The man my mother chose to marry failed to check the conventional boxes. She came from a middle-class Parsi family; he was a Tamilian Hindu. She had eight siblings and a large extended family, he was parentless and mostly without a family. His mother and sibling had died of smallpox when he was one, and was raised by grand-aunts and grandparents, unaware of his father’s whereabouts.
Most Indian families are obsessed with marriage. By and large, parents tend to control the process for their children, beginning with the selection of a partner right down to the details of the ceremony and celebrations. This is true of today’s India and also the India of half-a-century ago when my parents got married.
After a long struggle trying to get her family to accept her choice of partner, my mother walked out of her maternal home on her wedding day. With their close friends supporting them, my parents started a new life together without the sanction or support of relatives.
Growing up with a multicultural name in a multicultural family, speaking mostly English at home was my normal. Learning about the Zoroastrian religion and reciting prayers in Avestan, even though I was not officially initiated into the religion, was my reality. I was exposed to many interfaith marriages and adoptions from the time I was very young, and perhaps because of that, I never felt there was anything unusual or uncommon about our family or my parents’ choices.
Years later, when I married someone from a faith different from both my parents, it was never a discussion at home. It was only in my 20s, when friends had trouble trying to exercise their personal choice to be with a partner from a different religion, that it struck me that my parents’ marriage wasn’t quite as ordinary as I had thought. It surprises me that, even today, people make comments about my name and assume that I must have gotten my surname from my spouse.
In today’s India, we increasingly hear that we must stick to our caste/religion/kind and that love or a relationship outside these narrow fields is illegitimate. All around us, we see this wave of hate that demonises interfaith, intercaste, and LGBTQIA+ relationships.
When Priya Ramani, Samar Halarnkar, and I started the India Love Project (ILP)* in 2020, it was our way of celebrating unconventional love. As journalists, we responded in the way we knew best: with a storytelling project.
Through ILP, we share the idea that many kinds of non-conforming relationships thrive, various combinations make up families, and our world is a plural and diverse place. As a product of an interfaith marriage myself, I feel that this is very personal – we’re saying we do exist, and thousands of couples continue to make that choice.
My interest in divisiveness and those who try to counter it is not new. In my doctoral dissertation in 1998, I talked about the communal riots of the 1990s and the creation of hatred. I focused on the strategies, tactics, and various initiatives to fight the divisive narrative being nurtured in those times and researched small activist groups fighting communalism. I recall how Maruti, a young social worker and activist rallying against the communal discourse, echoing Ambedkar, once said to me, “The only way we can fight this is if we all marry someone outside our religion or caste. That’s what I’m going to.” I wonder if he found a partner outside the tightly drawn lines of caste and religion.
Similarly, my friend and ILP co-founder Priya has long been obsessed with talking about interfaith love. In many of her columns, dating back from 2015, she addresses the question: How many times have we been told that our youth are not okay with inter-religious friendships or relationships? Priya has often talked about the right to choose. She says that her journey through north India with Harsh Mander’s Karwan-e-Mohabbat in 2017 only made her delve deeper into the worlds of love and hate through her writing. Just a cursory search through her columns throws up over a dozen instances where she’s discussed the topic between 2015 and 2020.
Samar’s connection to this issue began when he was a child and watched his parents counsel some of their best friends, Muslim and Christian, when their children chose Hindu partners. Always fascinated by the idea of love beyond traditional barriers, he was dismayed when the bogus concept of love jihad gained ground over the last decade.
For a long time Samar had been suggesting creating a website that shares such love stories and offers counselling and legal services to interfaith couples. In 2020, in response to the hate-mongering over an ad celebrating an interfaith relationship, we decided to go with a more millennial-friendly approach and took to sharing stories on Instagram.
When we launched ILP, we knew we wanted to go beyond that original idea of interfaith couples to share real-life stories of couples that broke the barriers of not just faith but caste, race, and gender. We wanted these stories to tell the world that the best way to counter narrow, hateful or fake narratives is to share those of diversity, hope, and love.
As the child of an interfaith couple in an interfaith marriage, sharing these stories also helps us say “we’re here, we cannot be wished away, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with relationships that cut across majoritarian expectations”. We point out that interfaith and other non-mainstream relationships have been in India for decades; they continue and will likely expand, especially as young people migrate in search of education and work. We want to emphasise that the relationships they may have are not anomalies or deviant behaviour.
For us, ILP is important because it is a happy space that speaks to a plural and inclusive society. Who doesn’t like a good love story? When people read about how someone found love and managed to exercise the freedom to choose and love a person of their choice, it is reassuring, comforting.
The right to choose is central to ILP’s narrative. In a country obsessed with marriage and weddings, we intend to continue telling alternative real-life stories to spread the message that there is nothing wrong with selecting your own partner. For many couples, sharing their love stories is therapeutic, a release. If more and more people tell their stories about different expressions of choice – on social media, in films, in books, in whatever way they can – it will only give young lovers hope.
Niloufer Venkatraman is one of three co-founders of India Love Project (@indialoveproject). She is Consulting Editor at RoundGlass Sustain, a wildlife and conservation website documenting India’s species and habitats and their preservation.
*As the India Love Project (ILP) is one of 10 finalists for a global pluralism award, its co-founder reflects on the reasons three journalists began an Instagram account to spread the message of interfaith, intercaste and LGBTQIA+ love.