It was nearly fifteen years ago on a pleasant March evening when he asked me to marry him. We were on the ramparts of a crumbling old fort at a place called Tranquebar. To say that I was surprised would be a lie. I had been expecting something like this. All that mattered to me when I said “yes” was that I was going to share my life with someone who loved and respected me.
Unfortunately, some people around us did not share my view. Some of our friends were openly skeptical while others were plain shocked – the reason being that he was Christian and I was Hindu. “How does it matter?” was what we asked these so called “well wishers” who were intent on discouraging us. They probably thought that we had gone crazy. Actually, a lot of people thought that way because religion, we realized soon enough, was for many an important source of identity.
Our parents, after the initial hiccups agreed but again we had to deal with this issue of how were going to survive as two individuals with different religious identities. My mother-in-law wanted me to convert to Christianity. My parents though not very happy with this suggestion, felt that it was probably the most practical idea because “a woman in our country is after all defined by her husband’s identity”. Just as she changes her surname she can change her religion too at the time of marriage.
But a change of that nature was not something that we were going to impose on ourselves. I tried to reason with his mother about the futility of changing one’s religion just so one could marry. “Will this not be an insult to your religion? I should believe in a religion when I adopt it” was my argument. I seemed to convince her and we went on to get married in a civil ceremony. Neither did I change my religion nor my name!
People sometimes want to know how we manage to co-exist as two people from different religions. We used to find these questions very silly when we were younger. But now that we are older and wiser we introspect on the people who ask us these questions and wonder why is it that they ask them.
Though it is actually a contradiction to the secular principles on which our country is founded, in practice religion continues to define people’s identities. I never noticed this until I got married but people often refer to others thus “that muslim lady, a Christian gentleman” etc. Interestingly, nobody refers to themselves as “the Hindu aunty next door”. Here it is a caste identity that is used to define the person. In a place like Chennai caste is an important determinant of who you are once your religion is established.
One of the things that we realized in our fifteen odd years of marriage was that religion has the power to be a divisive force only if we allow it to become one. Neither of us are actually religious people though we do practice the religion in a very loose sort of way. My husband goes to church every other Sunday – he usually goes alone. I used to go too when my mother in law was alive but it was more by way of enjoying the peace and tranquillity of the heritage church building than for anything else. My husband on the other hand often comes with me to temples – sometimes like me to enjoy the beautiful architecture!
People are often curious to know the religious affiliation of our daughter. They find it hard to believe it when we say that religion is not something that we are going to leave for her as a legacy. If she decides to follow a religion it has to be a conscious choice that she makes. It does not have to be the religion of her parents and could well be something totally different.
She seems quite comfortable with that. Unfortunately others do not seem to let her live with that. There are often occasions when people assume that she is a Christian because she does not put on a “bindi” and her middle name is her paternal grandmother’s name - and therefore Christian sounding. For a thirteen year old it can be quite daunting when adults jump to these conclusions. She does not feel why she has to explain to people what festivals she celebrates. “I also like to buy new clothes for Eid” she once told a very nosy neighbour! She finds it very difficult to explain to people that she is not an atheist. She cannot understand why people do not make that simple differentiation between religion and god – that one is all pervasive while the other is man made.
Both my husband and myself feel that we are lucky to be part of two different cultures. We celebrate Christmas and Diwali with equal gusto. In both these festivals we try to highlight the cultural aspects and play down the religious overtones.
It is not to say that it has been roses all the way for us. We have had our share of troubles, arguments and fights, but none of these have been about religion. Religion continues to exist in our lives but does not consume our day to day existence. People who know only my husband are surprised when he tells them his wife’s name just as people known to me give a start when they hear my husband’s very Christian sounding name. Sometimes they are not sure if we are even married!
Both our extended families have kept away from intruding in with their brand of religion – if anything they have only tried to be inclusive. So, as my daughter used to say when she was younger “Don’t mess with me. I have Gods from two religions behind me”!!!
Photo credit: examinethetruth.com