Nisha, my driving instructor talks non-stop while we are out on the road. That’s her way of keeping me distracted from anxiety. We were once stuck in traffic outside a church when she asked me if I visit temples frequently—her area of interest being how I would manage to park in such crowded places. I told her that was one location we need not worry about since I never went to temples. “So church, then?”, she asked. She knew my husband and I are in an inter-faith marriage. “No,” I replied, “we don’t go there either.”
“So what about the children?” she prodded. “Don’t they need to be acquainted with their religion?” I told her my children were going to be okay because they did not belong to any religion. And I waited then for the inevitable barrage of questions that followed. And they did: How is that even possible? What do you put in the column on forms where they ask for religion? What do you tell them when they are scared and you need to reassure them that someone up there is looking out for them? Aren’t you afraid they will grow up lawless and irresponsible when they grow up without fear of the after-life? And the grand finale to all these conversations: What happens when they are of marriageable age?
See, Nisha was just trying to fill in another hour of the time for which I paid her to sit beside me while I negotiated the madness that is Kochi traffic. She was not really concerned about what prospects await my children when they grow up (though she was curious about that since she has apparently not encountered others who uphold this particular line of thought). So to her, and all the people who have in the past been genuinely concerned about the issue, I direct this piece.
My husband was born and raised a staunch Catholic. I grew up in a Nair household, rising early and going to the temple for nirmalyam in the days leading up to my exams. Both of us have mothers who find solace in the idea of God. We love them and respect every one of their deeply ingrained and solidly hewn beliefs. To us, there is nothing antithetical about this and our own changing definitions of faith. We stopped believing that it took Sunday Mass and Monday fasts for our lives to be rooted in love, loyalty and values passed on from our parents to us. And this was not a journey my husband and I undertook together either.
His thought process, stemming from his creative spirit, took his spirituality in one direction while my stolidly rational and sceptical worldview took mine in another. There is one point on which we agree—that it does not take institutionalized religion to lead our lives in harmony with the rest of the Universe. That and the fact that religion and spirituality are, at the very core of it, extremely personal in nature and open to entirely subjective interpretations. It was therefore only natural for us to decide that our life together was going to be, in essence, faith-neutral.
We don’t identify as Christian and Hindu anymore. Religion does not play any significant role in our thought process. We keep it as non-interfering and non-consequential in our daily lives as we can. It was as a logical extension to that thinking that we decided that our children would be brought up without any religious label.
And to answer the question that we have been asked time and again—NO, it does not affect ANY official documentation if you leave the RELIGION column blank. The Government of India is really not that interested in getting you to declare your faith. Both our children attend reputed educational institutions and our leaving the RELIGION column blank in application forms has never affected their admission process. They also possess birth certificates, Aadhar cards and passports, none of which required them to state their religion. They are proud citizens of India and, despite their parents’ faithlessness, have the papers to prove it.
As far as the ‘someone to turn to’ theory goes, we would like to instil in them faith in humanity as opposed to a faith they cannot see or comprehend. If chanting the various names of Arjuna was supposed to help me get over irrational fears as a child, the Fairy Godmothers and Ninja Hattoris, who populate this world, help my children achieve the same. But of course, there are days when my elder one comes home full of doubts—Amma, how come I am not Christian like my cousins? How come I don’t fast for Navarathri? Naturally, she is quite happy to be free of the ritual of Sunday School and temple visits, but she gets confused when her classmates tell her it is impossible for her to not belong to any religion. She wonders about the God who created the Universe and whether He would like her if she does not pray to Him. Between my husband and me and our divergent views on the world and beyond, and our families who navigate completely different belief systems, our child has a lot to learn and a lot to consider before she eventually arrives at her own conclusions on faith and belief.
In the meantime, we continue to put up a kani on Vishu and a tree for Christmas. Mia and Aisha enjoy the ritual of pesaha with their paternal grandparents and Shivarathri with their maternal grandmother. They understand these as cultural and family traditions. They also read the stories behind these observances from their Amar Chitra Kathas and hear about their significance from family members. We would not deny them experiences that will shape their childhood memories. We just don’t stress the fact that these are to be associated with any religious identity.
Finally, we get to the question of who will marry them? This one is my favorite. Normally, the first step in this scenario is to spread the word among ‘our’ people—people who share our caste surnames or church denominations. In our case, who exactly would be ‘our kind’? Even if we reach out to other ‘mixed families’, wouldn’t they want the ‘girl’ to be officially denoted one kind or the other so they can decide on what ceremonies they can have for the grandchildren—baptism or noolukettu? Buffet with pork and tapioca, or sadya with three kinds of payasam? This was the biggest mystery that caught Nisha’s (and many others with whom we have had to have this conversation) imagination when I told her my children don’t belong to any faith. Who will marry them? Who will give them ‘respectability’, ‘security’, an aspirational surname and hopefully, a Green Card?
My answer to that would be—if my girls hang around for my husband and me to ‘fix them up’ with ‘suitable boys’ once they reach ‘marriageable age’, I would consider that our greatest failure as parents (no offence to anyone who got married that way; I am talking about a scenario at least twenty years into the future).
My husband and I got married to each other because the idea of spending our lives together gave us the greatest happiness we ever experienced. Not because our family backgrounds matched. Not because our horoscopes matched. Not because our photographs matched. Not because our educational qualifications or place of work matched. And definitely not because ‘we had reached marriageable age’. That is what we hope for our daughters too. That they will get married because they have found someone worthy of spending their precious time and lives with. Their religion, or lack of it, should not matter. Who their parents are should not matter. All that matters should be that they are loved and valued. That their aspirations are able to freely take wing through lives they choose to build for themselves. And that is when I hope the question ‘what happens to children who have the RELIGION column blank in their official documents’ will be truly answered.
Back when Sanjay and I were about to get married, our families suggested that one of us could adopt the other’s faith. We were told it affects the unity of a family for the spouses to not share their beliefs and prayers. I understand that concern. We are so used to families grounded in religion that it is difficult to think of another model. Therefore, if you must ask a question to an inter-faith couple, I think a relevant one would be this—does it affect our cohesiveness as a family? It would have were my husband to insist that we thank the Lord before every meal and I started spouting sandhyanamam every evening in our household. We don’t. Our children are not even aware of there being any dichotomy in their parents’ identities or of anything lacking in their lives because we chose the life we did. That is why my daughter thought nothing of making up a story about Santa Claus bringing a Christmas tree to a bored little Ganesha. That, my friends, is our answer.