Nineteen-year-old Safdar doesn’t like the constant pressure religion exerts so he’s evolved his own brand of practical Islam. It’s yes to namaz but three rather than five times a day. He fasts, tries to be honest, respects his elders, is friendly with everyone and steers clear of illegal activities.

The commerce student who wants to be a chartered accountant is already planning an inter-religious marriage with his girl (oh the luxury of teenage certainty). He doesn’t always eat halal-cut meat and doesn’t quite get the bans on alcohol, piercing his ears or growing his hair. He says his views have been influenced by and have evolved alongside his closest friends Henry, 17, and Prashanth, 18. The boys study at the Bengaluru school of Christel House India, an exciting global initiative that educates only extremely impoverished children up to class XII and then helps them find jobs or study further. They will graduate this summer.

How many times have we been told that our youth are not okay with inter-religious friendships or relationships? One recent survey of around 10,000 students found that 65% of college-goers believe that girls and boys of different religions should not be allowed to meet in public.

In the chilling documentary, The World Before Her, sweet Chinmayee says with a wide smile, “I’m proud to say I have no Muslim friends." She’s attending a Durga Vahini (the women’s wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad) camp for a refresher course in Hindu values, the place of women in our “Westernized" times and the history of “cultural invasions", but you still don’t see that coming from the slip of a girl with two adorable pigtails.

Of course this is India—for every divisive narrative there is a counter narrative that goes one up on the 1970s ideal of Amar Akbar Anthony. One where life is about fulfilling dreams, not about being gagged by rigid interpretations of our faith. Even in these us-and-them times, many young friends don’t dwell on issues of religion. Having friends across faiths simply means access to a variety of food and festivals.

“I have almost forgotten that I belong to a religion," says Henry, who fights with his mother every Sunday about going to church. He gives in once every six months or so. Religion is personal and necessary, he believes, but we need to distil from it what we need and what’s good for society. He’s the eldest of four boys, being brought up by a single mother who sells garments for a living. More than religion, he worries about how soon he will be able to support his family. Religion has no role to play in marriage, adds his friend and neighbour Prashanth, who spends a lot of time dodging plans made by his temple-going neighbour.

For Safdar, battles about religion are often battles about superstition. “Whenever any member of my family is not well we take them to the dargah and put some taveez on them saying that they will be cured," says the son of a fruit-seller. The teenager struggles to explain that a hospital cure is likely to be cheaper and more effective than ashes or a thread at the neighbourhood mosque.

The boys have been friends for 10 years now. Recently, Prashanth was one of four Christel House students selected for admission to the Azim Premji University (APU). He’s opted for a bachelor’s in combined humanities and politics. He wants to be a journalist. The admission to APU, a residential college, will help, he knows, but he worries about being separated from his buddies.

Roohi, Sylvia and Nirmala, all 18, share another double-digit friendship formed at Christel House. Roohi and Nirmala are fiercely protective of Sylvia because they believe her guardians don’t give her enough love and care. Sylvia says she wouldn’t have made it without her friends.

Nirmala, whose parents run a shop on a pushcart, has the opposite problem. “She has loving parents. They love her so much that they will not let her go anywhere," says Roohi.

Roohi’s the cheeky one. “I’ll get back to you with the conversation," the teenager calls to the principal as she retreats after introducing us. Roohi likes science because it deals with truth and fact. She’s creative enough to be a designer or an architect, but those fields are tougher if you don’t have money and connections, she says. So she’s going to try to use her creativity in the field of science.

What do you think you’re going to be, I ask her. Something great, replies Nirmala. Something different, says Roohi. “She thinks she’s unique—and she is unique," adds Nirmala.

They’re genuinely puzzled when I ask them about religion though Roohi has many arguments about this topic with her mother, a housemaid. “Wearing a burqa is my biggest problem. I’m always pointed out that she’s a Muslim girl," says Roohi. The only way to blend in and sidestep the rigid rules Islam imposes on women in the public space, she says, is to shed the identifying baggage.

After Roohi’s father walked out on her mother and their three daughters two years ago though, her mother realized that education was more important than marriage. Now she just wants her daughters to find a place they can survive without anybody’s help, says Roohi.

Sylvia and Roohi will also attend APU after they graduate. But didn’t Sylvia just say she wants to be a cardiologist, I wonder out aloud. Shouldn’t she go to medical school? Don’t worry, we will figure it out, says Roohi.

Nirmala will be an engineer. “I love maths. I wanted to do commerce and be a CA but my parents didn’t allow me. You know that word S C I E N C E," she says mockingly, and holds up her hands to draw a banner.

Sylvia’s a worrier. I ask her what’s the biggest thing she worries about. “I should have been born a boy," she says. “Boys have freedom. That’s the biggest gift God has given them."

Adds Roohi: “Why only God? Parents and society also give them that gift."

“Being a girl means always being behind four walls," says Sylvia.

“Our parents are not letting us change that," says Nirmala.

“In India, we can’t even talk to our elders. If we tell them our points, they take it negatively and they say it’s an argument," says Roohi. And then the conversation moves from the irrelevance of religion to the curse of gender. Of course this is India—for every obstacle a boy faces in the pursuit of his dreams, a woman faces 10 more.

Priya Ramani will share what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight.

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