As he did any other day, one hot afternoon, a young man hopped on to a rickety local bus. While looking to find a seat, he noticed a young woman, someone he would continue to see on the same bus in the days to come. A few days later, he mustered up the courage to make the first move.
The man gave his number to the woman’s friend, who passed it on without realising something was amiss. He waited for the woman to call him, but in vain. He once again shared his number with the messenger, and the phone rang the next day. He knew it was her.
The man realised he had missed the last digit in the sequence of his phone number the first time he passed it on inside the jam-packed bus. The woman, in the meantime, had tried calling the wrong number several times.
What would initially be a mere exchange of pleasantries eventually turned into conversations that would go on till 6 AM. Having realised they wanted to cement their relationship, the man proposed to the woman on September 9, 2017.
The only hitch was that they were of different faiths.
The couple, who left their respective homes - a kilometre apart - two years ago, claims to be the first from their village to have got married under the Special Marriage Act.
They recounted the struggle they faced when their families learnt about the relationship.
“Someone at his workplace knew a family member of mine. That’s how my family learnt about our relationship. My family member went to meet him. They fixed my marriage (to another person) as soon as they learnt about it. They immediately wanted to marry me off,” said the woman.
Despite their families warning them about the consequences of carrying on the relationship, the couple remained defiant.
The pandemic-induced lockdown came as a blessing in disguise, as the woman’s marriage to the other man, scheduled to take place in late 2020, got delayed.
However, the lockdown also meant confinement at home and no more interactions. The man used to stand in the lane leading to the house of the woman, who would stand in her balcony to catch a glimpse of him. The ultimate plan was to live together without having to struggle to see each other.
The lockdown was also a time for introspection and research for the couple.
“I looked up the internet for places that helped couples like us and called up many places in the process. One place told me that an inter-faith marriage would entail a lot of struggle. The search finally lead me to a genuine place,” he said.
The planning of their future course of action had begun as early as 2018. However, it was in 2020 that a function organised by the woman’s family before her arranged marriage prompted the couple to leave their village.
“We also didn’t want the families to believe that we were running away without informing them,” he said.
Initially, the woman travelled to another city where she lived at an establishment for women. The man came along and returned after dropping her there.
“I had just completed my graduation when I told my family that I had to go and collect my results. Instead of taking the local bus from the village, I got on a private vehicle that would ferry passengers to the city,” the woman said.
That same morning, the man returned to the village from the city after an eight-hour standing commute.
“We ensured that there were no accusations of abduction of kidnapping against us,” the couple revealed.
The woman’s family reached the centre within a few days of her leaving home and accused her of having stolen some financial documents.
“I asked the officials at the centre to verify with the bank if at all the documents in question really existed. As soon as the official picked up the phone to call, the family admitted there were no such documents. The entire family tried to convince me to come home. I asked why they had fixed my marriage with someone else despite knowing about my relationship. I also told them that I wanted to continue studying. They said they would cancel the marriage if I went with them,” she said.
But her family wasn’t ready to accept a man from a different faith.
While the man was still in the village, one of the woman’s relatives went to his house and pressurised him to bring the woman back to the village. The man also didn’t believe his family, who asked him to bring the woman back to the village on the promise that they would be married.
“They were not interested in marrying us, but locking me up. Next day, he and his family and my relatives reached the city. Both families were present,” she recalled.
It was at this point that the love story hit a snag, as the man began to have doubts over the whole thing.
“I was very disturbed with the way things were going. To add to the tension was lack of sleep. I was scared too. I wasn’t able to comprehend anything at that point in time,” he said.
The woman intervened to say,
“I got so angry. I told him whatever you decide, do it after giving it serious thought.”
The woman’s family then asked her to give an undertaking that she would not claim any rights in the family property.
The only option the man and woman thought they had was to live in a different city, where they could seek help to marry each other. With a meagre sum of ₹6,500 in hand the couple reached the new city.
“I was wearing a t-shirt, three-fourth shorts and a pair of slippers with an empty backpack when we reached,” remembered the man.
A new set of troubles awaited the young couple. On reaching the new city at around 2 AM on a chilly winter night, they couldn’t find their way to the place they were supposed to reach.
“We had switched off our phones so we couldn’t contact anyone. We reached the place at 5 am. There were many mosquitoes and we were sceptical about the new city. In the morning, we got a place to stay,” the couple recounted.
Trying to settle in, the couple was unaware that the families back home had registered a theft case against them. The couple would eventually file a petition before the High Court seeking to quash this case.
Faced with bureaucratic challenges, COVID-19 and the fear of family backlash, the couple applied for marriage. Their application was rejected twice before they again approached the state authorities.
“There was an address verification letter issued by the local authority before the marriage could be registered. But the verification didn’t happen. We were discouraged by the authorities, who told us that the locality we were living in was not conducive for an inter-faith couple,” the woman said.
The couple then approached senior police authorities in the new city seeking help at a safe house meant for runway adult couples. The woman continued,
“There was again a verification ordered following which we asked the authorities to verify us at our new address. We had already sent several letters. On the third occasion, when we applied, lockdown got set in place due to the second wave. That again delayed the process.”
To make matters worse, they would both test positive for COVID-19.
Not content with giving up, the woman’s family came to the new city along with the local police.
“They said they would ensure my safety. I again refused to go. I told them I’d come when I wanted to as it was my home too. They also complained that I didn’t try to communicate with them. I told them that they had filed a theft case against us and created a bizarre situation,” she said.
Meanwhile, relief in the form of a safe abode came after an order was passed by senior police authorities in the new city.
“But it had already been two months in the new city. I had lost my job by then,” the man said.
Eventually, after six months of running from pillar to post, the marriage finally took place.
The woman plans to finish her post-graduation whereas the man seeks to continue working in order to support themselves.
“The real struggle has only begun. But there is no fear. We also did not seek help from friends as we didn’t want to jeopardise their lives,” she said.
Though able to fulfil smaller needs, the couple’s priority is to get away from a society that discriminates against inter-faith couples. On what inspired them to keep going through the arduous struggle, the couple said,
“We found our true love then committed ourselves to it truthfully.”
“Our story would hopefully inspire others. In the end, you either choose the society or the person you love. Society and family will always remain but true love once lost, can never be found,” they said in unison.
Advocate Utkarsh Singh is someone who has in the recent past handled cases of different types of couples, including those from the LGBTQIA+ community and inter-faith couples seeking orders for protection and a safe abode.
“Special cells and safe houses are necessary for couples and is a great initiative by the Supreme Court of India. However, such couples have to spend the rest of their lives fighting social prejudices and insecurity… so society will have to ultimately come forward and embrace them with open arms,” he said.
The lawyer pointed out that states had made a “mockery” when it came to implementing the guidelines laid down in the Shakti Vahini judgment of the Supreme Court on the creation of safe houses for all sorts of couples facing a threat to their safety.
“It is an uphill task… and a battle far from over,” declared Singh.
Names have not been disclosed to protect their identities.