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What is marriage in the traditional Indian society?

In her nonfiction book, The Newlyweds: Rearranging Marriage in Modern India, award-winning journalist and author Mansi Choksi writes: “It is an arrangement between two families belonging to the same warp and weft in the tapestry of religion, caste, class, clan, region, and language. The goal of marriage is to cement those boundaries to ensure the survival of the power hierarchies because we are a society that places greater emphasis on collectivism than individualism.”

Indian couples, from tradition-bound families, who choose to defy this concept of marriage, especially in the hinterlands, are harangued, hunted down, and forced apart, sometimes with lethal violence perpetrated on them or their immediate families. 

The Newlyweds: Rearranging Marriage in Modern India is a work of investigative reportage written in a vivid literary style, where Choksi explores the complex themes of inter-faith, inter-caste and same-sex marriages in the cities and villages of India, through the lens of perceived transgression and its consequences. At its core, she questions “if love can endure with dignity if it becomes tainted with shame.”

The shame, flung like vitriol upon eloping couples and their hapless families, often leads to savage retribution, especially upon the parents of the boys who are painted as kidnappers of innocent girls in the entire saga. 

Intercaste Marriage

As in the case of Dawinder Singh and Neetu Rani of Kakheri village, Kaithal district, Haryana. A Sikh from a lower caste, Dawinder, fell in love with his Hindu neighbor, Neetu Rani; a connection forbidden, both on the grounds of caste differences, and the fact that neighbors from the same village are often considered kin, and therefore a relationship between such couples, tantamount to incest. 

Davinder and Neetu flee their village in the dead of night, and promptly fall into the clutches of Love Commando, a rescue group which provides a safe haven for similarly fleeing couples, but with highly questionable motives. They remain in hiding, terrorized by fears that they too could meet the same fate as Manoj and Babli Banwala, the star-crossed couple from the same district, whose brutal murder at the hands of Babli’s family made sensational headlines as a case of honor killing. 

A short segment on “love jihad.” Unreleased to the book.

Hindu-Muslim Marriage Is Taboo

The second case involves interfaith couple, Monika Ingle, daughter of a Hindu trader from the city of Nagpur, Maharashtra, and Mohammad Arif Dosani, son of a Muslim shopkeeper, who is also training to be a police constable. Arif and Monika’s case is further twisted when Arif is accused of “love jihad.”  

The term proposes the theory that innocent Hindu women are lured by Muslim men, and converted to Islam through forced marriages as a modus operandi for jihad (a struggle against religious opponents). The theory behind “love jihad” totally negates the idea that a Hindu woman could choose to marry a Muslim of her own free will. 

As Arif flees with his pregnant wife, militant vigilante groups descend upon his extended family, unleashing fervent wrath upon all members they can lay their hands upon, and destroying property. 

Vengeance For The Sake of Honor

Similarly, back in Kakheri village, Dawinder’s elderly parents too suffer brutal violence in the name of vengeance and satisfying honor. They lose their livelihood, their meager possessions, their home and land, and ultimately move from one relative’s home to another seeking shelter. 

Predictably, in both cases, appeals to local police officials, and lawyers, for justice are stonewalled. In Dawinder’s case, the girl’s family being upper caste, have the favor of the Khap Panchayat (an informal village organization, mainly in Northern Indian states, which oversees all caste related matters), while in Arif’s case, they are anti “love jihad” vigilantes. 

Lesbian Love

The third case Choksi explores is of Reshma Mokenwar and Preethi Sarikela, a lesbian couple from a Mumbai suburb. 

“If we can’t live together,” Preethi whispers to Reshma, “let us die together.”

“Until we have to die, why don’t we give life a chance and run away, somewhere far away?” Reshma says. 

Toying with this thought, Reshma and Preethi run away to Shirdi, a pilgrim town where the revered saint Sai Baba was said to have lived and performed miracles; a place where they know no one, and no one knows them. A place where they wear the shroud of anonymity. 

With Reshma and Preethi’s case, Choksi also explores the subject of desire in lesbians and non-binary people. Reshma and Preethi’s love is still forbidden, their desire still deemed impure, even though the Indian Supreme Court legalized relationships among homosexuals, striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. It is notable that this erstwhile law from the Victorian era—it was drafted in 1860—clubbed gay sex criminally along with sodomy and bestiality. But it did not include lesbianism in its purview. 

In a society where women are expected to bow to centuries of tradition where marriage and relationships are concerned, the desire of a woman, especially for another woman, is not something to be even contemplated, let alone recognized openly. 

All three couples at different stages in their relationships question if the persecution, the strife, the shame, the social ostracism was worth enduring for the sake of love. 

Ultimately, what is the fate of these couples? Do they find happiness after experiencing all the strife? While Arif and Monika seem to emerge stronger, Dawinder is torn between his love for his wife and the need to restore some semblance of honor and material security to his family. Reshma is bent upon undergoing an expensive sex change operation—even if they have to prostitute themselves for years to raise the money—to become a man, which they hope will bind them to their beloved Preeti forever. 

Sometimes, love—that many a splendored thing—survives the trial by fire; sometimes, the flame is extinguished. 

Nandita Chowdhury Bose

Nandita Chowdhury Bose is a journalist, writer, and editor. In the past, she has worked at publications like India Today and Society. Since moving to the United States, she has been a freelance communications...