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?". "Your thoughts are your own and they should absolutely be shared, fiercely and openly, don't you ever worry" she replied instantaneously. The day I decided to drop my father's secular-sounding surname and use my mother's first name as my last name, I knew my identity shall become a lot more visible but it is too small a price to pay for the respect I want to give to her.
My latest tryst with religion was when I went to the #NotInMyName protest at Jantar Mantar just a few days back with my new employers/friends. Several innocent people had been lynched in the name of religion, this time the reason used was ‘Beef’. And then just a few days later, the terrorist attacks on innocent Hindu pilgrims on their way to Amarnath occurred 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 even one, 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? But interestingly, the answer to this question has 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, most of them have stories of their own. I remain an observer to religion and this is an account of what all it has done to me so far! Let’s see what more you have to offer, dear Religion!