Indian Marriages Change
For better or worse
By: Anand Giridharadas
The Great Indian Wedding is succumbing to the Great Indian Divorce.
Few societies on earth take marriage more seriously than this one. Marriage comes early, sometimes even in youth, and is cemented by illegal dowries. Opulent weddings swallow life savings. So venerated is marriage that when bruised, beaten wives flee to their parents’ homes for sanctuary, they are often turned back, implored to make it work.
But now, in courtroom battles across the subcontinent, in cases brought by slum dwellers and outsourcing workers and millionaires alike, Indians are fighting in growing numbers to divorce. And as words like “alimony,” “stepchild” and “pre-nup” start to roll off Indian tongues, many observers bemoan a profound metamorphosis of values in a nation trotting toward new affluence.
“The great Indian family is definitely under threat,” said Shobhaa De, the author of Spouse: The Truth About Marriage and one of India’s most widely read social chroniclers. De, who divorced and remarried years ago, described the new ethos as “unthinkable to an earlier generation.”
Consider the microcosm of Mumbai. Since 1990, around the time that India opened its gates to the world, the annual number of divorce petitions filed in Mumbai has more than doubled to reach 4,138 in 2007, far outpacing population growth, according to data culled for this article from musty, hand-kept records at the city’s family court.
Or, to put it more vividly, Mumbai made divorces and divorcees of 30,000 more people in those 17 years than it would have had the annual rate of breakups held at the 1990 level.
Such detailed data are not compiled at the national level. But, according to a study of 2001 census data by two Indian demographers, Ajay Kumar Singh and R.K. Sinha, Mumbai’s divorce rate – with about 7 percent of marriages failing – is roughly on a par with that of other metropolises and not much higher than the national level, offering a reliable gauge of the national trend.
When SecondShaadi.com, an online matchmaking service for divorced Indians, made its debut last year, its executives assumed that most clients would come from big, cosmopolitan cities.
Instead, in a reflection of how widespread divorce now is, 60 percent of its more than 25,000 customers came from outside India’s five largest cities and 36 percent from outside the 20 largest cities, according to data provided by the company’s founder, Vivek Pahwa.
The divorce boom partly reflects changes that have made it easier to leave marriages everywhere: taboos waning, laws loosening and women gaining financial independence.
But there is perhaps another, more amorphous factor behind the change. Conversations with marriage counselors, divorce lawyers, social scientists and couples themselves suggest that, if divorce is rising, it is because of an underlying transformation of love.
Traditional Indian marriages had little to do with romance. Often but not always arranged, they were mergers between families of similar backgrounds and beliefs and their principal purpose was baby- spawning. Love was strong but subliminal, expressed not in hand- holding and utterances of “I love you,” but in a sense of mutual sacrifice and tolerance.
But in an India drenched in foreign influences – Hollywood in the theaters, teenagers named Sunita who call themselves “Sarah” and answer calls for Citibank’s American customers – an imported idea of love is spreading.
More couples marry today for love rather than for family duty, and even arranged marriages come with new expectations of emotional fulfillment. And it is this new notion of love, with the couple at the core, that makes marriage both more riveting and more precarious than ever before, many Indians believe.
“In the older situations, where it was the families coming together, maybe the couple tried harder to adjust, because they could not even think about getting out of the marriage,” said Freny Italia, a social worker in Mumbai who counsels divorcing couples. “It was for the sake of the family. It was for the sake of the children. There was a lot of giving and sacrifice. But now they say, ‘I’m an individual. I have my needs.’ “
This is acutely true of a new generation of women unwilling to do what preceding generations of women had been raised to do: adjust, to any length necessary, to save a marriage.
“Once a daughter is given in marriage, she is supposed to turn into an amoeba,” De, the author, once wrote.
But growing numbers of educated, working women, confident and financially secure, refuse to do so – and, increasingly, their parents back them up.
When Christina told her parents months ago that her marriage was sputtering, they responded in the traditional Indian way. They sent her back to her husband, telling her to make it work. It did not seem to matter that he was beating her, then throwing her out of the house in the black of night.
But Christina, who works in a technical-support call center in Mumbai for General Motors, was not willing to give up. She eventually found out her husband’s secret: He was, unbeknownst to most, gay. And when she told her parents, they eventually thawed, welcoming her back to their home and supporting her decision to divorce.
In the past, she said, a woman would have been forced to stay with a gay husband to preserve the family’s reputation.
“Now,” she said, “it’s different.” (Like most of those interviewed, Christina withheld her last name to preserve privacy.)
Another trigger of divorce is the inevitable tension between the new centrality of the couple, on the one hand, and the traditional primacy of a man’s relationship with his parents and siblings, said Sudhir Kakar, a leading Indian psychoanalyst and the author of The Indians: Portrait of a People.
In a recent case in Mumbai divorce court, a woman charged her husband with putting his parents ahead of her. The parents lived in the ground floor; the husband and wife lived in the apartment above. Every night, upon returning from work, the husband stopped at his parents’ home first and only then went home. He saw things through a traditional lens, with his wife as one in a range of family obligations. She desired to be the core of his universe, not unlike in the Western home.
To avert such family tensions, many young couples today do what was once scandalous in India: choose their own spouses and move away from their parents.
But this often encourages divorce in its own way, experts say, by cutting out the web of kin ties that once served to bind couples. Ever more couples marry people different from them instead of family- vetted spouses of like backgrounds, then compound the risk by living apart from their parents, socializing with friends rather than family and postponing parenthood – all of which reduce the social cost of abandoning a marriage.
Chitra and her husband invested everything in each other. Now 31, she is a Brahmin doctor from south India; he was a street vendor of Chinese food, from a different region and a lower caste. Her parents scoffed at her marrying a “Chinesewallah.” But she loved her Chinesewallah and that seemed enough. They put together $12,000 for a tiny apartment and lived on their own.
Four years ago, she became pregnant. Meanwhile, his business faltered.
Not to worry, she told him: She had a teaching job, and she did not mind buying fewer dresses. She loved him. That was what mattered.
But her husband’s stresses only grew, and he resented his upper- caste, better-educated, higher-paid wife. When they argued, he would say, “You’re earning too much, so you’re talking too much,” she recalled.
Living on their own, there was none of the clamor of the Indian family to distract them from their fights, no prying relatives to nudge them to reconcile.
One evening two years ago, as her husband poured a drink, she told him they should not waste their money on alcohol. He got up, put on a T-shirt, pulled money from a drawer and made for the door. “I said, ‘If you want to go, go. But don’t come back,’ ” Chitra recalled. “And I regret my words, because he never did. He hugged and kissed me, he kissed my daughter, and he never came back.”
She added, sitting in the courthouse where she had come for a divorce: “This could happen only in this current generation.”
Tell us: Is it positive or negative that American divorce rates are affecting other cultures?