“I know it’s not so easy, but I want you to know that I can’t let them win. Your family is not my enemy and neither is your religion. I am not asking you to do anything, but I need to tell you that I have to believe that things will work out for us…”
In an age when handwritten love letters are rare, Jyotsna Siddharth documents rarity of a dual kind. Through her Instagram account (@projectanticastelove), she collates love letters written by those in intercaste relationships and marriages.
Because as personal as love is, it is political, she believes. “The experience of love is very personal; what you may experience in your relationship could be very different from what I experience, but there is an underlying commonality that ties both of us together in our experience of relationships. And that is our social upbringing; where we come from,” says Jyotsna over a phone call from Delhi.
“Whatever background we are born and raised in gives us an idea of what is desirable and whom we can fall in love with. These aren’t conversations we have in our families, of course, but these are (subtly) inculcated in us.”
Jyotsna’s Project AntiCaste Love looks at those amorous partners who have upended barriers of caste and faith. This particular series on the Instagram account, which invites couples to share their love letters and gives an insight into their experiences, was started in June.
She received letters from strangers every week and has featured 22 of them so far. Some in English, some in Hindi; some handwritten, some digital; some poems, some carefully worded letters of defiance and resistance, but most an emotional outpouring of the little, big and silly ways of their love.
The letters are sometimes signed and the writers tagged, but many choose to be anonymous: honour killings and prejudice is very much a reality in India. “Why are people barred from loving one another: that is the fundamental question that needs to be asked,” she says.
This is her fourth attempt to feature love letters. The Instagram account itself started two years ago, as both a personal and professional interest.
“It comes from my experience of having gone through abuse and discrimination in my own relationship,” she says, adding that she was also looking at the interplay of caste in romantic relationships for her yet-unpublished MPhil thesis.
It was especially after doing workshops with young people in colleges such as in Delhi University and Tata Institute of Social Sciences that she realised how accessible Instagram is.
The overarching goal for her, is to understand how social identities play out in intimate relationships and friendships. Which is why it is not that the letters featured need to explicitly talk about caste discrimination, but it is enough to “use the lens of caste to look into it, and know where they are coming from,” she says. “How many times do we even recognise that we are people with multiple identities?”
She has been examining this also by interviewing nine people, about their experiences of love. “The questions are not directly about caste, but it is interesting to take love as a medium to understand caste experience. Because all romantic experiences as far as India and South Asia are concerned, are caste experiences.” Another ongoing project, is one in which she has taken screenshots of dating app profiles in Tinder, Grindr and so on, “where we have been observing the use of symbols and signifiers associated with caste in people’s bios.”
As for this series on love letters, she hopes to provide people with a larger platform to share the deep intimacy in their lives. “It is to allow people to collectively get an insight into common vulnerabilities, build compassion, and realise that we are all going through similar pains and joys.”