What does it mean for an agnostic to be married to a believer of a faith other than the one he was born into? Mumbai-born Canadian Mayank Bhatt tells us.
oronto, June 18, 2015: the Muslim holy month of Ramzan has commenced. During this hot summer period, when the days are long, my wife Mahrukh will fast for nearly seventeen hours every day.
Annually, over the last two decades since we’ve been married, Ramzan is the time when I’m at once confounded by the rigidity of rituals and the beauty of belief. Having alternated between atheism and agnosticism for all of my adult life, I’ve always had a problem reconciling to practices borne out of faith. And through these years, Mahrukh has patiently but resolutely prevented me from interfering with what she believes her religion requires her to do.
The ritual of day-long fasting, I argue with her, was conceived and meant for places where day and night are almost equally divided, not for the summers of the northern hemisphere. Therefore, fasting for nearly two-thirds of a day for thirty days couldn’t possibly be what Allah ordained, it is quite unnecessary. Such arguments don’t move her; and if I persist, she glares at me with a finality that implies that if I know what’s good for me, I’d better shut up.
Even now, I cannot resist having that discussion with her at least once every year, before the Ramzan fasting begins. Over the years, however, I’ve noticed that my resistance has gradually transformed into tolerance and, as we age together, into acceptance.
She is pragmatic and doesn’t let her belief totally govern her life. So she prefers halal both at home and when eating out, but will also dine where halal is not served. She’d want to pray five times a day, but will be satisfied if she’s able to.do it at least once, preferably at dawn. She has never worn a burqa, or a hijab, and finds the practice irrelevant to a woman’s existence. But she covers her head when she prays.
I have come to admire the rootedness and certitude that her belief gives her, and I often wonder whether these are the benefit of belief—solace, peace, and the ability to live in the moment, accept life for what It is. I had seen this in my late grandmother Harvilas, a devout Hindu. Religion gave her a sense of self-assurance that was at once enviable and intimidating.
For the last two decades of her long life she lived in a predominantly Muslim milieu, with a masjid opposite our home, and the azaan flowing through the speakers five times a day. Adjusting rather remarkably to her new environment, Harvilas created an exclusive world of her own, looking for and perhaps finding inner peace in her puja.
For Mahrukh, religion is deeply personal, as it was for Harvilas, and the only external and physical manifestation of their belief is the ritual of prayer—the namaaz for Mahrukh and the puja for Harvilas. My lifelong disappointment has been that Harvilas died about a year before Mahrukh and I got married. They would have found many similarities between them, many experiences to share.
arely, if ever, does Mahrukh proclaim her belief to the world, but just as equally she never disguises or hides it. In many ways, and perhaps without realizing it, she has matured into a person who is a strange combination of her parents—mother Shakera and father Aga Vaqar. Growing up in cosmopolitan Bombay, she had friends who spoke different languages and had different beliefs. Her decision to get married to a non-Muslim didn’t overtly dismay her family per-haps because of her father’s distinctly Marxist views.
For Aga Vaqar, being a Muslim in India was not so much about faith as it was about identity. Despite our similar views on many aspects (or perhaps because of them) my relationship with him remained uneasy till he died. On the other hand, Mahrukh’s mother Shaken, who is a deeply religious person, has little in common with me; and yet on several occasions, she steadied our rocking marriage in the initial years, because of her affection for and trust in me. I don’t talk to her often, but merely knowing that she is there in this world makes me feel secure and gives me strength.
Living together has transformed both of us gradually, and as with all couples who live together, the process of adjustment has been fraught with friction. In the early years, I often thought that religion was instrumental in whatever problems we faced in our marriage, but over the years I’ve realized that what to outsiders may seem like an unending television soap opera of quarrels with all-too-brief interludes of togetherness is perhaps true of most marriages. Mahrukh and I don’t make any attempts to hide our differences. And yet we are together and will be together because we love each other, and because we want to be together.
Immigrating to Canada has made me more appreciative of my wife. We talk of assimilation for newcomers to Canada, and what has struck me about cultural assimilation is that while most of us would willingly change our lives to become part of the mainstream, the biggest challenge (at least for me) is adapting to a different cuisine. I have singularly failed in adapting to “Canadian” food, and prefer my vegetarian Gujarati diet. My rigid inability to adjust has made me appreciate Mahrukh’s sacrifice two decades ago when she came to live with me after our marriage. It must have been an immense challenge for her to leave behind her dietary habits, her lifestyle—which at many levels was so completely different from mine—and quickly and willingly adjust to a new life.
ahrukh prepares Gujarati cuisine with consummate ease; every day, she packs my lunchbox with simple, basic Gujarati food. I can’t think of anyone who can quite make the karela nu shaak like she does. Her adadnidaal tastes exactly like my grandmother made, and she even attempts the saatpaadi (a Surati version of the bhakhri); bet daal is almost as good as my mother’s. I have to constantly remind myself that she is not a Gujarati. Her transformation has been imperceptible, unannounced, and without any accompanying drama that is generally associated with such life-changing journeys.
Mahrukh’s vivacious personality helped her in gaining acceptance in my family, including extended members of the family, with most of whom I have maintained little or no connection. She is connected to them all or at least most of them on social media, and is my source of information for all that happens in my family. Also, given my generally depressing state of dispensation, she has also become the sole contact point for my immediately family (mother, sister) who are never quite sure how I would respond to their queries.
She has transformed me too, but gradually, and not in the manner that she’d have wanted. One of the biggest changes has been to acknowledge the relevance of religion. My father was a lifelong socialist, influenced in equal measure by Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first prime minister, a Fabian socialist) and Ram Manohar Lohia (a socialist leader), and had little patience with God or godliness. He absolutely refused to perform the janoi (the sacred thread) ceremony for me, much to my disappointment because all my cousins had great fun tonsuring their heads and putting on the sacred thread amidst the chanting of holy mantras. “The only use of a janoi is to circle it around your ear when you piss,” he said dismissively. My mother has turned religious as she has aged, but her religion encompasses all belief systems, she finds peace in the Siddhivinayak mandir as much as in the Haji Ali dargah.
nce I outgrew my grandmother’s influence, I turned an agnostic and have remained so since. I called myself an atheist earlier but have stopped doing so; I don’t think I am (or was) an atheist, because I respect those who believe, even if I don’t share their beliefs, and I think that transformation has occurred because of Mahrukh’s influence on me.She has made me aware of religion’s many dimensions. I had grown up seeing my grandmother perform puja, and go to the mandir every day. I associated religion with older people. My wife’s religiosity began a process of questioning in me.
Why was a person who was not dissimilar to me in most ways be so completely different in one crucial aspect, and be so committed to a belief system? It led me to explore religion—not just Islam, but also Hinduism, Christianity, and other religions of India. It made me understand India and Indians better.
It made me more tolerant, better equipped to accept differences, develop an ability to find commonalities even with people who are completely different from me, and who preferred to revel in that difference.
And it has helped me better adjust to Canada’s multicultural society. When our son was born, we agreed to name him Che, after the Argentinian revolutionary. It was a momentous event in our lives, and even though I have never been a diarist, I recorded it. This is what I wrote then:
When he will ask me why I named him Che: Monday, September 8, 1997, 21.48 hrs: A baby boy is born to Mahrukh. And my world has changed. This is my single biggest achievement. The 7 lbs baby will be called Che, after Ernesto Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary, who fought alongside Fidel Castro in Cuba (and who was killed in Bolivia). His remains were found earlier this year. Che Guevara is the only revolutionary of this century who, after having succeeded in ushering in a new order in a country, did not sit down permanently to rule the country. He went on fighting in other countries for the cause which he felt was right. Che essentially means “my”. But it is not just that. “For the residents of the pampas, Che can express, depending on intonation and context, the entire spectrum of human passions—surprise, exhilaration, sorrow, tenderness, approval or protest” (quoted from Ernesto Che Guevara, a biography by I Lavretsky)… I know Meghnad (my father, who died about four months before my son was born) would have liked the name, Durga (my mother) will, too, and Mahrukh has begun to like the name (though I suspect this has more to do with her fear that her son may otherwise be named with a Sanskrit word). More importantly, if I succeed in making hint a decent human being, I am sure, even my son will like his name.
Che was conceived just before the month of Ramzan in 1997 (I think it was during a trip to Aurangabad in December 1996) and was born during the Ganapati festival of 1997. The nurses at the Holy Family Hospital, Bandra, told us that September 8 was also the feast of the Virgin Mary. Che’s date of birth also coincided with the holy month of the Jains—Paryushan.
Fairly early on, I decided that I would not decide what religion my son would follow. It wasn’t a tough decision for me. It may have been a bit challenging for Mahrukh, but even she has never made any overt attempts to force her views on him. One of the reasons for our decision to immigrate to Canada was to make it possible for Che to grow up in a society where his identity would not be restricted merely to his religion. I believe that Canadian society is generally open and fair, and doesn’t judge a person by his or her faith, although many recent events have severely challenged this belief.
ver the last eighteen years, I have consciously avoided influencing my son’s mind, and not merely about religion, but even about other matters. I believe that a child is influenced by what he sees his elders do rather than what his elders tell him to do. I realize that because of his mother’s faith, my son is more exposed to it. It was my experience, too, growing up in a household where though my parents weren’t religious my grandmother’s religiosity influenced me especially during my adolescence. But I quickly abandoned the narrow confines of religion once I was exposed to different experiences.
What helped was the multi-faith milieu of Teli Gali, a narrow lane in Andheri, where I grew up. My friends and neighbours belonged to different religions, different castes; we happily celebrated all festivals, and participated in rituals of all faiths. Opposite my home to the south was a masjid, and to the north a Swaminarayan mandir; a church, another Ganapati mandir, four movie studios, and eight cinemas were within walking distance. Tell Gali made me who I am today.
In the same way, I’m sure Canadian multiculturalism will help Che develop his own ideas about himself, his identity, and his place in the world.
As a family, we don’t often discuss these matters. But much to my consternation, I have realised that it is a major concern for the people we know, and often even for people we don’t know. Everyone wants to know if religion is a source of friction between Mahrukh and me, and I joke that we have many other important reasons to quarrel. People want to know if it would become a cause for friction if Che were to decide one way or the other, and I’m at pains to explain that it wouldn’t really matter, and that why should he have just two options—he could choose from many that are available, or like most rational human beings these days, choose none.
I remember one particular incident that rankles even after many years. In my struggle to find a proper job after I came to this country in 2008 (at the ripe age of 46), and upon realizing that finding one was next to impossible, I enrolled in a short program in flash animation at the Yorkdale Adult Education Centre in Toronto. I also wrote a column for Canadian Immigrant, and wrote about this experience. I want to share this here because it is the sort of response that I regularly encounter, and which I find extremely annoying.
In the column titled Questions of Identity, I wrote,
Once, while I was waiting in the corridor for the class to commence, two of my classmates also arrived. They were immigrants, too, but they were in Canada for more than two decades. After a brief discussion about our course, the subject veered to our children.
“I have one son: I said, “He’s 12 and he would be able to do this course better than me.”
Both the women nodded their heads in agreement. To become a student when you’re middle-aged poses peculiar challenges. One of the two women was a Tamil from Sri Lanka and had come to Toronto soon after she completed her education in Madurai (India) in 1988. The other woman was from Somalia and had come to Toronto in 1986.
The Tamil woman has two sons—the elder is 17 and the younger 13; the Somali woman’s elder daughter is 18 and she has two other children aged 6 and 4.
I have often wondered why is it that we have a tendency to know the other person’s faith and religion. I can live with ethnicity. But questions about my religion are something that I find deeply disturbing; not because I feel defensive answering them, but because I know my answers disturb the people who ask them. The Tamil woman wanted to know my country of origin.
“India,” I replied. She asked, “Are you a Hindu?”
“By birth,” I said. “I’m also a Hindu,” she said.
“You pray to Krishna?” she asked again.
“I don’t pray at all,” I said, and quickly added, “But I respect those who do.”
“Your wife also doesn’t pray?” she asked.
“My wife is a Muslim,” I answered.
The woman from Sri Lanka looked at me with a sense of disquiet. But the Somali woman perked up.
“Your wife is a Muslim?” she asked.
“She prays five times a day?”
“Not five times, but at least once early morning,” I said.
“I can’t get up early every morning,” the Somali woman sighed, and then added with unconcealed pride, “But my elder daughter does.”
In five minutes of conversation we had discovered not what united us—our visible minority status and our lower-income status—but what differentiated us. We weren’t three immigrants in Toronto. We were now a Muslim, a Hindu and an agnostic.
“Didn’t your parents object (to your marriage)?” the Tamil woman asked.
“No” I said.
“Even your wife’s parents?” the Somali woman asked.
“Not really,” I said.
“What religion will your son practice?” the Somaliwoman asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’d rather that he decides what he wants to be when he is mature enough to take such decisions on his own.”
“Have you given him a Hindu name or a Muslim name?” the Tamil woman asked.
“Neither. I’ve named him Che. It means ‘my.’ ”
I don’t want to create the impression that my wife and I don’t have differences. We differ on many issues, and constantly. The Charlie Hebdo massacre was a recent instance when we had different views; the annual memorial in New York for the victims of 9/11 is another. I’ve learned—sometimes with great difficulty—to accept as valid those of her opinions that are diametrically different from mine; and she has acquired the confidence to express her views without the fear of being labeled. We understand that we can express our views to each other and be understood even when the other person does not share our opinion.
We have become patient with each other.
Reprinted with kind permission from "The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada.Culture, Politics and Self". Edited by Nurjehan Aziz, Published by Mawenzi House Publishers Ltd. Toronto Canada (2015). Mayank Bhatt is a Toronto-based author. His debut novel, Belief was published in 2016.