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Original Telugu story by Anuradha
Translation by Abhiram Kashyap Kompella
“Ma, I’ll convert to another religion” hearing these words from Navya sent a sudden jolt through me.
Navya, just about to appear for her tenth-class board exams, usually understood most things quite easily. Without waiting for any response on my part, she just announced her intention and went to her room. After all her boards were fast approaching. There had never been any sort of trouble with her studies but this sudden statement of hers left me a little surprised.
She would have acted the same way even if her father was around – she always had every freedom growing up. Madhav was away on camp, but I was pretty sure he too would’ve reacted with the same confusion that I did. Anyway, I wonder why she brought this up now. Well, she’d tell me herself when she saw fit, I suppose.
Though busy at the office, Navya’s words were always at the back of my mind. What caused her to worry so much all of a sudden? There was never any discussion around caste or religion in our household. Our friends all came from different backgrounds. What effect were the discussions revolving around these issues in the country at large, their politicization and the propaganda, having on these teenage kids? In our generation, during our studies and even in our workplaces, I never knew that these kinds of things were actually given prominence.
When I reached home that evening, I found Navya with her friends, surrounded by books and all of them engaged in a very serious discussion. By the time I was done with dinner, everyone had dispersed and Navya came in.
“Ma, Aakash didn’t come to study with us today. We all had to plead with him to come and only then did he finally relent – reluctantly. Apparently, his parents are fighting about something. He said he was scared. After they left for office, he cried a lot and stayed back at home – he didn’t even come to school.”
“I’ll talk to Saritha Aunty. You guys keep on including him in your study groups and try cheering him up”, I tried consoling my distraught teenage daughter. I realized that their friend’s sadness was paining everyone in their group.
The board exams started and were done in a flash.
One evening as Madhav came home from work, he said “Oh I didn’t mention that Rafi came to the office a week ago, did I?”. I asked him what the issue was.
“The couple have recently been scrambling over the issue of their identities which was never an issue all these years. Rafi is somebody you can call a “complete man”. He believes that his patience and understanding might bring some sort of calm into the lives of others around him. Only now do I realize how gracefully he has handled all the hurt he has faced. He’s lamenting about the unpleasant situation that has gripped the entire country. Who has the right to label someone by their caste or religion and bring about insecurity and fear into their lives? Don’t we as elders have the responsibility of protecting and safeguarding the weaker kids in our family? Then why is the opposite becoming increasingly true for our society? Aakash, watching all this, is torn. He’s had this new consciousness of sorts that his father belongs to a minority community. Navya wanting to change her religion is just an expression of concern for her friend. You know what Aakash told his mother? He said that he wants to support his father by adopting his religion.”
I was extremely confused hearing what Madhav was saying.
The next morning was Ugadi*. Saritha always used to come over to give us neem leaves from her garden, but not this time around. So, I decided to go to her house myself.
Seeing me brought upon a warm smile on Saritha’s face. But there was a hint of sadness and worry behind the smile too.
“Sorry Akka! It’s been a long time since we’ve met. It’s been extremely busy at the office. I actually wanted to take a leave for Aakash’s exams but since he was studying with his friends anyway…”.
“You have been hiding a lot of things from me” I said peering at her face intently. She was shocked.
“Yeah, last we met you said that you were going to your hometown, everything was sort of a suspense and that you’d tell me lots about it when you came back. But we haven’t met after that.” Her face flooded with relief hearing my words.
“Oh that! Come inside and have some tea. I’ll tell you all about it.”
I followed her into the kitchen. Ever since they’d been transferred here, we’ve been good friends. Aakash and Navya being in the same class was also part of the reason. Saritha celebrates all the Hindu festivals in her house. She observes all the Hindu rituals and comes for all such religious gatherings. Rafi too used to be casual and cordial with everybody in the colony. Both of them used to respect each other’s space and this aspect of their married life delighted me a lot. She gave me my tea and asked me seriously,
“Akka, do you feel that religion has no importance? Why is the entire nation discussing and debating religion? Though we respect all religions, it seems that there is some sort of problem.”
Well, well! The issue seems to be quite serious. To curb the intensity, I said lightheartedly, “For the past fifteen years you’ve been treating two religions with the same respect in your home. Surely, you are more qualified to answer this better yourself?”
“Quite a few things have happened in these past couple of months. I feel you’re the only person I can share these things with. Last month, after almost seventeen years, I went home to my family. It was the occasion of my nephew’s upanayanam*. My parents, my brothers, their families, everyone was present. To be frank, getting the invitation itself was quite surprising. I was outright hesitant in attending, as the thought of meeting everyone after such a long gap and the prospect of what there could even be to talk about, loomed large. But Rafi encouraged me to go. He also advised me to take Aakash so that even he could get to know everyone. But he was busy preparing for his boards at the time, so I went alone. I went there my head buzzing with thoughts. But everyone was quite normal with me and treated me with the appropriate respect and love. They enquired about Rafi and Aakash and were genuinely disappointed they couldn’t attend as well. In all these years of my marriage to Rafi, I never missed my family, but to sit amongst them and talk gave me such a sense of belonging. I was euphoric that they had finally included me too in the family.”
“Your son is older than your nephew. He should already have had the ceremony done by now”, my father’s words betrayed his desire.
After hearing that, even I felt the same. My elder brother too chimed in “You can see the situation in the country right now. We must ensure that Aakash’s future is secure.”
“All these years religion was never an issue in our marriage. Before our wedding we vowed that we would have no difference of opinion in terms of religion. To mingle with everybody and live happily is my husband’s only religion. He says that we needn’t give it any more importance than that. He has never once objected to any of the celebrations in our house. So naturally I thought he wouldn’t have a problem with this too and I started my journey back home. But Rafi is not relenting.
“We wanted nothing to do with religion and now you want to tell our son that there is such a thing and that we believe in it? My son doesn’t need any such ceremonies. I won’t accept it.”
Saritha let out a long sigh.
Who is creating this perilous atmosphere of the fragmentation of society, almost doing away with the concept of living in harmony? The politics painting venomous colours on this huge white canvas of living amicably amongst fellow human beings, how vile are they? Why willfully let go of the opportunity of living in peace? And most importantly, who is paying the price for these disdainful acts committed by some people knowingly and purposefully?
“Saritha, you have thought about the upanayanam all right. But have you asked Aakash what he thinks about it and whether he even likes it or not?”
The conversation that Madhav and I had about Aakash wanting to adopt his father’s religion was playing in my mind as I asked her this. Her face fell. She remained silent for a while.
“Akka, I think this is the time for me to be firm. He’s barely legal and he talks about wanting to support his father through religion. He says he’ll even change his name. I don’t know why but I have this disquieting thought that I might lose him to such adverse reactions. And that is something which I cannot bear. I don’t know when this thought crept in, but it has. The present- day situation is causing Aakash to feel a sense of insecurity. Maybe Rafi and I did underestimate the power of religion.”
“The society in which he lives may provoke him at any point in time. Why, when they play cricket, everyone tries to pick him in their team first, but when something distasteful happens in the country, the same people say “Hey, it’s your guys.” Some of his friends tell him that a few others are whispering something behind his back. He’s been subject to this ever since he’s stepped into this world. Apparently, people suddenly start looking at him differently. I keep telling him not to pay heed to such thing and till date he hasn’t taken such thing seriously. But he says he doesn’t want the upanayanam, and that he doesn’t believe in it.”
Saritha, who had bottled up all her feelings till now suddenly let loose in a huge torrent of tears. I was silent till she gathered herself. Why is Saritha feeling so sad? Is it because she feels she has no say in this matter? Or is it because her own son has started to separate his parents basis religion? Or is it that she feels her son wants to support only his father?
“The more I think about it the more certain I am that his school experiences will follow him around wherever he goes. In the pre-final exams conducted by the school, he scored very good marks and came first among his peers. A few teachers were saying that it was the first time that a ‘minority’ student had come first. I can understand how this society will look at his identity but why is Rafi not able to see it? It doesn’t matter even if I am overthinking this. The society at large should recognize that he, in fact, belongs to the majority, even if it means that I have to force him into it or quarrel with Rafi about it. Because he has a chance, I want to provide him with some semblance of security for the future. When my brother was talking about this I though that we wouldn’t be affected by such trivialities but the more I think about it, the more I see the truth in his words.”
I had never seen Saritha so agitated and passionate about anything like this before.
“When I was studying history in school, all the wars and battles, I thought of them as pointless. And these days, that sort of mentality is getting more firmly rooted in the collective subconscious, with regards to my family. I am at a loss to find ways in which to dissuade him from taking action on these new found radical thoughts that have sprung up in his brain. You may think I’m being selfish, but I believe that it is for his own good. Say something, Akka!”
How easily is she betraying everything that she has believed in for all these years! Is there no other option than to bow under the weight of pressures and obstacles that might arise in the future?
“Saritha, don’t force Aakash to do anything. He is growing up now. Yes, his experiences up until now might have been bitter, but you have been guiding him the right way, throughout. You and Rafi are having differences of opinion on this issue. Rafi believes very firmly in what he practices. He’s seeing and living in the same world that you do. He too will be concerned about Aakash – after all he is his son too.
Forget about the world. For it to create a perfect storm in a peaceful household, religion is indeed a very strong force, as you yourself have mentioned. Seeing your divergent viewpoints, Aakash has come up with a solution that he feels is suitable. He’s leaning towards his father, who doesn’t have the support of the ‘majority’. The world that he lives and experiences tomorrow might be even harsher than ours is today. If we teach him patience and humanitarian values, he will understand the world around him better. Just think about it once…”
“Upanayanammay be something that interests you and you might have your own reasons for it. And do you honestly think Aakash will agree to it even if you force him into it? In a way, you might inadvertently be the reason for him to lean towards the opposite of what he has believed in all these years. Did you think of who is actually making him change his priorities? I don’t think that this is what you have ever wanted and I’m pretty confident that even Rafi won’t be happy about it. All through your marriage, you and Rafi have given each other your space. I think the time has come for you to give Aakash his own space and let him make decisions for himself.
Also, I don’t think that Rafi would be particularly happy about Aakash adopting his religion either. And one more thing, please don’t think that upanayanam will change anything for Aakash. When they hear of his father’s name these bigots will treat him with the same contempt and hatred if not more. He will never be part of their group whatever you try to do. Please consider this as well.”
I could see the wheels spinning in her brain as she thought of this. After a moment she said, “You’re right. Rafi did tell Aakash not to formally adopt his religion. He always says that this fear is not something new for us to be afraid of. Any religion teaches us to differentiate between good and bad and learn from it. If you don’t know that, nothing makes much of a difference really. You know what he said when Aakash said he wanted to convert?
“I don’t mind if you even get your upanayanam done and practice your mother’s faith. But to actually lead your life in a right and meaningful way, you don’t need all these. You need to be pure of thought and action. There is no religion greater than having this awareness.””
I was glad that Saritha told me all this and did not hide this point of view just to ‘win’ the discussion.
“Yes, isn’t that true. This religious fanaticism has always existed. Only difference is that, it’s heightened a bit now. If not caste or religion, then something else will crop up. We’re seeing differences more sharply than ever all over the world. Look at the situation of the Black community in the U.S. You think children of mixed race don’t face such discrimination? And it’s even worse for them, because you can tell them apart just by looking at them. You try all you want, but society will always try to show what is lacking, even if there really is not. What we have to try to break are these feelings of inferiority and superiority. You are already teaching Aakash this. Just because you force him to follow the Hindu faith, I don’t think that will create any sense of security for him. There, I don’t agree with your brother.”
“But my parents will be happy if this happens and there is a chance that they might come visit me”, she said, her small voice indicating both her desperation and defeat.
“Have you ever invited them before? Invite them once and see. I don’t think you need an excuse of upanayanam to do that. His school graduation is also a good occasion. Once they get to know you and your bonds are strengthened, they will come to see you for who you are. They will even stand in support of Aakash and Rafi.”
“To be honest, I’ve never invited them before. Rafi grew up having no one. He needs people around him. After our wedding, he suggested that we invite them to our home. Since they were in opposition to the idea of us getting married, I was hesitant to call them. Seeing them after all these years and spending time with them has made me want to have them back in my life. I’ll actually take your advice and invite them over for Aakash’s school graduation.” Seeing relief on her face made me happy.
Now that there was nothing to be said, I got up to leave.
“Saritha, for a man to want to know the traces of his identity is not something knew. It is very natural. As long as this world exists, there will be divisions and differences. We have to raise our kids even more carefully for them to be able to face these divisive times. In short, I think it is enough if everyone follows their own path, while simultaneously respecting others’. To raise our children that way is our responsibility. Aakash has his own circle of friends around him. Wherever he may go for higher studies or in search of his career, and wherever he may settle down in life, they are the ones who will stand by him. So, there is no need for you to worry about him now any more than you did before. Okay?”
“Thanks, Akka!” Saritha thanked me again.
“Come over to our place for dinner this weekend. It’ll be fun” I said and turned to leave, some heaviness in my heart.
As I reached home, I saw Navya and her friends conversing and laughing and that lifted my spirits again.
*Ugadi – Telugu New Year in which neem leaves hold a special place.
*Upanayanam – An investiture ceremony/ritual for upper class Hindu males.
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