“She’s kotar, I’m darzi. That, in itself, is too much of an aberration.”
Soft-spoken Deepshikha says this by way of explanation as she recounts to us her story, laying bare the very gritty realities of where she’s been born and brought up, indeed of the social fabric of large parts of India, where caste continues to play a pivotal role in your life-path – often determining all your choices and possibilities, from the kind of work you can and cannot do, and of course, who you can and cannot marry.
22-year-old Deepshikha is a Hamirpur local, a district of Uttar Pradesh, which lies in Bundelkhand, who recently went in for a ‘court marriage’ with her girlfriend of over six years, the very outspoken Abhilasha, also 22. “You have one life and why should it be spent compromising?”, she’d told us over the phone, when we were fixing on logistics of the interview, prepping us almost for the couple we would meet, complementing each other in personality.
Hamirpur was last on the mainstream news cycle when the local MLA, a woman, created a furore by stepping into a temple meant only for men. The resident priest, who had been away at the time of the visit, sanctioned an immediate ‘Ganga jal shuddhi kriya’ (purification ritual using the water of the Ganga river), upon his return. The MLA even apologized for hurting public sentiment, which she clarified, had been unintentional. Ah yes, gender – the other determinant of one’s life in a socio-cultural landscape set up for privileging the man, and discriminating the woman.
It is here, in this space that serves as a microcosm of double prejudices that Abhilasha and Deepshikha decided to make their love for each other, official. On December 28, 2018, the pair met up at the local district court and signed on the dotted lines at the registrar, confirming their union legal. Although the paperwork is awaited, Abhilasha tells us. “The registrar told us he’d never seen this ever in his life, and he wasn’t certain about the procedure. But he couldn’t refuse it, since I knew about the law, so he did go ahead with it. Now the legal document is yet to arrive*.”
The law that Abhilasha alludes to is of course the recently revoked Section 377, which deemed any and all intercourse that wasn’t penal-vaginal as illegal, rendering the practice of homosexuality, a crime. A closely-watched Supreme Court event, which was the focus of much celebration across the nation and even globally – but one that has left geographies such as Hamirpur untouched, where ‘coming out’ isn’t a decision made at a crossroads, and means nothing but social censure, leading not only to isolation from your own family, but even the threat of violence, or actual violence.
It’s what makes Abhilasha rare, arguably the only one aware of these “shehron ki baatein” (urban chatter) in her parts. She tells us she’d kept abreast of it for a year ever since she’d come across it happenstance through some What’s App joke – the one about keeping your man satisfied lest he leaves you for another man. We laugh together, at the disruption of presumptions therein, when two women from rural U.P. cite the revoking of a draconian law as the spark that urged them to finally take the leap. “When homosexuality is mentioned also, it’s only about men. The imagining of a same-sex relationship is between two men,” says Abhilasha. It’s like here too, the men hijack the narrative, we say, and they both nod.
“She told me about this law”, says Deepshikha, “and was very sure that this meant we could also go ahead and declare our feelings for each other openly. That we could now be together.” “I knew that nobody could stop us from having our union registered,” adds Abhilasha.
Abhilasha dons the default spokeswoman stance naturally, as we prod further, with a shyly smiling Deepshikha lounging around on the charpai next to her. She narrates their love story, as improbable as it is true, which began six years ago, when they were both teenagers, “sweet sixteen”, Abhilasha smiles, “I’d been with girls before and knew that I liked girls. Par jab inko dekha na toh… (But when I set my eyes upon her…).” Deepshikha admits to heart-stirrings in the moment too, but also of being unsure of so much, “Will we be able to meet each other? And how long will we be able to keep it up?”
Deepshikha would visit Abhilasha’s village in Raath tehsil of Hamirpur often enough, jumping onto pretexts of family trips made to Raath whenever she could. “Our parents knew we were very fond of each other, and would always be together when we could,” says Abhilasha, and elaborates, “But they assumed it would wear off, that it was just childhood fun, maybe some teenage fun, that’s all.” Abhilasha would fix up with a mutual friend in Raath, she says, so that she and Deepshikha had a place to meet, their very own love nest. Besides this, she would invite her over to her own place, when her parents were away – opportunities that Deepshikha made sure they could avail of, as and when possible.
The trips became infrequent and the love story moved to the other obvious space – mobile phones. Abhilasha and Deepshikha spent hours together chatting on the phone, almost always into the wee hours of the night, night after night. “This is when, I think, out parents became a little agitated. And of course, they thought it must stop. So, they decided it was a good time to find us men i.e. husbands.”
In 2016, spaced apart by a few months, both Abhilasha and Deepshikha were married off, and this marked the beginning of a miserable chapter in the love saga of Abhilasha and Deepshikha. Abhilasha, we learn, refused to stay with her husband and would plan and execute virtual prison breaks from her marital home. She ran away five times, and was sent back five times, she tells us, “It was torture. And one day, I said no more.” Deepshikha stayed with her in-laws for most of that period, but with a husband mostly away, and never consummated the marriage, she shares. Ditto for Abhilasha, who explains, “We’ve never liked boys, never been attracted to them, so why would we?”Neither of them likes to speak much about their husbands; they say it is too hurtful to dwell on.
It was in 2014 or so that the big proposal happened. Amidst a fair amount of giggling and blushing, Abhilasha recounts, “I just asked her point black, ‘How long do you want to go on like this?’ Let’s be honest about our feelings towards each other, at least to one another! Only then can we even dream of going further. I told her, ‘I love you’, now you say it back. So I demanded an ‘I Love You’, from her!” Deepshikha adds, beaming, “She had caught hold of me, very tight, and got it out of me!” “Ab pakadna hi pada na, kya karte (I had to make a tight grip, what else could I have done)?”, says Abhilasha rhetorically.
On December 28, 2018, Abhilasha and Deepshikha came home to Abhilasha’s house in the evening, together and holding hands. “My mother asked me where I had been, before she saw Deepshikha, or noticed us holding hands. I told her we went and got married and we’d like to stay here, until we figure out where we can go.”
Deepshikha, Abhilasha says belongs to the ‘better-off’ family – a fact she repeats often – courtesy a father with a ‘safe’ government job, as opposed to Abhilasha’s father, who works as a daily wage labourer, which means the household often goes without proper meals. “I feel very bad that she used to stay so comfortably in her home, and now she has to adjust with me, because we can’t afford many things,” says Abhilasha, “Some days she goes without chai all day. We sometimes have to skip meals.”Deepshikha objects – the first time through the day we’ve spent with them that we notice a slight octave rise in her voice – “You don’t need to say all this. I’ve told you, I’m comfortable.”
Deepshikha’s family, though outwardly civil, has refused to acknowledge the relationship, while Abhilasha’s has been resigned to it. Abhilasha’s father is only keen that the two find employment and move out of his house – but until that time, he has agreed to have them stay. This is more to keep the media away than anything else, we learn – “He’s quite bugged by some of the attention we’ve been getting”, explains Abhilasha. “We also want to get away”, she says, “I know that we can’t keep hanging around here. We will find jobs and we will move out. Even if it means mazdoori (working as labourers), we are ready for it. As long we are together.”
As we check on our transport back to Mahoba, district neighbouring Hamirpur, we think of rattling our parents with deviant desires too – it’s tempting for the 22-year-old reporter in us, being pressured to toe the line and get married because ‘it’s high time, beta’. “Let’s tell them to stop bugging us, else we’ll elope with our girlfriends, what do you think?”, we ask each other.
Because even though there is now even a mainstream movie on the topic, we know that acceptance is far away. Abhilasha, who speaks of adopting children in the future along with Deepshikha as her legitimate partner, has the last word, “It is just un-imaginable for people, right? That how is it possible, how is it possible, for two girls to be together, to be happy together. They’re missing out on something. But they should come meet us.”
*At the district court, when the couple realised that same sex marriage is still not legally recognised in India, they went ahead and registered their ‘live-in’ status, that they were living together consensually.
Reporting by Suneeta Prajapati &Nazni Rizwi, Senior Reporters,Khabar Lahariya
Written by Pooja Pande
An edited version of this article first appeared on Live Mint.