Lionel Sonke, a 26-year-old engineering student of French-Cameroonian descent, has been going steady with beauty blogger Bharti Puri since they met on dating app in November 2014. And he’s keenly aware that his race opens them both up to attack. Public displays of affection are quite common among couples who are dating, even in strait-laced India. But for Lionel and Bharti, even holding hands in public is strictly off limits. And their romance has a raft of other rules. “We never hang around on the street or sit at street-food kiosks. We only go to restaurants or malls. In the metro, Bharti goes to the women’s compartment so that we’re not seen together,” says Lionel, who moved to Noida in 2014 to study at a private university. He’s now bought a bike so the two can travel together without this feeling of discomfort.
Bharti, who is of Naga-Punjabi (referring to the states of Nagaland and Punjab) parentage, says her family accepted the relationship but the backlash came from unexpected quarters. “A male friend advised me to stop seeing him. He said things like ‘Don’t you know what happens when you date a black guy? No one will marry you’,” she says. A neighbor accused Lionel and his friend of being “Muslim terrorists” and threatened to call the police when the two men were merely standing outside Bharti’s house waiting for her. “He said loads of offensive stuff,” she says.
She’s even got advice from strangers, like autorickshaw drivers who saw the couple at malls in Greater Noida. “Once when I took an auto alone, the driver started questioning me about my relationship with Lionel and advised me to stay away from him,” she says.
Lionel says he still hasn’t become accustomed to the eyes that follow him everywhere. “I barely went out during the first year. I never felt safe whether I took a bus or the metro, or walked down the street. People would always be staring,” he says.
Courtesy: The Times of India