By Deepika Arwind
TWO PEOPLE, four religions, and a love story that tugs at you even over email. And then the final blow to every scornful guard upheld against tales of romance: the wedding pictures. Priya Desai and Tariq Alwari danced their way through the wedding day they recall was everything they imagined, surrounded by those eager to raise a toast to this resilient couple.
Now in Bahrain, two years after that wedding, they retell the story that doesn’t cease to make them a little breathless but they are safe in the comfort of each other. “We met in college in Bengaluru through a common friend. Tariq says he liked me immediately because I carried a proper ladies’ handbag and not the sloppy cloth bags that most of his female friends did!” says Priya, the daughter of a Hindu Gujarati father and Malayali Christian mother. For the next six years, Tariq, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian descent; the son of an Arab Muslim from Jerusalem and an Indian Sikh mother from Mysore, would struggle through their diverse, complicated backgrounds to be together.
Says Tariq, who came to Bengaluru for his undergraduate degree: “We were brought up thinking we could marry anyone as long as they were good people and would respect my parents.” He moved back to the UAE after college, and the time of heady romance turned hard. As they worked to keep their long-distance relationship for a year, Tariq says his father had suddenly come to harbour very conservative ideas. “My mother received the news of our relationship well but my father’s attitude changed; he asked for Priya to convert to Islam,” he says. “I still can’t understand his reasoning, because he married an Indian himself and we’d had a very secular upbringing.”
Priya was jaded about marriage, having witnessed her parent’s divorce in 2000, but moved to Bahrain and worked there for four years, “My mother supported me in this decision. It was difficult at first: college freshers living on beginners’ salaries in a foreign country,” she says. In this time though, the opposition from Tariq’s father grew stronger. “Tariq’s family only found out about me living in Bahrain a few years after I had moved. They investigated about where I worked and whether I was living in Bahrain legitimately or sponging off Tariq,” says Priya. This incident was a setback and the couple cut off all ties with Tariq’s family. His father, on being invited for their wedding, threatened to disown anyone who attended it. Priya’s father and extended family didn’t take it well either, and the couple broke away from them as well. They finally married in 2008, in Bengaluru, with neither of their families at the wedding. “There were 175 people there who loved us,” says Tariq.
BUT EVEN so, the opposition hasn’t died out entirely. “Living in the same country as my parents means we would only be accepted if we were married under Shariah law, and if Priya converted. We are not getting married again for their sake. We were legitimately married in India, and that’s good enough for us,” says Tariq.
Hari Adivarekar, photographer and an old friend of the couple, says having watched Tariq stand up to his family, despite the obvious repercussions, was heart-wrenching. “And yet, both of them planned a beautiful, peaceful wedding for themselves,” he says.
As the two look at everything they have overcome, they aren’t spared banal questions or general commentary on their relationship. “At least Priya is a Christian. Muslims can marry Christians, we get told,” they say. But the most common question is: “What religion will your children follow? Wouldn’t it be better for them to follow just one?”
Priya and Tariq have a simple answer to this question that amuses them the most. “Our children will actually belong to all four religions: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian. They will have crossed boundaries just by being themselves.”
Photo: Hari Adivarekar
‘Can the blind not fall in love?’
WHEN BG NARAYAN talks of his first meeting with Puttamma, he seems like he would rather gloss over the details. But a little prodding instantly transports him to the time when he and two of his friends, Laxminarayan and Suryanarayan (then in their early 30s), would have their lunch at an inexpensive Darshini in Bengaluru. In the telephone booth next door was Puttamma (also in her early 30s), working hard, unaware that an eager Narayan hoped to exchange a few words with her. A few weeks and much encouragement later, he gathered the courage to make the fateful ‘introduction’. Both he and Puttamma shuffle a little in their seats at this point in their story: 11 years haven’t eroded the sweet awkwardness of that moment. “Being blind didn’t mean I couldn’t see her,” says Narayan with a toothy grin. He lost his sight at the age of 10. Puttamma, who was born visually impaired, nods in agreement.
The bold declaration of their desire to be married two months after their first meeting was followed by upheaval in their homes. “Our families saw it as a double burden, especially because we are both blind,” says Narayan. Puttamma, who is from a village near Mysore, says, “I brought a friend over to convince my family, but they were adamant.” It didn’t help that Narayan belonged to a different community. “We are Maharashtrian Darjis and Puttamma is from a Gowda family,” says Narayan. Puttamma had, by this time, left home and rented a hostel room near her vocational training centre.
NARAYAN GOT a job at the Bangalore University through the National Association for the Blind (NAB), Karnataka, which trained him in re-caning chairs. “Employees of the university helped us have a real wedding at a small hall in Ulsoor,” he says. Puttamma’s family came looking for her some months later and reconciled with her. Narayan’s family too made their peace with them. In a few years’ time the couple had two daughters Nandini, 11, and Nikita, 7. “Fortunately they are both fully able,” says Puttamma.
Puttamma gave up her job at the telephone booth and joined her husband at the university. “Even in the late 1990s, I earned more than I do now,” he says. “With government departments using cushioned chairs, there is little work for those who are trained in re-caning,” says an employee of the NAB employment department. After a decade, it still costs Rs 20 to re-cane a chair, and both Puttamma and Narayan travel close to 30 km to Bangalore University for their piece-work job. They worry they may be unemployed soon, despite Narayan having worked there for 20 years. “It is difficult to do something else at this age. Our daughters’ education becomes more expensive by the year,” say the couple. And as they acknowledge, there still are everyday battles to be fought, the resilient two continue to fight them just the way they walk out the door: one guiding the other, patiently.
‘She insisted I bring my kids on our first vacation to Goa’
By Poorva Rajaram
QUEEN, 31, and Mari, 36, met for the first time in an underground gay bar in Dubai in 2009. Mari recounts, “I asked her if she thought I was pretty and she said yes.” Queen is a Goan raised in Mumbai, who played football for India, and Mari is an expatriate from the US. The biggest challenge for them has been “in being accepted as a couple. We are not automatically taken for a family”.
Both completely deny that thier different cultural backgrounds affect their relationship. “I have been an expat for so long that I am used to being the minority and I get her background,” Mari says, citing her own Catholic upbringing before she converted to Islam at the age of 15. “I was surprised when I came out to my family because they were happy that Queen is a practising Catholic. The woman part mattered less.”
Queen has made a special effort to play a meaningful role in the lives of Mari’s five children. Mari’s children now clamour for her when she is away. Mari and Queen are co-parents who relieve each other from the daily stresses of parenting. They credit the children with being the glue that keeps them together. Mari manages to chime in with one last clue about their chemistry: “She smells really good.”
‘The police tortured our best friends to reach us’
SRINIVAS BEGINS telling their story: Urdu newspapers followed our case. The local sub-inspector told us later how influential people tormented him to split us up. This was his justification for torturing two of my best friends to get my phone number when we were in hiding.
ROOHI I was 21, at the crossroads of life. My friends and I believed we had bigger causes to take care of than becoming housewives. After Samvada, an NGO, helped me set up a small school for child labourers, I began to knit dreams of having more than the conventional ‘happy life’.
SRINIVAS In our cursed shanty where everyone was poor, you were either a Dalit or a Muslim. My childhood — humiliated and denied dignity — is something I wish to forget. You’ve heard of caste-Hindus meting out horrific treatment to Dalits. Muslims can be no better. For a better part of my life, even a haircut meant taking a bus ride to a neighbouring village.
ROOHI In my poor Muslim joint family, education was only meant for boys. Boys were wise enough to see through the Hinduised education system, they believed. We had to move from our village that was Muslim dominant, to another village so that my two sisters and I could finish schooling. My mother even managed to send me to a college in Bengaluru for my graduation, 30 km from Anekal, where we stayed.
SRINIVAS I stopped working for a factory and started canvassing for a political party my uncle worked for. I was also a regular tout at the Anekal taluk office premises. One day I watched a street play that was splendidly bashing religion, caste, class and gender. There I spotted Roohi, the local secretary of Samvada. Being friends was not that difficult. However, transcending that was dreadful labour. It took all my courage to utter those words over the phone. The call was cut immediately. Three days later she called to say “yes”. I bought her a rose and a chocolate.
ROOHI It was a time when my parents were hell-bent on marrying me off. They wanted me to stop running the school. I had to break my parents’ hearts and quickly. It was now or never.
SRINIVAS Our wedding was a three-hour bureaucratic nightmare. We eloped to Arsikere. Our wedding feast was chicken biriyani at midnight at a highway dhaba. Some wedding.
ROOHI Twenty-five days later, we went back to Anekal after the police (having got our number by torturing our friends) called us and assured to give us protection. We arrived. So did a crowd of 500 people from both sides. My parents pronounced me dead. We were free to go.
TOGETHER The Muslims think one of their girls got stolen. The Dalits believe one of theirs is the thief. I have even heard some Muslim women whispering about killing us. Today, I am a homemaker and Srinivas is a real-estate agent. When our daughters Lumbini and Monu grow up, we will tell them what we tell ourselves today. “We did this not just because we loved each other. We did this as a mark of dissent to intolerance. We did it for freedom, to be liberated. We believe in humanity and that is what Love is.”
As told to G VISHNU