Mahesh and Harini* are husband and wife. They are both in school, in Class 12 and 10 respectively. And they’ve met only once—on their wedding day four years ago.
Despite the fact that child marriages are illegal, India has the highest number of child brides in the world. For many communities, the tradition is deeply ingrained, persisting despite efforts by the government and various NGOs. The Rabari tribal community in Gujarat, to which Mahesh and Harini belong, is one such community.
Harini was 11 when her mother and aunts dressed her in a small, bright red lehnga and choli and brought her out to meet the groom’s party. He was dressed in a new pair of trousers and shirt. The baraat was welcomed in the bride’s house and served light refreshments.
The wedding took place according to common Hindu rites, followed by a feast. The only remarkable thing about it was that both the bride and groom hadn’t attained puberty, let alone legal marital age. Afterwards, they went back to their own homes and lives.
Mahesh, 17, is currently studying science in a private school in Ahmedabad, while Harini, 15, attends an all-girls school. Once she finishes college, she will go and live with her in-laws. VICE spoke to the couple separately over the phone about their wedding day, and what it’s like to be married when all your friends are just discovering dating.
“My wedding is a blurred memory now. I had never seen Mahesh until our wedding day and I haven’t seen him since then. I do sometimes look at his photos on Facebook, but we rarely talk on phone. My parents go to visit his house but I never do. I can imagine it to be very awkward and embarrassing.
“When something like this happens to you, you grow up quickly. There is no childhood left for you. It is a life of bearing responsibilities. I have read a lot about why this happens in our community, but found no sound reason. Instead, I’ve only come across chilling incidences of betrothal at infancy.
“Sometimes I read in the newspapers about how mass-child marriages are stopped by police or social workers. Because of this, families do not make much of a hullabaloo about the whole thing. If, sometimes, the police come to stop a marriage and the family is rich, they send the police away by giving them a lot of money.”
“Everyone in my class knows about my wedding, because I go to an all girls’ school. But no one else is married because I am the only Rabari girl. A lot of my friends worry that they don’t have a boyfriend—or those who have one worry about why isn’t he talking to them. They cry when their parents don’t let them go on school trips as if it is the end of the world. To me, it all seems very benign because I haven’t got long before I go to my in-laws.”
“I got married when I was in eighth class. Harini, my wife, was in sixth. I had no idea what was happening to me or around me. On the wedding day, I’d woken up to find the house filled with close relatives, but I didn’t know why they had come. My mother seemed very happy as she dressed me in new clothes.
“This is how it happens in Rabaris. Rabaris are actually a nomadic tribal community, mostly living as cattle and camel herders and shepherds in rural Gujarat. However, my grandfather had the chance to go to school, because of which he later secured himself a government job. Our family moved to Ahmedabad from our ancestral village, but continued to follow the traditions. It was my grandfather who arranged my marriage to his close friend’s granddaughter.
“Not everyone knows about it in my class. Only my friends who live near my house do, because they saw me when I’d arrived home after the wedding, decked up in a garland with kohl smeared over my upper lip to make it resemble a moustache. Sometimes they tease me, saying I don’t need to make any effort to find a girlfriend as I already have a wife!
“But only I know how it really feels. In everyday life, I often forget that I am married, but when I think about it, I feel slightly scared. I don’t talk to other girls because I don’t want to fall in love with someone else.
“Unlike my classmates who are still figuring things out, I have clear goals. I ought to. In no later than five years, my wife will come to live with us and I must be prepared for it. How long will I keep living on my father’s money?”
*Names have been changed.