This piece came out in the My Life column I write for M magazine.

My Life: Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan

Sep 14, 2011


Can you value your traditions without being overtly religious?

It is a dilemma many of my 30- and 40-something friends face. We have grown up in fairly religious households. We are immigrants who have lived in many countries. This is the problem. As you get older and live in different cultures, other traditions start resonating with you. My friend Ayesha grew up Muslim in Pakistan, but as a mother living in New York with a Jewish husband, she says she doesn’t have the time to do all the things her religion prescribes. “Rather than fight over which religion our kids will grow up with, Aaron and I have given up both,” she says.

Ayesha is an advertising professional who wears tight skirts and smokes cigars. She is hardly an archetypal devout Muslim, but there are some aspects of her faith she tries to pass on to her children: zakat, for instance.

“America is such a consumer-driven society,” says Ayesha. “My kids get allowances and big birthday presents. During Christmas, they get gifts from their friends. I don’t want my child to turn into a me-myself- mine type of person. The notion of zakat is beautiful and such a contrast to what they are growing up with.”

Giving alms to the needy is a noble idea, and Islam has codified it as one of its tenets. The problem for Ayesha and others like her – me included – is that it is hard to pass on religious values when one is not overtly religious. How do you inculcate zakat without being raised in a Muslim household?

As someone who grew up Hindu, I like the idea of sitting down in meditation and prayer every day. I believe it will help my children concentrate. The problem is that sitting down in prayer is a fundamental part of my religion, and I am not very religious. I don’t have a prayer room in my apartment. I grew up watching my parents sit cross-legged on the floor, light some incense and meditate before the idols of Hindu gods such as Ganesh the elephant god or Hanuman the monkey god. How do I teach my kids to meditate without such symbols?

My mother taught me to chant to these gods as a way to centre my mind. I want the same result for my children without all the “religious stuff”, as I call it. I am only now beginning to realise that this will be hard to achieve.

Rebelling against your religion is not uncommon. Many of my American friends who grew up in conservative Christian families became agnostic or even atheistic when they grew up. My friend Cathy was reared in a Southern Baptist home in Memphis, Tennessee. When we were in Memphis State University together, she studied other faiths through classes. She went to church but also read Buddhist texts.

A few years later, I got a postcard from Tibet from Cathy, saying she was staying at a Buddhist monastery for a few months. A year later, she became a Buddhist and her family disowned her.

Ayesha’s rebellion is not so stark. When she goes back to Pakistan, she conforms to the religious norms in her parents’ home. She wears the hijab and “acts like a good Muslim”, as she says. But her heart is not in it.

Statistics show that a growing number of Generation X – people born in the latter half of the 1960s, all through the late 70s – are disenchanted with religion. We don’t get sustenance from religion the way our parents did. And yet we are not ready to give it up entirely. We want to pass on certain aspects of our faith to our kids.

The question is how. For now, there is no right answer.


Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.


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