Dating in Delhi when you're poor

Anuradha starts her day washing dishes, cups and cutlery in Sarita Vihar, one of New Delhi’s more affluent neighbourhoods. It is one of six apartments that she cleans every day. She mops floors, scrubs bathroom tiles, takes out the garbage and sweeps and wipes the apartment stairs.

People are silhouetted against the setting sun at a park in New Delhi March 10, 2010. REUTERS/B Mathur/Files

She likes to talk to herself while she works. Her employers joke about it, but it’s one way to get through the tedium that comes with spending the work day with her back bent over or on her haunches.

She meets her boyfriend on Saturdays. That’s her day off, she said as she mopped my apartment stairs. Where do they go? I asked her. What do they do?

“We generally go to a place which is far from my home. I borrow my employer’s cellphone to call him and decide our plans,” she said.

She’s the first woman from her family who makes her own money. They’re from Bihar, hundreds of miles to the east, and they’re conservative. In the capital, she prefers wearing jeans and short-sleeved kurtas like the “Delhi girls,” who they see at bus stops and on the metro trains; the ones who go to college and work in offices and set the fashion trends for a growing population of people from the countryside who are looking for work in India’s big cities.

Unlike those girls and so many other, richer people in Delhi, she and her boyfriend don’t have an option to go out for a date to places that most people who would read this story would go. The 23-year-old earns 8,000 rupees a month ($125) for her work. That’s what her employers can expect to pay for a single “date night” out at one of the city’s finer restaurants.

Delhi has a per capita annual income of 300,000 rupees ($4,615) - the highest in the country and three times the national average. But nearly half of the city’s population lives in slums without basic services and facilities like drinking water, garbage disposal or a proper drainage system.

These aren’t the people you will meet out at what online restaurant listing service Zomato calls a typical “romantic dinner” for a couple in Delhi, where the cost for two usually starts at 3,000 rupees ($47) and goes as high as 10,000 ($155), depending on where you go. A movie date with snacks can cost somewhere around 2,500 rupees to an upper-middle class couple.

For poor people, going on a date requires setting different expectations. Money, where to go and what to do, coupled with a lack of privacy in a densely populated place make for rendezvous that are no less romantic, but decidedly different from what many young people around the world consider a “date.”

Anuradha usually takes a bus to go to Kalindi Kunj Park or the ruins of the Tughlaqabad fort, both around four kilometres from her home, and that’s where she meets her boyfriend for dates. She lives in one-room flat in the Jhuggi Jhopri colony – a settlement developed by the city government near the easternmost edge of Delhi for poor people as an alternative to illegal slums.

“I don’t really want any expensive gifts, or to go to big restaurants. These things are superficial,” said Anuradha, who said she likes watching romance movies and is a big Shah Rukh Khan fan.

When she and her boyfriend meet, they talk about their lives and walk around the park, or eat aloo-chaat or golgappas at a roadside stall. Mostly, the boyfriend, who works as a helper at a general-provision store, pays the bill.

Then there is the story of Surender and Preeti.

“We used to gift each other colorful dhaga (sacred threads) or lockets bought from roadside vendors, meet each other on terraces in our colony and convey our messages through our younger cousins or mutual friends,” Surender said. “We used to meet in desolate lanes and ask the younger ones to be on a lookout. That was what we termed as a date. It was years before I took her to have a burger at a McDonalds’ outlet in Connaught Place. It cost me 60 rupees.”

Surender used to ask Preeti to meet him at a meeting point far from their homes. Dressed up in his best clothes, some cheap jeans and a shirt from counterfeit brands bought from Palika Bazaar, and wearing cologne, his priority was to plan their dates in a way to avoid Delhi’s infamous “eve-teasers,” men who sexually harass women on the street with leers, catcalls and often ironic serenades of lyrics from famous Bollywood film songs.

“I first saw her in a jagrata (all-night prayer ritual) in my colony and knew she was made for me. Though we used to stare at each other daily, I had to wait for another nine years before I could gather the courage to talk to her. I thought she was too beautiful to be with someone like me.”

Surender, now 30, won her heart through his romantic poetry.

Twelve years after they started dating, they married. The family disapproved. Surender’s grandmother and Preeti’s mother were from the same “gotra,” or clan. Hindu clans prohibit marriage within the descendants of an unbroken male line. (Marrying within the “gotra” is one of the primary reasons for recurring “honour killing” of lovers in India.)

The couple used to meet each other however they could — by bus, auto rickshaw and on foot. “I had a slightly well-off friend from whom I used to borrow clothes, money and often his bike. We never went to malls as everything there was out of my budget. I was also afraid that they would throw us out because we couldn’t speak English.”

The biggest problem for such couples is a space to meet. Between gossiping neighbours and disapproving family members, not to mention the ubiquitous “aunties,” (middle-aged women) dating can require one immediate commitment: taking the time to go somewhere far from where you live. Often, the destinations are Delhi’s parks.

Buddha Jayanti Park, Lodhi Gardens, Deer Park, Millennium Indraprastha Park, the Garden of Five Senses and Kalindi Kunj Park are some of the most popular “lovers’ parks”.

Tucked in the corners or behind the bushes are couples from different parts of the city; kissing or cozying up to each other under a shawl or a bedsheet. In the background in some parks are old Muslim tombs and gumbads (domes), trees and flower gardens, some stray dogs, children at play, old people taking their daily walks alongside tourists, and picnicking families. Everyone learns to take a peek and look away when they see a boy and girl à deux.

But even poor lovers face a tough crowd.

“Looks like all the dirt of the city assembles here only,” says a man sitting with his wife and three children under a tree in the Kalindi Kunj Park against the backdrop of the Delhi Eye, a 200-foot-tall ferris wheel.

Arun believes it’s the man’s persistence to woo them that matters to most women. “People from my strata don’t have the option to trust anyone quickly. How much a person can wait is ultimately the sign of their interest. We don’t swipe each other on apps,” he says while pointing to a cheap smartphone in his hand.

Even though China-made affordable smartphones are making inroads among India’s poor people, dating apps such as Tinder remain the province of wealthier people because of the social stigma associated with dating and premarital sex.

“High-profile people like you can go to restaurants or hotels. We have just parks”, says Arun, an 18-year-old commerce student. “Even places like McDonald’s are an option for the ones who have some cash. Most of my friends just take their girls to parks and treat them with jhalmuri (puffed rice mixed with spices). The girls also don’t have that many expectations.”

Arun sometimes gives his girlfriend a ring bought from the roadside or a simple greeting card, which cost around 10 to 20 rupees.

He also takes his girlfriend to parks and to the movies, but only on Thursdays when the ticket prices are cheapest as the demand for them generally dwindles on last day before the next film releases on Friday. The matinee shows on these “slow” days cost 100 to 150 rupees, and are usually cheaper than the evening shows on weekends – reaching up to eight times than what Arun pays. They refrain from buying overpriced snacks at the concession stands.

“A few people I know have collected money to give their girlfriends a mobile phone to talk to them. If the girl’s family gets to know about the secret phone, she gets beaten up by her parents,” he said. “The braver ones run away from home with their lovers. Every once in a while, these stories end up in suicides.”