The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

The Story of a Secularist in India

Photo: Joel Mason-Gaines, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

By Navras J. Aafreedi

I was always conscious of the fact that I was the son of a non-observant Hindu mother and an apostate father who abandoned Islam, the religion he was born in, while still a child and has since been a secularist.

My parents named me Navras and neither of them passed on their surname to me. I was just Navras at the kindergarten I attended at St Joseph’s Cathedral in Lucknow; but the problem arose when I was admitted to an even better institution, the prestigious La Martiniere College, Lucknow, where the administration insisted that I be given a surname. Noticing my parents’ reluctance, when the official there suggested that they give me just any name if they did not wish to pass on theirs, my father perceived it as the expression of doubt on my legitimacy and gave my first name a couple of suffixes, my mother’s caste name, Jāt and the name of the Pashtun/Pathan tribe he comes from, Āfrīdī (He spelt it Aafreedi to emphasize the long vowels in it, and not for any numerological reason.). Now with my Muslim sounding last name, I was to be perceived for the rest of my life as a Muslim. It is not a very comfortable feeling to be mistaken for somebody else, someone you are not. I was raised without any religion. Another problem is what is said is more often than not interpreted on the basis of who said it. I am as critical of Muslims as of non-Muslims, yet my criticism of non-Muslims is seen as my prejudice and bias against them.

At my previous workplace, a university in my home-state of Uttar Pradesh, I would come to be known as Ādhā Jāt (Half Jāt), the epithet with which a casteist Haryanvi Jāt colleague (an academic!) would refer to me behind my back, to indicate that I was a Jāt only from one side of my parentage, hence lesser human or inferior. The proud Jāts of Haryana are particularly infamous for honour killings. They are often reported of killing their daughters who marry outside their community. I have lately stopped using my middle name Jaat, representative of my maternal lineage, at the insistence of some elders in my extended maternal Jāt family, for they were, perhaps, embarrassed with my being linked to them.

My refusal to take alcohol would be connected by people to the Islamic prohibition on it and perceived as my allegiance to it. I still remember how a Hindu first cousin of mine would once disclose to me his desire to travel back in time and kill Muhammad. To tell you frankly, I was offended by it not because it was disrespectful to Muhammad, but because he decided to say this to me under the delusion that I was a Muslim and also because it betrayed his intention to hurt me by saying something which he was absolutely sure would be offensive to me. Interestingly he has been happily working in a Muslim country for several years now.

I was born in a family whose five of the last seven generations produced eminent Urdu poets, yet my father’s decision to not give me lessons in Urdu, the lingua franca of almost all South Asian Muslims (even if not the first language of all of them), for the fear of it being perceived as an attempt on his part to mould me in the Muslim culture, deprived me of the rich literary heritage of my family including his own poetry.

I remember how my interest in Islamic television channels during my youth alarmed my Hindu mother, for she interpreted it as my tilt towards Islam. I was actually interested in those channels to see how Jews figured in the Muslim discourse, as part of my study of Muslim antisemitism.

Although a secularist, yet my father got a couple of apparently very religious plaques in Urdu, but in the Devanagari alphabet, put at the entrances (front and rear) to our house when it was built. One plaque reads: Imām-i-Hind, Adarsh Nizāmi, Jai Shri Rām! (The Spiritual Leader of India, Founder of an Ideal Social System, Hail Lord Rama!) The other is Safīr-i-Shujā’at, Anurāg Payāmi, Jai Shri Krishna! (Ambassador of Courage, Messenger of Love, Hail Lord Krishna!) In doing so, he, a poet, sent out the message that the Hindu mythological figures of Ram and Krishna had been wrongly appropriated by the aggressive Hindu nationalists. They, in fact, belong to all Indians and through those plaques he felt he had reclaimed them as our collective cultural heritage.

Little did I know that I would be a pariah in Indian society when it came to matrimony. Having never fallen in love with anybody, there came a stage when I decided to seek the help of newspaper matrimonial columns and websites meant for the purpose. My online profile never attracted any attention for it clearly mentioned my absolutely secular identity, my lack of faith in any religion, and my interfaith background, though I found the Bengali who eventually became my wife on a matrimonial website. She comes from an interfaith background like mine and is a secularist like me, and we got married in a civil manner without the involvement of any religious conversion, rituals, and rites, continuing the legacy of our parents.

When twins, a daughter and a son, were born to us, we decided not to pass on the surname of either of us, and give them first names that would come from their parental languages, which in their case were Bengali, Hindi and Urdu. But we also wanted to ensure that the words we chose to name them were not only absolutely secular in their connotation, but had also never been used by any religious community. We named our daughter Chahkār [we spelt it Chahkaar, (‘ch’ as pronounced in the word ‘chess’)] and our son, Pai’ham. Pai’ham is an Urdu word which means both eternal and continuous. It was most famously used by the great Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal in his couplet:

yaqīñ mohkam amal paiham mohabbat fātah-e-ālam
jihād-e-zindagānī meñ haiñ ye mardoñ kī shamshīreñ 

(Firmness of belief, eternal action, love that conquers the world,
In the holy war and struggle of life – these are the swords of men)

Chahkār means the twitter or chirping of birds and exists in both Hindi and Urdu. I had no premonition that I would be told one day by an elder in my extended family, who also happens to be a scholar, as to how the name Chahkār actually rhymed with the word balātkār, Hindi for ‘rape’ and how for this reason he absolutely disliked the name.

My poet father, the late Anwar Nadeem (1937-2017) takes notice of my concerns in a poem of his, with which I think it would be best to end the essay: 

Yé kaun méré qarīb āyā 

Hamāré māzī méiṅ janm lékar vo ék ladkā javāṅ huā hai
Usé yé gham hai kī usné kaisé ajīb logoṅ méiṅ āṅkh kholī 

Koī batāyé kī bāp térā vafā ké naghmé sunā rahā hai
Koī batāyé kī térī māṅ bhī prém nagarī méiṅ gāmzan hai 

Koī batāyé kī térī hastī kuchh aisé rishtoṅ ko chū rahī hai
Kī jin sé pahlé milan kī kirnéiṅ fazā ko raushan na kar sakī thīṅ 

Kahāṅ ijāzat milī thī ab tak ki Jāt ladki kī ārzūéiṅ
Pathān hāthoṅ kā sāth lékar vafā kī rāhéiṅ gulāb kar déiṅ 

Kahān Pathānoṅ ko sarzamīṅ sé vafā kā parcham uthā ké niklā
Mahab’batoṅ kā amīn-é-khushtar, latīf jazboṅ kā ék paikar 

Kahāṅ salāmat-ravī kī daulat milī hai aisī kahāniyoṅ ko
Kahāṅ qabīlé ké dāyré méiṅ kisī né aisā qarār dékhā 

Hamāré māzī méiṅ janm lékar vo ék ladkā javāṅ huā hai
Usé yé gham hai kī usné kaisé ajīb logoṅ méiṅ āṅkh kholī 

Usé to mālūm hai ki Jātoṅ kī dil kī dhadkan méiṅ bāp uskā
Ajīb dilkash maqam lékar, misāl-é-ulfat banā huā hai 

Tamām dānishqadoṅ méiṅ uskī azīm māṅ kī misāl ab tak
Jalā rahī hai jidhar bhī dékho, mahab’batoṅ ké chirāgh pai’ham 

Yé kam nahīṅ hai mahab’batoṅ kī azīm daulat ka ék virsā
Kisī kī hastī ko ābrū dé, kisī kī rāhoṅ méiṅ phool bhar dé 

Magar yé chhotī sī bāt ‘Anwar’ samajh kā his’sā banégī kaisé? 

Hamāré māzī méiṅ janm lékar vo ék ladkā javāṅ huā hai
Usé yé gham hai kī usné kaisé ajīb logoṅ méiṅ āṅkh kholī


ये कौन मेरे करीब आया

हमारे माज़ी में जन्म लेकर वो एक लड़का जवां हुआ है
उसे ये ग़म है की उसने कैसे अजीब लोगों में आँख खोली

कोई बताए की बाप तेरा वफ़ा के नग़मे सुना रहा है
कोई बताए की तेरी मां भी प्रेम नगरी में गामजन है

कोई बताए की तेरी हस्ते कुछ ऐसे रिश्तों को छू रही है
कि जिन से पहले मिलन की किरनें फ़ज़ा को रौशन न कर सकी थीं

कहाँ इजाज़त मिली थी अब तक कि जाट लड़की की आर्ज़ूएँ
पठान हाथों का साथ लेकर वफ़ा की राहें गुलाब कर दें

कहाँ पठानों की सरज़मीं से वफ़ा का परचम उठा के निकला
महब्बतों का अमीन-ए-ख़ुशतर, लतीफ़ जज़्बों का एक पैकर

कहाँ सलामत-रवी की दौलत मिली है ऐसी कहानियों को
कहाँ क़बीले के दायरों में किसी ने ऐसा क़रार देखा

हमारे माज़ी में जन्म लेकर वो एक लड़का जवां हुआ है
उसे ये ग़म है कि उसने कैसे अजीब लोगों में आंख खोली

उसे तो मालूम है कि जाटों कि दिल कि धड़कन में बाप उसका
अजीब दिलकश मक़ाम लेकर, मिसाल-ए-उलफ़त बना हुआ है

तमाम दानिशकदों में उसकी अज़ीम मां की मिसाल अब तक
जला रही है जिधर भी देखो, महब्बतों के चिराग़ पैहम

ये कम नहीं है महब्बतों की अज़ीम दौलत का एक विर्सा
किसी की हस्ती को आबरू दे, किसी की राहों में फूल भर दे

मगर ये छोटी सी बात अनवर समझ का हिस्सा बनेगी कैसे?

हमारे माज़ी में जन्म लेकर वो एक लड़का जवां हुआ है
उसे ये ग़म है की उसने कैसे अजीब लोगों में आँख खोली !


Who is it who just came close to me

Born in our past, that boy has grown up
His pain being that he opened his eyes amidst the strangest people

Someone tell him, that your father sings paens of loyalty
Someone tell him, that your mother too has set foot in the city of love

Someone tell him, that your life is touching a turf of bonds,
That was erstwhile untouched by the rays of union

For who had ever given consent till now that a Jāt girl’s desires,
Would tread the path of love holding Pathān hands?

For when from the lands of Pathāns, a banner of endearment had ever risen so high?
A keeper of happiness, a figure of benevolence

When have such stories of moderation ever been rewarded?
When have the limits of clans ever witnessed such passion?

Born in our past, that boy has grown up
His pain being that he opened his eyes amidst the strangest people

He verily knows that in the heartbeats of the Jāts, his father
Occupies a strange yet interesting place; being an example of love

In temples of knowledge, his mother stands tall as an example of dignity,
Igniting the eternal lamps of love all around

Isn’t it enough that a portion of the great inheritance of love,
Bestows a life with dignity and sprinkles flowers on someone’s path?

But how will this small thing ‘Anwar’ ever be comprehended?

Born in our past, that boy has grown up
His pain being that he opened his eyes amidst the strangest people

(Poem translated into English by Saira Mujtaba)

Dr. Navras J. Aafreedi is an Indo-Judaic Studies Scholar working as Assistant Professor of History at Presidency University, Kolkata, where he has launched several new courses, including “Reading Interfaith Relations in World History”. He can be followed on Twitter @Navras_Aafreedi and many of his publications can be found here.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Women as the ‘displaced’: The context of South Asia’, edited by Suranjana Choudhury, academic and Nabanita Sengupta, academic, India.

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