What I Learnt About Religion Growing Up With a Christian Father and Muslim Mother

Modern Family

What I Learnt About Religion Growing Up With a Christian Father and Muslim Mother

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Often when I’m asked to introduce myself, I use my first name Tarana. Some people who are familiar with Urdu realise that Tarana is an Urdu word and assume that I’m a Muslim. When they ask me to confirm the same, I tell them my surname – Emmanuel. The confused look on their faces is always a pleasure to watch.

Born to a Muslim mother and a Christian father, I’m both Christian and Muslim. As much as I like to take pride in that, I don’t always get a very positive reaction from people with whom I share this. Most elder acquaintances that I meet from my communities (on both sides) seem to give me a judgemental look, as if pitying me for what my parents did. In fact, one doesn’t need to go too far to see the disdain that my parents experienced from their own families when they decided to tie the knot.

But you probably already knew that. There are way too many essays, books, and films that give you a detailed picture of what the struggle of an interfaith marriage looks like. But beyond the pathos and drama immortalised in movies like Bombay, there exists another side to an interfaith marriage, which not many people talk about. It’s a perspective only the children of interfaith couples, like me, have the privilege of getting.  

My childhood was about getting to buy new clothes twice a year instead of once – on Eid and then on Christmas. It was about having friends over on December 25 to share a plum cake and running to neighbours’ houses to treat them with sheer korma on Eid. I waited for Eidis from relatives as eagerly as I waited for my gifts from Santa. My mom, who was raised as a Muslim for 23 years of her life, decorated the tree on Christmas, and my dad – who used to sing in the church choir growing up – wore the skull cap on Eid. We went to the church as a family and we also remembered to shut off the music system during azaan.

Growing up, my parents and their actions were everyday reminders of the fact that their different religions and faiths could never be a reason for something that would separate them.

The way I saw the interfaith marriage of my parents as a child is very different from the way I see it now, as a 22-year-old adult. While as a kid, I only cherished the way my parents embraced their differences, today I am able to truly see and appreciate the kind of freedom and space that my parents gave each other. My mum never stopped my dad from doing anything that he chose to do to honour his faith, and vice versa. There was a mutual respect and understanding for each other’s wishes and beliefs. Nobody forced the other to support their own faith, and both of them still obliged each other out of love.  

When I read about India’s famed “unity in diversity” in school, it felt familiar to me in a deeply personal way. The idealistic notion that such a vibrant array of faiths and belief systems could co-exist harmoniously in this melting pot called India seemed easily achievable. If my mother and father were able to find a happy middle ground despite their religious differences, surely others could too?

To grow up seeing two individuals lead a life like this shapes you too, in many ways. At a young age you start seeing differences as something to cherish rather than to be afraid of. To be a part of two communities at the same time, to interact and hear views of families who follow different faiths, not just opens your mind to a whole lot of different thought processes and viewpoints, but it also helps you become a far more empathetic, sensitive, and tolerant person.

In such a scenario when I read about the saffronisation of education in India or organised efforts like the most recent VHP rally in Delhi, where thousands gathered to press for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya; I’m left wondering about how easily we’re led into harping on our separate religious identities rather than celebrating the diversity that sets us apart as a nation.

My parents and their relationship focused on the most essential parts of their separate religious teachings and nurturing them. And anybody who has truly understood their own religion and faith, would know that would that it was kindness, acceptance, and humanity that my parents handpicked and nurtured.

In an India where currently a mandir and masjid remain at the centre point for political parties and their games, I hope we’re soon able to move to a time where interfaith marriages aren’t considered taboo, because I, as a daughter of an interfaith couple, can say with certainty that it is the best thing to have happened to me. As I’ve learned, all you need to get along is love.

And to celebrate that, I’m buying my mom a new Quran. It’s her Christmas gift.