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Love in the Time of Bollywood

India's Strained Romance Revolution

A couple stands near the seafront during heavy rains in India's financial capital Mumbai June 7, 2008.
A couple stands near the seafront during heavy rains in India's financial capital Mumbai June 7, 2008. (Punit Paranjpe / Courtesy Reuters)

At nine every morning, Sana dons her burqa and rides pillion on her father’s scooter. He drops her off at the all-women’s college in Bhopal where she is completing a Master’s degree in English literature. On most days, though, Sana does not attend classes. Once inside the college gates, she throws off her burqa, changes into her “Westerns” (typically low-rise jeans and a fitted t-shirt), and leaves. Her boyfriend of two years, Aftab, picks her up on his motorbike, and they zoom off to spend the day together.

Sana’s hometown is the sleepy capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Situated on the banks of a glorious lake, Bhopal is beautiful. But it is known around the world for something else: an industrial disaster in 1984 that killed 2,259 people. Today however, Bhopal seems much like any other bustling Indian city. Next to sepia Mughal-era ruins are the familiar signs of urban development: glitzy new shopping malls, McDonald's, and bright new coffee shops, such as Bake-n-Shake and Cafe Coffee Day. These are the kinds of places that one can take a boyfriend when cutting class, and they are filled with young couples in love.

Despite the new additions to Bhopal’s landscape, though, it still is not easy to carry on an illicit romance. “I can never let my family find out,” Sana says. “If they do, they will drag me out of college and marry me off.” In fact, she has been betrothed to her cousin, a customary practice in her Muslim family, since she was 16. At the time of her engagement, Sana says, she was too young to understand what was happening. She was still in school and had, until then, led a rather sheltered life. She only realized the implications of her engagement after she began college. But by then, she had “adjusted” to the idea of marrying her cousin. In all these years, she has met him only twice. She is still expected to marry him when she graduates. Of her boyfriend, Aftab, she says, “I would love to marry him, but my family does not agree. He is Shia; I am Sunni. Also, he is unemployed.”

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