Cover Image

Illustration by Dhabia AlMansoori

Separation and Coexistence: The Legacy of an Interreligious Marriage

Growing up with a Hindu father and Muslim mother, my upbrining taught me important lessons about tolerance, which are critical today in India, where a fear of exclusion has so powerfully gripped the country.

Dec 7, 2019

When my Hindu father and my Muslim mother met, they fell in love and set in motion an awe-inspiring, gripping, Bollywood-esque story. It is the legacy of this uncanny, bizarre union that is personified by my younger sister and I. This story is my favorite one to tell.
As I was growing up, I changed a lot of schools, and naturally, had to introduce myself quite often. Of course, I answered questions like, “What’s your name?”, “Where are you from?” and “What grade are you in?” every one and a half, two years. But these were always followed by, “What’s your religion?”. Some of my peers may not be able to relate to this, and understandably so. It is my name that raised these questions.
Sameera Singh. I was aware that my name was, in fact, a compromise and definitely not common among Hindus. While the latter is a surname usually used by Rajputs, or Jats — both castes within the Hindu religion — and the former was not a very common Hindu name. It had to be Muslim, because even the sounds of names have religious undertones. To think that this is the world we live in.
When my mother declared her intention of getting married to a Hindu man, her family hesitated to accept her choice. This reluctance lasted for two decades.
The gap between the levels of rigidity with which my mother and her family held onto their beliefs manifested into the literal physical separation between the two, and thus, an emotional void. For the first 10 years of my childhood, my sister and I were unaware of the existence of our maternal family. The part that really eludes me, though, is that this alienation was despite my maternal side of the family being charitable, educated people with the kindest souls. Is religion so overbearing that it changes who one is?
My parents’ experience of alienation from their families sheds light on the immense impact of the unbending grip of religious beliefs on people. As social workers who had studied the importance of altruism and kindness, they felt distressed. Consequently, my sister and I had complete freedom to choose from any of the religions we were exposed to, paired with the option of not being religious at all. But it wasn’t a strict, four-option multiple choice question. Rather, we were encouraged to seek the most powerful parts of what each religion represents and weave those spiritual beliefs into our lifestyle.
We learned tolerance despite most of our education having taken place in the smallest towns of India. From studying in convents, we learned forgiveness. From living in Punjab and absorbing the beauty of Sikhism, we learned community service and the importance of knowledge. From having Buddhist friends and interacting with the Hindu side of our family, we picked up practices of spirituality and mindfulness. And from our Muslim mother, we learned humility, modesty and peace. Somehow, travelling across the boundaries of religion and belief systems, we found ourselves that we developed an extremely open mind about others. More importantly, we did not shy away from difficult conversations that resulted from our curiosity for exploration.
It is imperative that I emphasize the importance of principles of tolerance and coexistence, especially in a secular country such as India. The rhetoric of our politicians today has brought about a demand for a Hindu nation, exemplified in comments directed toward non-Hindus like, “Go to Pakistan”, which find themselves insultingly slurred into the most colloquial of conversations. There is a blatant refusal to coexist with those who do not share the same beliefs or harbor the same sentiments and opinions as the majority. In India, a fear of exclusion has so powerfully gripped the country that even education has failed to cultivate tolerance. The detrimental impact of this divide is a lack of growth on both a nationwide scale and on a personal level.
Perhaps it is time we ask ourselves why we hold tightly onto beliefs that undermine our empathy, and more so, our humanity
It is high time that we elect politicians and construct curriculums that encourage an intermingling of religious beliefs, so as to create an understanding that it is our humanity that should take precedence in our identities; it is the value that we use to grow, interact, transact and converse. We are, after all, not born Hindus and Muslims. We are humans first.
Sameera Singh is Social Media Editor. Email her at
gazelle logo