The love story of Sharda and Ubeidul Latif Baruah4 min read . Updated: 14 Feb 2020, 03:27 PM IST
Marriage between a Hindu and a Muslim should be seen as the norm, not an exception
The first time I heard of Sharda and U.L. Baruah’s love story was when their son Amit told me about how his father would insist that there was no story to be told about their love. We were travelling together on a work assignment as colleagues when the topic of inter-religious marriages came up. I had recently written an article about the backlash that Shah Rukh Khan had suffered when he had spoken about his Hindu-Muslim marriage and mentioned my own mixed marriage in the piece. Not entirely unexpectedly, I was being trolled viciously in the comments section of the online article and on my Twitter timeline.
“Marriage between a Hindu and a Muslim should be seen as the norm, not an exception," Amit had quoted his father. This is what he had said when he declined permission to an editor to write about their love story and mixed marriage in a leading magazine in the 1970s.
It reminded me of what my friend and colleague, Kamal Khan, had shared with me years ago when he was newly married to Ruchi. “People came and congratulated us and said you have done a very brave thing. Others said we had done something great," Kamal had shared incredulously. Neither Ruchi nor he had imagined that there was any “greatness" involved in their personal choice when they had decided to get married in Lucknow in the mid-1990s. Yet society saw something more in the act than the lovers did.
A few years after Amit first mentioned his parents to me, I met Sharda Baruah at her home in south Delhi. It was a few days before her 93rd birthday and I had arrived with a film crew to listen to her recall her memories of growing up, both in pre- and post-Partition India. The visible fault lines in the socio-political discourse in contemporary India and the fraying of the secular ideal that we had taken for granted made me feel that we must record Sharda’s retelling of the story of independent India.
Sharda and Baruah first met when they were colleagues at All India Radio. She recalls that the city of Hyderabad would easily classify as a conservative place, and yet it was a time and place in which she felt free and secure.
“Hyderabad was not a bad place," she says, trying to make us understand the difference between the times she grew up in versus the times we now live in. Her upper-caste Hindu grandparents would insist on the teenage girls changing out of their school uniforms into saris as soon as they returned home from school. They would travel in rickshaws that would have a “purdah" that shielded the young women from view.
Sharda joined All India Radio as a presenter and even acted in a film in the early 1950s. When Baruah and she fell in love, he wrote a letter to Sharda’s father asking for her hand in marriage.
“My grandparents were orthodox in outlook, but there was no hatred for the other in their hearts. To be conservative about one’s religious or cultural practices doesn’t mean we cannot have compassion for all of humanity," says Sharda. Marrying outside one’s caste and religion was not a norm, and yet it was important for the family to honour the choice their daughter wanted to make.
The couple married and moved to Delhi in 1958. They had three sons and lived as a nuclear family, hosting many friends who were also leading progressive artists of the time, like Kaifi and Shaukat Azmi. Baruah, who had grown up in North Lakhimpur in Assam, rose to become the director general of All India Radio. Sharda recalls many Hindu and Muslim festivals when both of them just had each other for company. “We used to cook sevaiyan and eat it with each other on Eid," she tells me.
“My mother used to tell me that you must have been a pious person in your previous life, that is why you have got such a noble husband in this life," says Sharda. In another anecdote, she laughs and recalls how her father begged her to speak more politely to her husband.
“I don’t like this talk about religious identity," she tells me. “My husband used to tell me not to feel compelled to answer nosy questions. He would say, you make my name whatever you feel like. Say my name is Upendra Lal Baruah instead of Ubeidul Latif Baruah…what does it matter?"
Listening to Sharda recall her stories makes me think that the story of her life and love is also the story of the best version of India. An India we have been, one we are capable of being again.
It makes me re-examine many ideas all over again. What does it mean to be a liberal, if one does not honour differences in lifestyle and ideology? Does being orthodox in terms of one’s adherence to caste and religion-mandated norms necessarily make one a less nice person? What is the source of the hate crimes and hate speech that mar the landscape of our present times, a time we would like to believe is more modern than before?
How can we learn again to coexist as a diverse society without amplifying imaginary threats from those we consider to be the other?
What does compassion corelate to? How can we make it fashionable again?
As we prepared to leave, we were putting back all the albums and framed photographs of the Baruah family that we had been admiring. “It has been over 35 years since he has been gone, but our life together stays with me all the time," said Sharda. “There’s not a moment when I can forget him," she added, giving all of us listening to her a whole idea of life and love goals to aspire for.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.
Twitter - @natashabadhwar