Religion and Belonging

Working with an Adivasi (tribal) organization, I’ve taken for granted that someone could count herself as a member of a tribe. I don’t have a tribe. Maybe I could identify with being an American from the Midwest, or being Bangladeshi American, or Muslim. The only group on that list that I encounter here in the village of Tejgadh, Gujarat, are Muslims.

When I first meet someone, I don’t like to be defined by my religion. No one will know what I’m like as a person by knowing my religion. However, since I don’t speak much Gujarati and feel homesick sometimes, I have found myself wondering whether bonding over religion could help me make friends or a family away from home? For reasons I’m still working out, I have not attempted it. Where I stay, the Muslims live in a separate part of town that I call the Muslim quarter. My apartment is in a Hindu neighborhood, its landmark a pastel yellow State Bank of India that I can’t use since I don’t have an account there. Many of the residents own shops. Some of the homes are old, some are new, and more are being built. For a while, if I woke up early enough in the morning, I could hear someone playing what I thought was an old Bollywood song. I later learned that it is the Gayatri Mantra, a Hindu hymn.

When I first moved in, my landlords left pictures on the walls – one of Gandhi, another of Hanuman, a Hindu deity, and other important figures. I moved some of the pictures into the kitchen so that I could use their plinths as shelves. I though about putting the pictures away, but I wondered if it would be insulting. I soon learned I was not allowed to have meat or egg in my apartment. Once, when my landlord asked whether I liked Punjabi food, I replied that I liked tandoori chicken. She responded sharply with, “No chicken!” At first, that left me dumbfounded. Since I wasn’t preparing tandoori meat on my hotplate in the apartment, how could simply mentioning it get me a rebuke? To save face, I mumbled something about liking “tandoori vegetables” instead. I found myself making note of the rules of the apartment (“not even eggs!”) to my co-Fellows at the AIF Midpoint conference in January. I remember saying it like a personal update, along with “I ride a bicycle to work now.”

Something bothered me about the rules, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (2017) called it in his short story, “They Eat Meat!” At times tongue-in-cheek, at times serious, he describes a Santhal family who relocate from Jharkhand to Vadodara, a city in Gujarat about 95 kilometers from Tejgadh. I myself visit Vadodara every so often like a pilgrimage, to a movie theater or to eat South Indian food. An exchange between two of the characters turned on a light of recognition:

“Vadodara is a strongly Hindu city,” Mr. Rao continued. “People here believe in purity. I am not too sure what this purity is, but all I know is that people here don’t eat non-veg. You know? Meat, fish, chicken, eggs. Nor do they approve of people who eat non-veg.”

“Yes, sir.” Biram-kumang nodded.

“Tribals, even lower-caste Hindus, they are seen as impure. I hope you understand.” Mr. Rao seemed almost contrite as he said this.

“Yes, sir. I have some idea of this,” Biram-kumang said.

“Muslims and Christians, they don’t stand a chance here. They have separate areas where they live. Cities within a city. Separate bastis for Muslims, for Christians.” (Shekhar, 2017, p. 6).

 

What bothered me was the sense that people might think less of me because of what I ate, as a shortcut to thinking less of me because of my religion. Although this sense of being marginalized has lingered, I know that I have an out since I’m not intending to stay for the long term. I have the ability to remove myself from needing acceptance from others. But wasn’t coming here for ten months to learn what it was like to be accepted into a community different from my own?

When I visited shops in Tejgadh for the first time, people asked me where I was from, some asked me my family name, and others asked me my religion. One night, I stopped at an ice cream shop in the Muslim quarter. After asking me my full name, the owner asked, “So are you Mohammedan, then?” It was such an old-fashioned phrase to me that I had to ask him to repeat it. I indifferently responded yes. I didn’t want to seem like I only associated with Muslims, and anyways I wouldn’t describe myself as devout and was afraid what they would think. But privately, I was also happy that he seemed to see me more favorably. Another afternoon, I looked around for oatmeal at a shop with large bins and burlap sacks. After being told that I wasn’t going to find oatmeal here, I gave up and bought almonds and raisins. When I answered the shopkeepers’ questions about where I’m from and where my parents are from, they took an interest. An older gentleman commended that Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims are seeking refuge in Bangladesh. His words made it through my limited Hindi filter, and I nodded in agreement. I felt embarrassed by the fact that he appeared to be accepting me, and that I was seeking acceptance. It wasn’t as though I was personally doing anything for the Rohingya refugees. The only person in the shop who could comfortably speak a few phrases of English, bid me “hasta la vista” in goodbye.

I’m not sure what people in my Hindu neighborhood think of me. Some of them smile, and I’ve been invited in for tea a few times. But if I am being honest, I feel as though they keep me at arms-length. The homes I have visited on my block have a delicate, softly lit shrine for prayer, with small framed pictures, silver cups, and incense. I was surprised the first time someone rang a small brass bell loudly for a while. I wanted to ask her what it meant, but I didn’t know if it would be weird. Another time, when the azan, or Muslim call to prayer, was coming from the mosque in the Muslim quarter a few blocks away, I was asked if I knew what was playing, as though it was an alien sound. I was surprised by this—hadn’t Hindus and Muslims been living together in Tejgadh for years? I was also asked about my prayer habits. The exchange felt less like a conversation and more like I was scrutinized. I brushed off their questions by saying I didn’t practice, even though that’s not entirely true. I wanted to placate my neighbors so they didn’t see me as threatening, an instinct that I’m ashamed of.

It has taken me decades to achieve some sort of equilibrium of my identity, religious and otherwise, in the United States. I worked to move past the judgments I have perceived from non-Muslims and Muslims alike. I wasn’t expecting to start anew here. Of course, although I have preferred not to focus on it, I cannot ignore the tensions here. Widespread violence took place between Hindus and Muslims across Gujarat in 2002 after the Godhra train burning. The number of people left dead is disputed and ranges between several hundreds to over 1,000. In Tejgadh, following the attacks, Hindu money lenders bribed or coerced Adivasis into attacking the families and properties of Muslim money lenders, and people were killed (Devy, 2013). The violence has not been forgotten and will probably shape perspectives well into the future. I am not afraid for my safety. I have not been openly dismissed because of my background. Over time, I have formed a sort of balance, trying to speak positively about unfamiliar traditions or places of worship, from the perspective of a visitor. But I want to speak from the perspective of a Muslim from America who does not carry the baggage of this place. I don’t want to be afraid of what people think when I say I eat meat, that I identify as Muslim, that I follow the religion how I want. I’m afraid that if I’m honest, I won’t be accepted. Maybe I’ve been keeping a distance, too.

There have been nice surprises, too. I went to a festival on the last night of the Hindu festival of Navratri in Tejgadh. At the mandir, I was offered a plate with a small flame. Following one of the teachers’ cues, I clasped my hands together and bowed my head. I was a spectator, but little by little became a participant. I danced the 3-step garba with Bhasha’s Vasantshala students and Tejgadh residents moving in a huge circle over the grounds.

Navratri in Tejgadh.
People dancing on the last night of Navratri in Tejgadh. Photo by Lina Khan.

Music played so loudly from gigantic speakers that I could feel my stomach rumbling, and there was the faint smell of cow dung and the sound of crickets when the music stopped. I could feel the kids’ excitement from being able to join the festivities for the last time until the following year, and getting to stay up late on a school night! During Diwali, I had dinner with my landlord’s family and set off an amazingly loud firecracker by scraping it against the ground with my foot.

Apartment decorated for Diwali.
My apartment decorated for Diwali. Photo by Lina Khan.

Another Sunday morning, my landlord knocked on my door. Sundays are my only day off, and I was still asleep. I groggily opened the door. She hugged me and said, “Happy Eid!” I didn’t know what she was talking about and must have looked confused. She stopped, uncertain, and said, “Yes, Muhammad’s birthday?” My family in St. Louis, Missouri doesn’t celebrate the prophet’s birthday, so a question was lingering on my mind, but I didn’t ask. I thanked her and went back to bed, feeling more warmly towards her. In the short story I mentioned above (spoiler alert!), the Hindu neighbors later join together to protect the Muslim family on their block from a Hindu nationalist mob. I wasn’t expecting that ending.

I’ve (re)concluded that for me, feeling comfortable…will not come from identifying with one group. But it has been lonely sometimes, and I want to get to know more people during Ramadan. I also suspect I’m not done navigating the dynamics.

 

Words Cited

Chauhan, Anuja. 2018. Citizen’s social responsibility. The Week. Retrieved May 18, 2018 from https://www.theweek.in/theweek/cover/2018/04/20/we-need-to-intervene-any-time-there-is-a-rape.html.

Devy, Ganesh N. 2013. Culture and development, an experiment with empowerment. In Field Actions Science Reports, Special Issue 7: 2013, Livelihoods. Retrieved May 19, 2018 from https://factsreports.revues.org/2404

Shekhar, Hansda Sowvendra. 2017. They eat meat! In The Adivasi Will Not Dance, (pp. 1-27). New Delhi: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

Lina is excited to join Bhasha in its efforts to advance the goals of tribal communities, including helping educate kids in a nurturing environment and prepare them for a bright future. She is looking forward to meeting children, parents, and everyone else in her community, and using her limited Bengali to begin learning other Indian languages. Prior to the fellowship, Lina assessed federal programs in international trade, security, and environmental restoration for the Government Accountability Office, and supported monitoring and evaluation of democracy assistance programs for the National Democratic Institute. She has also volunteered with kids education programs in Washington, DC and with a water pipeline project with Engineers Without Borders in Cameroon.

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