By Shalmoli Halder Feb. 25, 2020
A Hindu woman navigates the terrain of loving a Muslim man, in a sharply polarised world. Inter-religion love has never been easy but the current political climate makes the Hindu-Muslim “divide” more contentious than ever before.
“Beta, aap ko Hindu ladka nahi mila?”
I looked at my partner, silently motioning to him to let me handle this. The cold December air standing still in the airless room in Delhi’s Kailash Colony had suddenly turned frostier.
We had signed up to look for a house – a significant step in any relationship. For us, however, there had only been a debate over whether we should hide our names. His Muslim, mine Hindu. Truth won the moral debate, but faced a disquieting reality.
Still, we were probably “lucky”. The beady-eyed prospective landlord throwing this landmine of a question at me could have done far worse; he could increase the rent, he could deny us the space to live, he could even call up the friendly local anti-Romeo squad. After all, what is some benign paternalistic concern when compared to the real anxieties of finding a space to live, breathe, and love? And frankly, could I really blame him when my own family members had dragged me through similar “concerns”, lingering through uncomfortable introductions with mild side-eyed disapproval, the genteel veneer of bhodrolok culture hiding a mistrust of the Muslim man?
The familiarity was eerie, my reaction was resigned.
Educated in the same leftist, liberal institutional spaces, armed with an arsenal of feminist discourse, falling in love across the religious line was easy. Meeting at a party, amid the buzz of collegial conversation and freely flowing spirits, our religious identities receded in the background. Before we knew it, chai and coffee became breakfast and packed tiffins. I was never a practicing Hindu, he was never a practicing Muslim. I knew more Urdu than him, he ate pork and guzzled alcohol… so laughable were the stereotypes, that we’d sometimes self-indulgently draw them out as a joke. But the reality of a deeply xenophobic, Islamophobic society was only as far as we were willing to ignore it.
“Sir, Hindu ladke mile thhe, lekin dil nahi laga. Aap samajhte ho na, sir,” I smile at the prospective landlord, nudging him along into a conspiratorial intimacy. He smiles back, “Bachpan mein hum ne bhi kiya hai. Bade ho jao ge jaldi.”
For days afterwards, I play the exchange in my mind, wondering why it bothers me so much. Is it the fact that my agency over my romantic life, manifest in a partner I chose, is infantilised as a childish mistake? Or is it the fact that, possibly, my love for my partner does not somehow have enough power to stand up to the status quo of the society we live in? Perhaps that is when it truly struck me, how my romantic choice, refracted by patriarchy and deep-rooted fears, isn’t merely romantic. It had become an inextricable part, a driver, of my political identity.
Educated in the same leftist, liberal institutional spaces, armed with an arsenal of feminist discourse, falling in love across the religious line was easy.
I remember the words of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has written that the “simplest” solution to the problem of race in America is love… “real, deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”. Could that be interpreted for India? For a young Muslim man in India today, nothing can be as terrifying as navigating everyday reality. The spectre of “love jihad” and the potential consequences of loving outside the boundaries set for us, live and breathe in the space between us, feeding on small insecurities and anxieties that stem from being viewed with constant suspicion.
A few months back, we were in a cab to the airport, when a casual conversation with the driver revealed that he is a Muslim from Nagpur. He seemed like a rather friendly, chatty fellow, the kind who asked questions with genuine curiosity. Soon, we were appraising him of our plans to take a short holiday together and explaining our day jobs. A radio channel played on in the background, exhorting us to “do the ishq, baby”. At the end of the trip, when my partner stepped in to pay him, he motioned at me and whispered to him, “Bhai, aap sambhal ke rehna, un pe bharosa samajh ke kijiyega.”
I’d be outraged if this were the only instance. The strange scepticism over our motivations to love each other is a shadow that follows us everywhere, a unit constantly in search of an exhausting legitimacy.
The current political climate, of course, makes the Hindu-Muslim “divide” more contentious than ever before. What we have before us is a moment to re-examine why we love who we do – and in turn, ask of ourselves if the personal can be the political in this way as well. The way Dr Ambedkar spoke of inter-caste marriages as one of the ways to override the fractures of casteism in India.
The emotional journey is tougher, but perhaps love could empower us just as much politically as personally.
However, the real, material risks of love in these times, particularly as a woman, imply that one must not only engage with the nature of the Hindu Rashtra and its embedded patriarchy, but figure out a way to cement the space of belonging between two people into an active political choice, fully acknowledging the toll it takes. What was earlier a debate on national TV, is a conversation that I end up having with my mother every day.
“Why does [his] family need to be scared? They have papers, they have land, they have been here for longer than we have.”
“Yes, Ma, but worst-case scenario, if we are declared doubtful citizens, we can actually apply and re-gain citizenship in India. His cannot. Imagine a single error and you’re overnight not a citizen anymore!”
“That would be terrible, yes.”
It’s one thing to hold a poster in a protest promoting free love. It’s quite another to be twisted and turned and wrought up in loving and living, as cliched as it sounds, as a Hindu and a Muslim. And yet, it is a hopeful project.
The emotional journey is tougher, but perhaps love could empower us just as much politically as personally. It can be the fuel fighting the fatigue of explaining and engaging with families at home or trolls on the internet. It is possible, in fact it is incredible to be able to reclaim and affirm a deeper joy in our political selves, bracketed by deep relationships – love, friendship, kinship – outside our social/class/caste/religious identities. The empathy that is needed to love and actively take on the risk of loving, in times like this, is a critical force, that can impel us forward.
Shalmoli is a development sector professional, who sometimes writes on politics, culture and development policy. Often described as a corporate Marxist, she is constantly balancing the markets and social justice.