At a coffee shop in Delhi, Kanika thought she was spending just another afternoon passing time with her childhood friend Jo Jo, avoiding the heat and the crush of people outside. But there was something different in the way Jo Jo approached her that day. He had a special question for her: Do you know what is happening to your soul when you die? Kanika had no idea, and that worried her.
Surprisingly, in their twenty years of friendship, Jo Jo, an Indian Evangelical Christian, and Kanika, a Hindu, had never discussed their religions. That day at Costa Coffee though, Jo Jo started a long discussion, scribbling Christian themes and images on the napkins scattered around him. Kanika collected the napkins and poured over them that night in bed.
In the weeks to come, Kanika began talking to other Christian friends and considering a conversion. She knew hardly anything about Christianity and had grown up in a devout Hindu family, but the question of life after death remained unanswered for her.
Now, four years later, at 24, Kanika is at a crossroads. She has become an Evangelical Christian in secret, and her family disapproves of any reference she makes to Christianity.
There are an estimated 24 million Christians in India, or 2.3 percent of the population. In Delhi, less than one percent of the population is Christian; 82 percent are Hindu. Throughout India, Christians have faced violence and had their churches destroyed, but Delhi residents have largely avoided persecution. It is a point of city pride that so many different religions can coexist: Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and even a small Jewish population. But coexisting doesn’t mean the lines between the faiths are blurry.
Kanika’s parents are not happy with the changes they’ve seen in their daughter. In many ways, their household resembles that of any with a young adult still living at home but testing the limits. Daily life involves regular battles over Kanika’s participation in Hindu worship. Often, Kanika finds herself “not telling a lie, but not telling the truth.”
Recently, her family planned to rise at dawn to join long lines of practicing Hindus waiting to worship Manasa devi, the goddess of snakes, which is thought to cure chicken pox, among other things. Her parents thought it natural that Kanika accompany them on their 5 a.m. journey to the temple, but Kanika resisted. At this point, Kanika is embarrassed and dismissive when she explains Hindu customs.
“Hindus worship the animals, the plants, the trees, the rivers — idols, I mean they would do a lot of crazy things. I do not get what they do and why they do it,” she said. In worshipping Manasa devi, Hindus avoid using heat. They cook food the day before and don’t use hot water. They’ll also leave food in the road as an offering to the goddess. Kanika could barely walk down her street because it was covered with offerings. In her view, it’s all part of “worshipping a weird kind of ugly looking idol.”
At first, Kanika told her mother not to wake her, but in the middle of the night she changed her mind. This would not be a battle she would take on. “I realized I should go with my mom and witness what people do and pray for them.” She secretly told the idols: “‘Okay, people worship you, but you are not God.’”
It had been a long time since Kanika had gone to temple with her family. She stopped practicing in the midst of her conversion. Jo Jo gave her a Bible, took her to his church, the Delhi Bible Fellowship, and introduced her to more Christian friends. When her parents caught on, they limited her contact with her Christian friends. When they found her Bible and a notebook filled with letters from Kanika to God, they threw them away. “It is a difficult thing because you cannot share with them, and they will not even listen to you.” Kanika was saddened, but not deterred.
Kanika’s parents want her to marry a Hindu from her caste, or social designation, the Marwaris, known as business people or shopkeepers. She can choose a man who fits those criteria or they will choose a husband for her. “I do not want to hurt my parents by going against them but I have been praying about it because I want to get married to a believer.” It’s a dilemma, but Kanika is turning to prayer for an answer.
Kanika’s family is devout. Her grandmother attends temple everyday for at least two hours. Her parents go every Tuesday, at the least. They also worship in a special room in their home, filled with images and statues of gods. Before every meal, they take some food to the temple as an offering.
“They would definitely disown me if they knew I was a Christian, ” Kanika said. There are struggles ahead, on both a daily level — whether to appease her parents by going through the motions of Hindu worship — and on a more monumental level — how to marry a Christian of her choosing. Kanika is calm though. “I strongly believe that if you believe in Christ you do not need anybody to depend on…ever. Yeah, he’s our best friend, he’s our first love.”
About the photo: One of Kanika’s fellow Christian converts at the coffee shop who attends the same Bible study group with Kanika.
Emily Frost is a radio reporter and online journalist. She is an Annenberg Fellow at USC’s Annenberg Graduate School for Journalism and an executive producer and host at Annenberg Radio News.
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