As I write this piece, I look up to my right to see my partner watching TV, the cats snuggled up beside him, and I can’t help but smile to myself. In the last four years, this is the little haven that we have created for ourselves as a live-in queer couple and, yet, we wake up each day – slightly more afraid – of it being entirely snatched away from us.
The recent shocking news of the murder of Shraddha Walkar at the hands of her intimate partner Aftab Poonawala has opened up heated debates on Indian news outlets and the internet about the “dangers” of live-in relationships, and seemingly encouraged hate-mongering. So much so that young girls are writing and reciting poems at school assemblies that condemn couples living together without being legally married.
But in the process of collectively demonising live-in arrangements, everyone forgot to ask live-in couples themselves how they feel about their living arrangements, as well as the positive and negative aspects of staying together without getting married in a society as conservative as India.
Why do couples prefer live-in arrangements?
When VICE spoke to couples in a few Indian metros, who had chosen to cohabit without the marital tag, the reason for their choice seemed apparent. In most cases, it’s like a dry run to check if the arrangement works before getting married – similar to checking if the water from the shower is the correct temperature before you get under it.
Cat, who chose not to share her real name as she didn’t want hers and her partner’s extended families finding out about their living arrangement, is a 27-year-old from Bengaluru, who lives with her partner of the same age. “We had met only once, but I wanted us to live together to test the waters, since we were [already] in a committed relationship.”
For others like digital content creators Maitrayanee Mahanta, 26, and Avishruti Bora, 19, from Guwahati, moving in together seemed like a natural progression in their relationship, more so given the nature of their work. “We frequently assist each other with the various tasks involved in shooting videos and also collaborate [with each other]. So it’s a win-win situation for us,” said Mahanta. Also, since same-sex unions are still not recognised by courts in India, the most queer couples can hope for is a space of their own (and some sanity to boot).
For others, it might be a conscious choice to not want a manmade construct like marriage to keep them from living with the person they love.
"Our main reason for choosing to live in without getting married was that we don’t feel the need for the societal chaap (mark) of marriage,” said Rhea, a 27-year-old content creator who’s been living with her partner, Abhik, for a couple of years. “Also, my relationship with my family is a bit strained and I didn't want my partner to get involved in my weird family dynamics, which would’ve been inevitable were we hitched. This way, I don't have to go to his aunt’s third cousin’s sister’s wedding either or have to do things I wouldn’t want to just because I am the daughter-in-law."
Akanksha Awal, a fellow at the University of Oxford in England, who researches pre-marital intimacies in the Ghaziabad/Noida region of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, points out that “live-in” relationships are not a new phenomenon, especially among the lower-middle class.
Various living arrangements outside of marriage always existed in India. During the colonial period, however, these arrangements were delegitimised by law by the British government and the post-Independence Indian state. These relationships were sometimes in women-led households, as well as common among the Dalit and other lower-caste communities. “This historical context is important to understand why live-in relationships are demonised, as they symbolised downward caste and class mobility,” said Awal.
Marriages in north India follow the principles of hypergamy, a practice followed by mostly women, who are expected to marry up, in terms of both caste and class. So, live-in arrangements are seen as a deviation from the norm and also akin to the practices of members of the Dalit community.
“These arrangements threaten middle-class aspirations to move upwards,” Awal added. According to her, live-in arrangements are also a gradual move away from monogamy and heterosexuality in Indian society, and will only become more common over time.
What the Indian law has to say
Legally, nothing can stop a couple – straight or queer – from cohabiting in India. This was further solidified in 2010 when the Supreme Court of India dismissed 22 cases filed against south Indian actress Khushboo for allegedly promoting pre-marital sex among women in a 2005 interview. In fact, Article 21 of the Constitution of India safeguards our personal liberty, allowing us to live with whoever we choose to.
But while the law is okay with couples existing together without marrying, it’s often the societal gaze that still refuses to look beyond the shame of having sex, without first pinning a certificate onto it. But, as these couples share, the hope that two people who are in love can live together is a fairly simple one, complicated only by a generation that subscribes heavily to WhatsApp University.
Adulting for a change
The good thing about moving away from home, irrespective of whether for love or duty, is usually a step in the right direction. In a country like India, where mothers would literally carry their 30-year-old sons on their hips if they could, being independent is definitely a necessity more than a luxury. If you were to move in with someone, you’d absolutely pick up on the important cues that life throws at you in your attempts at being mature. You learn to plan your finances around rent, groceries, and other expenses, and realise that you can barely manage to make ends meet on your own. If that doesn’t prepare you for married life, nothing will. Moving in also means saving on rent and other living expenses, a major decision behind people choosing to cohabit.
Urmi Chanda, a 39-year-old activist-journalist, lives in Mumbai with her partner Geet Sagar, a 38-year-old freelance artiste. “The pandemic months were scary, but they were also formative for us as a couple. Getting to spend so much time together and seeing each other so closely helped lay strong foundations. Our (rather disastrous) experiments with cooking, our Netflix binge rituals, and adding homey touches to this apartment are among my favourite memories,” said Chanda.
The little moments
Amidst the chaos of setting up your life, being with someone you love is a reminder to slow down and smell the daisies once in a while, or whatever flower the two of you managed not to kill by waterboarding it. A live-in period is the perfect time to let it all hang out, the good and the ugly, and if they stay after that, they truly love you. I have ugly-cried so many times in front of my partner, in a way that only my mother has seen back when I was an infant, and he still finds me cute. These moments are worth cherishing in the long run.
Upaasna Rajaram is a 30-year-old content and brand head with a travel/tech company, who lives with her musician partner, 33-year-old Abhinav Krishnaswamy, in Chennai. She said, “Learning each other’s routines and pet peeves, even though we’d dated each other for years, is a major aspect of our living together. The most fulfilling thing we’ve done as a couple, since moving in, has been fostering 10+ dogs and getting a few of them adopted.”
Living in the same physical space as your partner contributes to emotional intimacy. As Mahanta said, “It feels different to wake up each morning next to your lover and to cuddle with them, or to smoke a cigarette together in the same bathroom, while the other is attending to nature’s call.”
The grand gestures
While doing chores together and enjoying the mundane is all fun and games, it’s imperative that going out of your way to make your partner feel special is always a good thing. In our case, my partner will go out of his way to book a special restaurant or pick a movie and keep it ready if I return late from work. The same is likely to be true for other couples as well, who figure out small ways in which they can make a big impact in their partner’s life. It’s obvious that if they left their family behind for us, the least we can do is treat them like our own private kings and queens.
One of the biggest crosses to bear for unmarried couples is finding decent accommodation and going through the same rigamarole of being asked if one’s parents approve (“Are you unmarried? Do your parents approve of this?”) and often being rejected (“No, we can’t give you our space.”).
So, unless you’re flushed with family money and are okay investing in property, the pain of house hunting – even in urban spaces – is a task. “House hunting in Chennai as an unmarried couple was awful despite both of us being UC (upper-caste), well-spoken, financially secure, and fluent in Tamil,” said Rajaram. “Eating habits and lifestyle choices are more scrutinised when it’s an unmarried couple, even if nothing changes after marriage.”
On the other hand, Cat and her partner had to pretend to be a married couple to even get a chance to look at properties. She said, “We went through a lot of rejections before we finally landed a 2BHK with the owner being fine with us being an unmarried live-in couple with a pet.”
Disha and Aashay, both advertising and film professionals, faced a lot of struggle themselves and had to develop a tougher attitude than most. They said, “At first, we were hesitant to share the fact that we’re unmarried with our brokers, but then we kind of used it as a ‘so, what?’. So, any time we were asked [about our relationship status], my reaction would be, ‘Yeah, so what? Will that be a problem, sir?’ Some brokers were actually okay with us lying just to make their commission.”
Disha added, “This one sexagenarian Sindhi Aunty was quite pleased with the fact we were doing this and was supportive of it, but a lot of societies actually have a strict ‘only married couples allowed’ policy.”
Moving into a housing society comes with its share of neighbours who love being up in everyone else’s business. “Are your parents alright with this?” “Why don’t you stay with your parents?” “Why not get married?” Uhmm, why don’t you look at your kid who is sniffing dog shit, instead?
As Rajaram said, “We even got rejected from a few houses because the neighbours and others in the flat had a problem with our situation. Society (both families and landlords) twists the arms of couples, where making a decision to have an independent life is met with so many challenges that many people, including friends, tap out and get married.”
Even after couples move in, these married familial types, be it landlords or the neighbourhood morality vigilantes, will find a way to make your life a living nightmare, so developing a tougher skin over time is the name of the game.
The ire of strangers is still fine, but our own kin can be the most tricky to handle. Cat said, “We both told our families that we want to live in the same city. After we came to Bengaluru, I told my mother that I am living with my partner in the same flat. She was obviously taken aback and she kept pressuring me to at least get married before I move in with him.” But she stood her ground, in spite of occasional pestering questions from her parents about getting married to save face.
Nivedha Venkatesh, who also lives in Bengaluru with her now-husband Nishanth Chandrasekar, both 29 year-olds, talks about her courtship period. “Very few of my extended family members knew about us living in as a couple. Our parents made it very clear that they would not tell our grandparents because they would start to put undue pressure on them to ‘get us married ASAP’ or that ‘this is not our culture or tradition’, ‘this is blasphemy’, or simply get upset about ‘how this generation is’.”
The constant uphill climb
Even after everything does work out, and all the walls are painted and postered, and the kitchen utensils are good to go, the main challenge still remains that the two people living in that space have to co-exist. Not just inhabit the said space, but also live and breathe down each other’s necks, sometimes unknowingly. Arguments are bound to happen, especially if two vastly different personalities want to be stuck together.
34-year-old Gurleen Arora and 42-year-old Winnie Chopra are a queer couple who live together in Mumbai and run the queer collective The Gay Gaze Bombay. They claim to fight like cats and it can turn toxic sometimes. “But neither of us back down or are willing to give up on each other,” said Arora.
Chanda said, “We’ve had our share of rather violent fights in the beginning of the relationship, while we were still figuring out each other's communication styles, traumas, and triggers. There have been cold silences and raging screaming matches. But as we learnt more about one another – sometimes with our own efforts, sometimes with a little help from a therapist – we understood how to navigate our conflicts better.”
Arora added, “Violence is a result of individual conditioning and trauma and has nothing to do with the two people living together. If you’re open to the idea of being independent, then you have to accept that life will happen to you. If you’re always scared of violence, then it’s best to stay with your parents as millions of Indians continue to do. But [it’s] not like that can’t turn violent.”
How can one safeguard themselves?
Most couples VICE spoke to made it clear that cases demonising pre-marital relations in the media is not reflective of how so many couples across the gender spectrum exist. That said, you should always look out for your safety.
As Awal points out, the way that Shraddha Walkar’s case has played out in the media feeds society’s fears of a breakdown of marriages, where the woman’s body is yet again politicised. She said, “In my research, I found that a number of educated, young women become estranged from their families over choice of life partners because their families violently enforce conformance with caste, class or religion-based marriages.”
In this scenario, relationships outside of the home allow women to access a life they desire. And women also leave their partners, even after being in a live-in relationship. The social opprobrium that plays out in the media and in conservative mindsets raises the issue of how dare a woman go against us.
Cat lays down a few pointers that have been passed on to her through friends and trusty channels. So here are a few simple do’s and don’ts:
- If it’s a new relationship, it’s best not to make huge deposits for an apartment when moving in together. It makes it difficult to walk out, if things don’t work out.
- If your partner is abusive towards you, let people in your circle know even if it is the first time it has happened. And try your best to move out as soon as possible. Someone who abuses you is not likely to change. Get the police involved if you need to.
- Keep finances separate. Don’t have joint accounts, at least until you’re sure you’re there. You can always use Splitwise or other free online tools to help you keep track of bills and other shared expenses. Financial independence makes it easier to walk out of abusive situations.
- Don’t ignore red flags. If you notice any, let your closest people know.
- Don’t let your partner isolate you from everyone else. Both of you should have a life outside of each other.
- If your partner is pressuring you into sex or sexual acts you’re not comfortable with, run away before it is too late.
These rules are simple and effective, and extend beyond the live-in situation. As Sagar rightfully points out, “It would serve you well to remind people that even in marital contexts – across social classes – there exists terrible violence against women, be it dowry deaths, honour killings, or marital rapes. These crimes often go unnoticed because they are carried out under the cover of a ‘respectable’ social institution, but can be equally heinous. Why consider a crime to be more morally problematic just because a piece of paper wasn’t signed?”