They wanted a Bollywood ending, not an arranged marriage. Their escape came at a cost
NEW DELHI — Five years ago, up a steep staircase in a seedy part of India's capital, I met eight beleaguered young lovers.
They crowded cross-legged onto foam floor mats in a windowless room, their knees touching. The mint-green walls were streaked with handprints and grime. The lovers — four couples — blinked in the light when I opened the door. Some hadn't been outdoors in two months.
When I turned on my microphone, they were courteous, if curt. They told me truncated versions of their love stories, glossing over the violence they'd escaped and emphasizing the relief they felt at reaching relative safety.
But their eyes were pleading.
This was a shelter run by the Love Commandos, a vigilante group that helps Indians avoid arranged marriages, rescues them from possible harm at the hands of their families — even including so-called honor killings — and helps them elope with a partner of their own choosing. In early 2019, months after my visit, the group's founder, Sanjoy Sachdev, was arrested for allegedly extorting money from couples in his care. He denies that, and is still awaiting trial. His rise and fall is the topic of an NPR podcast I've spent the past five years reporting called Love Commandos.
The couples I met there are outliers. More than 90% of Indians have arranged marriages, and polls show most are happy with that system. Of those who rebel against tradition, a tiny fraction face physical threats. These couples were among them. Over the years, we've kept in touch by text message and phone, and I've watched them become survivors many times over, as a consequence of going against the norms of 1.4 billion people.
One of the women, Zarina — I'll use first names only, for her safety — faced down a mob of angry neighbors threatening to disfigure her with acid. Held captive by her parents for two months, she sneaked out one night, leaped over the front gate — and ran away from the only home, and only family, she'd ever known.
She hasn't been back since.
Zarina and the man who would become her husband, Saumil, are reluctant rebels. Two of the values they hold most dear — duty to family and desire to follow their hearts — are in their case diametrically opposed, yet nonnegotiable. They've chased a balance and sacrificed much.
Their love story in particular resonates with me, even though our backgrounds and circumstances are so different. In the five years I lived in India, Saumil and I each navigated guilt over the loss of a beloved parent we'd chosen to live far away from. His commitment to his family, and to Zarina, has helped me understand love and marriage in my adopted country more than any news story could.
Their romance began in secret, and their marriage in controversy, witnessed only by strangers. They've never been able to tout their love on social media. Instead, they've loved each other quietly but fiercely, at times following what seemed like a classic Bollywood meet-cute script, and at others diverging wildly — and terrifyingly — from it.
"No movie matches our story," Zarina once told me. "Bollywood is just a three-hour hunky-dory thing. This is reality."
Love, she said, "is a river of fire you have to drown in to cross."
Eight years after they met, and five years after I met them, they've given me permission to finally tell the full story of their daring journey to be together. They hope it will help them heal, help their relatives someday accept their marriage, and leave a record for the next generation — their twin baby girls.
A meet-cute at work, in modern India
Zarina, 32, and Saumil, who is 34, grew up only a couple of miles apart, in separate communities with little crossover. She's Muslim; he follows the Jain religion. What brought them together was work.
They fell in love amid air conditioners.
Theirs was a workplace romance in a setting that, for me, embodies India's economic rise more than anywhere else: Vijay Sales. It's an electronics chain (think Best Buy) with endless rows of washing machines, ACs and flat-screen TVs — all the gleaming must-have accessories for membership in India's booming new middle class. It's a place full of optimism — perhaps dangerously so.
India has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. As it gets richer, more women are going to college, joining the formal workforce (though I've reported on some irregularities with that) and mixing with people outside their families and faiths. It feels inevitable that lots of them will also fall in love.
But since India's economy opened up in the early 1990s, statistics on love marriage haven't changed. It's still incredibly rare.
Is that a paradox? Not to Indians. Development doesn't mean adopting Western values. India is at once an emerging global power and a deeply traditional society — an example of non-Western modernity.
At Vijay Sales, Saumil was a store manager, fresh from getting his MBA in England. He was ambitious and mild-mannered, a hard worker with combed hair and a collared shirt. Zarina was a customer service rep with a computer science degree, almond eyes and a soothing voice.
He'd heard her voice over a cubicle in the back of the store and was dazzled by how she'd calm angry customers. But he'd only ever seen her eyes. Zarina used to wrap her head and shoulders in a dupatta — a type of scarf worn by South Asian women of many faiths — to protect from the sun and dust on her way to and from work.
"I didn't even realize what kind of face she has or anything," Saumil recalls, laughing. "I was really just falling in love with her eyes."
Zarina liked his smile. He seemed like someone she could trust. So when Saumil called customer service for repairs on his own AC, Zarina saved his number in her cellphone and texted him outside of work — making the first move.
She felt like taking a chance. She sent him a smiley face emoji and a "goodnight" message.
"Still, I never thought we would fall in love," she says.
Workplace romance was discouraged, the couple said their supervisors told them. It would be seen as even more scandalous across their religious divide, they said.
This was in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state. It's famous for a model of economic growth that Modi promised the whole nation. But also for deadly riots against minority Muslims in the early 2000s, when Saumil and Zarina were still children.
Their first date was a 20-minute chat on the sidewalk outside Vijay Sales, with rickshaw horns beeping all around them. They didn't mind. They got to know each other in these stolen moments, before or after their shifts. They couldn't be absent from work or family for too long, so they'd go to the movies often but catch only part of the film — a different section — each time. It would take five visits to see the whole thing. (Movie tickets are relatively cheap in India.)
A few months into their relationship, on Zarina's 25th birthday, Saumil gave her a ring with his initial "S" on it — and they started making life plans together, in secret.
They wanted their parents' approval
They weren't angsty teenagers rebelling against their parents. They were in their mid- and late-20s, college-educated — and really, some of the most earnest, straight-laced, dutiful people you'll meet. (Saumil has even voted for Modi; he's a traditionalist, a nationalist himself.) They love their parents, crave their approval and were optimistic they'd get it.
And while arranged marriage is definitely the norm, both sets of parents had raised their children to be outliers in other ways: Saumil's family sent him to study abroad. Zarina also went to college, and she worked outside the home. Neither family insisted their children get married young. (By contrast, most Indians, on average, wed before their 23rd birthday.)
"It's not like [my parents] follow religion so much. My mother doesn't wear a [Muslim] veil. We were always allowed to be friends with people of other faiths," Zarina says of herself and her brothers.
Still, she and Saumil kept their relationship secret for three years, while they put together a life plan that would showcase their responsibility and win over their parents. While still living at home, they borrowed money, bought a house — a gorgeous apartment in a modern high-rise development — and furnished it together. But they didn't move in, waiting for their marriage first. I've seen photos: It's a two-bedroom, with space for Saumil's parents. They envisioned living together as an extended family with the paternal in-laws — the customary Indian living arrangement.
The last step before revealing their relationship to their parents was to register for a marriage license. They got advice from a lawyer and planned to present all of this as a nearly done deal: a match, a home, plans for the future. Their parents would be proud of how responsible and organized their kids had been, Saumil and Zarina hoped.
They were wrong.
Wedding plans lead to chaos
In India, to have a civil marriage rather than a religious one, you can register under the Special Marriage Act, or SMA. You fill out paperwork declaring your intention to marry, and basic information gets posted in public for 30 days. (It used to be on a bulletin board at town hall; now it's all online.)
The 30-day waiting period allows time for authorities to verify the bride and groom's identities and for field objections from the public. But it's currentlyunder scrutiny by India's Supreme Court, because of allegations that it leaves interfaith couples vulnerable to public harassment, which is exactly what happened to Saumil and Zarina.
When they filed their paperwork in May 2018, the entire application was leaked online — and it went viral on social media.
We don't know who was behind this. The only people who had access to Saumil and Zarina's SMA application were the civil servants who processed it — and they may have disapproved. Fundamentalists of all stripes, Hindu and Muslim, oppose interfaith marriage. But under Modi's Hindu nationalist rule, Hindu extremists in particular have become emboldened. They've attacked unmarried couples on Valentine's Day. I once interviewed a local politician in India's northern Hindu heartland who bragged about halting an interfaith wedding in his neighborhood. It was his duty, he said.
Three days after Zarina filed her paperwork to marry Saumil, an anonymous WhatsApp message started spreading. It was a regular old rant condemning interfaith marriage. But this one included screenshots of SMA paperwork and a list of names. Zarina's was on it.
Her uncle happened to be one of the thousands, perhaps millions, of people to receive it. He alerted her father. At first, the family thought it must be a coincidence — a different woman with the same name.
Then Zarina got a phone call at work from her mother, telling her to come home.
"That was the last day I saw her," Saumil remembers.
When Zarina got home, there was a mob of more than 150 people outside. All of them knew about her relationship.
"Relatives, neighbors, my father's friends! They were all against us. Nobody was in favor of us," she says. "I was scared."
Her parents were crying. They shuttled her into the house and confronted her. She told them the truth: She planned to marry Saumil and wanted their approval.
"They were saying, 'Dear girl, if you'd just waited, and not done it like this, we would have agreed to your marriage.' But now look at this pressure we're facing from outside," Zarina recalls. (All of the plot points I've described here are from Zarina and Saumil's own recollection. Their version of events was also confirmed by Saumil's family and the Love Commandos; parts of it appear in police records as well. But I didn't reach out to Zarina's parents for confirmation, out of concern for her safety and well-being; five years later, they're still estranged.)
Outside, the mob was baying, Zarina recalls. "He's trapped her with gifts! Maybe he'll sell her. Marriage shouldn't happen like this," she says they yelled. Two male neighbors threatened to hunt down Saumil and to douse Zarina with acid. The whole community's honor is at stake, they told her.
"We were just trying to be happy," Saumil reflects now. "How can this happen?"
Zarina is locked up in her family home
By this point it's 2018, three years into Saumil and Zarina's relationship.
To appease the mob outside their home, and possibly even save their daughter's life, Zarina's parents tell her they have no choice but to physically stop her from seeing Saumil. So she says they lock her up in their house — unable to go to work, or even outdoors unsupervised. And they confiscate her phone.
But what they don't know is that Zarina has a backup — an indestructible old Nokia brick phone — left over from work. She powers it up in secret, charging the phone in the bathroom whenever she takes a shower.
For two months, her parents set about arranging a marriage for Zarina to someone else. They vet suitors and correspond with their parents.
The whole time, Zarina is able to keep texting Saumil without them knowing.
"I was just doing everything that was being asked of me. Prospective grooms were coming to meet me, even though they knew that I loved someone else," Zarina explains. "Then one day, my mom said a match had been made. They're coming on Sunday."
On the outside, Saumil is doing everything he can to free her. He calls the police but gets the runaround. He has such faith in the system that he writes letters to Prime Minister Modi himself. Saumil knows the Indian Constitution protects an individual's right to choose their partner, even if it's not the norm. Modi's office replies, but with a referral right back to the same police who were useless.
"Even they don't have open minds," Saumil laments. "The local officers said, 'Look, it's our duty to help you, but what you're doing is wrong. You should not be marrying a Muslim."
Out of options, he remembers a hotline he's heard about on TV for couples in trouble: the Love Commandos.
He decides to call. On the other end of the line, the group's founder, Sanjoy Sachdev — the same man he'd seen on TV — tells him that if he and Zarina can get to the capital, New Delhi, he'll give them a place to stay, get them police protection and get them married.
It's almost too good to be true.
The Love Commandos help them escape
But first, Saumil has to somehow free Zarina — and time is of the essence. Because after two months of keeping the Nokia hidden, Zarina mistakenly leaves the charger plugged into the bathroom wall. Her mother spots it and confiscates it. She suspects Zarina has a phone somewhere, but she's unable to find it.
Zarina has three bars of battery left on her old Nokia. Each bar lasts about a day. So that's three days left with any lifeline to the outside world.
With the clock ticking, Saumil jumps into action. He buys them both new clothes. (He correctly guesses her size.) He also buys a motorbike to be their getaway vehicle. And he figures out when Zarina's brother — who works at the airport — will be on duty and books flights to Delhi outside of those hours, when they won't be spotted.
On the second day, with two bars left on her phone, Zarina has dinner with her family.
"I sat with my family. I spent time with them. We ate dinner together," she recalls. "And then I realized, tonight I will run away. It has to be now."
At night, Zarina's parents check on her every few hours. She figures she has a window between 2 a.m., when they check to see that she's asleep, and 5 a.m., when her grandmother wakes up.
The 2 a.m. check happens. She pretends to be asleep, then pulls out her phone and texts Saumil. "I'm ready," she writes.
Across town, Saumil slips out of his parents' house, grabs a backpack with their new clothes, and hops on the motorbike. He cuts the engine at the end of Zarina's road, rolls up silently and texts back: "I'm here."
"If she'd changed her mind, I might have been killed," Saumil says.
Zarina gulps a glass of water, looks around the house she's grown up in, and steels herself. She's emotional.
"In the beginning, I used to feel like maybe I'm being selfish, for loving Saumil and pursuing my own happiness. But at that moment, I thought, this is not selfish. This is my dream and this is my right," she recalls. "I am no one else's property. I am old enough to understand what is right and wrong for me. I suddenly felt this power."
With that, she tiptoes past her parents' bedroom and out of the only house she's ever called home. She tosses her birth certificate and school records over a tall fence encircling the house.
When Saumil sees them land outside, where he's waiting, relief washes over him.
Then Zarina does something she'd trained for the previous day. She backs up, takes a running start, and leaps over a locked gate in the fence — a feat she'd passed off as an innocent game to play with her niece.
As she hears her father stir, on the other side of the gate, she climbs onto the back of Saumil's motorbike, wraps her arms around his waist, and tosses her almost-dead phone into the bushes.
I met Zarina and Saumil a few months later, in September 2018, at the Love Commandos' safehouse. They were one of those four couples blinking in the light when I opened the door.
By then, they were married. The Love Commandos handled everything: a quick religious conversion for Zarina and then a rushed wedding. They circled the sacred fire several times, anointed each other's foreheads with vermilion paste and draped borrowed garlands on each other's necks. (With a religious wedding, rather than a civil one, they could get married right away, avoiding the 30-day waiting period required by the SMA.)
It was strange, if empowering, to do it without their families.
Newlywed Saumil talked about all the possible places they might settle down and restart their lives when they got out of the shelter. Maybe they'd live amid palm trees, he told me.
But when Zarina told me her future looks "very bright," she spoke in a whisper, clinging to Saumil's arm. The woman who'd suddenly felt power had been broken. They'd had no contact with their families.
To avoid spoilers, I won't tell you here what happened to them at that shelter. We've made a whole podcast — NPR's Love Commandos — to unpack that.
But I can tell you there was trauma, and yet another escape. It has all left me wondering just how much adversity any relationship can take.
"We'll just have to decide where to go!" Saumil told me that day, beaming.
It's so poignant to think of his optimism back then, knowing what I know now. Because their ordeal was far from over.
And it wasn't Saumil and Zarina who would decide where they'd go next. It was their families.
An unexpected death
After several weeks in the safehouse, Saumil and Zarina decided to settle in Mumbai, India's commercial capital. That happened to be where I was living, and I was thrilled to meet up with them there, in such different circumstances than the grimy safehouse where we first met.
But I almost didn't recognize Zarina on that second meeting. Her voice had gained volume. Her shoulders were back. She was proud and strong, and I enjoyed her company immensely.
They'd rented a flat in the same neighborhood as another couple they met in the shelter. They had friends, in an exuberant new city, and were looking for jobs.
Until an Instagram message changed everything.
They hadn't talked to their parents since they ran away. The Love Commandos encouraged them not to. It takes three years, Sachdev estimates, for families to cool down and learn to forgive.
Zarina had left home without a phone, so there was no way for her family to get in touch. But Saumil still had his, and he kept silencing his father's calls.
At this point, he wants to let his father know that he's safe and that he and Zarina are married. He hopes his father will forgive him for running away without notice. He's sure his parents will love Zarina, once they get to know her. He wants that to happen soon. He won't wait three years.
Saumil tells himself he'll just wait until the Indian festival of Diwali, a few weeks away. Then he'll return his father's calls. By then, they'll probably have new jobs and happy news to report, he reasons.
But Saumil never got the chance. His father died of a heart attack in late 2018, just after the couple arrived in Mumbai.
He found out about his father's death in a roundabout way and didn't believe it at first. It was a rare rainy autumn day in Mumbai. And Saumil's cousin sent him a direct message on Instagram.
"I thought it might be fake news, to get me to call them back. I was hoping that was the case," Saumil recalls. Sachdev had warned him of tricks like this.
So he asked for proof. His cousin sent back a photo of his father's dead body.
Overwhelmed, Saumil finally called home. Relatives described his father's final days: He'd been tracking Saumil's bank card online. He knew his son was in Mumbai and was excited for him. He talked about going to visit for Diwali. But he was so hurt that Saumil still hadn't called. He missed him terribly and was losing hope. He died — literally — of a broken heart, they told him.
"He was really, really missing me quite badly," Saumil says. "I could have saved his life, with one phone call."
The dread he absorbed that day has never really gone away. It makes him reevaluate his life decisions.
"I never wanted to leave the family home. I'm just not that kind of person," Saumil explains. "But I found myself in a situation where I would have had to abandon someone I love. I didn't want to choose."
It feels so unfair.
Home for the funeral
What Saumil does next is either an act of supreme love or incredibly reckless.
He reverses his escape and books a trip back to Gujarat, to the city where police ignored his pleas, where acid-wielding angry neighbors may still be waiting. And he takes his new bride with him.
For me, this is Saumil's own leaping-over-the-gate moment. It's when he rejects the unfair choice the universe tried to force him to make. Instead, he takes a running start and goes for extreme compromise. He's determined not to choose. He grabs at both his love and his family.
"I had to lose my father to get here. But I cannot lose anyone else," he vows. "It's my job now to keep everyone together."
So he goes home to Gujarat as both a newlywed and a dutiful son, and he leads the funeral rites for his father. He and Zarina stay with his extended family for 15 days. His uncles receive them at the same airport they sneaked out through only months earlier.
"I never said this to Saumil, but deep inside, I felt like I might be the reason for his father's death," Zarina admits. "On the plane, I was thinking, 'How will I face everyone? Will they accept me, or will they force me to go back to my parents?'"
Whatever was going to happen, they had to go back. "We had to face everyone," she says. Because family is ultimately everything, she believes — even though she's still partially estranged from hers.
In their grief, Saumil's relatives were kind to Zarina. They didn't blame her. They hugged her, cried with her, and welcomed her into their family. It's almost like Saumil's father gave his own life to fix his son's.
"My relatives all say, while he is already gone, he has still saved you," Saumil says. "It is a big, big gift."
Happily ever after?
Since then, Saumil and Zarina have devoted themselves to the daily work of this compromise between duty to their families and desire for their own life. Sometimes it feels like penance for a few months of young love. At other times, it feels like Saumil's father is guiding them toward a true Bollywood ending.
Zarina and her mother-in-law are close. When I visited the couple last, in 2019, Saumil's mother was there, and she and Zarina made me a berry smoothie together, giggling the whole time, in the kitchen.
"I feel like a daughter again," Zarina says.
She wears a mangalsutra, a special necklace worn by Jain or Hindu wives. Saumil has fasted for Ramadan with her.
In late 2020, they welcomed twin baby girls.
Zarina still hasn't totally reconciled with her parents. They're in touch by phone but haven't seen each other in person yet. It's the wider community Saumil and Zarina still worry about. The memory of those neighbors with acid is hard to shake. As a couple, they've been through so much. They're craving calm and want to protect their daughters. Saumil's relatives advise him not to rock the boat.
But once in awhile, he overhears Zarina crying, privately. Her parents have only met their grandbabies over video calls.
"I have never seen such a strong person in my life," Saumil tells me, about his wife.
Even in cases where they're not estranged from their parents, it strikes me that it's the brides who are usually the ones who experience loss in an arranged marriage. They typically move in with the paternal in-laws, who gain a daughter.
For years, Zarina has imagined a reunion with her parents. They'll travel to meet in a park or garden — a public place — and take it slowly. Maybe Zarina will go solo, and then Saumil will emerge from behind a corner, with flowers and their daughters. There will be tears and laughter. She plays it over and over in her mind, how it'll go.
Every few months, I text Saumil. Any luck with Zarina's parents? Any meetings planned?
"I miss my mother's breakfast, and my niece's love," Zarina tells me. "And then I look at Saumil, and I get strength. I had no other crush in my life than him. He is my first and my last."
"And a love story that doesn't have obstacles is not a love story," she says.
Former NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this story. contributed to this story
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.