My colleague Bindu and I spent three days filming in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh in preparation for a video installation exhibit in Delhi. The objective for the installation was to project women’s narratives on a grand scale: to bring voices otherwise silenced onto large-scale screens.
Kanpur was cold—the bland industrial landscape only added to the effect. Bindu and I had taken the overnight CNB train from Delhi. Arriving at around 5 am, we tumbled from the train half asleep. Neither of us nearly ready for the ten-hour day of filming to begin at 7 am.
We spent the next few days collecting stories and interviews focusing on Breakthrough programming: a young girl who resisted early marriage, a woman who rang the bell against domestic violence and a mother and daughter pair who conducted joint training sessions on gender and sexuality in a community where these topics are far beyond the taboo line.
What struck me most during this time was the story of Rashi, a young woman seeking a cross-caste marriage. And furthermore—the reaction this narrative elicited from those around her.
Rashi was eighteen when she met Raja. The two instantly became fast friends and before long fell in love. After some time, Raja came to Rashi’s home to ask her parents—quite properly—for her hand in marriage.
Rashi’s parents, both illiterate, refused Raja’s request instantly. They would not hear him out nor would they consider his offer. Rashi’s parents feared he would sell her into labor or prostitution after they paid him dowry and gave her away.
Rashi and Raja have pursued this marriage for over five years now. Both remain firmly committed to it.
Perhaps most critical to this story is the role caste plays in their relationship. Raja is from a higher caste. He is a B-Tech student at IIT-Kanpur, a prestigious position in the area. Rashi is from a lower-caste family, and was given little expectation for career advancement as a young person.
As an external observer—and someone not literate in the caste system—it is difficult to understand why Rashi’s parents would refuse Raja so abruptly. One is inclined to tack it up to misinformation or falsely-placed fear. Surely, this would be an advantageous match for Rashi. However, according to the staff on the ground in the area—there is evidence to provide this fear traction–a truly terrifying thought.
A striking reaction to her story is that staff consider it to be a success story. Again, as an outside observer, it seems to be a melancholy story: unfulfilled loved resulting from a rigid social structure. The pair pine for one another but can’t be together. It seems a tragic Romeo and Juliet tale.
However—(unlike Romeo and Juliet) neither Rashi nor Raja have committed a desperate act in defiance of their parents. Many young people in similar situations run away, become outcast or–in the worst-case scenario–take their own lives. According to NGO staff, these most unfortunate outcomes are common for star-crossed lovers trying to wed across caste.
In this story, both Rashi and Raja have patiently pursued their engagement through open, clear and honest dialogue with their parents. Again—to no avail at the time of writing this post—but it says something significant that the two remain persistent, five years later, without writing their own tragic third act.
The most compelling positive outcome of this story is the transformation Breakthrough staff has observed in Rashi as a result of this series of events. Rashi has acquired a strong sense of self-worth. Where she was once willing to resign herself to unskilled labor at a young age, she now has assertively returned to her studies. She is determined to succeed in university. NGO workers largely attribute this to her relationship with Raja, whose consistent commitment has allowed the value she sees in herself to grow.