Sarika, 20, would prefer that her husband talk to her after he gets home from work in the evening. She says as much, complaining about his tendency to text his friends on Whatsapp instead. But Sagar, 26, retorts that he needs to relax after a long day at work. The couple live together in the village of Valva in the Sangli district of Maharashtra, where Sagar works as a manual labourer.
The two met the way scores of Indian couples do – their parents decided it was time for them to get married, and looked for matches. There would be nothing unusual about this, except that Sarika and Sagar both live with hearing and speech impairment in a country where people with disabilities are largely excluded from conversations about marriage.
The marriage market is ruthlessly transactional – it deals in markers such as caste and class, and the presence of a disability makes it, like so many other things, inaccessible. The stigma is so widespread that the government has even launched a scheme incentivising marrying someone with a disability.
When marriage does take place, it can take the form of mass swayamvars or proposals that problematically match only people with disabilities with each other.
Sarika and Sagar have been married for two years. Sarika confesses that she took some time to grow fond of Sagar. Her initial impression of him was marred by the skin colour bias that is widespread through India. ‘He is a little darker than I would like,’ she says. ‘But he works hard and is a kind man,’ she is quick to add. Sagar, on the other hand, says he liked Sarika instantly. ‘She was a simple girl who wore no jewellery. There was something about her that I knew was right.’
He describes their romance in a lot of detail. ‘She was hard to please. Initially, it was very difficult to convince her to come on long rides or eat bhelpuri with me. She always worried about money and what my mother would say. I used to tell my mother that we were going to the nearby Ganesh pandal, (but I’d) take her far away instead.’ He didn’t mind lying to his mother if it brought him and Sarika closer together, he says.
Sarika says they have been trying to conceive, but are having some difficulty. Sagar shakes his head, and says that they’re in no hurry.
Around 20 kilometres away, in Nandre village, Nilofer, 25, and Sharif, 26, who are both hearing and speech impaired, have a different story to share. ‘I had met five men before Sharif. Many of them could speak and hear. I feared someone who spoke and heard would eventually leave me for someone else. So I kept looking till I found Sharif,’ she says.
Sharif says he was in love with another woman long before he met Nilofer. Her family forced her to marry someone else. ‘My first love and I grew up together. She couldn’t hear or speak either. We walked to school and returned together,’ he says. Sharif gestures a broken heart and says he had to let her go when she asked her parents if she could marry him. Her parents were not willing to negotiate on the status of the family their daughter would marry into.
Sharif is from a modest background and didn’t have a big house. ‘The house you see now is new. We recently built it. Before this, Sharif had only a small house,’ Nilofer says, encouraging Sharif to reveal more details. They struggled to build a bigger house together, managing only after pooling funds from Sharif’s earnings, and contributions from both his father and brother.
Sharif and Nilofer were both fortunate to have access to schools that cater to students with hearing and speech impairment. They have both studied till Class 10 and often use handwritten notes to talk to each other. ‘When we fight, we always use sign language. But I like to write and talk to her. I even leave her (love) notes sometimes,’ Sharif says, coyly.
In a couple of months, he wants to buy her a new phone so they can communicate without any restrictions. Technology has made it possible for couples with visual and hearing impairments to communicate with each other across distance.
When Nilofer was pregnant and staying at her mother’s, their communication was monitored and facilitated by her parents. But when she gets her own phone, they will be able to speak freely either via text messages or through video calling, which they both are comfortable with. ‘She will message me when lunch is ready and I can come home from work to eat with her,’ he says, glancing at her.
Sharif is a trained artist; he paints pictures and the letters of the alphabet on school walls. Their house is decorated with his art work and her trophies from her days as an athlete. ‘I take videos and pictures of my work in the schools so she can see them,’ he says. He feels that he is happy in the larger house as it gives their child, who is three years old, enough room to play. Both of them are looking forward to their child going to an English medium school nearby.
Imran, 26, works in a dairy near his village Bendre, which is also nearby. Imran, Sharif and Sagar are close and often spend a lot of time texting each other. When Imran met with an accident, his wife Aisha, 22, says Sagar was the first person to show up.
Imran was adamant that he wanted a partner who couldn’t speak or hear. His mother says he saw several women who could speak and hear but Imran threatened to never return from the dairy if he was forced to marry one of them.
‘I knew someone who could speak and hear wouldn’t understand me. She would agree at first and later be unhappy. But when I met Aisha I knew she would keep me happy. She has such a lovely smile,’ Imran says.
Aisha, who had seen three men before Imran, agrees with Imran. ‘One of them had a disability in his leg and the other didn’t have a ear; I was hoping to meet someone who was also hearing and speech impaired so we would relate (to each other) better. When I met Imran, I knew (I wanted to marry him) for sure. He was good-looking and sweet. He was educated like me. I thought we would be able to understand one another,’ Aisha says.
Imran and Aisha communicate via text messages when he is away at work. ‘I sometimes send him messages. I remember when we were trying to conceive, I sent him a message to tell him we had failed. He came home early that day,’ Aisha adds.
Imran and Aisha have a four-month-old baby together. When they agreed to marry, Aisha says she spent the weeks prior to the wedding knitting things for their new home. She made a case for a mirror, a wall hanging and even something for their future child to play with.
Aside from infrastructure and accessibility issues, people with disabilities all over India must deal with being infantilised and stigmatised all their lives.
Depending on their location and context, they can either be stereotyped as hyper-sexual or asexual. Women with disabilities are further marginalised, since they must contend with both patriarchy and ableism.
In this scenario, these couples have broken away from assumptions about the lives of people with disabilities and have charted their own paths towards each other.
In a world that seeks to rob them of agency, they have forged relationships and possibilities that are rich with agency.