She’s kotar, I’m darzi. That, in itself, is too much of an anomaly." Soft-spoken Deepshikha Shrivas from Hamirpur, in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region, is recounting her story, laying bare the gritty realities of where she was born and brought up, and, indeed, of the social fabric of large parts of India. For, caste continues to play a pivotal role—often determining choices and possibilities, from the kind of work one can or cannot do to whom one can or cannot marry.

Hamirpur is deeply conservative. The town made it to mainstream news in July last year when the local MLA, Manisha Anuragi, stepped into a temple meant only for men. The resident priest sanctioned an immediate “Ganga jal shuddhi kriya" (purification ritual). The MLA later apologized for hurting public sentiment.

Shrivas is 22, as is her girlfriend of over six years, the very outspoken Abhilasha Sakya. In 2018, they decided to get married. “You have one life, why should it be spent compromising?" Sakya says over the phone.

On 28 December, Sakya and Shrivas met the registrar at the district court. When they realized they couldn’t marry, they applied on notary paper, stating that they are a same-sex couple who live together consensually.

“The registrar told us he had 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," Sakya says.

The law she alludes to is, of course, the recently read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which deemed any and all intercourse that wasn’t peno-vaginal illegal, rendering the practice of homosexuality a crime. The recent ruling has left geographies such as Hamirpur largely untouched—in such areas, “coming out" leads to nothing but social censure, isolation from families, even the threat of violence. This is why Sakya, who is among the few people aware of these “shehron ki baatein" (urban developments), is rare.

“Even when homosexuality is mentioned, it’s only about men. The imagining of a same-sex relationship is between two men," says Sakya. It’s almost as if the men hijack the narrative here too.

“She told me about this law," says Shrivas, “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 nobody could stop us from having our union registered," adds Sakya.

She dons the role of spokeswoman naturally, with a shyly smiling Shrivas lounging around on the charpai next to her. She narrates their improbable love story, which began six years ago. Sakya would visit Shrivas’ village in Raath tehsil—about 15km from her own village, Muskara—which happened to be her mother’s maternal home. “Sweet sixteen," Sakya smiles, “I had been with girls before and knew that I liked girls. Par jab inko dekha na toh (But when I set eyes upon her)...".

Shrivas admits to having been unsure: “Will we be able to meet each other? And how long will we be able to keep it up?"

In 2014, Sakya and Shrivas confessed their feelings to each other. “I just asked her point blank, ‘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!" says Sakya.

Shrivas says, “She caught hold of me, very tight, and got it out of me!"

“Ab pakadna hi pada na, kya karte (I had to hold her tight, what else could I have done)?" says Sakya.

“Our parents knew we were very fond of each other and would always be together when we could," adds Sakya. “But they assumed it would wear off, that it was just childhood fun, maybe some teenage fun, that’s all." Sakya would make arrangements with a mutual friend in Raath, she says, so that she and Shrivas had a place to meet, their very own love nest. She would also invite Shrivas to her place when her parents were away.

Gradually, however, as the trips became infrequent, the two took to mobile phones to keep in touch. They would spend hours chatting on the phone late into the night. “This is when, I think, our 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," says Shrivas.

In 2016, Sakya and Shrivas were married off, a few months apart. Sakya would plan and execute virtual prison breaks from her marital home. She ran away five times and was sent back each time, she says. “It was torture. And one day I said no more." Shrivas stayed with her in-laws for most of that period. Her husband was mostly away on work. They never consummated the marriage, she claims. It was the same for Sakya, who explains, “We’ve never liked boys, never been attracted to them, so why would we?" Neither of them likes to speak about their husbands; they say it is too hurtful to dwell on.

On 28 December, the two went to Sakya’s house in the evening. “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," says Sakya.

Sakya says Shrivas belongs to the “better-off" family—a fact she repeats often—courtesy a father with a “safe" government job. Sakya’s father 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 Sakya. “Some days she goes without chai all day. We sometimes have to skip meals." Shrivas 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."

Shrivas’ family, though outwardly civil, has refused to acknowledge the relationship, while Sakya’s has resigned itself to the situation. Sakya’s father is keen that the two find jobs and move out—till then, he has agreed to let them stay. This is more to keep the media away than anything else, we learn.

“He’s quite irritated by some of the attention we’ve been getting," explains Sakya. “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 as we are together."

Sakya, who speaks of adopting children in the future, has the last word: “It is just unimaginable for people, right? That ‘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."

Reporting by Suneeta Prajapati and Nazni Rizwi, senior reporters, Khabar Lahariya, a rural network with a team of local women reporting on issues in the heartland.

Watch Abhilasha and Deepshikha talk about their journey in this exclusive video


Two girls and matters of the heart

-Deepshikha Shrivas and Abhilasha Sakya, who live in Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh, first met as 16-year-olds when the latter would travel to the former’s village.

-The outspoken Sakya took the lead in 2014, when she confessed her feelings to Shrivas. Their parents knew they were fond of each other but assumed it would pass.

-Despite social and familial pressures, and being pressured into marriages with men from the village, they found the courage to leave their husbands and decided to make a life together. “You have one life after all," says Sakya.

-Emboldened by the draconian Section 377 being read down in a Supreme Court ruling last year, they are attempting to register their “same-sex union" in the Hamirpur district court. They are currently looking for work, so they can set up their own grihasti (domestic life) and eventually adopt children together.

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