They Made Me Muslim

Social Commentary

They Made Me Muslim

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Iwas born human. Or so I thought. The family I was born into is Muslim. They pray and fast during Ramzan, and the women cover their heads in reverence to the strains of azan emanating from the mosque. Growing up I hated the azan. It reminded me of the cold, Ramzan predawn, being shaken up for an enforced early-morning sehri, when all I wanted to do was sleep. Some childhood responses last a lifetime, and even though I can intellectually acknowledge the musical beauty of the azan today, I have never been able to appreciate it like I do the Gurbani, that came to me via Bollywood, without religious baggage.

The language of the Quran, a squiggly gibberish Arabic, alienated me further from the religion of my parents. I protested by feigning my own version of dyslexia. I had discovered other literature, better literature, mostly in English, for the loss of the Arabic alphabet, also meant a collateral loss of the Urdu I had inherited from my mother. Later I would discover that the Quran too had its good parts. Back then I was sure – I was not Muslim.

I embraced atheism with the arrogance and certainty of youth. I remember walking confidently into my first-year class in college with a folder that boldly proclaimed: “I Was an Atheist Till I Discovered I Was God.” The youth is gone, but this certainty survives, although I no longer believe mine is the only philosophy to live by.

The beauty of the school chapel, stories of hell and heaven, nothing could move me to prayer. I failed at fasting, for I had no willpower, and made a feeble attempt to do so only out of greed for the extra Eidi given to children who complete the month of fasting. My white-bearded grandfather, who never missed a namaz, told me that it did not matter that I ate, all that mattered of a person were her intentions. Neeyat, he called it. It was most important. That one could control. Actions could be flawed and could be forgiven if the intention behind them was noble.

NotInMyName Protest Across India Against Mob Violence

I saw frail old men and women come out into the cold Bombay rain, having to live the ignominy of reiterating – Not in My Name – as if it were not a given.

Hindustan Times / Getty Images

My grandfather was not highly educated, but the world he bequeathed to us was in keeping with the concept of live and let live that our generation seems to have forgotten. I learnt only recently that his way of life – To you be your religion, and to me my religion – is a Quranic concept, ironically from the American comedy-drama Master of None.

I lived for a long time in a utopia where Amar Akbar Anthony coexisted. I could be whichever I chose to be, whenever it suited me.

They made me Muslim.

They who told me, even in jest, to go to Pakistan.

They who attempted to force yoga on me, as if yoga was not mine too.

They who cherry picked wisdom from the Gita and violence from the Quran, deliberately reducing complex tales to the level of children’s fables.

They who insisted I sing Vande Mataram, as if I did not have the right to revere my motherland, my way.

They who defined me by what I ate and drank rather than what I did or said.

They who killed Aklaq and Junaid and many others for their names, and who will kill me too, given the slightest excuse, because of my name.

They who did not condemn these killings, but expect me to condemn killings by people who bear names like mine in countries that are not mine.

They who demand my credentials as a moderate Muslim, when all I want to be is human.

They did what my parents failed to do. What the Quran could not do. What my grandfather never attempted to do.

They made me Muslim.

I cannot say I am proud to be Muslim because what pride is there in something that was thrust upon you, something you did not choose for yourself. But I will say that I am no longer ashamed to be marked as Muslim.

For years I resented being defined Muslim. I resented having to explain that biryani was not my native cuisine, that I did not eat beef but fish, to people who thought being vegetarian made them superior. I patiently repeated the etymology of my last name to people who did not know that last names like mine, and also many others – Shah and Deshmukh, Chowdhary and Chougle, Naik and Kutty – were markers, at most, of a narrow region, and those who carried these surnames could be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or atheist.

NotInMyName Protest Across India Against Mob Violence

What a beautiful world was bequeathed to us. Look at the mess we made of it.

Hindustan Times / Getty Images

It is time I stopped explaining.

When the rule of the majority means rule of the mob, words lose meaning. I will no longer bother to identify myself as atheist. Because they have decided, I am Muslim.

I saw frail old men and women come out into the cold Bombay rain, having to live the ignominy of reiterating – Not in My Name – as if it were not a given. What a beautiful world their generation bequeathed to us. Look at the mess we made of it.

I am so glad my grandfather is no longer alive. His beard, under which I found refuge, is now a marker for terrorism. His grandsons hesitate to wear the cap he wore comfortably, lest they be singled out for scrutiny. His mixed race great-grandchildren, born to parents of multiple religious backgrounds, will continue to bear the cross of their Muslim origin.

For they decided that we are Muslim.

We may be. But are they even human?