Progress moves in mysterious ways. Just days after the Bollywood kissing scandal reminded the world just how straitlaced India's traditional mores can be, one happy couple is having quite the opposite experience. Wednesday the BBC reported that an Indian village in Orissa has given its blessing to a lesbian couple's marriage. Although Indian law still prohibits same-sex relationships, the villagers decided to flout local custom and federal law and make their own history. According to the article, sociologists say community blessing for same-sex marriage is "unheard of" in India. That it should happen in Orissa, one of India's poorest and least educated states, boggles the brain a bit.
It's all the more surprising given India's embryonic lesbian rights movement is but a lavender micron on the country's 5,000-year history. When Deepa Mehta's film "Fire," the story of two sisters-in-law who fall in love, appeared on Indian screens in the late '90s, the moment was hailed as a first for a lesbian community that had maintained an "almost secret existence." In 2001, a lesbian couple married in a Hindu wedding ceremony in a more modernized town, but the community hardly gave their blessing. Following the marriage, their landlord evicted them and neighbors voiced their disapproval.
What's intriguing about the tale of newlyweds Wetka Polang, 30, and Melka Nilsa, 22, is the courage they and their families displayed. Initially, the two eloped to another village, expecting that their neighbors would respond angrily. Their family members then went to battle for them (are you listening, Dick?) and persuaded the villagers to give consent to a formal wedding. One village elder told the BBC, "They [Wetka and Melka] wanted to prove that they can live without the help of men. They also love each other very much. So we decided to forgive them." We might quibble with this choice of words -- what's there to forgive? -- but the elder's focus on the women's love for each other seems remarkable, as if once confronted by a loving relationship, the logic of honoring that love was undeniable. The women, who have moved back to their village, are now hoping to start a family by adopting one of their nephews.
The blessing did come with strings attached. The women greased community palms with a barrel of country liquor, a pair of oxen, a sack of rice and a feast. But what's a little bribery in return for changing the definition of marriage? Considering that there's virtually no amount of money that could persuade Mary Cheney's community to sanctify her love, this story seems like a drop of enlightenment for our backward land.