The Rearranged Marriage

A new study shows that Indian women still bear the brunt of marriage but now they are also driving a tidal wave of divorce
When Binoy Gupta’s wife complained that he wasn’t giving her enough sex, he was flummoxed. “I tried my level best! I was young and I was doing everything, boss. But if she needs more after that, I can’t help it, can I?”
In 1993, Gupta was working at an advertising agency. They met in Delhi, at work. He proposed to her 20 days later and they were married, with his parent’s reservations, within the year. He’s Bengali, she Assamese. She wanted a separate nuclear household, they moved out of his parent’s place six months after marriage. “Mine is a happy-golucky, brilliant family, no issues, no tension, so I thought it was pointless to move out,” he says. “But there was a sexual angle. More men.” One day in 1995, the wife had a junior colleague over to the house. “I went for a shower,” remembers Gupta, “and when I came out there they were in bed together.”

Gupta’s wife pleaded guilty; her mother justified it as ‘normal’ while his father excused it as a one-time error. They reconciled. In 1998, they had a kid but Gupta was unsure if he was the father. Fifteen days later, his wife went to her parents in Guwahati and sent messages that she wanted to separate. She filed for divorce alleging dowry harassment and accusing her father-in-law of getting drunk and trying to molest her. The divorce came through four long years later, after multiple changes in the court bench.

In her new book  Love Will Follow: Why the Indian Marriage is Burning, Dr Shaifali Sandhya looks mostly at the female side of such stories. This is not ideological; according to her research on 400 cases of Indian couples conducted over 12 years, the Chicago-based psychologist and couples therapist concluded that Indian women still bear the primary burden of marriage. “It’s true that there were men in the study who were suffering as well,” Sandhya says, “who were agonising about their homes, who were crying in the shower, but these were outliers. I wanted to look at prominent patterns.”

Sandhya’s overall point is two-fold: one concerns the yet-incomplete revolution of Indian female emancipation, and the other is the double whammy hitting modern Indian couples. This second thesis suggests that Indian couples have new ‘Western’ problems of work, sex and money which they’re unable to handle since they’re saddled with prioritising older issues such as tackling in-laws, children and relationship status.

Sex has become a major relationship indicator for couples. Sixty four percent of respondents said sex was ‘very’ or ‘extremely important’ to their marriage, while a third reported not being sexually satisfied. Sandhya says new technologies like birth control pills and contraceptives have finally brought the sexual revolution to India. But these emancipated women still oscillate between the two poles of sexual naiveté (to fend off attention) and experience (to exercise power).

“Marriage was historically about families, but couples now want to form their own unique territory,” says Sandhya. “They’re looking at five things: love and companionship, status, parents, sexual satisfaction and children’s success. The biggest conflict is about love. Women want sharing behaviour 1.5-2 times more than men, who’re more passive and seek mental understanding. Women want love to be more active. That’s a new thing.” If this actually sounds rather familiar, it is. The book doesn’t as much throw up startling findings as it synthesises data and validates popular perceptions of urban middle-class marriage floating in the Indian ether.

DIVORCE RATES have increased ten-fold in the last two decades. According to the 2001 Census, 7 percent of Indian marriages dissolve. Most divorces occur in the 25-39 age group. Sixty six percent of American divorces are initiated by women while it rises to 80-85 percent in India. Globally, most couples consider their early married years the ‘honeymoon’ years, but for Indians they’re usually the worst. Newspapers report extreme rises in divorce rates across India: 350 percent in Kerala and 200 percent in Chennai and Kolkata. Delhi is reported as our ‘divorce capital’, with the most cases of any city.

The book accepts the 7 percent dissolution rate as low compared to Western ones and makes the case that divorce is not the only indicator of failing marriages, since historically most Indians have chosen to plod on with dysfunctional relationships. It describes two-thirds of all Indian marriages as ‘starter marriages’ which begin with good intentions but which end up with the man and woman on parallel, noncrossing life tracks.

Love Will Follow’s genesis was a chance conversation on a plane in 1997. The woman in the next seat narrated a harrowing tale of her marriage which was serene on the outside, and her discovery of her husband’s other family in London. Sandhya arrived in Delhi perplexed. Why had her fellow passenger stuck with her marriage?

Debating the value of marriage is almost a nonstarter in India, given its firm mythical grip as a simultaneous endpoint of successful grooming and the launch of a serene ever-after. The myth of a life-enabler stretches to the usual freak stories: an Oriya girl recently married a snake (absent); another was married to a dog (present); another married her potential husband’s corpse after his accidental death (hovering?). Lakshmi Mittal rents the Chateau Versailles and the Eiffel Tower grounds for his daughter’s wedding, while in rural India the net value of goods transferred in a daughter’s wedding is up to twothirds of the household’s assets. But it is the middle class that’s the engine of the annual 20-25 percent growth in wedding spending.

As modern liberations and cultural obligations collide, they place increasing stress on this same middle class — vaunter of the greater common denominator — that’s further fracturing young people’s behaviours. A young Hindu Punjabi friend comes home from university abroad to announce her love for a Pakistani boy and finds herself locked up in her room by her well-meaning parents in their Delhi bungalow. A young man accedes to his family, waiting a decade while they hunt for a girl willing to pay the right ‘price’ for him (meanwhile, he also gets a hair weave). A young Indian at Harvard is shocked when his girlfriend’s father demands he join his business as the price of courting his daughter. There are other reactions. The Supreme Court recently ruled that a husband and his relatives couldn’t be prosecuted for “cruelty” to his wife if the mother-in-law had “merely” kicked her or threatened her with divorce.

BLOGGER AMIT Varma has written of the growing divorce rate as a celebratory indicator of female empowerment. He says, “We’re taught bullshit like ‘you don’t marry an individual, you marry a family’. We’re taught to sacrifice our happiness to keep this family intact. Many women are becoming empowered enough to break away from this thinking and pursue their own fulfilment. This is one area where I applaud the West’s influence.” Aarti Mundkur, a lawyer at the Alternative Law Forum, Bengaluru, disagrees completely: “Rising divorce isn’t an indication of female empowerment, or of marriage being unstable, only that its stigma has eased. Women are able to split due to minor shifts in the law. Till recently, Christian women had to prove adultery to divorce. It’s just a bit easier to live alone, rent a house, work in new sectors. If these conditions had existed earlier, we’d have seen the same divorce rates.”

The ascendancy of love over family ties has been modern Indian marriage’s merry bugbear. Sandhya emphasises that marriages work when couples link their life stories, evoking a shared happiness. A duo’s happy memories need not be common, but they do need to involve each other. Marriage now competes with other kinds of coupledom – serial monogamy, serial adultery, live-in relationships, open marriages. And if somewhere love follows, elsewhere it fades. Ninety-four percent of Indian couples say they’re ‘happy’ in their relationships, but a majority say they would not marry the same person or marry at all if given a choice again. Emotional infidelity and fantasies seem inevitable for sentient beings. Unless we’re ready to discard our new notion of marriage as a personal domain rather than a cultural or familial one, we’d better get used to its vulnerabilities, which are entwined with these higher standards of love and empathy.

A higher marital dissolution rate is the price for our individual pursuits of happiness, neither of which is going away soon. Mundkur says, “There’s a slightly acuter understanding of happiness and aspirations – it’s a finer tuning. One can call it individualism. But if individualism is a focus on oneself only, we aren’t living like that yet. Women still agonise over divorce. It’s a slow, difficult decision with a lot of investment.”

Meanwhile, how do we soothe the clammy unease about our unstable urge to couple? To whom can I let go? Who will stick by me? One can start by agreeing how to squeeze the toothpaste tube. And end with the number of a good mutual lawyer.

Published here