Rahat Banker had always prided himself on his logical thinking and complete lack of prejudice. “I reasoned things through,” he says. “Whether I was deciding if I should study for an exam, or thinking about the merits of Nescafe instant coffee.” Maybe it made sense that Banker was an atheist. After all, isn’t rationalism the mortal enemy of religious belief?
But Rahat Banker is now Jacob Rahat Banker, a name he assumed after he converted to Judaism last year.
It began in 2009 when Banker, a 26-year-old ‘creative guy’ at an ad agency, chanced upon a copy of Being Jewish, a guide to the spiritual and cultural practices of modern Judaism. “I read it and I was a convert before I realised it. It’s like when you read a particularly well-argued stance, and practically without your own permission, you have switched sides because the logic is impeccable. That’s what Judaism was like for me.”
It then dawned on him that he assumed atheism without really researching the topic. “Religion sounded like such bunkum that research to dismiss it didn’t seem necessary.”
Jacob is one of the few Indian 20-somethings who’ve taken to religion after firmly turning away from it. He credits his intellectual curiosity for his religious faith but admits Judaism has turned out to be more fulfilling than he expected. “The roots of my belief are intellectual, which make it stronger. But it’s grown in a way that it’s gone beyond those confines. Earlier, I was perennially unhappy, frustrated by people’s short-sighted logic. Now, because of the proactive role that Judaism plays in my life it’s given everything in my life a clearer focus.”
Religious conversion in India is largely viewed with suspicion. “It is a little-studied topic, especially by law-makers,” says Janani Mukherjee, a religious studies scholar at the University of Delhi. “Legitimate conversions are regarded in two highly misinformed ways by the government — first, that the person who has chosen conversion has probably not done so of their own choice, and secondly, that particular groups, such as lower-castes and economically disadvantaged groups, are more susceptible to conversions.”
This means that laws meant to be protective have, instead, restricted freedoms in these highly personal, individual choices. “While these laws have their place, they have been used to malign well-meaning rabbis or ministers when required,” says Mukherjee.
But because of how few there are in number, urban youth conversions usually go completely unnoticed and unhindered, other than a massive amount of paperwork. “I think religious conversions bring two Indian aspects of our lives together — red tape and faith,” she laughs.
I meet Yusuf, a 25-year-old PhD student at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University on a cold January day. He is tall and serious-faced, especially when he recounts how his parents cut him off three months ago, when he converted and changed his name from Sarthak to Yusuf.
“My mother calls now and then, cajoling and pleading that I reconsider. My dad is pissed though. Haven’t spoken to him in months,” he says. Yusuf always had an affinity for Islam. “It seemed so much more peaceful to me than the clatter and noise of Hinduism, which just wasn’t for me. I liked the muezzin’s call which used to ring out near our house in Daryaganj. I wanted so badly to be a part of the crowds.”
Yusuf says that the reactions to his conversion have been enlightening. “So many educated people who were good friends of mine look askance at me now,” he says. If older and more conservative people are unsettled by his conversion, his peers are as unsettled but for a different reason. “It’s the idea that religion is overwhelmingly important to me now. They don’t know how to reconcile this with their idea of ‘modernity’.”
Formally converting to a religion is a huge, decisive step akin to committing to something as long-term as marriage, says Ayub Kochhar, a scholar from Hyderabad who wrote a thesis on religious conversions in India after the 1990 reforms. “You can practice a religion without ever converting. It’s a personal belief system. But with some people, like those who feel more secure after marriage, conversion is a stamp of approval from the community and a feeling of commitment.”
Kashika, a 28-year-old research analyst based in Bangalore, converted to Judaism when she was 26 and doesn’t like to talk about it. “It’s a very personal matter,” she says. After an initial conversation, where she remained taciturn, she sends an email with a single anecdote. “I was visiting a synagogue with a Jewish friend before I converted. Then I heard the rabbi tell a story,” she says in the email. “He was saying that in the months before a baby is born, the angel Gabriel visits him or her in the womb. There, in the warm safety of the mother’s body, the angel recites all of Jewish learning. The baby absorbs this wisdom like the nourishment that it takes from the mother’s body. Just when the baby is going to enter the world, the angel strikes the baby on its lip, and all the learning is forgotten… I am trying to relearn what I have forgotten, that is all.”