I was filling up my son’s pre-school admission form when I came upon a pertinent question often asked by educational institutions: religion of father? Religion of mother? While filling up the appropriate responses (Hindu and Christian, respectively), I was a tad nervous. Would this in any way affect his chances of securing admission? My friends assured me it wouldn’t. Apparently, some schools give points for intercommunity and intercaste marriage. I was relieved. But the entire episode transported me back a couple of decades when during my first job interview, I was actually asked about my religious preferences. (Fresh out of college and pretty naïve when it came to matters of the corporate world, I did find the question quite out of place). Nevertheless, I went on to answer: Christian. The interviewer looked at me closely and chose to pry further: how come? Your name doesn’t indicate that! (At that point I actually started to wonder where the interview was headed, while mentally venting my angst at my poor parents for not naming me appropriately, whatever that meant). Feeling rather downcast, I answered quietly: Well, my father’s a Hindu. Obviously. So why didn’t you choose to follow Hinduism, asked the interviewer. (By now, I was visibly worried. What IS it with this gentleman? With as much dignity I could muster, I said firmly: It’s a personal choice, sir. Very personal. The gentleman, thankfully, got the hint and gave up.
Little did I realize that this was only the beginning. My family’s background (my parents interreligious marriage) would eventually become a matter of great curiosity in subsequent workplaces and social events. What was commonplace for me was seen as something extraordinary by some. Others actually began to view me as some sort of exotic and rare bird, to be poked and prodded and scrutinized. I was happy to oblige. (Deep down, I was quite proud of my lineage). What was the big deal anyway? Yes, so my parents had different faiths. And to add to that, they also came from two starkly different communities (For those of you who have seen the recent Bollywood blockbuster Vicky Donor, you’ll get the drift. My father is quite the Bengali bhadralok, while my mother draws her lineage from the hardy Punjab immigrants who migrated from Pakistan and subsequently converted to Christianity). A heady mix, some would say. Ironically, it was this very diversity that made our home a truly exciting and enriching place to be.
From Christmas and Easter to Diwali and Durga Puja the festivities were never-ending. Ilish maach, aloo posto, begun bhajja and scrumptious rosogullas were devoured with as much gusto as plum puddings, chocolate Easter bunnies and Christmas cakes. The putting up of the Christmas tree was just as sacramental as the lighting up of the Diwali lamps or a visit to the Puja pandal. Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali folk songs were heard with as much devotion as carols during midnight mass.
The excitement, the passion, the fervour, and the fun were incomparable. The lessons learnt: priceless. I learned to be accepting and tolerant of not just different faiths, but cultures, languages (by age 5, I was speaking Bengali, Hindi, and English) , and people. I learned to be patient. I learned to explore and question. I learned to respect the choices I had and the freedom that followed.
Of course, much of this may not hold much relevance today (after all, I am talking about the seventies when inter-religion and inter-communal marriages were nothing short of sacrilege. My parents’ marriage in 1973 caused quite a furor in the two families!) But, if media reports and a popular celebrity talk show are to be believed, things are not radically different today. Intercommunity, inter caste marriages are still frowned upon. The instances of such marriages may have gone up but the intense reactions that stem from it haven’t changed much over the decades. Sad, but true. It makes me wonder: will my son (also a product of an inter-religion, intercommunity marriage) too be subject to the same scrutiny? I fervently hope not. While I cannot give him any guarantees about what will come his way I CAN only give him this:
- An enriching and fun environment laden with experiences, stories (about his lineage), and discoveries.
- A celebration that lasts through the year (in fact, my three-year-old is luckier than me as he gets to celebrate all Assamese festivals in addition to Bengali and Christian ones. He is also learning 4 languages simultaneously – English, Hindi, Bengali, and Assamese.)
- Openness of thought
- A will to accept and be tolerant
- A kaleidoscope of cultures, beliefs, and practices
- And most of all, the freedom to make his choice.