A family of three, Nidhi, Amit and their four-year-old son are like any other loving Hindu family you’ll come across in Delhi. But their pleasant present hides a past that is filled with sorrow, hardship and sacrifice. It might not be apparent, but Nidhi and Amit are an inter-religious couple. Before Nidhi got married to Amit, she used to go by the name of Zeba.
Zeba was from a middle-class Muslim family, who, about eleven years ago, happened to meet and fall in love with a man from a Hindu family.
Before Zeba and Amit got into a romantic relationship, they had already been good friends for over a year; however, during that time, the idea of being in a romantic relationship with each other was always dismissed and cast aside as the religious divide seemed unbridgeable and the idea of ever being together as a married couple seemed an impossibility.
Zeba was educated in a convent school, where she wore skirts as part of her school uniform, and trousers during her NCC training. However, when she was out from school, she could wear neither and had to have a 'dupatta' over her head at all times. Her father, a social worker, was a prominent member in the community. While religious differences could have been the only reason for Amit's family to object to their marriage, for Zeba's family, on the other hand, an inter-religious marriage threatened to jeopardize their social standing.
"My brothers and I were brought up with the idea that society matters a lot; that your image in society matters a lot,” said the now 34-year-old Zeba.
Their relationship seemed impossible at the time, but after contemplating for a year, they both decided to take a chance and entered a romantic relationship.
As time passed by, their love for each other grew deeper and stronger, reaching its obvious conclusion: they decided it was time to get married. However, neither of them considered eloping. They wanted to get married with their family’s blessings.
Since they were an inter-religious couple, they felt a court marriage was the way to go. So they consulted a lawyer to learn about court marriages. The lawyer, however, advised them against a court marriage by telling them that the process was long, complicated and fraught with bureaucratic hurdles. He instead suggested to opt for an easier route and get married at an Arya Samaj Mandir.
"If I had known then about the Special Marriage Act, or if the advocate had informed us about it, I would have married under that,” Zeba said.
The Special Marriage Act of 1954, unlike religious personal marriage laws, allows a person to marry without converting to his/her partner's religion.
Nevertheless, unaware of the Special Marriage Act, Zeba and Amit decided to marry at an Arya Samaj temple. Since Arya Samaj requires non-Hindus to convert to Hinduism through a process known as 'Shuddhi', Zeba was required to convert. A pandit (priest) gave her a Hindu-sounding name before marrying off the couple. Six months later, Zeba and Amit registered their marriage under the Hindu Marriage Act. Zeba's name on the marriage certificate reads 'Amita' -- a name that was, according to the temple priest, in 'harmony' with Amit's horoscope.
Image via justforwomen.in
Zeba's conversion, however, was only on paper. There was no actual change of heart as far as her faith was concerned. After their wedding, they returned to their homes and hid their marriage from their families. In the days that followed, Zeba spoke to her mother about Amit. Zeba's mother knew him from the few times he had visited their house on festivals. She had even liked him. But when Zeba told her that she wanted to be with Amit, her mother wept. She forbade Zeba from telling her father about Amit. She, however, was unaware they had already married.
Soon Zeba found out that her mother had informed her father about Amit, and now they both wanted to marry her off to “anybody” in their community. That is when Zeba and Amit did what they never wanted to do earlier on -- they eloped.
Their running away from home brought the two families face-to-face for the first time. Zeba's mother phoned Amit's mother to talk about their children's relationship.
"My mother-in-law spoke rudely [to her]. She said 'you people send your girls to lure our boys'. After hearing this, my father wanted no further discussion on us. I was dead to him,” Zeba said.
To win over Zeba’s family, Amit arranged for a 'Nikaah’ (Muslim wedding). However, no one besides her maternal uncle and a few of her friends came to her ‘Nikaah’. Her parents wanted nothing to do with her anymore.
Three months after they had eloped, Amit's family accepted Zeba on a condition. The condition was that they had to marry once again according to Hindu customs. So after their third wedding, Zeba and Amit moved into Amit’s family house. Soon after, Zeba sent out letters to the police stations near her new house and her previous house, stating that she had willingly married her husband and moved in with him.
"My father was an aggressive man and he was very influential ... I was worried for my husband,” Zeba said.
Zeba’s parents found out about her marriage to Amit when their area’s sub-inspector came to their house with Zeba’s letter. Except for her maternal uncle, others in her family had cut off all ties with her. Even as she often encountered her younger brothers on their way back home from school, she was never acknowledged as they quietly walked past her. A neighbour had once called up Zeba to inform her about her father's ill health, but a concerned Zeba who went to visit her father was not allowed to enter the house.
After three years of their marriage, Zeba’s family finally accepted her and her husband.
Meanwhile at her in-laws’ house, Zeba's troubles had just begun. She couldn't be Zeba anymore. Her mother-in-law gave her a new name. She named her Nidhi.
"None of my [religious] rituals were allowed. My mother-in-law would create an issue every time I visited my parents. She wouldn’t speak to me for weeks after my visit to my family. I was not even allowed to keep one ‘roza’ (fast during the month of Ramzan). Initially, I thought of going against her, but I wanted things to settle down first,” Zeba said.
Although most women in her husband’s extended family did not wear 'Sindoor' (Vermilion) and toe rings, her mother-in-law made sure Zeba did both. She had to wear mangalsutra and fast during 'Karva Chauth' and 'Navratras', and do everything that diminished her identity as a Muslim woman. For her mother-in-law, Zeba had to look as Hindu as possible.
"I was made to feel like an alien even though the culture at their house was not alien to me,” Zeba said. “I knew what Diwali is. I knew what Holi is. I cook well and I talk well with people. So I thought, it will take some time, but I will convince them. But everything turned against me. For my mother-in-law, I was not beautiful, I couldn’t cook well ... She didn’t like the way I cut vegetables for salad,” Zeba said.
In the last few years, Zeba has dealt with the pain of her father's as well as her father-in-law's death. She has also seen the family matriarch relax a little. Now her mother-in-law doesn't get upset whenever Zeba visits her family. But in her own extended family, Zeba is out of the 'biradari' (community); an outcast. She is not invited to any weddings unless it is of somebody really close to her.
Since marriage has been talked of in all religious texts, it is regarded as an important institution in society. But while couples in love look at marriage as a formal declaration of their relationship, for society however, marriage is an agency of culture and procreation. And for this society with a restricted understanding of marriage, love doesn’t seem to be the essential condition for two people to enter into matrimony.
(Names have been changed to protect identity)
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.