HAMIRPUR, Uttar Pradesh — On December 28 last year, two young women stood before a phalanx of reporters in one of India’s poorest districts, and declared themselves “married before the media.”
The marriage registrar had refused to sign off on their union; so the assembled scribes served as witnesses.
“My mother asked, ‘Where have you been?’” Abhilasha said, recalling the moment she came back home with her wife, Deepshika. “I replied, ‘We have got married in front of the media and we have police protection’.”
For the past six years, Abhilasha and Deepshika had endured forced separation, marriages to men they did not desire, humiliation and constant taunts from their families.
Their “marriage by media” was the result of love, fear that their families might kill them, and confusion as they — and their lawyer — mistakenly thought that same-sex marriage was legal in India. It isn’t.
In September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court judgement overturned a colonial-era law banning gay sex.
The court stopped short of legalising gay marriage but, as Abhilasha and Deepshika’s story reveals, people in love are forcing a national reckoning in pockets of India long considered too parochial, socially conservative, or outright dangerous to consider the possibility that two women may want to spend the rest of their lives together.
“When the Supreme Court judgement came, I was scared. I knew she would do this,” said Abhilasha’s younger brother Pradeep, who disapproves of his sister’s decision. “Now, they don’t even have husbands who can keep them.”
Yet, for Abhilasha and Deepshika, their marriage marks a new threshold beyond which lies uncertainty, but also the comfort that they will face their troubles together.
“It was the happiest day of our lives and the most terrifying,” recalled 22-year-old Abhilasha. “We did not know what was going to happen to us, whether we would even be alive to see the next day.”
“Two women have never married where we live,” Deepshika, also 22, said. “We knew that it could cost us our lives but we had to do it.”
“It was the happiest day of our lives and the most terrifying.”
Meeting the parents
A fortnight after their marriage, HuffPost India met Abhilasha and Deepshika at the former’s family home in Rath, a small town of about 65,000 people in Hamirpur.
The women chose Abhilasha’s house because Deepshika felt that her father, a village school master, would beat her and lock her up in the house if she went back. Even in Abhilasha’s house, the women feel unwelcome and ill at ease, and a nagging fear for their physical safety has them constantly looking over their shoulder. The bluff about police protection, they believe, is the only thing keeping them safe.
Abhilasha’s family is far from comfortable — her mother Priyanka Devi works as a labourer on daily wages of Rs 200 per day. Her father, Pritam Singh lives in Sonipat, Haryana, where he earns daily wages of Rs 400 per day as a mason.
On that fateful day, when Abhilasha came home with Deepshika and announced they were married, Priyanka Devi was at a loss. She called her husband in Sonipat. Pritam said, lock the door and don’t open it till I get home.
As word of the marriage spread, Deepshika’s family started calling. Her brother, Bhanu Pratap, urged Priyanka Devi to throw the two women out of her house.
“I was afraid that her family would come and kill them. They would accuse us of kidnapping their daughter,” Priyanka Devi said. “Anything could have happened. Her father was not here. I did not know what to do.”
Abhilasha, a college graduate, and Deepshika, who pursuing a Bachelor of Science (BSC) degree, have confined themselves to a small, dimly-lit room in the house, which is where they are staying while they figure out where to go next. Neither of them have jobs, and meaningful work is hard to find in Harmirpur, the semi-arid region of UP, freckled with mustard fields and illegal sand mines, that they call home.
The only thing that keeps them sane, they said, is their love for each other, and a shared sense of humour.
“We keep laughing at each other. What choice do we have? said Abhilasha. “We can either laugh or cry, live or die. We chose to laugh and live.”
“I was afraid that her family would come and kill them. They would accuse us of kidnapping their daughter,”
‘A lot has happened in our lives’
Growing up, Abhilasha, who wore a red jersey over white pants, and had her long hair pulled back in a bun, always knew she was attracted to girls — but didn’t possess the vocabulary to describe what she felt.
“I didn’t know what it was but I knew that I liked touching and kissing girls,” she said. “I didn’t know there was a name to it, like ‘lesbian’. I was not scared. It felt right.”
Abhilasha is surprised at the fuss over her sexual orientation, explaining that even in a place like Bundelkhand, where she had had encounters with other women before falling in love with Deepshika, matters of the heart and physical desires were given a vent. “Even in this place, it happens with quite a few women, but these feelings are suppressed.”
There is, however, one fear that keeps coming back to Abhilasha. “We are both young now, but what if our feelings change in the future? What if I like men? What if she likes men?” she said.
“We are both young now, but what if our feelings change in the future?”
Deepshika, the quieter of the two, was unsure of her sexuality before she first met Abhilasha at her village, which is also Priyanka Devi’s maternal home, when they were 17 years old.
Over six years, the women met when Abhilasha would visit her relatives in Deepshika’s village. They also met on Abhilasha’s college campus and had long phone conversations. In Deepshika’s village, they found safe havens to be alone with each other. Abhilasha recalled that they were once spotted by another villager and word of them kissing spread quickly among the women folk.
“When we went out together, women would say ‘those are the two who were kissing’. A lot has happened in our lives,” she said, laughing.
Although by then, Deepshika had already spilled the beans to her mother.
“You won’t believe what this girl did,” Abhilasha said, smacking her forehead. “The first time we were together, she went and told her mother everything. “She told her that I had kissed her, touched her, everything.”
“It was innocence” Deepshika said, grinning. “I used to tell my mother everything.”
Her mother, Deepshika said, was livid and spoke to Abhilasha’s relatives.
The two girls were expressly forbidden to meet each other. It was a diktat they did not even consider following. Abhilasha was forced to meet witchdoctors in her hometown and in Rajasthan. Secretly, she said, she was laughing at the ojhas and bhopas who pledged to free her of the “curse.”
“But after that one time, she did not say anything to anyone about all the meetings that followed,” Abhilasha said, putting her arm around Deepshika.
“Lesson learnt,” Deepshika laughed.
“When we went out together, women would say ‘those are the two who were kissing.”
When Abhilasha turned 19, her parents told her they had found her a husband. He had studied till Class 12 and was unemployed.
“I told her not to get married. I told her that we should run away but she gave into her family,” Deepshika said. “She did not call for a month, but then started calling again and said she wanted to kill herself.”
For months, Abhilasha resisted, begging her parents not to force her to marry a man. Her father, she said, beat her when she refused to get engaged. Eventually, as the situation at home turned toxic, she could not longer withstand the emotional blackmail and threats.
Two year later, Deepshika begged her family not to marry her off to a mechanical engineer from Pune. “I said it before the wedding, on the day of the wedding and after the wedding. I said I would kill myself. I told them I wanted to live with her, but no one listened.”
“We found a good match for her. The boy was not some illiterate fellow,” said Bhanu Pratap, Deepshika’s 24-year-old brother, who is bitterly opposed to his sister’s decision to live with her partner. “He was a mechanical engineer, but she has ruined her life.”
Deepshika, who moved to Pune, agrees that her husband was a nice man — he just wasn’t for her.
“He is a good man,” she said. “When I refused to have sex with him, he never forced me. He even knew about Abhilasha. He would be on the bed, next to me, when I used to talk to her on the phone.”
Abhilasha was not so lucky. Her husband tried forcing her to sleep with him, and her parents tried to guilt trip her into having sexual relations with the man.
“Things would get really bad and sometimes we ended up hitting each other,” she said. “My parents would say ‘why can’t you just do it’ for our ’izzat’ (honour), but it felt wrong and I never could.”
Her mother, Priyanka Devi, believed she found a way to make everyone happy. “I felt they could get married, live with their husbands, but still keep seeing each other. I did not know they wanted to live like this.”
“Things would get really bad and sometimes we ended up hitting each other.”
With both husband and wife threatening suicide, Abhilasha’s parents could not stop her divorce in 2016. After Deepshika’s husband dropped her home in Hamirpur in November last year, she refused to return to Pune. They are still married.
Matters escalated in November after Deepshika claims to have overheard her mother hatching a plot to kill her. “I heard her on the phone with my husband. She was saying take her back to Pune and give her an injection. Let her die.” (Deepshika does not believe her husband would have agreed to the alleged plot. Her family refutes the allegation).
Bhanu, who is currently unemployed and is sitting for competitive exams, said that his family would only accept Deepshika again if she broke it off with Abhilasha, vowed never to meet her again and went back to the engineer.
The alleged plot in November proved to be the trigger for the women to get married. Abhilasha said, “After she told me that her family was trying to kill her, I thought, ’I can’t let her die. If she dies then I won’t be able to live. We had to do something.”
The young women realized they needed an ally, and found one in Kirti — Abhilasha’s aunt, who lives across the street.
“I can’t let her die. If she dies then I won’t be able to live. We had to do something.”
An aunt, an ally
Kirti speaks with the conviction of someone who has seen the world beyond the confines of rural Bundelkhand.
“You just have to leave this place to see what the world is really like,” she said.
Kirti, a blood relative, says her family is “different” from her relatives. While most girls in their community get married when they turn 18, she married when she was 25 years old. When Kirti finished college in Hamirpur, she moved to Ghaziabad for a Masters in Computer Applications, and even worked for a few years with LG Electronics in Greater Noida.
“In the hostel in Ghaziabad, girls would have relations with each other,” Kirti said. “
So when Abhilasha separated from her husband, it was left to Kirti to pacify her enraged father. “I told him that she is probably a lesbian type,” Kirti said. “Unless it was god gifted, why would a woman chose to be with another woman?”
Kirti’s heart went out to Abhilasha, who for years was taunted by her younger siblings and yelled at by her parents, but never concealed her sexual orientation. After falling sick and moving back to Hamirpur, Kirti became Abhilasha’s sole confidant. When Abhilasha and Deepshika’s parents kept trying to separate them, and the couple kept threatening suicide, Kirti advised them to end the cycle once and for all by getting married.
Kirti, who believes same-sex marriages are legal, had faith that the government and the public would protect the women. It was her idea for the couple to make sure that local reporters wrote about them.
“I told them if you have the courage, then get married. You will have to hear the worst things for the rest of your life, but the law will protect you, the media will protect you,” she said.
“I told them if you have the courage, then get married.”
‘Abuse of an education’
If Deepshika, Abhilasha and Kirti illustrate India’s countless quiet rebellions, their brothers — Bhanu Pratap and Pradeep Singh — reveal what they are rebelling against.
Bhanu, presently unemployed and sitting for competitive examinations to get a government job, said that Deepshika had brought shame on the family, especially her father, the village school master.
“Is it not a shameful act? A marriage between a girl and a girl is against nature and god,” he said. “No matter what the Supreme Court says, we cannot accept it. We live in a village. How will we show our faces? Did she think about that?”
“Is it not a shameful act? A marriage between a girl and a girl is against nature and god.”
Pradeep, Abhilasha’s brother, a college student, is no different. “This is Bundelkhand. In Bundelkhand, in India today, 90% women still have to bow before men,” he said.
Over the years, Abhilasha’s family members have become resigned to her liking women, but what they can’t forgive is her acting on her desire instead of hiding it like a dirty little secret. Neighbors, they believe, are already talking behind their backs.
Education, Pradeep believes, is responsible for his sister daring to get married.
“How many women in India are like this. 10 out of 100? But how many women get married to each other? 1 out of 10? Even women like them get married to men and stay married,” he said. “This is what I call abuse of an education. If she was illiterate, she would have lived alone, or lived unhappily with her husband.”
Abhilasha stared fixedly at her brother as he spoke on, before finally speaking out.
“Where we live, in Bundelkhand, a woman is either the headache for her husband or her father,” she said. “Where we live, true feelings are hidden all our lives, but our crime is that we have not been able to suppress our feelings.”
If she was illiterate, she would have lived alone, or lived unhappily with her husband.
It’s not just embarrassment that is plaguing Abhilasha’s family—they also see the two women as a drain on their financial resources.
Priyanka Devi and her husband have to raise four more children who are younger than Abhilasha. Getting her married to a man was as much an exercise in shifting financial liability as a design to keep up pretenses. Now, they want Abhilasha and her partner to get jobs and leave the house.
Pradeep, her brother, said, “Let her find a job and then live how she wants to. Why is she a burden on our father?”
Pritam, her father, said that he had spent Rs 3-4 lakh on her wedding.
“What is there for me to say? They did what they did without telling anyone, but they need to go. We cannot afford to keep them. They need to make their own life,” he said.
“Let her find a job and then live how she wants to.”
Finding jobs and then getting married was the plan, the couple said, but it was the unending plots to separate them and chain them to men which forced them to marry as early as they did.
Abhilasha, who is in the second year of an ITI (Industrial Training Institute) course, said that there was no work for young people in Bundelkhand. The women had hoped that media publicity would have led to LGBT groups, social activists and government officials reaching out to them, but no one has come yet. At this point, the women are even willing to work in a factory in Delhi, but never having ventured far from home on their own, they are terrified for their safety in the nation’s capital.
“Crimes against women are getting worse and worse,” said Deepshika.
“It is impossible for me find work here. If there is anyone out there who can help us, please help?” said Abhilasha.
“It is impossible for me find work here. If there is anyone out there who can help us, please help?”
Still in danger
Deepshika, who is the outsider in Abhilasha’s house, feels weighed down by the animosity and hostility directed at her. While Abhilasha’s parents talk about recent events with calm restraint to this reporter, the atmosphere in the house is thick with tension. Family members hit out at the women with taunts and jibes, and they cannot shake the feeling that the situation could worsen at any moment, with deadly consequences for them.
“We cannot live here. It’s torture. We have to leave soon,” said Deepshika.
“I’ve grown up with the mocking and taunting, but it’s horrible for Deepshika. She cries and I cannot bear it,” said Abhilasha.
Abhilasha painted an almost comical picture of how Deepshika spent her days avoiding her stern-looking father-in-law.
“If he is inside, then she goes into the courtyard. If he is the courtyard, she will go on the roof. If he goes to the roof, then she will run inside,” she said.
“She understands me perfectly. We are made for each other.”
To the two women, the taunts and jibes are not just cruel, but also fundamentally disrespectful, and they are tired of being disrespected. Financial independence is their only way to live life on their own terms.
As Deepshika leaned against her, Abhilasha vows to do everything in her power for them to stay together forever. “All I know is that I’m happy with her. She understands me perfectly. We are made for each other.”
“Same,” said Deepshika