By Mansi Choksi
On the night of November 27, 2016, Dawinder Singh dropped a bottle of sleeping pills outside his neighbor’s door. He had a soft, cheerful face, a head of woolly curls, and a tendency to laugh at the wrong times. Everyone in Kakheri, his village in the northern Indian state of Haryana, believed him to be gone, perhaps abroad. But here he was, a handkerchief tied over his mouth as if he were a bandit, fleeing to the bus stop.
Inside the house, Neetu Rani, the birdlike beauty he’d grown up adoring, was waiting for her parents to finish their soap opera. Neetu was trim and stylish, and talked about Bollywood actors as though they were her next of kin. When her mother and father went to bed, she went outside to retrieve the pills.
Two nights later, Dawinder returned in a car with a couple of his cousins, whom he’d recruited by making them watch romantic movies. When they reached Kakheri, they parked on an empty road and waited. At one in the morning, his phone rang. It was Neetu, scolding him in whispers: “What kind of sleeping pills are these?” Her parents had finished bowls of laced beans and rice but were still shuffling around the house. Dawinder asked her to be patient.
After an hour, she called again, reporting that she had shaken her mother, pretending to be scared of the dark, and there had been no response. Dawinder got out of the car and hurried to her house. She had told him not to come barefoot, but knowing that he would anyway, earlier in the day she had cleared the yard of branches and razor-rimmed leaves from the babul tree. Dawinder helped her haul her four suitcases over a low wall, and after the last one, she hoisted herself to the other side. Then they ran: through the narrow lane where they first saw each other, past the cowshed where she used to hide to take his calls, past their school and her father’s firewood shop. Finally, they reached the car.
There was a thick blanket of fog in the air when the cousin behind the wheel began driving. In the back seat, Dawinder slipped a set of twenty-one bangles around Neetu’s wrists: reds and golds stacked between whites and silvers. This was her choora, the marker of a new bride. If she wore it for a year, Dawinder would be guaranteed a long life. He tied a mangalsutra, a thread of small black beads, around her neck, and painted the part in her hair with vermilion. Neetu was now his wife, he announced. She thought that their love story was just like in the movies, only without nice costumes.
As the car sped onto the highway, Neetu began to grasp her new reality. Outside the window, rice fields flew past. She felt herself floating through space. Suddenly her stomach churned, and she realized that she needed to vomit. The car screeched to a halt; she climbed out to throw up. A few miles ahead, she needed to stop again. And again.
Three hours and five episodes of retching later, the cousins dropped the couple at a bus stop in the town of Rajpura, about seventy miles from home. When the bus came, they found seats by the window. Neetu rested her head on Dawinder’s shoulder and described the agony of waiting for her parents to drift off to sleep. “Who knows when they will be able to eat or rest again,” she said.
The sun was rising when the bus rolled through a traffic jam outside New Delhi. Dawinder saw a big, heaving city whose crowds could swallow them up and provide the anonymity they needed to survive. Neetu’s eyes watered from the pollution. Dawinder called his aunt Kulwant, who he suspected would be the only one able to receive the news of his marriage without collapsing. She asked to speak to Neetu. “Don’t betray him now,” Kulwant said. Neetu promised that she would not.
They hailed a rickshaw, which bobbed in and out of potholes and squirmed through waves of pedestrians. Neetu saw a storefront that displayed red, blue, and yellow bras; in her village, she’d been able to buy them only in white. They rode past cheap hotels that offered rooms by the hour, places where married men took their mistresses. Dawinder clutched her hand and told her to trust him.
The rickshaw stopped outside a rusted gate. They looked up at a crumbling building covered in lime plaster, scaffolding, and saris hung to dry. Outside, men were smoking and staring. Dawinder had seen videos of this place, but in person it looked nothing like he had expected. It was too late to turn back now—they had saved up ten thousand rupees ($150) to reserve a space. He took out his cell phone.
“Hello, Love Commandos,” the voice on the line said.
“We have come,” Dawinder said.
“We have been waiting for you.”
In Kakheri, the news of Neetu and Dawinder’s disappearance broke with the sunrise. Neetu’s father—Gulzar Singh, known as Kala—walked around the village, crazed. With his wrestler’s physique and pencil-thin mustache, Kala looked like the villain from the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic in which each character is meant to embody a trait that is supremely good or evil.
Sudesh Rani, Neetu’s mother, sat in her kitchen, sobbing. Friends gathered to commiserate: a runaway daughter was as good as dead. Women in rural Haryana are required to cover their heads and fade into the background in the presence of men; young girls are expected to stay home until they are transferred to a husband through an arranged marriage. Neetu had disgraced her family not only by eloping but by doing so with the short, slow-witted son of a neighbor. According to custom, men and women of the same village are considered to be siblings—the rule serves to maintain a separation of the sexes—which put Neetu and Dawinder’s relationship under the umbrella of incest. Worse, Dawinder was a Sikh, from the Mehra caste of palanquin bearers and boatsmen. His father, Gurmej Singh, was a truck driver turned farmer. Neetu was a Hindu of the Panchal caste, a rank of goldsmiths, stonemasons, and carpenters. Kala, a landlord with a firewood shop, was an important man in the community.
Across the Indian countryside, romantic relationships can easily become ensnared by taboos. Sometimes, the consequences are fatal. In 2007, the bodies of Manoj and Babli, lovers from the same village and the same gohtra—believed to be descendants of a common ancestor—were found in gunnysacks dumped in a canal not far from Kakheri. Babli’s family, which was wealthier, had forced her to drink pesticide; they strangled Manoj to death. With support from leaders in their village, Babli’s parents saw the murders as the only punishment commensurate with their humiliation. This is a common view: according to the latest count released to the public, 251 honor killings occurred in India in 2015.
Neetu and Dawinder’s match should have been unthinkable. When they met, in 2005, her family had just moved up the street. She was nine, he was twelve. After school, Dawinder would play video games with Neetu’s brother, Deepak, and Neetu would play house with Dawinder’s sister, Jasbir. They all got along well for a few years, until one afternoon, when Deepak grabbed Dawinder’s neck during an argument. Kala, who was known to have a short fuse, broke them up and slapped Dawinder, who can still recall the sharp pain of the blow. The families stopped speaking. Besides, the children were entering their teens, and it was not proper for girls and boys their age to spend time together.
A year later, Dawinder noticed Neetu looking at him on the walk home from school. When he got to his house, he made himself a cup of tea and climbed onto a stool in his parents’ room, curious whether he could see her from the window. She was out on her terrace, still watching him from a distance. Feeling bold, he raised his glass to her. She responded by bursting into laughter.
Dawinder was sure that this girl was trying to get him into trouble. But every day after that, Neetu would dawdle on the way home so that the two of them could talk. If no one else was around, they would run into a shed on their block so they could be close. On Karva Chauth, the Hindu festival in which married women fast until sundown for the safety of their husbands, Neetu refrained from eating to show Dawinder that she’d taken him as hers.
Within a year, the relationship was discovered. One night after dinner, assuming that her parents were asleep, Neetu sneaked into Dawinder’s house. The two had hardly a moment together before Sudesh thundered in and dragged her out. She warned Dawinder that if he wanted to live, he should leave Kakheri immediately. Neetu wept all night, begging her mother to believe that she would never see him again. Sudesh cried, too, stopping only to pummel Neetu’s back or pull her hair. Days later, Neetu’s parents carted her off to stay with relatives out of town, and the following spring, they sent her to boarding school.
Dawinder was dispatched to England. His parents sold off their largest piece of ancestral land to pay for his enrollment at a university in London. Upon arriving, however, he found out that they had been scammed; the university had been offering sham degrees and was soon shut down by the government. He eventually got a job as a stock boy at a supermarket run by a Sikh family and was able to send a portion of his salary home every month. But after a year, he was arrested for selling liquor without a license and deported for overstaying his visa. It was too dangerous for him to return to Kakheri, so he went to live with his aunt Kulwant, in another village, and worked at her son’s cell phone shop.
Dawinder and Neetu, who had gone on to college, managed to stay in touch. She begged her classmates to let her receive his calls on their cell phones, which they kept hidden behind toilet tanks. The two would discuss mundane subjects—who ate what for lunch, gossip about her brother’s failed love affairs—and assess the profound obstacles facing their relationship. Finally, one evening in 2016, Dawinder told Neetu that this had gone on long enough: they needed to get married. She was twenty and he was twenty-three.
The night that Neetu and Dawinder eloped, his parents were in Ladwa, a town some fifty miles from home, bringing a relative to the hospital. Shortly after their son’s departure was discovered, Gurmej—a short, soft-spoken, fragile man—received a call from a cousin asking to meet him outside the hospital. He found ten men waiting there, wielding bamboo sticks. Kala was sitting on the hood of his car, swaying his head from side to side like a madman, threatening to kill everyone in sight. The men threw Gurmej in the car and drove off.
They brought him to the police station near Kakheri and demanded that the officer on duty compel Gurmej to reveal where the children were hiding. The officer sat them all down, served a round of tea, and explained that he had already been informed about the couple by the Love Commandos, a shelter for people who wanted to marry against the wishes of their families. Neetu and Dawinder were legally adults, who had taken each other as husband and wife. The matter was out of his hands.
When Neetu and Dawinder arrived at the Love Commandos shelter, a dog named Romeo sniffed them for guns and explosives. A young man led them past a double gate and into a three-bedroom apartment. There was a minifridge and a wall shrine of assorted Hindu deities. He brought them to one of the bedrooms, which was cluttered with newspapers, ashtrays, and biscuits. An older man, dressed in a tracksuit, was sitting in a plastic lawn chair in front of a computer. This was Sanjoy Sachdev, the organization’s chairman. He looked unwashed and reeked of cigarettes, but everything he uttered sounded to Neetu and Dawinder like poetry. He told them that even the Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati had married against caste tradition. Neetu and Dawinder felt a rush of confidence.
The Love Commandos operated like a family, Sachdev said, so couples were to call him Baba, or grandfather. (He was a youthful fifty-six.) There were three other commandos, who lived in the building next door and were to be addressed as Papa. Each of them had his particular responsibility: Harsh Malhotra, a former interior decorator and local politician, coordinated rescue operations for couples in distress. Sonu Rangi, a former volunteer for the Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena party, organized weddings. Govinda Chand, a college student, paid bills and assisted with other work. Sachdev oversaw the registration of marriages.
Before starting the Love Commandos, Sachdev had tried to open a poultry farm, a sweetened-milk company, and a factory for car parts; all those businesses tanked. He worked briefly as a consultant to Indian Railways, entered and lost a local election, and finally became a journalist. But he sensed that he was meant for a larger purpose. One Valentine’s Day, a colleague in the newsroom told him about the Hindu-nationalist groups that roamed parks and college campuses to protest the Western corruption of Indian values. They beat up couples, cut their hair, sprayed them with chili powder, and pronounced them brother and sister. Hearing of the victims suffering for their love, Sachdev thought, “Who were these people to poke their dirty nose in between?”
In 2010, when a court verdict on the Manoj-Babli honor killing was making national headlines, he got the idea to create the Love Commandos. He didn’t like the term “runaways,” so he referred to his clients as “people leaving parental homes for the unification of the love family.” He wanted them to relish their freedom. “This country is sitting on a volcano,” he said. “This is a country of six hundred and fifty million young people. Each young person has a heart that is burning with a flame called love.”
As it turned out, Sachdev had never been in love himself—it was only his work. “I didn’t have time to fall in love,” he said, “because I was busy solving other people’s problems.” When he was twenty-eight, he had an arranged marriage. His wife, whom he described as a dutiful woman, now lived in his hometown, thirty miles from New Delhi, and took care of his father. Sometimes Sachdev would go to see her, but months might pass between visits; planning trips depended on his mood. They had four children, who were grown, and had given him what he described as “an eternal feeling of love.”
Sachdev served Neetu and Dawinder cups of tea and told them the rules of the shelter: no sex, no afternoon naps, and no contact with the outside world. Couples were required to surrender their cell phones so that their location could not be traced. They were also expected to pay for their wedding ceremonies. Neetu and Dawinder were so grateful that, without being asked, they handed over Dawinder’s ATM card and told Sachdev the PIN.
Sachdev thanked them and brought them to their room. It had no windows, and the walls were chipping with pistachio-green paint. On the floor were three tattered mattresses—they would sleep beside the two other couples lodging there. Neetu was surprised; she had assumed that the young man who had escorted them in, and others she’d seen in the kitchen, were domestic help.
Sachdev told them that they had ten minutes to freshen up. Neetu changed into a shalwar kameez, Dawinder threw on a clean shirt. Rangi took them to a nearby building, where, above shops selling spare motorcycle parts and batteries, they stepped into an apartment that had been converted into an Arya Samaj temple. (Arya Samaj, a nineteenth-century movement that supports caste system reform, facilitates intercaste marriage.) As a priest chanted Vedic scriptures, Neetu and Dawinder exchanged garlands and circled a holy fire. A photograph was taken as evidence, and two witnesses, acquaintances of Rangi’s, signed a religious marriage certificate. The last step was to submit the certificate to the government marriage registrar to make their wedding legally binding. Sachdev would take care of that.
Under the authority of the state, love marriages are permitted in India; according to tradition, they are forbidden. In villages across the north, khap panchayats, councils of unelected wealthy elders, resolve local disputes, issue diktats about daily life, and enforce the caste system above the rule of law. Each caste has its own khap to represent its interests.
Following the Manoj-Babli honor killing, a khap leader was convicted of murder. But that ruling was soon overturned, and khaps have continued to facilitate acts of violence, thanks in part to the complicity of politicians who rely on them for votes. “If you say, ‘I’m a Brahman,’ then even the poorest of Brahmans will vote for you,” Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Centre for Social Research, a gender equality group in New Delhi, told me. While India is still debating how much sway khaps should hold in modern society, khap leaders appear on television threatening anyone who crosses them. If nontraditional marriages are socially sanctioned, they argue, the fabric of Indian culture will unravel.
In 2010, women’s rights activists began lobbying for a law to criminalize honor killings, seeking to penalize the full gamut of associated offenses—harassment, intimidation, economic sanctions, social boycotts—that can endanger couples, their families, and anyone harboring them. In their approach, the activists sought to emulate India’s laws against dowry and child marriage, which identify the tradition at the root of the crime.
On their advisement, Kirti Singh, a Supreme Court lawyer in New Delhi, drafted the Prevention of Crimes in the Name of Honor and Tradition, a bill that would hold accountable families that act alone, or with khaps, to punish people who enter love marriages. She also sought to end collusion between vengeful families and the police. “The police don’t act for the couple,” Singh told me. “Instead, they act for the girl’s family. Because they themselves come, I suppose, from a society and a way of thinking that believes there shouldn’t be choice marriages, particularly in cases where it’s an intercaste marriage.” The bill stipulated that if a couple tells a public servant that they want to be together, the police cannot process a family’s complaint against them. That would counter a common tactic in which families file false cases of kidnapping and rape against the groom.
Singh delivered her draft legislation to the Law Commission of India, an executive body tasked with legal reform. Two years later, however, the commission released its own version of the bill, Prevention of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliance. The revision maintained that khap intervention in marriage should be criminalized, but it did not account for the roles of families and police officials. For that bill to become law, it would require input from representatives of every state and union territory, along with approval by three national ministries, before it could be presented to a standing committee, which would then consider it for parliamentary debate. Yet today, five years later, the proposed legislation has not been cleared by the ministries. “This bill will never be a priority for the government,” Ravi Kant, another Supreme Court lawyer, told me. “The government doesn’t want to put its hand somewhere it can get stuck.”
One afternoon, Jagmati Sangwan, an activist with the All India Democratic Women’s Association, a feminist group, took me to a government safe house for couples at an abandoned school in Rohtak, a town in Haryana. Her organization had scored a rare victory for runaways when it successfully lobbied the Punjab and Haryana High Court to establish the safe houses, in 2010. But few people were coming, Sangwan told me, because they feared that police would turn on them.
When I visited, four couples were asleep on the floor of a classroom. The walls had been carved with lovers’ names. Only runaways who have been granted protection by a legal order are permitted to stay there; one pair told me that they had stolen gold from their parents to hire a lawyer to petition the court for their admission. The order comes with an expiration date, however, and after a couple leaves the safe house, they are likely to go on being harassed by their families.
The Love Commandos, on the other hand, advertises a one-time fee that covers the cost of a wedding ceremony and registration; couples are invited to stay as long as they need. Perhaps more important is Sachdev’s promise to protect them even when it compromises his safety. Armed men and disgraced relatives routinely come knocking, he said, and at least four khaps have issued bounties for his death. None have made good on their promise, but he and his colleagues have been beaten. “Look, we are madmen,” he explained. “We are not scared of dying.”
Photographs from New Delhi by Max Pinckers, from his series Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty © Max Pinckers
Read the full story, published in Harper’s Magazine in the January 2018 issue, here.
By Ellen Barry and Mansi Choksi
MUMBAI, India — At 5:30 p.m. on that Thursday, four young men were playing cards, as usual, when Mohammed Kasim Sheikh’s cellphone rang and he announced that it was time to go hunting. Prey had been spotted, he told a friend. When the host asked what they were going to hunt, he said, “A beautiful deer.”
As two men rushed out, the host smirked, figuring they did not like losing at cards.
Two hours later, a 22-year-old photojournalist limped out of a ruined building. She had been raped repeatedly by five men, asked by one to re-enact pornographic acts displayed on a cellphone. After she left, the men dispersed to their wives or mothers, if they had them; it was dinnertime. None of their previous victims had gone to the police. Why should this one?
The trial in the Mumbai gang-rape case has opened to a drowsy and ill-attended courtroom, without the crush of reporters who documented every twist in a similar case in New Delhi in which a woman died after being gang-raped on a private bus. The accused, barefoot, sit on a bench at the back of the courtroom, observing the arguments with blank expressions, as if they were being conducted in Mandarin. All have pleaded not guilty. They are slight men with ordinary faces, nothing imposing, the kind one might see at any bus stop or tea stall.
But the Mumbai case provides an unusual glimpse into a group of bored young men who had committed the same crime often enough to develop a routine. The police say the men had committed at least five rapes in the same spot. Their casual confidence reinforces the notion that rape has been a largely invisible crime here, where convictions are infrequent and victims silently go away. Not until their arrest, at a moment when sexual violence has grabbed headlines and risen to the top of the state’s agenda, did the seriousness of the crime sink in.
An editor at the photographer’s publication, who was present when a witness identified the first of the five suspects, a juvenile, said the teenager dissolved in tears as soon as he was accused.
“It was exactly like watching a kid in school who has been caught doing something,” said the editor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the identity of the victim, who cannot be identified according to Indian law. “It’s like a bunch of kids who found a dog and tied a bunch of firecrackers to its tail, just to see what would happen. Only in this case it was far more egregious. It was malevolent, what happened.”
In spots Mumbai is an anarchic jumble, its high-rise buildings flanked by vest-pocket slums and vacant properties that have reverted to near-wilderness. One such place is the Shakti Mills, a ruin from the prosperous days of Mumbai’s textile industry. When night falls, it is a treacherous span of darkness lined with sinkholes and debris, but still in the middle of the city, still close enough to look up and watch the lights flicker on in the Shangri-La Hotel.
The photographer and her colleague, a 21-year-old man, were interns at an English-language publication and had decided to include this spot — the backdrop for any number of fashion shoots — as part of a photo essay on the city’s abandoned buildings, the editor said. On that Thursday last August, they reached the ruined mill about an hour before sunset.
The five men they encountered there later came from slums near the mill complex, claustrophobic concrete warrens where electrical wires tangle at one’s head and acrid water flows in open gutters around one’s feet.
None of the men worked regularly. There were jobs chicken-plucking at a neighborhood stand — a hot, stinking eight-hour shift that paid 250 rupees, or $4. The men told their families they wanted something better, something indoors, but that thing never seemed to come. They passed time playing cards and drinking. Luxury was pressed in their faces in the sinuous form of the Lodha Bellissimo, a 48-story apartment building rising from an adjacent lot.
“Every boy in this neighborhood, including myself, would look at those buildings and say, ‘One day, I will own a flat in that building,’ ” said Yasin Sheikh, 22, who knew two of the accused men from the neighborhood. Because of his work helping find slum locations for film crews, he sometimes has a chance to interact with wealthy people, he said, and it fills him with yearning.
“I feel really sad around them, because I want to sit at the table with them,” he said.
Only Kasim Sheikh, 20, the card player who took the call, seemed to have shaken off the drag of poverty. A plump man in a neighborhood of the half-starved, he wore flashy shirts and hooked up his friends with catering jobs at weddings. He had been convicted of theft — iron, steel and other scrap from a railroad site — and occasionally provided information to the police, according to Mumbai’s joint police commissioner, Himanshu Roy.
Some people steered clear of Mr. Sheikh. The grandmother of one of the accused men, a 16-year-old whose name is being withheld because of his age, had forbidden Mr. Sheikh to cross their threshold. But her grandson craved nice things; that was his weakness, his grandmother said. Mr. Sheikh “wore good clothes, he had a nice mobile, obviously he would, because he was a thief,” said Yasin Sheikh, the neighbor.
When another of their friends, a 27-year-old father of two named Salim Ansari, spotted the interns in the mill that day, the first thing he did was call Kasim Sheikh to tell him that their prey had arrived.
Nothing to Lose
During the year since the Delhi gang rape, sexual violence has been discussed endlessly in India, but there are few clear answers to the questions of how much is it happening or why.
One problem is that perpetrators may not view their actions as a grave crime, but something closer to mischief. A survey of more than 10,000 men carried out in six Asian countries — India not among them — and published in The Lancet Global Health journal in September came up with startling data. It found that, when the word “rape” was not used as part of a questionnaire, more than one in 10 men in the region admitted to forcing sex on a woman who was not their partner.
Asked why, 73 percent said the reason was “entitlement.” Fifty-nine percent said their motivation was “entertainment seeking,” agreeing with the statements “I wanted to have fun” or “I was bored.” Flavia Agnes, a Mumbai women’s rights lawyer who has been working on rape cases since the 1970s, said the findings rang true to her experience.
“It’s just frivolous; they just do it casually,” she said. “There is so much abject poverty. They just want to have a little fun on the side. That’s it. See, they have nothing to lose.”
The photographer and her colleague reached the mill but, visually, it was not what they wanted. That is when two men approached them, the victim told the police later, offering to show them a route farther in. There the images were better, and the two had been working for half an hour when the two men returned.
‘The Prey Is Here’
This time they came back with a third, Mr. Sheikh, who told them something odd — “Our boss has seen you, and you have to come with us now” — and insisted they take a path deeper into the complex. As they walked, she called an editor, who said to leave immediately, but it was too late for that. “Come inside, the prey is here,” Mr. Sheikh called out, and two more men joined them.
The men said that the woman’s colleague was a murder suspect, asked the pair to remove their belts and used them to tie the man up. After that, the woman told the police, “the third person and a person who had a mustache took me to a place that was like a broken room.”
The men had done the same thing a month before, said Mr. Roy, the police commissioner, taking turns raping an 18-year-old call-center worker who, accompanied by her boyfriend, had sprained her ankle and was trying to take a shortcut through the mill. They had done the same thing with a woman who worked as a scavenger in a garbage dump, and a sex worker, and a transvestite, Mr. Roy said.
Mr. Sheikh took the broken neck of a beer bottle out of his shirt pocket and thrust it at the young woman, telling her: “You don’t know what a bastard I am. You’re not the first girl I’ve raped,” she told the police later, according to the charge sheet filed in the case.
On the other side of the wall, her friend heard the woman cry out. “An inquiry is going on,” the man guarding him said. They went in to her and returned, one by one.
“Did you inquire properly?” Mr. Sheikh said to one as he came out.
“No, she’s not talking,” he replied.
So Mr. Sheikh said he would “go inquire again,” and the rest of them laughed.
At last they brought her out, weeping, and told the two to leave along the railroad tracks. Before releasing her, they threatened to upload video of the attack onto the Internet if she reported the crime, a strategy that had worked with previous victims.
But this one did not hesitate. The two caught a cab to the nearest hospital. There they reported the crime, and the woman’s mother arrived. “I went inside. I saw her there crying,” her mother told the police later. “She told me in English, ‘Mummy, I’m vanished.’ ”
The woman did not respond to a request for an interview.
Mr. Sheikh, too, saw his mother for a few moments that night. He discussed the rape with her, she said, and tried to explain why it had happened.
“I asked Kasim, ‘Son, why did you do this to her? If it happened to your sister, would you come here and tell me or would you beat him?’ ” said his mother, Chandbibi Sheikh. He told her that his friends had come upon the couple embracing in the mill, and “they thought: ‘What is she doing with this boy here? She must be loose.’ ”
She related this exchange from the family’s home, a sort of shelf wedged between a gas station and a garbage dump; as she spoke, a rat the size of a kitten clambered over containers stacked in a corner. She said far too much onus was being put on the men.
“Obviously, the fault is the girl’s,” she said. “Why did she have to go to that jungle? It’s her fault, too. Also, she was wearing skimpy clothes.”
She did not deny that he had done it. “He must have,” she said. “He told me that they tied up the boy who was doing bad things to her and said, ‘Madam, let us also do it.’ The madam said, ‘Don’t do it to me, take my mobile, take my camera, but don’t do it to me.’ Her body was uncovered. How could he control himself? And so it happened.”
Though the men in the mill may not have known it, rape had become a matter of great public import in India, a gauge of a city’s identity. Mumbai’s top officials, who had told themselves that the Delhi gang rape could not have happened here, were horrified and initiated a broad, high-level response, as if an act of terrorism had taken place.
The police lighted up their networks of slum informants and all five were arrested and gave confessions in quick succession. Several made pitiful attempts to escape. Mr. Sheikh went to the visitor’s room of a nearby hospital and covered himself with a blanket, trying to blend in with a crowd of relatives. He was caught with 50 rupees, or about 81 cents, in his pocket. When the police asked him to sign his confession, he told them he could not write, so he signed it with a thumbprint.
“It is incredible how quickly the whole thing unraveled,” said the editor, who was present when the photographer’s colleague picked the first of the five men out of a lineup. A second victim, the call-center worker, came forward, inspired by the first, and said she was ready to testify. The suspects confessed to the other rapes under questioning, the police said.
The public prosecutor selected for the case is famous for prosecuting terrorists, with a résumé of 628 life sentences, 30 death sentences and 12 men, as he put it, “sent to the gallows.”
Much news coverage over the next days zeroed in on the defendants’ poverty, but Mr. Roy shrugged off that line of inquiry. After interrogating the five accused men personally, he said they were “social outcasts,” not indicative of any deeper tensions in the city.
“They were deviants, sociopaths, predators,” he said in an interview. “If there was a larger socioeconomic framework, these crimes would be happening again and again. It was only these guys. I’m 100 percent sure that this kind of crime doesn’t happen in Mumbai. I’ve been here all my life and have been born and brought up here.”
But in a constellation of neighborhoods around Mumbai, people are still trying to match up the crime with the ordinary men they knew.
Shahjahan Ansari, the wife of the oldest accused man, Salim Ansari, looked terrified when a stranger appeared at her door, at a hulking, trash-strewn public housing complex beside a petroleum refinery on a distant edge of the city. The neighbors had started to shun the family since Salim’s arrest became public, and she dreaded the extra attention.
“We can’t even walk on the street. You don’t understand,” she said. Inside the apartment, she calmed down a little. The whole story baffled her; she said she had no idea who her husband’s friends were or what he did during the day when she went to work cleaning houses. All she knew was that until his arrest, he came home for dinner every night, “He was to me like any husband is to his wife,” she said.
“How do I know how he got into this mess? It must be the Devil,” murmured Salim’s mother, who was sitting on the floor, one eye blind, cloudy white.
Ms. Ansari was remembering better days before her husband lost his job, at a factory that made cardboard boxes. He was so proud of the factory, with its big machines, that he brought his sons to watch him on Sunday shifts. Tonight the younger one was streaked with dust; the older one watched from a cot, glassy-eyed and much smaller than his 10 years, bony limbs folded under his chin. She would try, Ms. Ansari said, to move them somewhere else, to a place where no one knew who their father was.
“I want my children to grow up to be good human beings, that’s all,” the mother said.
Neha Thirani Bagri contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 27, 2013, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Gang Rape, Routine and Invisible. Lead photo by Atul Loke; photo of Chandbibi Shaikh by Sami Siva.
By Mansi Choksi
Three days before the presidential election, I found Shalabh Kumar sitting in a patio chair in the basement cafeteria of Trump Tower in New York, hollering at an imaginary Pakistani fighter plane. “Come on, shoot,” he said. “If you have the guts, come on and shoot.”
Kumar was inhabiting a memory from his youth, when as a sixteen-year-old in 1965, he stood on the roof of his parents’ home in Amritsar, a city in the northern Indian state of Punjab, in the thick of a war between India and Pakistan. His neighborhood was enveloped in darkness, and he was shouting at the sky, waving an Indian flag, as enemy planes thundered overhead.
Kumar, an electronics business tycoon in Chicago, who likes to be seen exclusively in black suits with a brooch carrying his initials, became a fixture on Capitol Hill six years ago, and emerged in July as one of the largest individual donors to the Donald Trump campaign, contributing $898,800 dollars for the cause of Hindu Americans. He wears gold-rimmed aviator eyeglasses and a beard like that of Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister who represents a Hindu nationalist political party.
In the spring of 2015, Kumar was invited to the annual conference of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, where businessmen, congressmen, governors and former presidents networked between golf and poker tournaments. Presidential candidates, he told me, behaved like salesmen. There were about 4.2 million Hindus in the United States, Kumar estimated, although the Pew Research Center reported a number closer to 2 million. Hindu Americans and Jewish Americans were alike, he said, because they were wealthy, entrepreneurial and well educated. Even interfaith marriages between Hindus and Jews were on the rise. The difference, as he saw it, was that Hindus kept their heads down and focused only on advancing their professional lives, not their political participation. So he had the idea of starting a lobby called the Republican Hindu Coalition, “a baby brother” to the Republican Jewish Coalition, that would have the same mandate on “free enterprise, fiscal discipline, family values and the fight against terrorism.”
Kumar took the idea to Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, whom he described as the “smartest man.” “Thirty seconds it took him before he says—great idea. Thirty seconds, literally. Thirty seconds, he says—if you want, I’ll be co-chairman,” Kumar said. “Well, this idea must be really good.”
Kumar had the money ready to go but he was waiting for a hint from Gingrich about which candidate it should go to. He was skeptical of Trump, who had appeared on television, wearing a Make America Great Again cap, imitating an Indian call-center worker. But three months later, in July, with a nudge from Gingrich, Kumar and Trump sat down for a meeting. Kumar left with the understanding that Trump loved India and was only arguing that he favored legal immigration. “The Americans I deal with—businessmen, engineers, professionals—they respect talent,” Kumar said. “I could see very easily that, in that respect, Donald Trump is just like me.”
In August, weeks after Kumar pledged his contribution to Trump, I watched Kumar appear on the Newshour, an Indian TV news show that has been described as Fox News on Steroids. Arnab Goswami, a self-righteous and short-tempered anchor, bellowed over panelists whose heads were trapped in little floating boxes onscreen. Goswami asked how Kumar expected India to have a close relationship with the United States under a Trump administration, if the presidential candidate planned to ban roughly 180 million Indian Muslims.
“The problem here is we are taking a statement out of context. I met the gentleman. I met him for forty-five minutes. I had a heart-to-heart talk with him. You just watch RNC. Why would Muslims be participating in his nomination process? There were Muslims in the RNC presidential nomination. So this entire thing, which is blown out of proportion…” Kumar said.
“What is blown out of proportion?” Arnab asked.
“The fact that he will just ban all Muslims from entering the—”
“That’s what he said.”
“This is in a different context.”
“What different context?”
“You cannot take one paragraph out of a whole speech.”
Goswami cut him off.
On a Sunday last month at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center, I watched two dancing make-believe terrorists wearing Islamic thobes get thumped to the ground by a troop of dancing make-believe U.S. troops wearing SWAT vests. The act, which eventually resolved in an earnest performance to Star-Spangled Banner, was part of the Humanity Against Terror Charity Concert, a Bollywood-Tollywood event, sponsored by Kumar’s Republican Hindu Coalition, to raise money for Hindu victims of Islamic terror in Kashmir and Bangladesh. Afterward the performance, Trump appeared as guest speaker, and announced that he was a big fan of Hindu and a big fan of India. India and the United States would become best friends if he were in the White House, he said, all the while conflating the details of two different terror attacks and mispronouncing the word “Mumbai.”
Earlier that evening, Kumar pitched Trump to the audience, arguing that conservative values were Hindu values—free enterprise, libertarian small government, fiscal discipline, family values, and a strong foreign policy.
“I am proud to be a Hindu. I will repeat it again. I am proud to be a Hindu. I am proud to be a Hindu American,” he said. The crowd erupted. “We are the culture that gave the number zero to the world, we gave decimal point to the world, we gave astronomy to the world, we gave surgery to the world.”
In his speeches, Kumar spoke with an air of solemnity, as if he were standing on the pinnacle of self-made success. He liked to tell his story with a narrative arc: he was born in a lower middle-class family of freedom fighters; at the age of twenty, he moved to the United States to study electronics engineering; six years later, he founded the AVG Group, a electronics manufacturing firm, where he amassed his fortune.
“Folks, let me tell you, I also was a Democrat once,” he said at the concert. “I grew up admiring J.F.K. His pictures used to be plastered all over town as the most handsome president of the United States ever. But then after a chance meeting with candidate governor Ronald Reagan, in 1979, my life changed. He convinced me that my values were conservative, and I became, perhaps, the first Republican Indian American in the country.”
Back at Trump Tower, he told me that this had been a pivotal part of his speeches to Indian American voters. His own story of switching over to the Republican Party, he imagined, could make him relatable to an audience that was known to identify primarily with the Democratic Party. Roughly sixty-one percent of Hindu Americans and sixty-five percent of Indian Americans leaned left, according to studies by Pew. Kumar said this is due to an “information gap.” He argued that the Obama administration had used tax dollars from Hindu Americans to arm Pakistan with nuclear-capable weapons, which would likely be aimed at India. “Unless you are going to throw away your brain, then only you could be a Democrat and a supporter of Hillary.”
Kumar said his elder daughter, who lives in Boston, plans to vote for Clinton. “We have a lot of discussion on that,” he said. “I would have gone to her and spent a day with all these arguments I have. But I said to myself—it really doesn’t matter anyway, we are in a deep blue state.”
After the last presidential debate, Kumar based himself in Florida, a swing state where the Indian American population grew by eighty percent between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. Part of Kumar’s strategy was about optics—getting Eric Trump to visit a Hindu temple there, for instance. And part of it was about generating paranoia. Last week, Kumar approved an advert that accused Clinton of sanctioning military aid to Pakistan and blocking the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visa to the United States. A doomsday voiceover stated that Huma Abedin, Clinton’s aide, was of Pakistani origin, and that if Clinton came to power, she would become chief of staff.
“People are already paying attention to Hindu Americans. In fact, Hillary came to the table a little late,” he said. “If this election comes down to a few thousand votes, then it definitely will be credited to the Hindu vote.” He went on to describe his plans to create a city named after Ronald Reagan in south India.
At one point in our conversation, a stranger sauntered to our table in the basement cafeteria. He was taking a break from calling voters in swing states on behalf of the Trump campaign.
“Are you Mr. Kumar?” the man asked, holding a poster that said ‘Drain the Swamp.’
“Yes,” Kumar smiled.
“I saw you on TV.”
“Good! Thank you. Which television?”
“I can only watch Fox.”
“Alright, very good, thanks for stopping by,” Kumar said, waving and grinning. “I’m developing fans.”
Read a related story, Big Fan of Hindu, published in Roads & Kingdoms and Slate. Photos by Sara Hylton.
By Mansi Choksi
Shahed Alam, dressed in a trim black suit, is pacing outside a marriage hall in Queens, talking to himself about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Inside, past an ivory-keyed grand piano, raindrop chandeliers, and an elegant staircase, a middle-aged Bangladeshi-American couple slow-dances on a hulking stage, attendees of a party celebrating the second anniversary of the New York-based, English- and Bengali-language TV station Time Television U.S.A.
It’s September 26, and by 10 p.m., as guests dart for the dinner buffet following appearances by a Hindustani classical singer, a children’s folk dance troupe, a teen pop star, and an official from the mayor’s office, the first U.S. presidential debate, taking place 18 miles east at Hofstra University, is heating up. A bespectacled senior watching the debate on his iPad begins walking around the room, tsk-tsking.
Alam, the TV station’s political correspondent, takes the stage to film a live segment summarizing the debate’s highlights for the channel’s evening bulletin. Clinton and Trump have entered one of the final battlegrounds of the presidential election, Alam explains in Bengali, taking a seat on the stairs as little girls dressed as sunflowers flit around behind him, shrieking. Trump promised to release his taxes if Clinton, who many believe to be a friend of Bangladesh, releases her controversial emails, he continues. It has yet to be seen how their performance at the debate will affect the polls, he says, signing off. The studio then cuts back to Time TV’s lead story: coverage of its own anniversary party. The bulletin will be broadcast to roughly two million viewers, Alam says, a majority of them in the United States.
More than 250,000 people of Bangladeshi origin live in the United States, according to U.S. census data. A majority of them are foreign-born and do not speak English as their first language. Almost half the Bangladeshi-American voters surveyed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, an advocacy group, reported limited English proficiency.
In 2012, Bangladeshi-Americans were the largest group of first-time voters among Asian Americans, the report said. In Queens, 28 percent of Bengali-speaking voters said they preferred to cast their ballot with the assistance of an interpreter or translated materials.
Up to 37 percent of Bangladeshi-Americans rely on ethnic media as their primary source of news, and the competition is fierce. In New York, Time TV competes with two other television networks. Its affiliated Bengali-language newspaper, The Weekly Bangla Patrika, competes with sixteen similar papers.
According to Alam, his competitors on the other networks are preoccupied with news from Bangladesh, while he immerses himself in U.S. politics. He consumes countless hours of American news, tracking each twist and turn in the election cycle and its implications for the Bangladeshi diaspora.
“I’ve met hundreds of Bangladeshis who can vote in the U.S. but don’t know what is going on,” he says. “The political system here is very tough, so I try to explain.” In one segment, he explains blue and red states by drawing parallels to strongholds of rival Bangladeshi political parties, the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In another segment, he explains how electronic voting machines work.
Most Bangladeshi-Americans identify as Democrats, Alam says. Hillary Clinton has visited the country twice and is friends with Muhammed Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize-winner who pioneered microfinance and microcredit. “A very small percentage are Trump supporters,” he says, “despite his bigotry and Islamophobia.”
Alam radiates earnestness, thinking of himself as a guide for the trembling elders, small business owners, and the housewives encountering the intimidating American political system for the first time. Until a year ago, he worked as on-air journalist for Channel 24 in his hometown of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city, reporting on politics, crime, and the environment. During the country’s national election in 2014, he was a familiar face on air, travelling from polling center to polling center, broadcasting news about rigging, arson, and murder.
“After that I was in deep shit,” he says. “My enemies were from both sides: the fundamentalists and the government.” Then three secular bloggers, an activist, and a scientist, all of whom Alam knew, were murdered. Alam had a feeling he was next. “Every day was frightening,” he says. “I did not get hurt but I had a strong feeling I was about to get hit.”
Last winter, he sold his home and car, left his job, and moved to New York. “If it came down to working at a Dunkin Donuts, I would do it,” he says. “It would have been devastating but I was prepared to do it.”
But soon after he arrived, he received a call from Abu Taher, the CEO of Time TV and editor-in-chief of The Weekly Bangla Patrika. He was calling to say that there was a position open at the network.
Now, Alam works at a wooden desk watched over by a giant photograph of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, reading an edition of The Weekly Bangla Patrika. On the other side of the newsroom, there is an oversized photograph of Hillary Clinton posing with the paper.
On a Wednesday in late August, two chairs are hauled into Time TV’s recording studio and placed in front of a green screen that would turn into a moon-kissed skyline of New York City in post-production. Ali Najmi, a criminal defense attorney, is getting ready to host his weekly show, Inside Politics, in which he interviews elected representatives and policymakers about their plans for the South Asian diaspora. Najmi has a reputation as a champion of the South Asian community, defending those attacked in hate crimes and lobbying for culturally-appropriate senior care centers for South Asians.
Tonight, he’s talking to Brian Barnwell, a candidate running for assembly in a district that had a growing South Asian, and particularly Bangladeshi, population.
“What’s your response to rising Islamophobia? What’s your message to Muslim constituents?” Najmi asks.
“So many people have died for thousands of years to practice what they want, or not practice at all. People need to know their history. Because when Catholics came here, they were persecuted, they were killed. People got to be able to believe in what they believe,” Barnwell replies.
“What day is the election?”
“September 13,” Barnwell says.
“They go on until 9 p.m.,” Najmi adds. “You need to vote. You can’t be sitting at home on Election Day if we want to make a difference in this city. In this country. We have to vote. September 13, 2016. Get up, pray, go vote, go to work.”
Taher, the CEO of Time TV and its print affiliate, is sitting in an executive chair in his cabin reading the headlines from the newspaper’s latest edition. It includes a banner story about a Bangladeshi man from Brooklyn who was indicted for running a prostitution racket; an aggregated interview with Sheikh Hasina, who was in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly; a round-up of news about the first U.S. presidential debate; and a story about escalating hostility between India and Pakistan.
In 1996, four years after he arrived in New York, Taher started Weekly Bangla Patrika with a mandate to avoid simply cribbing from Bangladeshi newspapers. Instead, he wanted to invest in original storytelling about the diaspora in the U.S. “From first page to last page, everything was Bangladesh politics. But the people who are buying the newspaper, putting the advertisement, their face is not appearing,” he says.
“Our main motive is to enlighten the community. They have to vote here, they have to bring up their kids here, build their future in this country,” he says. “We show American news that is relatable. Say about immigration, welfare, jobs. In elections, we try to give a message about both candidates, whoever he is, even if he is a loser. What is their program, track record, how will they work with the community?”
In the early days of the newspaper, Taher reported and wrote stories, laid out pages, and even distributed newspapers himself. Even today, although he employs 15 journalists, he attends important press conferences to make connections. He saw himself as a mediator between power brokers in Bangladesh and in the United States, advocating for the diaspora. In the early 2000s, he proudly reports, he met Hillary Clinton, who was then a U.S. senator representing New York.
In the neighboring room, Alam is searching for ideas for tonight’s U.S. news package: Bernie Sanders joined Clinton on a rally in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich claimed Trump won the first debate, the former Miss Universe Alicia Machado struck back at Trump for calling her Miss Piggy. He pauses for a second.
“We used to think that mean and dirty politics only happens in the third world. But everyday, I am seeing the same here,” he says. “I enjoy watching the politics here more than any other popular opera show.”
By Mansi Choksi
Bharati Mirchandani’s face hurt from smiling. She was standing under a spotlight, arms locked with her fiancé’s, at the Bukhara Grill and Restaurant. Waiters in gimmicky Nehru jackets glided across the carpeted room and an invisible voice cracked during the depressing chorus of a ghazal. Bharati leaned towards her man to complain about suffocating under her corset blouse and being tormented by the aroma of chicken biryani while gray-haired guests in Banarasi saris and safari suits lumbered toward them with Sanskrit blessings and envelopes filled with cash.
Feigning distress felt glamorous, especially at her own engagement party. She liked the sound of her name in conversations, the way strangers paid attention to her, how her mother’s eyes shone to match the golden rim of her glasses.
She liked it so much that she forgot it was a farce. She forgot that she was pretending to be the sort of bride her family watched in Indian soap operas. She was in character—face caked with make-up, frame delicate under the weight of cascading gold necklaces, mouth sealed with red lipstick. Her persona even inspired her to pluck off the plastic ring her lesbian partner had given her and cry in front of a mirror. It had to be done to make room for the diamond Kamlesh Lalvani’s family would produce from a small brocade purse.
That both she and the man she was about to marry were gay was no secret to relatives who participated in the spectacle. Yet, they roared with beetle-leaf-stained teeth at jokes like “Marriage is about give and take. Husband gives money and wife takes it. Wife gives tension and husband takes it,” whispered “first night tips” into her ear and offered advice about how to keep a man in control.
Bharati and her fiancé would never have had a marriage greeted with stuffed envelopes had her family not lived in a world fortressed with denial. For this reason, Bharati and other sources in this story have asked that their names be changed.
Bharati’s mother was almost always in the mood to play dumb. When Bharati came out to her at a Hindu temple in Queens, New York, in 2003, it didn’t worry her too much because Bharati’s horoscope clearly said she would marry a man. “She thought it was a phase and it would pass because my horoscope said so,” Bharati says. “She just does not get it.”
Bharati remembers speaking to Meenu Aunty, the matriarch who made decisions about what was to be made for dinner, where the second generation Mirchandanis could buy apartments, which jobs they could take, and whom they could marry. “She told me that whether Kamlesh and I have sex or not is nobody’s business and that I should marry him for the sake of our family,” Bharati says. “I was in my late 20s, we were both under family pressure, and I wanted to help him get a green card.”
While Bharati and Kamlesh lived together, they would send out combined Diwali and Christmas cards and color coordinate clothes for parties. But when the door of their apartment shut behind them, she slept with Tina and he slept with David.
By the time color-coordinated clothes stopped amusing Bharati, she realized she was “a big screw up.” It was 2007, two years after their wedding. She was leading two different lives, but felt at home in neither. “I married Kamlesh because I wanted to cut the umbilical cord. I was out when I did this but all this stuff pushed me back into the closet.”
She needed her family’s acceptance, even if it meant the humiliation of pretending to be someone else, someone who would be intelligible to those who stubbornly refused anything outside of a heterosexual tradition. She also craved to be her own person, marry a woman she loved and start a family.
In 1860, British men, likely in tailcoats, cocked hats, and lace cuffs, drafted Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” to protect their men from “getting corrupted in colonies with morally lax norms.” Section 377 clubbed homosexuality with bestiality and sodomy, and made these crimes punishable with up to ten years in the clink.
When the British left India in 1947, the law remained as untouched as the crumbling infrastructure. Indians held onto it like a precious memory, even embracing it with the same zeal as when we made English the language of social mobility. We confused homophobia with Indianness, even though our mythology brimmed with references to homosexuality and our religious texts preached the idea of a genderless soul and marriage as a union of two souls.
According to Ruth Vanita, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Montana, homophobia was clearly part of a generalized attack on Indian sexual mores practiced by British missionaries. In an essay titled Same-Sex Weddings, Hindu Traditions and Modern India that was published in the Feminist Review in 2009, she argued that “most Indian nationalists internalized this homophobia and came to view homosexuality as a crime even as they also attacked polygamy, courtesan culture, matriliny and other institutions that were seen as opposed to monogamous heterosexual marriage.” “Prior to this, homosexuality had never been considered unspeakable in Indian texts or religion,” she wrote.
Over the past three decades, Indian newspapers have reported same-sex marriages and double suicides by gay and lesbian people across rural and urban India. Vanita, who is also the co-founder of Manushi, a grassroots feminist magazine in India, wrote that most of these couples were Hindus from low-income groups who did not speak English and were not connected to any movement for gender quality. “Most of them were not aware of the terms ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian,’” she wrote. They framed their desire to marry in terms drawn from traditional ideas of love and marriage, saying, for example, that they could not conceive life without each other, or that they wanted to live and die together.
Marriage has a peculiar place in Indian culture. Hindu philosophy says it’s a metaphor for worldly responsibilities, a mandatory duty of an Indian girl and boy, an occasion that marks the end of childhood. Only those who decide to renounce the world to seek moksha or self-actualization may choose not to marry and have children.
Marriage also became an arrangement between two families, preferably of the same class and caste, to cement these boundaries in a culture that places more emphasis on collective identity than individuality. Just as we don’t choose our parents and siblings, we should not expect to choose our partners or challenge caste structures dictated by birth.
But India is a society in transition. As the economy transforms, a new textured idea of Indian modernity is taking shape. When I turned 18, my family worried about who I was going to marry. “Make sure he’s Gujarati” soon became “Make sure he’s Hindu.” But when I turned 27 and was not getting any younger, the resounding sentiment became “Marry someone before we die.”
At least in India’s big cities, traditional social hierarchies are being challenged, gender equations are being questioned, and arranged marriages are being rethought. Yet for an overwhelming majority of Indians, at home and abroad, marriage is still a collective priority that trumps personal choice.
In July 2009, the New Delhi High Court overturned Section 377, decriminalizing homosexuality after hearing a public-interest litigation demanding legalization of homosexual intercourse between consenting adults. It was the culmination of a gay rights movement that spanned 18 years. But an amendment can’t wipe out a tradition of discrimination. As a result, many gay and lesbian Indians like Bharati, who live in more open-minded societies such as the United States, must still contend with traditional social constructs, gender roles, and marriages of convenience. While they are emancipated by virtue of the location, they are still shackled in the tradition of a country they left behind.
For some, that means cloaking their identities within accepted institutions. Vanita, in her book Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West, studied the advertisements in 20 issues of Trikone, a magazine for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender South Asians in San Francisco, California. Eleven and a half percent of all the personal ads that ran from 1998 to 2003 were placed by gay people looking for gay people of the opposite sex to enter into a marriage of convenience.
Another 2 percent were placed by traditionally married bisexual or gay people looking for same sex relationships outside their marriage. One advertiser who was looking for a “straight-acting young lesbian of Indian origin” wrote, “If you, as a gay Indian female, want to be true to yourself without toppling a delicate world, drop me a line.”
I met Bharati at Kashmir 9, a Pakistani deli in New York with pistachio couches, greasy tables and an in-house pawnshop. She grumbled in Hindi about how the food was not spicy enough and then settled into a torn seat to show me her discovery: Sahi Rishta (Right Relationship in Hindi), a YouTube channel on which Indian women make pitches to find grooms.
F #8695: Hello I’m a modern day woman, looking for a modern day man. If boy ever opens door for me, I will leave him. I mean he should not think that I cannot open my own doors.
F #4558: I want to make it clear itself now that I have a mini skirt which I wear it occasionally. I want the boy to respect that and his family to allow it. He should not read any adult stuff because it’s a treating a woman an object and we are not an object.
F #4899: Hello, good morning. Myself Ridhima, I’m looking for a suitable groom who will never call me any pet name. Boy should strictly remember that. He don’t call me pumpkin, honey, sugar or any other sweet name because I’m not a dessert…Only interested groom can apply with resumé.
“This one’s mine. I’m sending her my resumé. I want her so bad,” Bharati declares, pointing to F #4899, a pudgy woman with a thick Maharashtrian accent, a woolly fringe, and a patterned Indian shirt with an oval hole around her cleavage.
Bharati is only half joking. She won’t send her resumé to F #4899, but she does hope to find a marriageable Indian girl. The thought crosses her mind every time she meets a girl who can speak Hindi or knows the difference between Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor, both Bollywood actresses. But months of therapy and yoga remind her to conquer these thoughts for now. “I need to work on myself before I get into a relationship,” she says.
It took Bharati and Kamlesh two years to accept that their marriage of convenience couldn’t hold together. Bharati had broken up with her girlfriend Tina—“a Type A investment banker”—and had grown fed up with hiding Kamlesh’s promiscuity from his boyfriend, David. In the summer of 2007, they called off the marriage and Kamlesh moved out of Bharati’s apartment.
It was then that Bharati found Cinthya Garcia on a website that connected lesbians looking for casual sex. They liked each other, had sex again, eventually fell in love and moved in together. “My mother really liked Cinthya and that made me happy,” Bharati says. “But then she would ask us when we were going to settle down. What she really meant to say was, ‘When will you settle down with men?’”
After four years of being together, Bharati cheated on Cinthya with an Indian man. “I was in a messed-up place. Cinthya was not Indian, and it wasn’t working for me,” she says. “It’s important to me, these little cultural things, I want my kids to know Hindi, I want to feel connected to the person. I mean, if we fight, just make me daal and rice, and I’ll forget it. You can’t instill this in someone who doesn’t have it.”
When Asif Ali, a gay American of Pakistani origin, came out 21 years ago, he wasn’t looking for a Pakistani man to make a home with. But then, after he had been dating a Jewish American man for three years, he met Ahmed Khan. Now, Asif and Ahmed have lived together for 16 years ago. Their home in Murray Hill has wallpapers with Damask print, handwoven rugs, and the scent of ginger chai. “The fact that he was Pakistani made things easy, it was immediately comfortable. We shared the same pop-culture references, the same values toward our parents,” Asif says.
Asif moved to the US in 1971 when he was three. During the 1980s, when he began to realize he was “different,” the hysteria around the AIDS epidemic was getting intertwined with homophobia. “There were no role models. When I came out myself, I felt very conflicted about my faith, culture, and sexuality, and never understood how I would reconcile these things,” he says.
When he tried to come out to his family, he was reminded that in South Asian households, sexuality was the elephant in the room. Finally, he told his mother in his best Urdu that he was not going to marry. She was expected to figure out the rest.
Although Asif would have Ahmed over and his mother would affectionately feed them kebabs and rice pudding, that didn’t mean she approved of their relationship. “What’s interesting is that we are a homosocial culture. ‘That’s Asif’s friend, they are sleeping in one bed, they are affectionate with each other, that’s the way male friends are.’ And there’s nothing uncomfortable about that,” he says. “On one hand is this real level of comfort, and on the other hand it becomes easy to sweep things under the rug and not acknowledge that two men are actually a couple.”
When Ahmed overtly came out to his mother in 1998, who still lives in Karachi, she proposed placing an ad for a suitable boy. Now when she speaks to Asif on the phone, she calls him her favorite son-in-law. “I don’t have a problem with that because the great thing about being gay is that it makes you open to being of both genders,” he says.
Asif says that his hyphenated ethnic identity as a Pakistani-American allows him to choose and reject aspects of two cultures. For instance, he views marriage in Pakistan as an institution designed to oppress women and is not sympathetic to the spectacle assigned to the same-sex marriage debate in America either. On the other hand, he is fascinated by the queer history of his country: Barbar the Mughal emperor and his gay lovers; Sufi poetry as a form by and for men; Madho Lal Hussain, the composite shrine of a Sufi saint and his Hindu lover.
Bharati’s idea of India and sexuality is derived more from memory than mythology. She was born in Chennai, the coastal city in southern India, where Brahmins bathed if so much as the shadow of a lower-caste Dalit fell on them. Her Sindhi mother had eloped with her Telugu father and hoped for a happy life. But a few years into their marriage, he became an alcoholic.
When Bharati was five, and her mother was putting her to sleep, her father burst into the room drunk. He ordered Bharati to sleep on the floor and then had sex with her mother. Bharati lay on the floor, sleepless. “When you’re a child and you see all this stuff… you don’t think much of it,” she says. “But it changes the way you look at sex.”
After ten years of her parents’ marriage, Bharati’s father killed himself in their apartment. Her mother, who already had two daughters, was married off to Murli, a neighbor’s brother who liked to be called Mike. One the second day of her new parents’ honeymoon in New Delhi, Mike was found in his underwear on the streets. “No one told my mother he was bipolar. He suddenly didn’t want to be in this marriage,” she says. “A widow with two children in India is damaged goods, I guess.”
Bharati’s mother begged Mike to take her to Connecticut, saying she could help run his grocery business. He agreed on the condition that her children stay out of his hair. Bharati and her sister moved to the United States in 1989. She was 13 then and she was packed off to Meenu Aunty’s house in Queens, NY where nine people shared one room.
Bharati would often ask her mother to let her come to Connecticut, but her stepfather would only let her stay with them he was in a good mood. His moods were unpredictable, and so Bharati was sent to four different high schools in Queens and Connecticut.
All of Bharati’s experiences with sex were nonconsensual until she realized she was gay. She was molested repeatedly by her father’s friend between the ages of five and 12. “I thought that is the only way sex can be,” she says.
At 20, when she was spending a summer in her cousin’s empty dorm room in the University of Minnesota while he interned out of state, her perception of sex changed. Bharati would wake up in cold sweat, haunted by dreams about women pursuing her, of her kissing them. She confided in her only friend, the building maintenance worker, and he introduced her to Melissa: an Irish woman who went only by her first name and whose hair sprung like blonde feather dusters from her scalp. She had tattoos, wrote poetry, and spoke in feministese.
“My sense of identity was communal, it came from my family. And Melissa lived her life the way she wanted to. She was so attractive to me,” she says.
One Friday, when Bharati’s boyfriend missed his flight to Minnesota, she invited Melissa to a Broadway show. “I go to pick her up and the next thing you know I’m in her bedroom and she’s going through stuff to wear, removing her shirt. She was so freaking free, I didn’t know where to look,” Bharati says. “My heart was racing, I had never felt that way with a man. I could feel every cell in my body.”
Melissa introduced Bharati to her girlfriend Kamaya, who hung out with lesbian strippers in Wisconsin. They drove there together. It was the first time Bharati had been to a strip club: women with dollar bills tucked in their underwear propositioned her and argued among themselves to be her “first.”
When her cousin returned to his dorm, Bharati went home to Queens. But she returned liberated from trauma and depression, a state of mind previously such an important part of her identity that she could not recognize herself anymore.
“If I could be two people at once: one for my family and one for myself, I would be the happiest person on this planet,” Bharati says. Her efforts to achieve this—marrying Kamlesh, cheating on Cinythia—pushed her into a corner. She knows this corner well—it’s dark, suffocating and lonely. She’s spent days, sometimes weeks, in bed, avoiding everyone who cares for her. One time, she got so angry with her therapist, she punched the windshield of her car.
Yet, Bharati can’t resist the urge of wanting to please her family or bear to pretend to be “normal” the way her mother wants her to. “If happiness is something that comes from within, I don’t remember what it feels like.”
Published in VICE, June 2013. Illustrations by Nick Gazin.