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I was raised by parents who were, relatively speaking, very open-minded. First-generation Indian-Hindu immigrants who moved to New York in the early 70s, they nested in Smithtown, Long Island, a middle-class suburb that was as average as its name. “Diversity” in our well-manicured suburban cocoon meant attending bar- and bat-mitzvahs and even in those days, Jews were always the majority in my honors and A.P.classes. In my high school graduating class of 500 students, approximately ten weren’t white.
There were many benefits of growing up in Smithtown: a well-stocked library, excellent public schools, and neighbours with robust “family values.” The downside, I understood much later in life, was the sheer absence of diversity. There was nothing to challenge us, spur debate, or force us to interrogate our way of life. Not only was a there a lack of ethnic diversity but also of family structures, professions and diversions. Without a black family in the neighbourhood, African Americans never entered my consciousness except when reading books like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in English class.
There were no outlets for entertainment like a solid community theatre or a local art gallery, and going to the mall was the default diversion for spending Friday nights. So it should come as no surprise that my parents and I never spoke about Muslims, the religious group most at odds with Hindus, ever since Muslims conquered India some time in the 8th century until the mid-19th century. The lack of Muslims kept my parents from feeling the need to “teach” me about Hindu-Muslim tensions, an omission for which I am grateful.
I attended a large university in the most cosmopolitan city in America, but still managed to isolate myself from the school’s diverse study body by majoring in English. Sons and daughters of recent immigrants don’t generally major in subjects like English, out of fear of and respect for their parents. My parents, in keeping with their gentle manner, supported my decision and kept any reservations to themselves. In my English classes I might as well have still been in Smithtown. My classmates came from familiar towns like Scarsdale and Montclair, unlike the business school students who came from far-flung countries like Singapore and Malaysia. It was when I took “Introduction to Biology” as a way to fulfil my mandatory science requirement that I met my first Muslim, the only one I ever got to know, before meeting the man who would be my husband five years later. Sabba was lovely and bright and, soon after meeting her, I mentally likened the scarf on her head to a scrunchie I might have worn; the scarf morphed into a fashion accessory rather than a physical signal that she was in some way different from me.
Fast forward five years: I was dating a man whose name is distinctly Arabic in a post-9/11 America but whose name, at the time, registered no differently with me than an exotic Hindu name I hadn’t heard before.
In fact, when I met him I assumed he was either Hindu or Christian, as I did all of the men and women I met of South Asian descent. Muslim wasn’t even on option; never having met a Muslim man, much less dated one, the possibility that he was Muslim simply never occurred to me.
When I found out his religion, I was visibly surprised, but my ignorance was in keeping with my general Smithtown-bred clueless-ness when it comes to differentiating people from one another. My “difference” detectors weren’t rusty, they’d never ever been fired up; the hints and signals other people respond to like hearing “otherness” in a name bounced off of me like water off the proverbial duck’s back.
A few months after 9/11, I introduced my boyfriend to my family. My parents, brother and Indian-American Hindu best friend behaved exactly as I expected: they were gracious, accepting, and supportive. However, two outsiders did ask questions.
One asked, “How could you possibly have not known he was Muslim when he introduced himself to you?” I offered no response. I was as ignorant as mainstream, white America pre-9/11; few people knew the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim name, not excluding me. He was not my Romeo Montague, nor I his Juliet Capulet. We were not each other’s “love sprung from hate!” Neither of us had prejudice towards the other’s religion because the chances of us meeting were so remote. Additionally, names of terrorists who flew into the Twin Towers, of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, of Iraqi troops we fight alongside and the Afghan Taliban we fight against were not national news pre-9/11 America when I met my husband. So, no, I couldn’t have known his name was a Muslim one.
Another individual asked if my husband would adopt a Hindu first name for the purposes of attending family gatherings. The notion was preposterous and I made sure she understood it as such. However, it begs the question, “What’s really in a name?” I would have better understood being questioned about what type of wedding ceremony we would have or how we would raise our children. Instead, the debate centred on his name. What’s in a name? Often times very little, but for me here and now, there’s a millennium worth of history.
Kavita Ramdya is author of Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America. http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/. The name of her spouse has been kept confidential for privacy reasons.