Love is a strange thing. A thousand movies, a hundred novels and a million songs later, we’re still struggling to define a four-letter word. The thing is, when something is attached so deeply to matters of the heart, they tend to be inexplicable. What else has managed to transcend caste, faith, language, nationality, and all kinds of imaginable barriers in this world? It was this sunny, beautiful aspect of love — a love without boundaries — that Indian jewellery titan Tanishq tried to capture a few years ago, through an advertisement that depicted a Muslim mother-in-law acquainting herself with Hindu traditions in a bid to make her inter-faith daughter-in-law feel genuinely welcome. Perhaps, the point was entirely lost, as it ruffled feathers of an entire nation, drawing #BoycottTanishq and #LoveJihad hashtags on social media instead of some sort of cultural epiphany. The ad was later withdrawn.
For Niloufer Venkatraman, Samar Halarnkar and Priya Ramani, the ensuing backlash, though, became fodder for what is now a 58.5K-strong community of netizens called Indian Love Project (ILP). With an Amazon Prime mini-series, a book and a website in the works and 480 posts celebrating love ‘outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity and gender’, ILP — since its inception in 2020 — has blossomed into a safe space for couples who’ve thrown caution to the wind, traditions and naysayers to share their winning stories. “When we started this Instagram page, we had no expectation or agenda beyond the fact that we wanted to say that interfaith and other non-mainstream relationships have been taking place in India for decades and they continue to take place. While the numbers may be small, it’s not some strange anomaly or deviant behaviour. Thousands of couples continue to make that legitimate choice. We felt that if we shared real-life stories of couples, it would help highlight the fact that all kinds of relationships are possible and acceptable. We thought of this as a good way to spread love instead of hate,” shares Venkatraman, who’s own parents’ love story inspired the platform’s very first post — an inspiring tale hidden between the lines of her first and last name.
Journalists by profession, the trio has remained steadfast in curating the page in between their day jobs. And while that in itself is a tall order, going against the wind can make the task harder. How does this triad, then, keep going? “Having a relationship is one thing; marriage is quite another, as a majority of the stories indicate. There are many parents who may tolerate an interfaith relationship as long as they don’t know about it and are not involved. But accepting someone from another faith or caste into the family is something very few Indian families are likely to accept. Going against social norms in India is difficult. Couples must potentially deal with emotional blackmail, physical violence and action by police. Of course, there are some whose families are incredibly supportive, but these are the minority. As for us, our determination has only grown. If these couples can stand firm, we certainly intend to,” explains Halarnkar, outlining how the stories they come to learn about through submissions, help them stay motivated.
But when you’re flooded with entries by the thousands, from all corners of the world, with heartbroken, ousted and ostracised couples vying for a platform to share their stories; vying for closure even, perhaps, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? “There must be no hidden identities, and photos must be shared. We are aware that may deter some, but currently, we feel we cannot carry stories where identities are hidden. The criteria for our inter-caste stories is that one person of the couple needs to be Dalit or SC. We currently don’t share stories of couples from two different privileged/upper castes. The couple needs to be either interfaith, inter-caste, LGBTQ, inter-race, or inter-nationality. Obviously, we vet stories before we publish them,” says Halarnkar, asserting why they continue to maintain a tight control on the selection process.
But can a story, or a few stories, alone, help reverse the trajectory of an ages-old country, burdened with socio-cultural baggage ingrained so deeply in the fabric of its being that no amount of love can help them unlearn their own (often ill-founded) inhibitions? Venkatraman, Halarnkar and Ramani are cognisant of the need for affirmative change. “We are looking to build our community in a way such that people who are struggling can share and get support from mental health specialists and others who are in the same boat as them,” says Venkatraman. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with relationships that cut across majoritarian/mainstream expectations. They are not deviant. It is the basic right of an adult to choose the person they want to be with or marry. Love makes each of us better, calmer and happier. And eventually, we should all follow our heart,” Halarnkar chimes in.
It could be argued that a project like ILP is but a speckle in the larger scheme of things. It can be asserted that no rose-tinted post of a smiling and effervescent interfaith couple can inspire a change in mindset, say, for a father, whose heart is set in stone. It can be said that when the numbers line up, it looks like love isn’t winning after all. But for couples across the globe, who have had to trudge through months of deliberations, make their peace with broken relationships, or have had to gain love in lieu of other, significant losses, stories like the ones highlighted by ILP can add up as small wins. And that has to count for something.
Lead Image: India Love Project/Instagram