In a society where the dice is heavily loaded against them, the differently-abled find that the insensitivity and ignorance they battle daily get amplified when it comes to romance and marriage. Gargi Gupta gets a sense of the challenges they face and how they cope
Preeti Monga was just six years old when she lost her vision. What followed next is a story more or less common to most differently-abled people in India – or used to be back in the 1960s, when Monga was growing up in Amritsar. She was chucked out of school in class VIII, and married off at 23 – "’Arrey, hamare baad koi toh ho isko dekhne wala (There should at least be someone to look after her after us),’ my parents thought," says Monga.
Except that it didn’t happen that way; her husband turned out to be abusive and a compulsive liar. That would have stumped many a woman, especially a visually-challenged one with two children. Not Monga. She got back to school, sat for the class X board exams via open school, learnt aerobics and started her own classes. Then, after becoming economically self-reliant, she filed for a divorce. "But I didn’t want to spend my life alone. I wanted romance, I wanted a partner," she says with disarming candour. And so, she proposed to a colleague she liked. Monga, at the time, was sales manager with a pickle brand. "He was ten years younger and said no. So I asked him again and again every day for 22 days until he said yes," she laughs. "When you want something, you should be ready to go for it. There’s nothing to feel shy about."
Preeti and Ashwini completed two decades of marriage this September.
It’s a heart-warming story, but Ashwini Monga is an exception in a country where the differently-abled battle staggering degrees of insensitivity and ignorance, attitudes that get amplified manifold when they seek a partner, someone to fall in love with, or marry.
More hurdles for women
Sweta Mantrii, a 29-year old freelance writer, editor and documentary filmmaker in Pune who has spina bifida, a condition where the vertebral column bones do not cover the spinal cord entirely. Mantrii studied in a regular school, has an MBA in communications management from a reputed private institute, worked and lived by herself in Mumbai for a year before coming back and has many friends, male and female. Yet, six years ago, a distant relative, presumably invited by her parents to help in their search for a groom for Mantrii, asked her to "Show me how you walk".
That was about six years ago, and her parents are still at it. Mantrii isn’t against marriage; she would like, like many girls her age, a partner, home, love, companionship. But it’s been a difficult quest marred by rejections and jolts to her self-esteem. Families of prospective grooms, says Mantrii, have "implied" to her parents that they expected a financial incentive in exchange for marriage.
"The problem is our social conditioning. Even men with disabilities expect to marry an able-bodied woman," says Versha Kewalramani, 29, a corporate lawyer in Mumbai who has a rare skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa, characterised by skin blisters. Kewalramani speaks of a gendered bias in marriage prospects of the physically-challenged. "While a man, if educated with a well-paying job, expects to marry an able woman, a woman is expected to only marry someone with a disability," she says. Kewalramani, by her own confession, has a "liberal, well-to-do" background, grew up in cosmopolitan Mumbai, went to a regular school and has a mother who pushed her to go out, travel the world, get a career and be independent. She’s just broken up with an able-bodied man she’d dated for a few months. This was her second boyfriend – her first had been a differently-abled man with whom, too, she broke up after a few months. "We found that we our personalities didn’t match," she says.
Romantic liaisons such as Kewalramani’s, with or without marriage in mind, may be fairly common especially among white-collar professionals in cities, but it is practically unthinkable for the differently-abled. As Mantrii found to her cost, her able-bodied male friends were fine with friendship, but were hesitant when it came to romance.
For those from somewhat conservative backgrounds, it’s often their own inhibitions that get in the way. "Unfortunately, most differently-abled people have a poor sense of dignity and self-worth, which gets in the way of finding happiness with a partner. And it’s the parents themselves who are responsible for not giving them a sense of self-confidence. Disabled members of a family are often not invited to come out and interact with visitors – as if they are a shame on the family," says Monga, who also counsels the differently-abled, including couples. "If their own families don’t give them confidence, then how do you expect them to overcome their inhibitions and take a chance with happiness?"
Neha*, a 29-year-old accountant with a real-estate firm, exemplifies such diffidence. Polio-affected and wheelchair-bound, she is apprehensive about marriage. "At home, I have everything to cater to my needs. My family is sensitive and cares for me. I am independent. I don’t know whether another person or family can be as sensitive to my problems. I’d rather be unmarried than find myself in an unhappy relationship. I am lucky my parents agree with me about this," she says.
Women with disabilities may have the dice loaded heavily against them, but men also face constraints when contemplating marriage or finding a partner. Forty-one-year old Ankur Dhir, who runs a small stationery business in Delhi and suffers from muscular dystrophy, says the thought of marriage has until recently been far from his mind. "It’s not just my disability. I first need to earn enough to support a wife and family before thinking of such things," he says. "It was hard because my parents died when I was young and I had little support. It’s only in the last two years that I feel I have the income and a household to offer a partner."
Blame it on the infrastructure
Others like Jatin Agarwal*, a software consultant in a Gurgaon MNC, want a partner who understands them and share the same values. "I’d like to get married to a differently-abled girl because I feel only someone who is differently-abled herself can understand me. But I also would like someone who is educated and independent and will fit in with my family," says Agarwal, who’s registered on several matrimonial sites in his search for a bride.
"The problem, even in cities, is that there are so few places where the physically-disabled can meet and interact," says Kalyani Khona, co-founder of Inclov, a matchmaking app for the differently-abled and people with long-term illnesses. Inclov launched early this year and runs an off-line initiative, Social Spaces, where the differently-abled who’ve registered on Inclov can meet. Khona, just 23 years old, points to her own difficulties in finding a public space with requisite accessibility facilities for the event: "How many restaurants in the city have ramps and toilet facilities for the disabled, or passageways wide enough for wheelchairs? In a place like Delhi, there are just one or two like that."
The discourse on the differently-abled, says Preeti Monga, has until now been largely limited to inclusive schools and colleges and making sure they find employment. "These are important, but more important, I feel, are avenues for social networking. After all, what’s the point if you don’t have friends or a family to come home to?" she asks.
It is needs like these that Inclov are helping to meet. In just nine months, the app has notched up 4,000 registered members and brought about one marriage. Monga herself runs a similar initiative called Fusion, which brings together the differently-abled and able-bodied so they can network for jobs or romance.
These are, as yet, isolated and periodic efforts. Inclov has had six such meet-ups in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore, while Fusion meets have been held only in Delhi until now. But both Khona and Preeti Monga recognise the initiative needs to reach into small town India to be really effective. Inclov, for one, instituted an "ambassador" programme under which it will support anyone who volunteers to organise a Social Spaces meet-up. Monga, meanwhile, is trying to get the Rotary Club, with its wide network, to support Fusion so the differently-abled can take part in their meetings.
The idea is to get the differently-abled out and about, interacting with those like themselves and others, gaining in confidence. Marriage or romance can follow.
(*Names changed on request)