This piece is an edited version of an interview with Richa Khobragade, done by Jyotsna Sidharth of Project Anti-Caste, Love.
Illustrations by Sanika Dhakephalkar
I was a studious child. I always topped in school and secured a merit rank in the State Board, so the news papers would mention me. In the small Maharashtra town where I grew up Buddhist, from a scheduled class community, people recognized my parents by my name. But when I was in the 11th grade, my father passed away suddenly. It was a shock. He was just 41. Everything changed.
My relatives abandoned us. My mom stopped leaving the house or dealing with the world. At that time we didn’t have the awareness to know that this was depression. For me, it was like I lost both my parents. As the eldest of three siblings, I somehow took on the role of father in my family. I had to take all the major decisions for my family. I had nobody else to discuss my own life decisions. And over the years, I came to feel like I am the only one I have.
I left home to study engineering and began to live in a hostel where I met many girls from different states and financial backgrounds. Watching them I would feel: their way of living is so different from mine. They are having fun. They want to enjoy college life. And here I am, this responsible child, focused on studies. Soon that turned into a conflict of two voices in my head. One that said it is okay to have fun sometimes. The other, stricter one, saying, just study, you have more important things to achieve in life. When I look back now I understand that I was expecting so much from my 17-year old self. Every girl in our class had a boyfriend too. But in my head It was a bad thing to have a relationship with a guy. I think my struggle with mental illness began then, where I was suffused with this sense of missing out on so many things.
But, then, I moved to a bigger city, where it seemed like a new start. And somehow I thought: Okay. Here, having a boyfriend, a relationship, dating is acceptable. Soon, I struck up a friendship with this guy in my class, but over two or three months we developed feelings for each other and started dating and everyone around us knew about it. Our relationship lasted ten years, after which he broke up with me.
Perhaps because I felt so lonely and abandoned due to my history, I guess he became my support system and I thought he won’t ever betray me or abandon me. Things were good with us.
After we graduated, we ended up getting jobs in different cities – I got an IT job – and our relationship became long-distance. But by then we had been together some years, and I naturally began to ask him when we would get married. He avoided the question or gave weird, indirect answers.
When we first met he had once told me, “I am very obedient and I won’t go against my parents wishes and all.” Now when we started dating I did not know he is a Brahmin. And I don’t know if he knew about my caste or not. But once our identities were clear, I sensed that this could somehow affect the future of our relationship.
Today I am very upfront about my identity. But back then…in my hometown I had so many negative experiences where my being Dalit was invoked. If I scored good marks they would say it is because of your caste. If I did a good assignment, some of my classmates would say: “achcha isko scholarship mila hai kyukni iska caste hai” (“oh she’s a scholarship student”) – meaning reservations. So I tended not to be vocal about my caste, though my surname gave it away. I realized he was Brahmin quite some time after we began dating, but I did not proactively tell him about my caste.
In Maharashtra, Dussehra is celebrated as Dhamma Parivartran diwas, when Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. That day, when we met, he said to me, “Jai Bhim”. In my head I was like “oh god he knows”. But it was never brought up by either of us, but It was understood. It was sub-text. I know he is Brahmin and he knows I am a Buddhist.
When my mom got to know about this relationship, she was very upset. It was a very violent episode – she hit me. She said “I sent you to the engineering college to study, hoping you would get a good job and then take care of the family. But look what all you are up to. He is a Brahmin. He will definitely leave you.”
His family still did not know about us at that point. 6-7 years into the relationship my relatives started to pressurize my mom about getting me married. So I told him let’s get serious and talk to your parents. His parents were most upset about the caste thing. I still remember this statement of his father’s: “Koi Maratha ya OBC bhi kar lete tum toh chalta. Lekin SC nahi honi chahiye kyunki woh log Brahmins ko hate karte hai aur woh Brahmins ko gaali detein hain. Hum samaaj main kisi ko moun nahi dikha sakengey”. (A Maratha or OBC woman would still be fine. But not a scheduled caste/Dalit, because they hate and abuse Brahmins. We will have no standing left in society). This went on for about six months. Initially it was about caste. When my boyfriend didn’t budge, then they said it was difference in upbringing, then difference in culture and many such things. When he remained resolute, they said let us match horoscopes and see then.
Now, we don’t observe these practices – I didn’t even have a patrika. One day, quite casually, he asked me for my time of birth. I asked my mom and told him, never imagining it would be used to match horoscopes. Then they got an astrologer to make my horoscope, and took my boyfriend to meet him. They said, look we’re laying it out before you. The dashas are not matching or something – tumhari death ho jayegi, tumharey parents ki death ho jayegi, tumharey jo bachchey paida hongey unko defect hongey, mare hue bachchey paida hongey (this marriage will bring bad luck. You will die, your parents will die, your kids will be stillborn or have birth defects etc.)
He ignored them, still. They roped in his entire extended family. His aunt, uncle, maama log were calling and saying: aisa kaise kar saktey ho? Khaandan ka naam mitti main mil jayega. Tumse yeh umeed nahi thi ( how can you do this? We never expected you will ruin the family name thus).
I became very disturbed and had a second episode of depression. By now my mom had come round, but there was an added complication on my end. I’m the eldest right? And I was refusing all the rishtas that came my way, right? My relatives were sniffing around, my mom was getting impatient. Then my younger sister said she didn’t want to wait for her marriage indefinitely till mine happened. So my mom gave me an ultimatum: get married or I get your sister married before you. I said alright and they went ahead. But for my extended family, it was a shocking event..
Meanwhile my boyfriend’s behavior started to change. He started dropping hints, that this is not going to work out, to make excuses, my mom still isn’t ready to meet yours, my dad is so old, my parents are getting older, so how can I break their hearts at this age? It was going round in circles. I thought sometimes of breaking up but then I’d think, well he is in a complex position too. And I waited.
In truth, I couldn’t imagine my life without him, after ten years together. I hated myself for not being able to break up with him. I was on antidepressants. And one day he came and said, “this girl from my office has proposed to me and I said yes.”
I mean, how is it even possible! He actually had this affair with a married woman from his office while he was still in a relationship with me. Then he told me we can’t be together now because I said yes to her and she is going to divorce her husband and we are going to get married. And I am like and your parents are ok with this? The woman was a Brahmin but older than him.
Eventually he didn’t marry this woman. He married someone else. I don’t know her caste. Only, that it was also a love marriage and this time his parents were okay.
It was a very hard time in my life, trying to come to terms with the fact that he has left me for someone else. I felt lost. I went on Tinder and slept with many guys, had multiple one-night stands, I thought little about my own self – till I felt that he was completely out of my head.
A couple of years later, I met a guy on Tinder. He was sensible, different from other guys, very supportive. It started really as a casual friendship and after three or four months we started to date. It was a very different relationship than my previous one. He was younger than I and from a different state, and also a very privileged background. And I would say, he was the first person to actually accept me the way I am, without baggage, or seeing me as damaged goods and all that.
He was the person who actually helped me realize that it is okay to embrace my Dalit identity, or to stop hiding that I come from a poor background. It went well for a few months. But then he started to have some problems (unrelated to us) at home and was often disturbed. So he told me that he didn’t think he was in a place to make a long term commitment, and it might be better to break up now, because there was a chance then that I meet someone else. We are still in touch, we are friends. He is not seeing anyone. I’m not seeing anyone.
You know, in a hypothetical scenario, if caste were not a factor, I would have been married to my first boyfriend because there was no other issue – job, looks, class..
For the longest time I blamed myself for my heartbreak. I felt there was something wrong with me that caused me to be dumped. But I’m learning to rewrite that story and I know that it wasn’t a 100% my fault.
Everyone around me is married now and I would like to be married too. After my breakup I had a lot of rishtas coming my way. But I can’t have an arranged marriage – I am not the one who can fit into that particular role of a wife who will do cooking cleaning and also work. I see my sister doing these things and I can’t do those things. I guess I am a romantic.
What is romantic? As a Dalit woman, if you asked me how I imagine an ideal romantic relationship, I’d say, it really should not matter where we come from – caste, income, religion. There should be acceptance and respect. There should be personal space, there should be freedom. A sense of self even in the relationship, I shouldn’t lose myself. There should be trust and there should be love and care.
A relationship where my thoughts and opinions matter is romantic. It’s about the two people involved, about how they are at that moment.
As a person, I’d say I’m very monogamous – when I’m seeing someone I am really into that person and I don’t look around. But when I’m single and then I like to keep my options open. For instance, till now I have not been attracted towards women, but who knows?
If I meet the right guy and he is ready to accept me the way I am then okay I’ll think about marriage otherwise I have made my peace with the fact that maybe I end up alone and even then I will be fine.