Inter-Religious Intimacies: A Psychoanalytic Study

How do inter-religious couples find and sustain their love in strained socio-political contexts? A psychoanalyst shares insights on the processes that go into developing our conceptions of intimacy and othering

The history of Hindu-Muslim relationships is well-known. Filled with love, communitas, mutuality, violence, passion, and betrayal, there are various shades to it, which continue to have a dominance on the Indian psyche. Imbibed through textbooks, oral histories, cinema and the political environment, this history is also mired by its hegemonic emergence and dissemination. As the Belgian-French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss has said, histories can be like myths which dominate the organisation of collective interpretations. In contemporary times, it has become hard to find stories of mutuality, co-existence and love in this history, as the two communities, Hindus and Muslims, and the two religions, Hinduism and Islam, are being made into true ‘Others’.

As a student of psychoanalysis, I was interested in uncovering the subdued contemporary histories of love by tracing the life trajectory of Hindu and Muslim individuals who had come to imagine a future together. Psychoanalysis situates othering as an intrapsychic and interpersonal process that begins at an early stage in life, when contradictory representations of the self and the parents are created – the good loving child and the bad raging one; the good caretaking parent and the hateful, frustrating one. In reconciling these experiences, the child tries to project or displace the bad representations outside oneself. This same process of externalisation takes place at the level of the group, where, certain socially disapproved of aspects of self-experience are cast onto those communities that are socially degraded – like we see between Muslims and Hindus, Arabs and Jews, Tibetans and Chinese, and others (Sudhir Kakar, Colors of Violence, 1996).

Given this insight, I wanted to know the shades of histories that these couples had imbibed and how they had learnt and unlearnt them. Had they learnt that Hindus and Muslims were forbidden to love each other, or had they grown up hearing something else? Did they see their lovers as being Hindu or Muslim? Would the religious identities of their children become an issue? What would this decision depend upon?

Since there was a lack of academic study on Hindu-Muslim intimacy, I turned to the cinematic canvas which has periodically represented the possibilities of this encounter. There have been films about the aftermath of communal violence (Pinjar, Khamosh Pani), about ongoing communal violence (Firaaq, Kai Po Che), and the impossibility of reconciliation (Ishaqzaade). Other films like Bombay, Dev, Dharm, Mr and Mrs Iyer, Ranjhana, Padmavat, Kedarnath, and Mulk have captured shades of relationships and conflicts within different historical contexts.

The often-negative politicisation of Hindu-Muslim intimacy on film, such as legal threats to filmmakers or condemning portrayals of intimacy as Love Jihad, represents the fears of one religion being engulfed and dominated by another religion, and the corruption of a virgin blood line. It fails to see Hindu-Muslim intimacy as an act of will. We should wonder, can intimacy be a space where identity determined by religion is forgotten? As Kristeva has written, “in the raptures of love the limits of one’s identity vanish… in the passion that creates love, a new self is born in the lover.” How would one engage and translate the forces of passion, and would there be a predetermined religious connotation to this passion?

My engagement with my participants made me learn and unlearn some of my preconceived notions. Sunaina* and Qasim*, my middle-aged participants from Patna had to face the refusal of Sunaina’s upper caste Rajput parents for whom marrying a Muslim was forbidden. Sunaina had an emotionally volatile relationship with her family. She felt unloved, was misunderstood, controlled and cast as an outsider, much like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphoses. Her response to these situations was to fight and not comply, but she often found herself to be alone without any support. In our interviews and conversations Sunaina would touch upon immense pain and a lot of her pain was wordless. After a few years Sunaina and Qasim gave birth to a son. Their son had different and playful ways of relating to both of them and was immensely loved. I would wonder how Sunaina’s experience of abandonment would affect her capacity to be a mother, but the descriptions of both their experiences with their son promised a lot of nourishment and joy. When their son was born, along with the joy of having a family there was also the fear of isolation.  She began to fear, “it’s only us, no one is there if something happens”. The sense of loneliness and abandonment was not something that would go away. It would visit repeatedly. One of Sunaina’s dreams captured her fragility – “Once I dreamt that we are on top of a building and there is a lot of water and I feel scared there is so much water. I will fall or die and then I move and see Qasim and then I don’t feel scared because he is there. We have a small family and so I feel scared”.  (sic) For Sunaina, within an image of despair and loneliness, one person had been born in her mind, who had become a constant presence.

It was revealing for me how Qasim had become such a presence, which enabled her identity, her mind and gave her a language of expression. Religion was never a matter of contention between them and when I asked her in one of my interviews, did you ever see him as a Muslim (something that her family saw very clearly), she said no. My interviews were a witnessing of their bond which carried attunement, empathy, a recognition of emotional neglect that she had faced in her family, and a creation of an open non oppressive environment which was joyous and free from the hurt and emotional damage of the past. Qasim was perceptive about the emotional distance in her family and according to him, her relationships carried expectations without the presence of emotional bonds. Unlike her family who taunted, ridiculed and gave her the experience of being an outcast, Qasim described her mannerisms as being full of innocence. His loving recognition of her was much needed by Sunaina.

Another participant in my study was Karuna*. She was brought up in a home in West Bengal, and was introduced to diverse religions throughout her childhood – she was taught the Quran by a Hafiz Saab; she would sing hymns in the Gurudwara. Her father had introduced her to these experiences and appreciating diversity became a mission in her life. As life unfolded, and Karuna sought partners in her life, she realised that she preferred Muslim men. For her, they were more devoted and committed. Her friend Wazir when she was young, her Kashmiri tenants and later her husband Shoaib were all felt to be more devoted to her than Hindu men. However, even though her family had introduced her to Islam as being the first religion to honour the rights of women, they didn’t support her desire for a Muslim man.

My interviews with Karuna helped me see how faith could also become an object of desire and that a woman’s desire faces homelessness if it is not accepted by her family.  Her husband Shoaib, was falsely accused in the Bombay Riots and was arrested and beaten. When he was released, he decided to start an organisation which worked on inter-faith harmony. Karuna was enamoured by this transformation. She thought that if it had been her, she would have taken to arms. Inspired by his vision, and finding a space to fulfil her own, Karuna fell in love with Shoaib, and he with her. Even though her family didn’t accept her decision, she married Shoaib, and later when their son was born her family accepted their relationship, even praising their son-in-law for being liberal and caring. Karuna’s life story became the story of creating institutions that worked on Hindu-Muslim amity while not letting go of the one she desired. For Karuna, like for Sunaina the men she loved and the man she married were not ‘Muslim’.  Karuna wanted her family to understand that.

Apart from not being able to explain why they desired Muslim men, or that religion wasn’t important for them, my female participants occupied a space where no one wanted to explain to them the possible reasons for the choices they had made or supportively engage with them in their confusions. They were supposed to give up their loved one’s or give up their families. Their families failed to imagine the meaning that these relationships had for them. In both cases, the birth of their son led to some more acceptance of their bond.

These case studies and others showed that a psychoanalytic perspective can create a canvas of different shades for Hindu and Muslim identities, where the meaning that the relationships want to give to their Hindu-Muslim intimacy can be upheld. Such a space is lacking in our culture. An engagement with their life stories also shows how the Other becomes an object of desire and there are different shades of otherness which emerge within the relationship which differ from the ways in which the Other is perceived in Hindu-Muslim relationships in present times. 

Hindu-Muslim intimacy needs a space in our culture which is not pre-determined by the meanings defined by orthodox religious perspectives, so that the newer selves born in love, can imagine, commit and sustain the bond without being silenced by questions which originate from and reaffirm communal hurt.

*names changed

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