Anatomy Of An (Incomplete) Interfaith Love StoryBloombergQuintOpinion
When P was growing up in small-town India, she noticed something about her parents. Her mother, a single child with adequate financial backing, never did anything independently. “Every decision was taken by my father,” she says. That’s when P, a self-confessed ‘overthinker’, first asked herself some key questions: Do I really want to be like this? Do I want someone else to decide for me?
As India conjures unconstitutional laws in an effort to change the way we love and as vigilante violence against interfaith couples in consensual relationships becomes increasingly normalised, I’ve had a ringside seat to young lovers thanks to India Love Project or ILP, a platform I co-founded in 2020.
We’ve found that the most common barrier interfaith couples face is not crazy strangers or sexist laws – it’s unyielding parents. An interfaith couple’s life can be a Hindi movie cliche, albeit from another India. These days a Hindu-Muslim love story is rarely portrayed on film.
ILP’s success stories make it a ‘happy place’, though most hide years of parental battles, usually referred to in a line. But we often get despondent messages from those who are not so lucky.
Most Indians are opposed to interfaith marriages, a recent study found.
P, a Hindu, and I connected after she wrote to say she had finally given up on her interfaith relationship after more than a decade of loving S, a Muslim. It wasn’t exactly over yet, I found out after we spoke.
Since 2018, when she told her father about her lover, P’s life has been hell. There have been fights about “love jihad” propagated by “these people”; declarations of self-harm (“we will kill ourselves”) and other emotional blackmail; and threats from her father such as, “Na main karwaunga, na main hone dunga.” Nor will I agree to the match, nor will I let it happen.
Her mother told P the family’s “izzat” (honour) depends on her. She emphasises how P’s independence has hurt her parents, and displays zero empathy for the toll this fight has taken on her daughter’s mental health. Her younger brother, once a supporter, now asks her to “compromise” to end the conflict. Her parents want her to resign from her job, return to the small-town home she left 13 years ago and marry a man of their choice.
In 2020 they insisted she meet someone. “I have a guy and I want to get married to him,” she reminded them. The pandemic has helped keep her folks at bay, but the pressure to give in has been “extreme”, she says.
Some days she considers giving up. “But if I start from here, I’ll have to compromise in other things too—like dowry,” she says. A recent World Bank study found that in rural India, dowry—outlawed since 1961—was paid in 95% of marriages. Small town India isn't much better, says P. “I was the first girl in my family who left home to study.”
I Want To Break Free
A younger P quickly realised that her ticket out of the suffocating home was education. “I wanted to be free to cook my own food, to come home late, to wear what I want,” she says. When her father transferred her younger brother to a better school, P wanted to know why she couldn’t go too. She was battling the widespread Indian mentality that money put aside for a daughter’s upbringing yields higher returns if invested in her marriage rather than her education.
She finally got her way two years later. After school, P lived in a girls’ hostel 10 kilometres from home, then moved to a bigger city for an engineering degree.
Students sit studying at a college. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
Now he’s convinced he did the wrong thing. “When I was sending you for studies so many people said she will not come back,” her dad told her recently. “Don't give freedom to girls, they said—and you proved it.”
“Every day girls are reminded that they are a burden,” says P. “Their parents tell them things like you don't belong here, just go to your house, this is not your house.” P’s dad told her something similar that still rings in her ears: “Beta tumhara dana pani itna hi tha, abhi tum apne ghar jao.” Essentially he said she had outstayed her welcome at her childhood home.
“We have to battle so many stereotypes even as we try to forge a new path,” P says. “Parents are educating their children but they still want to control their lives. Small cities are still crushing the dreams of young people, both girls and boys.”
When P Met S
P and S met as teenagers (she loved his gentle manner that was very different from the rough boys she had encountered so far), but he soon moved to another city. They stayed in touch long-distance as he completed his undergraduate degree. “I didn't have many expectations from the relationship,” she says. “I was sure he would find someone else and forget me. But he managed to keep me with him.” Back then they didn’t worry about their different religions.
For five years they communicated through long-distance trunk calls that cost Rs 3 a minute. “A 10-15 minute conversation was enough to make me feel connected.” Later they lived together. She hated cooking so S learned how to cook. “I don't know how marriage works but if this is how it works, we are good at it. I feel like if we are together we can fight anything.”
S lost his dad this year and is now the primary caregiver to his ailing mother, so the young couple’s plans of leaving the country and forging a new life elsewhere had to be cancelled. They can marry under the Special Marriage Act, but P must be prepared to face the consequences. “I just want you to be a strong woman,” S tells P. “Whatever decision you take, I’m with you.”
“This just makes me fall in love with him again and again,” she says. Yet, the couple is now on the verge of splitting, she says, “forced to chose different paths both by family and circumstances”. P says she can fight with anyone but to battle her father is very difficult. She also worries he might do something extreme if she marries S.
“I know both my dad and S. If you minus the Islamophobia, their thinking is the same on many subjects from financial views to personal growth. According to me, both are same,” P says. “But I’m the only one who knows that.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.