Are you large, do you contain multitudes?
“Mamma, children in my class ask me, if your father is a Muslim, what is your mother?”
This is not the first time that one of our daughters has brought this question home. It isn’t just children who ask this question point blank either; grown-ups do too.
This time it was our middle child who is now in class VII, in a school she joined last year, so her peers and she are still discovering each other. Aliza didn’t choose a private moment to share this with me. She suddenly spoke up, from a distance, in a new place among new people.
We were in my sister-in-law’s home, staying with her for a few days to attend her daughter’s wedding. At that moment, we were sitting in an open veranda, resting between glittering wedding functions and grand feasts. There were various friends of different members of the family, venerable aunts and uncles, cousins, my children and I.
Not only is this a difficult question to answer in the presence of an inter-generational, inter-family and inter-religious group, it is not a question that has a one-word answer. My children know that their mother is hard to label because she is neither a practising Muslim nor a practising Hindu and she loves to enter churches and the Baha’i Temple and sit still for long hours. There is Islamic calligraphy and Buddhist thangka art on the walls and tabletops in our home and various little Ganeshas are perched on windowsills. One of them is a brass dancing Ganesha in a Nataraja pose. Another is a miniature sandalwood idol.
More accurately, if you distil religion to its pure form, like I do for myself, then I am both a practising Muslim and a Hindu. And a Sikh. I just don’t care for most of the rituals, except the fun, easy and necessary ones.
I pray a lot, and I find that everyday language works perfectly well when I need to speak to God above all Gods, a term I learnt from my teacher, Father Os, who was both a trained psychotherapist and a Jesuit priest. It may happen later in my life, but so far I am just not inspired by words from any religious texts, except the ones that come in the form of poetry or song, like most of the teachings of Sufi and other mystical saints.
“Burn worldly love, rub the ashes and make ink of it, make the heart the pen, the intellect the writer, write that which has no end or limit,” Guru Nanak is quoted in the Guru Granth Sahib.
I love gurdwaras, temples, churches and mosques, mostly during their silent hours. Some of them have ponds and fish, some have trees, some have an open sky and cool stone floors, deities with large, imploring eyes and brass bells that must be clinked. I connect to the aura in their spaces. I feel peace and solace.
But people rarely want to hear real answers, leave alone elaborate ones.
Often a question about identity is spoken as if it is a judgement in itself. Sometimes a question sounds like an accusation. It is fired to prove that any answer you give will be deemed wrong. Others are not necessarily curious about your version of your self. The question is more like an intangible boundary they draw around their own set of beliefs. They are threatened by realities beyond the ones they have allowed themselves to imagine.
When my daughter spoke up among grown-ups, perhaps she wanted to hear the open, public version of my answer. As I write here, I have replied to her even more forthrightly now. There is nothing awkward or uneasy in my words. I will not let the tone of the question affect the tone of my answer.
I want children to learn that they can invalidate the queries of others. We will not participate in the narrowing of possibilities; we will expand them. We create our own frames of reference and protect our boundaries. We speak clearly and with candidness.
I am reminded of words from Walt Whitman’s Song Of Myself.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
“Mamma, children ask me how come your mother’s name is Natasha Badhwar if your name is Aliza Beg.” This was the child’s next salvo.
“Goodness gracious me,” I said. “This one is easy. You just have to say—Hey, it’s 2017, baby! Get on with the times. Next year just say it’s 2018. Then 2019. Then after you have crossed 2020, you can say—just google me.”
I wanted to make her laugh. I wanted to relieve everyone around me of the false notion that children are confused or burdened by the idea of multiple identities. Children pick up stereotypes from the adult world, pausing to examine them as they grow up. We only pretend to protect our children from realities that we are ourselves unwilling to face up to.
“Mamma, can my name be Naseem Badhwar Beg?” our youngest child asked me later.
“If you would like it like that, of course it can,” I said.
“I would like it like that,” she said. “It will be amazing.”
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.