THE BLOG

How I Learned I Was Muslim And Other Brushes With Religion

Who am I fighting, who do I hate?

17/07/2017 8:19 PM IST | Updated 17/07/2017 8:19 PM IST
Danish Ismail / Reuters
Image used for representational purposes only.

This is the story of my relationship with religion.

I was in Standard 2 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 raised their hands. She 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 bench partner that day 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 said, "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.

Growing up in Ahmedabad

I was born and raised in an elite locality of Ahmedabad, which was predominantly Hindu but had a mix of a few others at the time. My first few years were spent in "Shri Krishna Apartments", where out of 300-odd households, we were the only Muslim family. This never became a problem with any neighbour, ever. Our neighbours loved us and we loved them.

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!"

Then in 1992, my grandparents' home got burnt down in another mixed locality in Ahmedabad, right behind the famed IIM in the city. Some neighbours too 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-six times over the years. Coming back to my immediate family, in 1992 our neighbours still stood by us but some people in the adjoining neighbourhood had noticed that we were Muslim and 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 standstill thanks to a huge jam. It turned out that some BJP/VHP workers had stopped all cars and were climbing on the windshield of each to paint a swastika. He was obviously shit scared but he stayed calm, waited for his turn to arrive, quietly got the swastika painted on his car too and then sped away like a madman.

On another scary night when rumours were growing of more riots brewing across Ahmedabad, we ran away to a family friend's place. He taught at IIM-Ahmedabad and my parents must've thought his on-campus home would be a good place to hide. Somewhere in the midst of our 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 IIM-A campus.

Often I was asked after a first introduction: "Arastu? Are you Parsi?" At first, I used to say "No, I'm Muslim," but as I grew up, I would often lie: "Yes, I'm Parsi."

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!"

That this had reached our doorstep 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 and hence we moved to another mainstream locality, near the famed NID this time. Our lane was 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 and they too had fled and come to this new place.

Although I was just four at the time, all these things made me further aware of religion as a concept. As I grew up, often I was asked after a first introduction: "Arastu? Are you Parsi?" At first, I used to say "No, I'm Muslim," but as I grew up, I would often lie: "Yes, I'm Parsi." Sometimes I would say: "No no no no, I am Hindu!" A few times when I dared to let it out: "No, I am Muslim," I'd generally get a second response: "Oh! You don't look Muslim." Sometimes there would be no response but just a weird look on their face.

I remember being bullied even for things such as wearing shorts! "Maulana says we shouldn't wear shorts," they'd say. "Maulana says we shouldn't watch TV."

But regardless of whatever I said, I never felt as if I belonged to any religion. My family didn't pray, we didn't fast. The only time I would go to a mosque would be when my father used to take me on Eid mornings and I'd look around and rise, kneel and appear to murmur—copying whatever others around me did.

Post 1992, in the new society we had moved to, gradually all 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 never me. They'd bully me from time to time, although my father's hostility to everyone also contributed to that. I remember being bullied even 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 madrassa used to ride by on his bicycle, they'd abandon the cricket match we were playing and hide inside the car parking waiting for him to pass. I'd be the only one still standing there, wondering what just happened! We had two lovely dogs for a while and multiple complaints were made since dogs and their drool are considered unholy in Islam. I remember being called a "Kafir" and much more multiple times while growing up. My relationship with religion then could best be described as "indifferent."

I remember two more instances during that period.

I have yearned for someone to tell me what good reading Namaz will do, or at least for them to tell me to pray out of gratitude and not fear, but no one ever did—not one time.

One was when we had made a rare visit to a Muslim neighbour's home and their daughter asked me to confirm the rumours she'd heard. "Tum namaz nahi padte (You don't read Namaz)?" I said "Nahi." No. She went on, "Tumhe pata hai na ke do Jumme tak namaz na pade toh Musalman nahi rehte (You do know that if you don't read namaz for two Fridays, you won't stay a Muslim)." My usually ultra-aggressive father was stunned into silence and just made an awkward face. "Namaz nahi padhoge toh yeh hoga, aisi saza milegi, waisa gunaah chadega (If you don't read Namaz, misfortune will fall on you, you'll be punished)"... I have heard this sort of thing umpteen times. I have yearned for someone to tell me what good reading Namaz will do, or at least for them to tell me to pray out of gratitude and not fear, but no one ever did—not one time.

The second instance was when I got into a fight with a classmate from school over something on our football ground. He pushed me to the ground and yelled: "Saale miye, ghar jala dunga tera (Bloody Muslim, I'll burn your house down)." I remember my first reaction to that being: "Shit, now the others too know I'm Muslim." That fact had been considerably concealed because my name seemed secular (deliberately so, my mum had insisted I have that kind of a name) and my appearance or accent didn't match any stereotype people had in their heads either.

[A classmate] pushed me to the ground and yelled: "Bloody Muslim, I'll burn your house down." I remember my first reaction to that being: "Shit, now the others too know I'm Muslim."

I don't remember seeing a Muslim girl in my lane after the age of around 10-12. They were either in burkhas or just indoors. I saw some of them the only time in their own weddings but there too, almost always, their face and head 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" of "Mother." My school auto had come to pick me up and as I came out, my mom waved goodbye and I said "Bye Mu". A Muslim auto-mate laughed: "Yeh toh Hinduyo ki tarah mummy ko 'Maa' bolta hai (He's calls his mother 'maa' like a Hindu)!"

Then around 1998, I remember hearing that my best friend's parents' general store had been burnt down. There was no riot in the city, just a minor communal rumour somewhere and just that one shop had been burnt. I remember going to their rival's store next door to buy something the next day. As I stood there, that shop-owner was speaking to another man and their conversation went on the lines of "You saw what I did!" Came the reply, "Ya but I gave the kerosene."

Unlikely 'patrons'

Around this time, I discovered one day that my father, who had a habit of making powerful acquaintances, had been communicating on inland letters with the then RSS chief K. S. Sudarshan. He used to keep some of those letters with him whenever a communal rumour flew around. Those letters would help him escape a potential mob he thought! Sudarshan called us one night for dinner to an RSS headquarter somewhere near Ahmedabad.

Till this day, it is my suspicion that none of our properties were ever targeted because of something those [RSS] men noted down that night.

We were escorted by a car, and reached around 8.30pm. I remember walking past a group of about 20-30 stick-wielding men in khaki chaddis practicing their drills; it was really scary for a child. As we walked in, Sudarshan was seated on a sofa in a reasonably austere room. Three-four people sat around him. The first question we were asked was, "Aap ka ghar aur office kaha hai?" My dad replied and two men got up and went to the other room, returning 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.

This became something that possibly helped us just a few years later.

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Indian Hindus riot in the smoke-shrouded streets of Ahmedabad, 2002.

The fires of 2002 and beyond

It was around 4.30pm on the 27th of February 2002. I was about to leave for my tuition class when my mother called me from office. "Beta, don't go, there's some 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 us having a very interrupted half-sleep that night. When we woke up the next morning and stepped outside our ground-floor home, I could see thick, black smoke on two-three sides. One fire seemed to be from quite close by—could it have been my father's office, we wondered, since that was just at the next crossroads. Soon we heard from 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, maybe it wasn't.

People around me were talking in a language I didn't understand [in 2002]. There were discussions about where we could run, people from which religion stayed in which neighbouring lanes.

The local cable TV channels were playing Gadar that day. Soon after, neighbours began gathering, filling 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—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 discussions about where we could run, who lived in what direction, people from which religion stayed in which neighbouring lanes. 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 they would stand guard on both sides of our lane. "Mob aa bhi gaya toh yeh aadmi kya kar lene waala hai?" 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 now slain BJP leader Haren Pandya leading a mob that was gathering at the crossroads just outside. It was many years later when my father happened to meet Mr Pandya when he told him: "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 then obviously scared my father. In the meantime, my mother tried calling one family friend—a senior policeman. Always in the past, when we had called him in similar situations, he had immediately gotten a police point set up just outside. This time, to my mother's astonishment, he replied: "Sorry, this time there's nothing I can do." My mother knew right then, this was different!

Every now and then black clouds of smoke could be seen in the distance and then it'd be a guessing game: "Woh Cargo Motors jala hoga," "Woh so-and-so dukaan gayi hogi"

After 10 years, it was now time for us to run again. That same inter-religious couple who were our first friends in the whole lane approached us saying that one of their friends led the police academy; he lived in the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura in Ahmedabad and had offered to host us in his farmhouse. Then we tried asking some families in our lane if they wanted to join because some space could have been arranged for them too. All of them said "No." Some said they were worried about the black money, jewellery etc in their homes, some said they didn't want to run, some just didn't like my father. The police academy chief was smart, he made the watchmen outside his home wear police clothes and drive down to our home in his police car. We then rode in our car escorted by them and left our home yet again. I remember seeing this 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-five men on our way. All had trishuls in their hands, all wore saffron headbands. Suddenly this mystical area of Juhapura' seemed to be a haven, even though I had never visited it before.I remember someone in the car saying "Yeh border hai, hum aa gaye Juhapura". The relief I felt entering a place I'd never been to remains fresh in my mind.

I remember the next few nights. We stayed awake late into the night sitting on our host's porch. We could see burning yellow lights (maybe flames) and hear loud noises and chants of mobs from 2-3km away. The days would be no different. Every now and then black clouds of smoke could be seen in the distance and then it'd be a guessing game: "Woh Cargo Motors jala hoga," "Woh so-and-so dukaan gayi hogi" and of course the phone kept ringing. Gujarati newspapers too did their thing. I remember one popular Gujarati daily featuring a photo of a terrace taken from many buildings away with what seemed to be the vague figure of a man wearing something white with something in his hand, and the following (translated) headline on their front page: "Who is this gun-wielding Muslim?" We returned to our home after a week or so, I was about to enter our door when one of our next-door neighbours saw us and screamed aloud: "Lo bhagode aa gaye vapas (See, those who ran have returned)."

[W]hen my father and I opened the door to the room where my mother was sleeping, she woke up and started howling... She thought we were rioters who had come to kill her.

There had been no damage done to our lane but a few homes had been vandalised in the vicinity. One of them belonged to a school friend and classmate of mine, "One of the neighbours took our TV," he told me much later. A few days after returning, I remember my mother speaking to a family friend from our previous home—the one we had fled in 1992. She said they were scared for their lives and even stopped going for their morning walks because they 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, when my father and I opened the door to the room where my mother was sleeping, she woke up startled, stood up and started howling at the top of her voice. She thought we were rioters who had come to kill her.

Two memories stand out additionally from this time. It was somewhere in March 2002 I think. We barely left home and everything seemed gloomy all the time. I got a call from a school classmate of mine inviting me to his birthday party. I couldn't understand his frame of mind and I think he couldn't understand mine. The second memory relates to yet another major change that happened in my life. My parents didn't feel comfortable sending me to my beloved school anymore as it was in a Hindu area. Remember this was March, final exam time was close and I was in my 9th grade. My father had a few calls with my school administration; they understood and gave me a promotion that year. For the next academic year, I was moved to another Jesuit school in the old city that had a healthy Muslim population. I have been asked several times why I made this strange move since the school I left was the one everyone wanted to go to, I have often cooked different stories up each time.

My parents didn't feel comfortable sending me to my beloved school anymore as it was in a Hindu area.

Soon after, my parents began working at riot relief camps. I remember my mother going to those camps quite often. I had been once, some NGO was getting kids there to draw. I remember this one girl having drawn a red-haired monster. Soon my dad revived his old NGO and took it up full-time with my mother. I remember a survey my father got conducted with some pedestrians around Ahmedabad. One of the questions was: "What do you think of Juhapura?" (the same area we had escaped to). Some of the answers ranged from "It's mini-Pakistan" to "There is a helipad there where helicopters from Pakistan bring missiles for war with India." I also remember us stumbling upon pamphlets from somewhere. They claimed to be published by the VHP/Bajrang Dal and their text in Gujarati read something on 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 too become handsome."

A mother and son break free

Life moved on. Social activists began coming home, some film folk came too, there was lots of activity. A year later, mom and I finally left my father. Much later I discovered what had triggered that high a 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. If you don't help us, who will)?" That moment, she was liberated! The pain of 2002, 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, she could empower others too, she could still have a happy life!

The pain of 2002, the pain of that woman [at a relief camp] gave [my mother] a strange sense of empowerment... I was 15 when we left my father.

Eventually, she joined an iNGO and soon started the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Some of you may know the 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 good-for-nothing as I had been made to believe, I had skills too, I was liked. After this ordeal, a lot of acquaintances also opened up to me on their respective domestic issues, and I realised I wasn't alone. After a period of selfish enjoyment to compensate for my sense of deprivation, I became really passionate about empowering young people and started a non-profit. We worked for six years with about 6000 college youth educating them about issues such as communalism, gender, citizenship, even happiness.

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. Most of them 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 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."

[My mother said to her father], "Papa, what you have accomplished through religion in your whole life, he has already surpassed at this young age with his NGO."

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 ka bhi kaam karey (This NGO work is fine, but tell Arastu to also focus on religion)." 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 (Papa, what you have accomplished through religion in your whole life, he has already surpassed at this young age with his NGO)."

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 patronise me into going to the mosque. I remember one particular line said by an elite member of their 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 (Muslim youngsters are focusing too much on science and technology. All that has its place, but religion should come first)."

As time passed, my mother finally met a kind, loving man and they got married. He happened to be a Hindu Brahmin. Interestingly, he devours chicken and my mother loves dosa. On my work front, things were moving at a decent pace. I was selected as the Indian delegate to a workshop in Bangkok—that was my first international trip. I remember once 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 grossed out. That entire trip remained a struggle in terms of food. A fierce non-vegetarian back home, I struggled to find simple chicken to eat as there were all other kinds of animals there I found 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 or right or wrong I realized, it's just habit!

A Muslim in America

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 government, we met iNGOs and more.

[T]he introduction page listed me as a "2002 riot survivor who was working with Muslim Youth on preventing them getting radicalised."... that introduction couldn't be further away from the truth.

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 radicalised." 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 radicalised." I was in fact going to colleges trying to educate Hindu 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.

Living with labels

Moving on, I remember one thing an ex of mine used to tell me: "Tu Muslim nahi hai! Please! Maine keh diya bas! (You are not a Muslim! Please! I've said it)!" 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 for the same reason and I am aware that further intense struggles await me.

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.

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 a time when I was at an event in a college where students were supposed to be dressed according to themes. I was wearing a turquoise kurta and blue jeans and this one student came up to me and asked: "Tumhare group ka theme Al-Qaeda hai kya? Kurta pehena hai (Is the theme of your group Al Queda? You're wearing a kurta)." 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 returned to Ahmedabad. We got off the bus and were waiting for parents to come and pick everyone up. A boy kept nagging me: "Bhaiya, bolo na, kya religion hai aap ka?", I kept playing around, 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: "Bhaiyaaaa bolo naa kya answer haiiii?????"

I was the only founder out of the three co-founders who couldn't have his name on the office lease agreement; we wouldn't have been allowed to get that place if I did.

Over the years, people in my family married Hindus, Christians, even a Dalit. 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. I have accompanied people to temples and mosques when they asked me to. They would feel good, they said, and I didn't mind!

Business has a religion

Later, I co-founded a startup in 2012. I was the only founder out of the three co-founders who couldn'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, cemented phenomenon and their shock never ceases to amaze me. Most 20-somethings today in at least Ahmedabad have hardly ever interacted with Muslims, because after 1992 and then 2002, most of the ghettoisation is complete. Muslims escaped or were forced to leave to live only with Muslims and Hindus moved out to live only with Hindus. 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 in Mumbai was made fodder 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."

[O]ne of my co-founders was warned by friends: "Be careful, you are about to get into business with a Miyabhai."

After 9/11, plus lots of global terror attacks over the years and now Trump, 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?" I have had several debates with Muslim acquaintances online and offline about 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" 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 (I'm a Muslim. I don't want to die. So for now I will make do with corruption)."

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. I remember this conversation a Gujarati Hindu gentleman was having with a curious non-Gujarati traveller in a train compartment I was sharing 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 got a bit much with what was done to the women and children, but overall it was the right thing to have happened)." When the other gentleman seemed to disagree and then went to the washroom, this guy told the others: "Lagta hai Muslim hai!" Seems like a Muslim.

AFP/Getty Images
Image used for representational purposes only.

My mother's triple talaq battle

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 religion. That even the Quran—the holy book they all consider themselves reverent to—had no mention of triple talaq added further fervour to the 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."

[T]hose Muslims who felt threatened by my mother and her colleagues got a new weapon to target her with—the epithet of "RSS agent."

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—the epithet of "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 would become a lot more visible but it is too small a price to pay for the respect I want to give to her.

More questions than answers

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 last set of questions 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 of religion and this is an account of all that it has done to me so far! Let's see what more you have to offer, dear religion!

Kids Are Asked What They Know About Religion, Their Answers Are A Lesson For Every Indian

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