Neelu and Saeef. Photographs by Nathan G/Mint
Neelu and Saeef. Photographs by Nathan G/Mint

All you need is love

Across the country, the battle for love forms the front line against prejudices of caste, religion, gender and age, apart from the diktats of social convention itself. Lounge meets three couples who have triumphed

The concept of love is changing in this nation of teeming multitudes that still baulks at sex education. Slowly, hesitantly, those ancient lines drawn in the earth, lines of division and separation, are being eroded. More people are trying to fashion a world where the strictures of community, caste, religion and creed do not dictate every aspect of their lives—especially not whom they are allowed to love.

It is not only the young who are undaunted. There are those who have hidden from fury for the better decades of their lives, but are now opening themselves up to the possibilities of genuine romance. Social media like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Tinder has helped create unlikely pairings and keep lovers connected, able to plan their lives together despite great distances, not all of them geographical. Inevitably, this tears and teases at the boundaries of what was once socially ordained.

Sexual action alone is not a marker of liberated love. As a society, we are being confronted with new ideas of love. Once, we used to partner “up" as a practice, forging relationships for a social end. The arranged marriage was the instrument that preserved our social structures. Now, it is becoming clearer that partnerships can occur in many directions, that the self can be fulfilled in different ways.

It can be highly divisive, even violent. There was unrest in Ladakh because a Buddhist woman, Stanzin Saldon, married a Muslim man, Murtaza Aga. In Kerala, because a Hindu woman, Akhila Ashokan, married a Muslim man, Shafin Jahan. In Bengaluru, a lesbian couple married despite social pressure. We live in an age where the fact that Kunnummal Yusuf, an assistant executive engineer with the Kerala Water Authority, had consented to his daughter, Jaseela, marrying a Christian, Tiso Tomy, was seen as an act of defiance, prompting a ban from the local mosque committee.

Those challenging the established social order do so armed only with love. These couples are just a few examples of those forging ties with purpose despite the obstacles.

Priyanka Hore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Priyanka Hore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

It has to be us together

Priyanka Hore, 21, and Kushal Daulatkar, 27

From Adegaon and Gaul, Wardha district, Maharashtra

It wasn’t easy for Priyanka Hore to get to her bachelor of social work course at the Dr Ambedkar College of Social Work in Wardha. The eldest of a farmer’s three daughters in Adegaon, 2 hours away, she was expected to discontinue her studies after class XII, like other girls in the village. She scored 74%, and she wanted to study. An aunt told her parents that girls who went to college “got spoiled". She went on a hunger strike for three days. Her parents relented, making arrangements for her to live with her uncle in Wardha town and cycle to college. It was all the more inexplicable, then, that Priyanka walked into the court registrar’s office during her final term (2016-17) and married her secret love from the same village, a poor farmer who had barely passed class X.

There was uproar. Priyanka’s parents insisted she file a case saying she had been kidnapped and raped. Priyanka, who had been exposed to the works of B.R. Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule, refused. Her family hurled expletives at her husband. They cut off all ties with her. Fellow villagers wouldn’t even look at her. Some of her professors, friends and relatives were horrified, berating her for “going the wrong way when she had such promise".

The man in question, Kushal, was in fact a distant relative. Both the families were of the Kunbi caste, with Other Backward Class (OBC) status—the problem was that he was not of their choosing and of a lower financial status. He had grown up in a neighbouring village but moved to hers when she was in class XI. Over time, they had begun to talk.

There were times when Kushal’s family would have no food to eat for four days in a row. When there was no money even for food, how could Kushal, who also harboured a love of learning, justify the admission fees schools charged? He had had no option but to go to work, sometimes selling bulls to farmers in neighbouring villages, sometimes working the fields. He saved money for his sister’s wedding.

Priyanka knew Kushal would support her. “I couldn’t study for myself but I will live through what you achieve," he told her. Every time she scored good marks, he would rejoice.

Priyanka knew her family would not want her to study after graduation but she applied anyway for a master’s in social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. They married early in 2017.

She was accepted into the master’s programme for women’s studies.

The news came when Priyanka and Kushal had been married barely a month. Taking it up would mean leaving Adegaon and living in the institute hostel. They didn’t have money for the fees. Her first term’s fee was paid through a pool organized by a college professor. Another professor sponsored a laptop. Kushal managed to buy her a phone, their first smartphone, so the couple could communicate. This was the best wedding present they could get. Enthusiastic and unflinching, the duo, who had never travelled by train, never been to a big city, reached Mumbai to enrol her for the course.

Kushal has been her defence against villagers perplexed by this strange marriage. Won’t your wife stay with you? How can you send her there? Who will do the housework? How do you know what she is up to? “You don’t worry about my life," Kushal tells them. “I know my wife, I know what she is, and what she has to do." He has travelled to Mumbai a couple of times to meet her, but they can’t do it often because it is too expensive.

Priyanka misses home. She wonders if her sisters’ education will be affected by what she did. She is hoping that living life on her own terms will bring about a larger change. “When things work out in the end, when you do well, everyone forgets and everyone comes around," Priyanka says. “I just feel bad that they will not let me give them the life I want to show them, a progressive life that exposes them to the larger world that I now expose my in-laws to." The last time Priyanka saw her father was when she was leaving home.

I am continually changing, even after coming to a city like Mumbai. He has to readapt to a new me every time I return. Of course it is hard, but what allows us to expand like that, and accommodate who we each are, is love.-

Priyanka knows it’s been hard for her husband too. “I am continually changing, even after coming to a city like Mumbai. He has to readapt to a new me every time I return. Of course it is hard, but what allows us to expand like that, and accommodate who we each are, is love." When she’s home, she takes on the housework, the cooking; there is always work in the fields. It can be exhausting, and leave no time to study or think or just be. Does she ever wonder if it would have been easier if she had stayed single? “I thought about that. But I also knew how much he loved me and how much he understood the value of what I was doing. There is no point achieving these things in isolation. If we want to make a change, it has to be us together, changing the society we live in by example. As much change as I am making, he is too. None of this is easy for him. But there he is, my wall, my support, standing against society, telling them what kind of man to be."

Kushal knows what his extended family and village doesn’t yet—that after this master’s degree, Priyanka plans to work in the city for a while, save up enough to write her GRE and then apply overseas. He tells her: “You go where you have to, and do what you have to do, because all that I wanted to achieve for myself and couldn’t lives through you. Just promise me that you and I will never fall out of love."

Neelu and Saeef. Photographs by Nathan G/Mint
Neelu and Saeef. Photographs by Nathan G/Mint

Censure and outrage have a shelf life

Neelu, 43, and Saeef, 47

From Kathmandu, Nepal; and Chennai, India

Saeef had come to say goodbye to Neelu for what they both thought would be the final time. The train taking her back towards Nepal would pull out of Chennai station in 10 minutes. They had met only twice earlier.

They first met through common friends in Chennai, when Neelu was applying for a higher education course. She eventually selected a computer course in Bengaluru. A few weeks after their first meeting, her watchman gave her a note from Saeef, saying he was in town and had dropped by. It took her some time to place the name, but then she remembered the young mechanical engineer in an architectural firm with whom she had felt an instant connection. They went for a film—Rangeela. He returned to Chennai and that was pretty much it.

It was not love at first sight, but there was a sense this could go the distance.

Then the computer centre she was studying in opened a centre in Kathmandu. Neelu decided to take a transfer. She did not know she would return.

Neelu comes from a Brahmin joint family in Nepal, a nation as riven by caste as India. In the early 1990s, she didn’t know of any mixed communities, friends married to Christians or Muslims. Forget inter-caste unions, even marriages between different sects of Brahmins were frowned upon. To marry a Muslim was unheard of.

Neelu’s decision to move to Bengaluru to study was considered radical, permitted only because of her family’s spiritual ties to their guru there. Having lost her father just after she was born, she had become everybody’s child in her extended, close-knit joint family. She felt she needed to return. She got a job as a counsellor at the same institute centre in Kathmandu, attended classes in the evenings, and began corresponding with Saeef over email.

She began noticing that even well-educated, older people were taking the course. She realized she would need a master’s degree to improve work prospects. She wanted to grow. She wanted to study. She wanted independence.

So she went back to Bengaluru. She and her best friend applied for a master’s degree. They reached out to Saeef for help. His father was in the army’s CVRDE (Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment) division, and they lived on the Avadi air force base in Chennai. Saeef’s father knew someone at the Justice Basheer Ahmed Sayeed College for Women. Neelu got admission there and began studying for a master’s degree in child development and family studies. The hostel food was terrible and Saeef, ever the gentleman, would come by in the evenings to take them out.

There was never a word of love, just a deep and abiding bond they both knew was special. Neelu couldn’t imagine hurting her family.

Saeef never pushed for more. The two years were drawing to a close. They travelled together for the engagement of Neelu’s best friend in Sikkim, and Neelu’s uncle came to pick her up from there.

It seemed to be an end point, for the second time, of a love that could never be. With her uncle present, there were no fond farewells, no tears.

Back home, Neelu began working with Unicef Nepal’s nutrition and childcare department. This is when, she says, she really began to observe the people around her, the wonderfully large web of family, friends and neighbours she had grown up with. There were arranged marriages that weren’t doing so well and others that worked beautifully. Love marriages that failed, and those that did not. She noticed that when an arranged marriage failed or went through unhappy times, those who had brought the couple together would step back and say it was a matter between husband and wife. What was the point then, she wondered: If the consequences are yours alone to deal with, why shouldn’t the choice also be solely yours? She began to see that social norms didn’t always offer a way out.

Not that the answers were easy to come by. In the background was Saeef, agnostic, a non-practising Muslim from a deeply religious family, undemanding, waiting patiently. “For him, it was all about me," Neelu says. “I had never seen such love. It was unconditional. I knew that to reject such pure and selfless love coming my way would be the most foolish decision of my life. Not many receive such love and here it was all mine to claim."

She began a process of soul-searching. She read the works of Vivekananda, Osho and Paramahansa Yogananda in a bid to understand religion. Did it mean she had to sacrifice everything she wanted, simply to abide by social norms? She came to understand the difference between religion and spirituality.

Saeef had waited for two years. On one of her work visits to India, she told him she was willing to give their relationship a chance. Saeef quit his prosperous practice with a top architectural firm in Chennai. He found a job in Dubai, one that would support a spousal visa, and told Neelu he was ready to meet her family. Even when Saeef flew to New Delhi, on his way to Kathmandu, Neelu still hadn’t found the courage to make the disclosure. Eventually, she told her mother, who told her uncle.

When they had a daughter... they gave her two names, one to serve as a pseudo-surname, that was neither his nor hers. They registered her religion as ‘nil’.-

Her family told her: We trust your judgement. We know any man you would have picked must be wonderful. Even if he was an Indian Hindu, we would have agreed. But we cannot say yes to a Muslim man.

She was sent to his hotel with her cousin, to turn him down. Saeef was ready to stay in Kathmandu, to do whatever it took. Her uncle and aunt went across to reason with him and courteously convince him this wouldn’t work. Saeef returned to Dubai the following day.

In Dubai, he applied for a visa for Neelu. They applied for a court marriage in Chennai and registered it when she came down on work. From there, they left for Dubai. Married, Neelu wrote what she says was the most difficult letter of her life, informing her family of her wedding, and waited nervously for the reaction.

Her family called: Did she want to return? Was she okay? Was she regretting her decision? Beneath the anger and shock was love and concern.

Some of Saeef’s family wanted Neelu to convert. He stood firmly between her and all such demands. He was agnostic. Why should she be anything but herself?

When they had a daughter, Saeef insisted she be treated as an individual in her own right, belonging to neither parent. So they gave her two names, one to serve as a pseudo-surname, that was neither his nor hers. They registered her religion as “nil". Now 9, she is called Aadya Isha, after an embodiment of primordial feminine energy.

Neelu continues with her morning puja. She remains deeply individualistic and free-spirited, she runs a Montessori school, and is training to be a Waldorf teacher and biography consultant, to bring healing to children through curative education. Her doting husband, an avid conservationist, nurtures and takes pride in her, is her partner in school, and pulled out his toolkit to build her school’s unique eco-friendly playground. It has become clear to everyone that they couldn’t have been better matched. The social backlash her family faced in Nepal dissipated within a few months.

“In hindsight, you realize that when you’re in it, everything—what people will say, social impact, breaking norms—seems larger than life," Neelu says. “But, in reality, it’s a few hours or days or months of gossip for society and then they move on to the next thing. Censure and outrage have a shelf life. And for those few moments, you contemplate losing what is important to you, and you end up leading a life you don’t really want," Neelu says.

Yogita Ambekar and Rajaram Holle. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Yogita Ambekar and Rajaram Holle. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

We never let the naysayers in

Yogita Ambekar, 41, and Rajaram Holle, 44

From Ahmednagar and Kasari, Maharashtra

Rajaram Holle, a National Academy award-winning artist, was a teenager when he first ran away from home, Kasari, a small village near Bhimashankar, and the ritual beatings of his famous Maratha pehelwan (wrestler) father. His stepbrother lent him the money—an insidious incentive to leave the substantial comfort of claimable land and wealth. Since his mother, the pehelwan’s first wife, had been sent away to his uncle’s home, Holle believed he had nothing to lose. So off he went to Sangamner, and from there to Pune, where he enrolled for a bachelor’s in fine arts at the Abhinava Kala Mahavidyalaya. This is where he fell so deeply in love with the work of Vasudeo Gaitonde, the abstractionist, that he began work on his final fifth-year thesis two years in advance, completing it six months before the required submission date.

In his class was the quiet and reticent Yogita Ambekar, from Ahmednagar. Yogita, who is from a conservative Other Backward Class (OBC) community of the Swakula Sali caste, was only allowed to go to Pune to live with her uncle and study art because her grandmother had stood up for her. She had to be careful not to work on her studies of the human anatomy—nudes, required for her coursework—at home. The subject of her thesis was the paintings of Ajanta. A few days before her final submission, the printmaker cut her submission wrongly. In those days of handwritten projects and film rolls that needed to be developed for images, this blow could have proved fatal.

A kindly professor summoned Rajaram, who was already being recognized for his genius, and asked him to help her. Love was instantaneous. He helped her reshoot, redevelop, rewrite, and coached her to completion. Back home, both sets of parents were searching for suitable matches. Rajaram topped the state exams that year and received a National Award nomination, the first of five. Yogita and Rajaram knew that if their love affair with art was to continue, they would have to study further. She enrolled in the one-year diploma in art education course at the institute, and Rajaram made it to the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, a long-standing ambition. At the end of that year, they registered their marriage quietly in Pune, with close friends as witnesses.

Her family made enquiries in college about who this man was; the several prizes and award nominations he had received gave them hope. By this point, Rajaram had severed ties with his own family.

The couple began their new life in the most inexpensive suburb of Mumbai that they could manage, Nala Sopara. Ambekar got a job teaching art at a local school, on a salary of Rs2,000. This was all they had. “In all those years, not once did she allow me to do anything but focus on my art," says Rajaram. As relatives and friends and neighbours began to bear down on the couple, asking why she had to work while he, to all outward appearances, was sitting at home, the pressure piled up. Yogita proved to be his best defence. “The greatest thing we had was our love of art," she says. “We both knew what it entailed, what kind of focus and meaning one must bring to work. That it’s not a paint-a-canvas-a-day kind of thing. Nurturing that spark in him kept us going."

They went for months with barely enough to eat. Rajaram recalls buying a biscuit packet and giving his son one biscuit for each meal one day. Friends chipped in when they could. After the first few months, Rajaram couldn’t even afford canvas, so he would buy paper, tear it into four pieces and work on it with pencil and ink. They would take the train to town and submit his paintings to gallerists Dadiba and Khorshed Pundole, and other galleries.

When you marry like this, you lose the protection of society at large. But we fiercely protected ourselves. We built our own new family from friends who stood by us...-

Two years later, he sold his first sketch via the Tao Art Gallery. “They called to say, come and take your money quickly," Rajaram says. “Nobody says that." In 2006, Rajaram sold a work at the Jehangir Art Gallery. The couple used the money, Rs3.5 lakh, to make a down payment on a new home. At the Pundole Art Gallery, Dadiba and Khorshed had been tracking his work. They gave him a stipend, paid him a bulk sum after his paintings sold, and helped him pay his son’s admission fees.

His works began to sell. He won the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2012 and had solo shows in New York, London and the Czech Republic. After six years of being nominated, the National Award came his way.

The bad times had passed.

As actor Shah Rukh Khan put it in Om Shanti Om, says Rajaram, when you are focused, the whole universe conspires to support you.

Now financially secure, the couple continues to live in Nala Sopara. Yogita teaches art at a college on Charni Road. Their son is in class IX and their pet turtle, Yash, who follows them adoringly around the house, is now 9. There is peace today.

There always was, in fact, says Yogita, “because we didn’t allow the naysayers in, those who were anticipating our failure. When you marry like this, you lose the protection of society at large. But we fiercely protected ourselves. We built our own new family from friends who stood by us, from the art world. We understood each other’s work. The Jehangir Art Gallery became home. You create your own society, and that is stronger than when you merely inherit one that is given to you."

Though the registered marriage happened in 2000, the couple still doesn’t feel married, Rajaram says. They’re still the friends they were in college, still maturing with their art. They sometimes have to remind each other to behave like husband and wife. There are still threats from home, even though so much time has passed, and fame has come their way. There is still anger that these two made it. But inside this peaceful artists’ bubble, you’d never know.

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