When Sunil Gupta agreed to attend an HIV event in Delhi in 2009, he wasn’t expecting to meet his future husband. “I was diagnosed with HIV in 1995, and later became an activist. That’s why I was going,” he says. Sunil was attracted to Charan Singh the moment he saw him when they shared a ride in a lift. “I tried to get his attention by asking where the toilets were. It was a common chat-up line in London.” But Charan was none the wiser. “I had no idea what the reference meant,” he laughs.
While Charan was born and brought up in India, Sunil’s parents had left the country when he was young. “I had grown up as a gay man in Canada and London, so I had a different set of experiences and social norms,” he explains. “In 2003, I’d chosen to go back to Delhi to see what it was like to work and live there.” He found the city heavily segregated by class and caste.
When they met, Charan was a social worker living with his family, who knew he was gay. “But they did not really understand the concept of men living together as partners.”
Despite coming from opposite worlds, the pair exchanged numbers during the event. A few days after the conference, Charan visited Sunil at his home. “He lived in this posh neighbourhood alone and I was so nervous,” he says. “He was a photographer and I knew nothing about art.”
After the first meeting the pair began to date casually, visiting juice bars and local restaurants. “I could not afford to go to the same places as Sunil,” laughs Charan. “So we had to compromise a bit.”
Sunil says he was attracted to Charan’s good nature: “He was very sexy but also very honest and good. I just found him very easy to be around.” Charan says they were both curious about each other’s lives: “He had had this completely different life as a gay man in the west, which was fascinating.”
Although Sunil was HIV positive, this was never an issue for Charan. “As a social worker, I had a lot of experience working with people who had HIV. Lots of my friends were positive, too.”
But same-sex relationships in India at the time were not easy. “You could never get a lease together and if I went to hospital, Charan couldn’t visit me,” says Sunil.
In 2011, the pair were able to get married in Toronto, with support from two galleries that Sunil was working with on a photography project. “As a single man with no money, there was no way I’d get a visa,” says Charan. “But the gallery invited me over with Sunil, so I was able to go.”
After the wedding, Charan applied for a UK spouse visa, which would mean the couple could live together as a married couple in England. “When I was applying, I explained I was married and they kept asking my wife’s name. I told them about Sunil and I think they thought my English was bad,” says Charan. “The man on the desk was in shock when he finally realised I was married to a man.”
They moved to London together in 2012. While Sunil continued his photography career, Charan also decided to explore the arts. He completed an MA in photography, and the couple have since worked on projects together. In 2016, they created a series of portraits of LGBT people in Delhi, which was turned into a book.
Ultimately, the couple believe it is their differences and shared passions that have kept them together for so long. “We challenge each other every day, and we complement and learn from each other,” says Charan. “What started as something not very promising due to our different backgrounds became so much more,” says Sunil. “I am so glad we gave it the time.”
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