Across the world, being suspicious of a religion that isn't ours has become a norm of sorts. Actually, that was always the norm but some of these bias-keepers would still balk at owning up to ugly prejudices in public. However, with the ascent of the Donald Trumps of the world to power, racism and xenophobia has earned the social media stamp of being acceptable, in want of a better word. With Trump's attempt to ban immigrants from some Muslim majority countries, the anti-Muslim rhetoric is at an all-time high.
Closer home, far right groups from all religions have come out to play and frankly, this is as ugly as it gets. Yet, amid this unbridled anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim anti-humanity hate-fest, human beings continue being human beings. And some of them fall in love. With people from another religion they have always been asked to stay at an arm's length from. We spoke to four Hindu-Muslim couples from four generations to learn how to keep love afloat in this climate of naked hatred.
Insiya Haveliwalla*, 19, and Chirayu Fadnis*, 19. Insiya and Chirayu are college students in Pune
Chirayu: I thought my family was pretty liberal; my parents knew about my previous girlfriends and we'd often hang out at home with my family. But I can't tell them about Insiya. When Insiya and I started getting closer as friends, I could see it bothered my Mum. I hadn't really thought about the Muslim-Hindu thing until one day my aunt snidely told my mom that she should mentally prepare herself for a Muslim daughter-in-law. I could see that the comment really pissed her off. It makes me sad that even my educated, liberal parents could be so narrow-minded when it comes to Muslims.
I know my parents will expect me to pick a Muslim guy they've already approved of.
Insiya: My parents don't know either. They don't approve of dating in general, but dating a Hindu guy would be an absolute no-no. My dad is a businessman, and growing up, he constantly complained about local Hindu Maharashtrian politicians making life miserable for small-time Muslim business owners. I'm so young, I can't even think of being married right now. But when the time comes, I know my parents will expect me to pick a Muslim guy they've already approved of. If we're still together at that time, I don't know what I'll do.
Chirayu: It's so weird that we need to hide our relationship, just so that no one intentionally or accidentally tattles to our parents. Knowing that all this sneaking around is because of the Hindu-Muslim thing is so regressive.
Insiya: The funny thing is, we're both atheists. So we don't have any religious differences. I'm vegetarian, he's not. So he was more upset about the beef ban than I could ever be. So all this Hindu-Muslim drama is a gift from our parents, not really our issue at all. Meh.
Devika Kumar*, 30, and Ashfaq Ali*, 34. Devika is a copywriter at an ad agency and Ashfaq is a management consultant. They've been dating for a year and live in Mumbai.
Devika: It was our first vacation together. He'd gone for a shower when suddenly I heard a yelp of "Astaghfirullah" from inside. That's when it hit me: holy shit, I was in love with a Muslim man. I was appalled by how much of a shock it was to my system because up until then, his Muslim identity was a vague realisation. The day I started thinking of my future in relation to him, I started noticing and wondering about everything. The fact that his mom wears a hijab, that his dad prays five times a day, all the times he's slip into Urdu without thinking everything was filed away in my head.
when it came down to choosing a life that would always be at least a little bit harder because of my partner's religion, I dithered
I come from a conservative Hindu family, and I've heard a lot of Islamophobic talk as dinner table conversations; but dating Ashfaq was what made me see how much suspicion I'd assimilated simply because there was no escaping it. Without realising it, I'd come to expect that only fanatics show their "Muslim-ness". The "normal" Muslims don't look, act or dress like the "others". It made me keenly aware of all the micro-aggressions against Muslims that we all partake in, subconsciously.
Ashfaq: It's not one-sided. I know enough Muslims who absolutely believe that the overwhelming majority of Hindus are basically right-wing fanatics who are out to get them. The constant persecution and hounding has made many Muslims terribly bitter. Religious differences aside, my parents feel a Hindu girl can never fit into the family because she will never understand what it feels like to have people look at you suspiciously all the time.
I no longer feel safe saying simple things like "Salaam" while greeting my parents when I'm within earshot of other people.
Devika: When Donald Trump came to power, it shook me up. When someone with that much power uses it to foster bigotry steer the world towards a holy war under the guise of ensuring safety, it goes beyond geography. It leaves an imprint on humanity in a way that might never quite be reversed.
Ashfaq: We're a young couple. We dream of building a house, raising a child and travelling the world together. How do you not feel bitter about a world where your surname is enough reason to detain you endlessly at airports?
Or when whole sections of cities won't allow you to buy or rent property? When you aren't confident that you'll be able to offer your future child the basics of humanity — the right to live and move in the world with dignity — what is the point of bringing a new life into the world?
Ritwik Ahuja, 44, and Zamina Rahman, 42. Ritwik is a Venture capitalist and Zamina is a housewife. They've been married for 17 years and live in Delhi.
Zamina: We got married at a time when inter-religious marriages weren't common and family drama and societal disapproval was a given. His family couldn't understand why Ritwik would throw away his societal standing and the goodwill of other upper caste Hindus for a Muslim girl. My family was equally against it. They thought that being married to a Hindu boy meant a lifetime of insults and chest-beating about my non-vegetarianism. We'd expected them to behave exactly this way.
I got angry when she insisted that embracing her religion was an act of defiance in an isolationist world, not religious zealotry.
Ritwik: When 9/11 happened, we'd been married for about a year. Earlier, our parents were upset by our choice of life partners, but after 9/11, they were ashamed. My mother thought my wife had destroyed my life and career growth prospects. Her mother was terrified that my family would make me divorce Zamina and send her back to them. I have to admit, there were times when I resented her Muslim identity and the baggage that her name carried.
I begged her to take my name so we'd have it a little bit easier. I got angry when she insisted that giving up Islam would mean giving in to Islamophobia, that embracing her religion was an act of defiance in an isolationist world, not religious zealotry. A part of me did think of Muslims as "these people" and "inclined to terrorism".
Overnight, Islam and terrorism became synonymous, and anyone associated with it in any way felt the repercussions.
Zamina: There were times when I almost decided I didn't want to be married to the Islamophobic jerk he was becoming; that if you just scratched the surface, all Hindus really did think they were better than Muslims and we deserved what was happening to us. But then I gave his behaviour context. 9/11 changed the course of our life in a way none of us could have seen coming. He was on the brink of landing a job at a major consultancy firm in USA, but after 9/11 there was no way we could move there.
Our daughter is 14, and a few months ago, a classmate of hers asked her if Zamina had married me for love jihad.
Ritwik: I genuinely believed that our daughter would grow up in a world that wasn't as splintered as the one we were forced to build our lives in. In the last few years, there's been an unprecedented eruption of selfishness and not just 'me-first', but 'me-only' kind of thinking. What is this "love jihad" nonsense? Our daughter is 14, and a few months ago, a classmate of hers asked her if Zamina had married me for love jihad.
Neelima Ahmed, 60, and Taufiq Ahmed, 64. Neelima and Taufiq own a perfume business in Mumbai. They've been married for 42 years and have two sons.
Taufiq: My parents moved to Mumbai from Punjab after the Partition. I was born here. Neelima and her family lived across the street from us. There were constant skirmishes and fights breaking out in our mohalla (colony). Hindus would spit on the road every time they had to deal with a Muslim. My people constantly wondered whether they had made the right choice by staying in India.
Neelima: My Hindu name was not this. I changed it to Neelima after the nikaah. When I was a kid, we were strictly forbidden to talk to Muslim people. But slowly, things got better. Taufiq's sister was in my high school. We were 14 then. She and I were not allowed to go to each other's houses, but our parents knew we were friends.
I loved him, but I was scared my dad would kill him if he found out about us.
Taufq: I liked Neelima from the start. We hardly ever spoke, but I thought she liked me. She was 17 when I finally worked up the courage to slip her a note telling her I loved her. The next day, she said yes. It was the best day of my life.
Neelima: When Taufiq proposed to me, my parents were desperately searching for a rishta for me. I loved him, but I was scared my dad would kill him if he found out about us.
Taufiq: Her rishta was almost finalised when we finally told our parents we wanted to get married. It was a nightmare. Her parents beat her up and locked her in the house. Mine beat me up and threatened to throw me out of the house and the business.
I converted to Islam. Sometimes I think I could do it because I was young and stupid. If I was older, shaayad himmat nahi kar paati.
Neelima: We ran away and got married with the help of one of his friends when I overheard my parents making plans to leave Mumbai and go back to our village in Gujarat. I converted to Islam. Sometimes I think I could do it because I was young and stupid and so thrilled to be in love. If I was older, shaayad himmat nahi kar paati. (Maybe I would not have had the courage.)
Taufiq: Initially, our parents disowned us. I had anticipated that. I had some money saved up, so we rented a house in a chawl close-by. We had no contact with our parents for a few years.
My mother was terrified that Taufiq would marry other women if I didn't give him a son.
Neelima: I got pregnant when I was 21. I wrote my mother a letter to tell her. I thought she wouldn't reply, but she did. She would hide from my father and come to meet me sometimes. She would still not enter our house but at least I had a mother again. She was terrified that Taufiq would marry other women if I didn't give him a son.
Taufiq: My mother was overjoyed when we had a son, but abba was still not ready to forgive us. He finally caved with the birth of our second son, three years later. By this time, I had saved enough money to start the perfume business. Neelima would leave the kids with my mother and help me at the shop for a few hours every day.
Hindu or Muslim, men are too selfish and egoistic to bend for their women.
Neelima: In those days, it was very unusual for a woman to be involved in her husband's business. I think my mother was so shocked and proud that she finally forgave Taufiq. But my dad never forgave me for ruining his izzat in the community.
Taufiq: Eventually, my parents accepted Neelima as their daughter-in-law. My mom grew to love her the way she loved my sister. Seeing the way she worked so hard to fit into my family made me fall in love with her more. I don't know if I could have done it for her family. Hindu or Muslim, men are too selfish and egoistic to bend for their women.
Neelima: My father died 15 years ago, angry with us. It breaks my heart that my sons never got to know their naana. I don't regret the choices I made, but sometimes, I miss the girl I used to be. Between being Lakshmi and Neelima, Hindu and Muslim, I forgot to be me. Now, I feel neither Hindu, nor Muslim. It makes me wonder, kya aapka mazhab hi aapki pehchaan hai? (Is your religion your only identity?)
*Names changed on request