Parenting in the time of intolerance

My husband Abhiraj is a Hindu Brahmin and I am a Muslim. This has never been an issue for us, has hardly ever occurred to us, has never, ever played out as a cause for differences in any of our fights. It is in fact something we have great fun with. Abhi has this whole piece that he enacts. He climbs on the bed and prances about with his curls askew, brandishing a makeshift sword (Rumi’s bubble wand!) He waggles his fingers menacingly in my face as he shouts the most absurd stuff such as:  “Tumhi Mughal biryani khaun zhopla hota, aamche Shivaji Raze ani tyanche maule zhunka bhakar khaun ale blah blah blah ani tumchi bota kapli” . (You guys were comatose after a heavy meal of biryani, our army swooped in and brought home the crown jewels). While I’m rolling on the floor with tears of mirth, I have to proceed to remind him of the following: I am not related to the Mughals, he is not related to the great Maratha kingdom, and that he gorges on Biryani a 100 times more than he ever eats Zhunka Bhakar.

But it is still something that surprises a lot of people when they meet me (Oh, Muslim! “Vatala nhavta tujhya kade baghun”: you don’t look like a Muslim). Yeah aunty, cause all Muslim girls wear a Burqa and are accompanied by henna-dyed bearded Abbu or Ammi! This tells me so much about our preconceived notions, our prejudices, the conscious or sub-conscious stereotypes in our mind. We all carry them. We are all guilty of hearing a last name or an area and immediately conjuring up an image in our minds. This is a very natural instinct and that is not at all a problem. The problem arises if this judgment is not accompanied by a mind that is open enough to say “Oh yeah, this person has so much to offer, so many dimensions, I’m really going to enjoy getting to know him.”

I sometimes have great fun listening to some people rant about how all terrorists are Muslims and sometimes, very rarely, I tell them politely after having listened to their rant, that I am a Muslim. The look on their faces is really worth capturing!

My husband is what you would call “a seeker”. He devours texts across different religions, listens to podcasts and watches videos on religion and makes copious notes in his miniscule handwriting. He is hungry for answers, hungry to know more, to learn more and he has all these questions about existence and spirituality and religion that never ever occur to me! “Leap and the net will appear” you say? He will leap but he will want to know exactly how the net is going to appear, what it is made of, how it will possibly carry his weight!

I on the other hand do not need to be asked twice to jump. I believe very simply and easily in things that are told to me and have no problems believing in miracles and magic and enchantment. (Maybe Enid Blyton ODing is to be blamed for this). What I do not enjoy much is religious rituals.

I am all for creating rituals with Rumi, like a bedtime ritual, a weekend ritual and so on. I find that doing things in a set and prescribed order helps reduce daily stress in dealing with her. And I know that religious rituals play an important role in society with the familiarity and continuity they provide and that they help us acknowledge our role in society and identify with our community. What I don’t like is the rigidity of some rituals that we tend to mindlessly adhere to, because of various reasons: a fear of maybe incurring the wrath of God, or inviting bad luck or not being included in a group. I don’t like to follow something without knowing why I have to do it in the first place, be it sitting for a Pooja or fasting during Ramzaan or offering Namaaz. Rituals should be personal; if something gives you a sense of peace, makes you feel better, makes you a better person, then do it. And the God question is very, very personal for me. I pray many times every day and I have my own set of favorite deities that I call out to, because I feel a sense of connection with them and not because someone has asked me to or because it is a certain day of the week.

For example, I like to visit the Ganpati temple on Tuesdays. It gives me great peace and joy. I also visit the Dagdusheth Temple during the Ganesha Festival every year; I have very fond memories of my grandfather taking me there. They would pull little children right up to the big idol and anoint us with Gulal. But I would not like to expect Rumi to continue doing these things without asking me why. If she asked me, I would tell her that it is something I love and find beautiful but that she need not find it as charming as I do. In fact, I would like a question from Rumi every time I or anybody else asks her to do something that is new or unfamiliar. “Why should I offer a white flower today?” “Why should I offer Namaaz five times a day?” “Why should I not go inside a temple if I’m menstruating?” I want her to ask, I want us to be informed about the answers and I want insightful discussions on these topics at our dinner table.

Presently, Rumi enjoys all festivals, traditions and rituals. She loves (as I’m sure most kids do) everything to do with festivals and religious rituals; the tinkling of the ghanti (bell), the aarti, the incense sticks, the flowers, the food and of course the sweet prasad. She also loves dressing up on Eid and pretending to kneel on the floor and offer Namaaz. We are also more motivated and enthusiastic about these celebrations for her sake.

But I often get nagging doubts at the back of my head about what gets passed down to or taught to her, although she is still very small. This thought first occurred to me when she was asked to do “Namaskar” to (touch the feet of) a distant relative. This concept was quite alien to me before marriage. I have hardly ever touched my parents’ feet. Even when we visited my Ajji or other relatives, we were hardly ever asked to touch their feet. At my husband’s however, this is a phenomenon that takes places with great frequency: whenever we go out of town (even for a day-trip), whenever anyone older than us (everyone in the family!) goes out of town (even for a day), whenever there’s a pooja at home (again, quite regular!) and on all birthdays, anniversaries and festivals (and there are so many in the Hindu calendar!). I acquiesced in this habit with no (ok, minimum) resistance and derived my own ritual out of it (while touching anybody’s feet, I ask to learn one positive trait from that person that I lack), but I’m not sure I so much like my daughter to do it all the time.

I once asked my husband about it. We had a long discussion on the sociological aspect of these rituals (how stepping out of the house in those days meant so much uncertainty that it was always better to take the elders’ blessings, how menstruating women sat in separate chambers for reasons of hygiene and rest etc etc). It is always so interesting and enlightening to have these talks and our conclusion after all of these discussions is the same: logic and reason and rationality and self-will over rituals and traditions, every time. Which means again, asking questions and demanding, and relentlessly searching for satisfactory answers. Also, more than rituals and the way things are done (so very differently in both our families), we think about the different values that the two sets of families bring in that we want to pass on to our daughter.

I, for instance, want Rumi to experience the relaxed, loving, peaceful atmosphere that Aai brings into the family. This side of the family is very, very calm and grounded. Getting late for a family event? No worries. Missing the Muhurat (auspicious timing) for bringing Ganpati home? No problem at all, do it whenever everyone is ready! Just so stress-free compared to my parents where Abbu becomes a red-faced monster if we are running even a minute late! On the other hand, my parents bring their strengths to the table: generosity and warmth and those ‘big’ memorable celebrations that form such important memories growing up.

Sometime back, Abhi and I had a very depressing discussion after attending a funeral. I asked him about the different rites and rituals and then solemnly told him that I would like to be buried and not cremated. He in turn expressed his wish to be cremated. Almost nauseously, I thought of our child.  If ever we had to live through such a terrible day, would we agree on what we would like for them or would we argue about cremation vs. burial? Immediately, I was filled with shame and repulsion at my own thoughts and superstitiously chanted a prayer for Rumi’s well-being. We know that these discussions are important but naturally, we avoid them like the plague out of the fear of uttering unwanted, negative words. When the kids turn eighteen they can decide, we conclude and leave it at that.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. deepagjoshi says:

    You know I have been following your blog for quite sometime now and this piece my friend, was a winner. My husband and I have decided few things like not talking about caste, religion or anything that would create a conflict in Kaveri’s (DD) mind when she is growing up. When we first came to Pune from Mumbai, some eight years ago, people always asked us our last name first and then the rest of the talks followed. And depending on your answer you would or would not become a part of a group. I really sometimes worry seeing the kind of people around me and then thinking is this the world that I want Kaveri to grow up in. Makes me really concerned that even if we try and avoid these talks at home what about her friends. She would learn and ask us all these questions about caste and religion. How do we explain it to her in the best possible way without imposing my views on her and at the same time not creating a conflict or prejudices in her mind. It’s really difficult.


    1. Rumi's mommy says:

      Thank you very much dear Deepa! yes it is a constant uphill task that needs communication and improvisation with your partner but gradually your child will respond and know to be open to different cultures and religions…lovely to hear from you thanks again!


  2. Abhinav Shukla says:

    A very beautiful article. You ma’am, have my utmost respect


    1. Rumi's mommy says:

      Thank you very much Abhinav!


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