When I was growing up, the word 'terror' didn't follow 'religion'. And the single most important function of religion was to decide whether I was vegetarian and how many holidays in school I could lay claim to. Things were simpler, and I was happy.
A child's memories
Cut to the 90s and all the definitions began to change. For some of us, religion became the difference between life and death. One of my closest friends is Muslim. We were in school when Mumbai's '92 riots in broke out. You remember the days when you weren't allowed to step out of the house? And every time someone went out, you wondered if this was the last time you see them? If you were in Mumbai at the time, you have memories like these too, don't you?
My friend remembers men hiding on the terrace, ready with acid bottles in case Hindu mobs attacked the building. And she remembers being perched on her dad's bike, terrified as a bloody fight broke out on the road. The child in my friend responded to the trauma by believing, for a while, that Hindus were bad people, that they were enemies. And she believed it until her parents sat her down and explained the difference between religion and religious terrorists to her... which is how she and I continued to remain friends.
The waters have become murkier since 2000. The 9/11 catastrophe ensured that terror's dark shadow would always loom large over religion. I've had a tough time explaining this to my kids. How can you keep your kids from reacting like mine did when they lost their favourite uncle in the Taj attacks on 26/11? Didn't your kids ask you what was going on?
Secularism in the times of war
Disgusted by Godhra, Ayodhya and 9/11, I promised myself that I would raise my kids without any influence of religion. But is there a way to isolate a child from religion in today's world? It smacks us in the face every time we go to Mumbai's famous Dadar area. It's hard to escape when friends quickly pull off the burkha while entering the 'Hindu' side of town. And this is Mumbai, the very city that is sold to all of us as one of the safest cities in the country.
Back to the basics
Off late, I've started following my parents' route. They made me respect religion-and not just mine-not disregard it. So no matter who said what, I knew that a religion wasn't bad, a few people were. And unless I give my kids that kind of irrefutable understanding, I'll always worry that some day a powerful enough speaker will manage to woo them to the dark side. I worry that my daughter might decide that Muslims are bad because all the terrorists in movies are Muslims. And I worry that my son might start thinking of Hinduism as a violent culture after he hears about Godhra, Babri Masjid and the blasts at Muslim congregations at Hyderabad, Ajmer and Malegaon. I have enough friends who worry right alongside me. Do you worry about losing your kids to such pointless religious jingoism?
Beat them at their game
Remember the simpler times? Almost every parent I speak to wishes for those days to come back... for the days when you could make some inappropriate jokes and believe that they'd be considered just inappropriate, not hateful. Ten years ago, I could call my Maharashtrian friends 'ghaati' and we'd all laugh about it. Today, I wouldn't risk it. I wish I could raise my children in a world where everyone in class looked forward to Janmashthmi and Diwali for the halwa-puri and Eid for the delicious sheer-korma. I know many of you would too. And although that world seems a little difficult right now, I truly believe that it isn't impossible to create.
I don't have an answer to my many questions-for each parent that agrees that a little religion coupled with an understanding of others is the right way, I meet one who says 'no religion', another who says 'strong religion'. But all of us feel that the answer needs to come from us, not from politicians and leaders with agendas. That WE need to decide what our kids will grow up believing, not THEM.