She had him at hello.
In the case of Sarfaraz Khan and Rashmi Chaurasia, that’s not just a corny line. It was 1998 and Rashmi, then 14, had dialled a friend’s number to chat. She got a wrong connection and, instead of her classmate, found herself on the line with ‘Sonu’, a 17-year-old who would turn out to be the love of her life. Rashmi’s voice had “enslaved” him, Sarfaraz likes to say. He used to call her everyday. It sounded too good, a story out of Bollywood, playing out in the Hindu hub of Varanasi.
That is, until Rashmi asked what his full name was. Sarfaraz Khan, he said. “I was shocked,” she admits. “He was Muslim... But I had already given my heart to him.”
Well into the 21st century, marriage between Muslims and Hindus is still taboo in Uttar Pradesh. It’s a sentiment that resonates in pretty much every part of the country. In the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, though, the censure often goes beyond the occasional nudge and whisper.
Couples are killed every year — often with the help of their own families — for disgracing their caste or village by marrying outside their creed. In 2003, a particularly bad year for star-crossed lovers, there were 13 such killings in just one district in western Uttar Pradesh. In 2002, while 10 such killings were reported, 35 couples were declared missing.
Rashmi knew her life was not in danger, but she worried about being forced to choose between her family and the man she loved. For a year, the hushed conversations continued on the phone. “We were in love, and we hadn’t even met,” says Sarfaraz, now 28 and a medical representative.
Then came the first date. At her cousin’s wedding in February 1999, Rashmi and Sarfaraz met for the first time. “Since then, I had only one concern: how to tell my family that I was in love with a Muslim.”
Meanwhile, no one in her family could understand why the phone bill was so high. Fed up with paying the incomprehensibly high sums, Rashmi’s father disconnected their home line. “After that, I had to sneak out of the house and call Sarfaraz from a public phone. Finally, he bought me a cell phone and we could talk again,” she says.
Nine years after that first phone call, Rashmi and Sarfaraz were married at the registrar’s office. Her parents refused to attend. Sarfaraz’s family was upset at first, he admits, but they made their peace with his Hindu bride and solemnised the union at a nikah in Varanasi in April 2008, where Rashmi’s uncle and aunt gave her away. “I’m happy,” says Rashmi. “We have our own home. I’ve kept my religion… Sarfaraz even comes with me to the local temple.”
But Rashmi has paid a price — she has not met her parents since the wedding. “It’s been almost two years, but her family refuses to recognise our marriage,” says her husband.