ROMANCE IN THE TIME OF RACISM

Romance in the time of racism

This article first appeared in the Times of India and has been republished with permission.

Himanshi Dhawan

Two African-Indian couples talk about the challenges of an inter-racial relationship

 

 

Lionel and Bharti
Lionel and Bharti

Two African-Indian couples talk about the challenges of an inter-racial relationship

‘We’re scared even to hold hands’

Public displays of affection are quite common among couples who are dating, even in strait-laced India. But for Lionel and Bharti, even holding hands in public is strictly off limits. And their romance has a raft of other rules.  Lionel Sonke, a 26-year-old engineering student of French-Cameroonian descent, has been going steady with beauty blogger Bharti Puri since they met on dating app Tinder in November 2014. And he’s keenly aware that his race opens them both up to attack.  “We never hang around on the street or sit at street-food kiosks. We only go to restaurants or malls. In the metro, Bharti goes to the women’s compartment so that we’re not seen together,” says Lionel, who moved to Noida in 2014 to study at a private university. He’s now bought a bike so the two can travel together without this feeling of discomfort.

Bharti, who is of Naga-Punjabi parentage, says her family accepted the relationship but the backlash came from unexpected quarters. “A male friend advised me to stop seeing him. He said things like ‘Don’t you know what happens when you date a black guy? No one will marry you’,” she says. A neighbour accused Lionel and his friend of being “Muslim terrorists” and threatened to call the police when the two men were merely standing outside Bharti’s house waiting for her. “He said loads of offensive stuff,” she says.

She’s even got advice from strangers, like autorickshaw drivers who saw the couple at malls in Greater Noida. “Once when I took an auto alone, the driver started questioning me about my relationship with Lionel and advised me to stay away from him,” she says.
Lionel says he still hasn’t become accustomed to the eyes that follow him everywhere. “I barely went out during the first year. I never felt safe whether I took a bus or the metro, or walked down the street. People would always be staring,” he says.

The last few days have brought back the feeling of vulnerability. He’s skipped college and stayed locked in his room for two days. “The night the boy was killed, a friend sent me a video of a mob attacking Africans with iron rods. I couldn’t sleep and spent the night checking the news,” he says.

As images of the violence play out on TV, Lionel remains optimistic of his future in India and with Bharti. “Something good will come out of it,” he says.

‘My folks couldn’t see past her colour’

When author and global sales executive Sachin Gupta told his parents about his decision to marry Nikita, an African-American, the result in his own words was a “disaster”. “As beautiful and educated as my wife is, they just couldn’t get past the colour of her skin initially. It started fights in our family which took months to resolve,” he says, recalling a feeling of being “disowned.”

Guptas

It took months before his parents would accept their relationship though they had been living in the US for 40 years. “My parents believed in the common stereotypes of African-American people without evaluating the individual. Like in India where people are judged by the fairness of their skin, the same holds true in some parts of the US,” Sachin says.

Nikita, an entrepreneur and author, had fewer problems with her family. “They loved Sachin. My dad even jokingly said, ‘Now what is a Gupta?'” There were some, though, who judged him and they are no longer part of the couple’s life. Sachin and Nikita have been together for eight years now and have a three-year-old daughter.

Nikita saw the way skin color is scrutinized in India during a trip here in 2015. “I got stares, pictures taken of me,” she says. Concerned about the hostile environment in India, Sachin says, “You hear about how women are treated (reports of gang-rapes) and how tourists are attacked. Combining this with my wife being African-American and our daughter being bi-racial, it does not make India a favorable environment for us to live in.”
In their blog ‘Growing up Gupta’, Nikita and Sachin bring up the challenges they face in an inter-racial marriage. Their tips for a happy inter-racial relationship: Embrace and celebrate each other’s differences, listen to each other, talk about everything, create and preserve common values, and be willing to compromise. “Being in an inter-racial marriage offers you such richness and a different perspective to another culture,” Sachin adds.
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