In India, love hurts

NEW DELHI — In India, love is in the air. Unfortunately, so is the raucous noise of lover's quarrels and the soporific drone of the court judge.

The flawed, but familiar, bonds of tradition are fading away. And there's nothing to replace them except for what Danny DeVito identified in "The War of the Roses" as the “two dilemmas that rattle the human skull: How do you hang on to someone who won't stay? And how do you get rid of someone who won't go?”

For thousands of years, Hindu society had the first problem licked. Marriages were contracts of servitude that sent a daughter off to her husband's family home with a hefty dowry and the injunction not to complain, because it was a one-way trip. Now, though, India is working on DeVito's second dilemma.

Women are gaining independence through education and a more important role in the workforce. Divorce laws have been made more liberal, and progressive legislation has been adopted to curb “bride burning” to extort dowries. Women no longer have to suffer psychological or physical abuse. More couples live in nuclear families instead of with the husband's mother and father, which ought to make things easier but has instead resulted in a relaxing of the unofficial ban on a wife's family butting into the couple's business.

And, perhaps most significantly, a new cultural obsession with romance and personal fulfillment has raised the bar for a happy marriage.

“If people have to be romantic and romance has to endure through thick and thin, the idea can be that if romance withers, the marriage is ended,” says Patricia Uberoi, a New Delhi-based sociologist.

India does not track a national divorce rate, but some analyses of the number of divorce petitions filed in municipal courts indicate that divorce has doubled since 1990 in trend-setting Mumbai and Delhi.

“Statistically the number of cases on the docket has exploded,” says Prosenjit Banerjee, a Delhi divorce lawyer. That means that even though the number of courts devoted to divorce proceedings has grown to around a dozen over the past 10 years, up from just four or five, there are still more than 30 cases listed before each court every day.

The phenomenon has already spread beyond the cosmopolitan centers.

Though the broadest available figures, from the National Family Health Survey, still place the figure much lower, some estimates now peg the (once negligible) national divorce rate at close to 6 percent. The statistical discrepancy that can probably be attributed to the glacial pace of the Indian courts, since the NFHS counted the number of divorced people and other estimates focus on the number of divorce cases.

At least among Internet users, the problem knows no geographical boundaries. About 60 percent of the 50,000 customers who have registered with SecondShaadi.com, an online matchmaking service for divorced Indians that launched  a year ago, live outside India's five largest cities; more than a third live outside the 20 largest cities. “In a few years, we may not even be talking about divorce and remarriage as a stigma anymore,” says Vivek Pahwa, the company's chief executive.

For men and women trapped in bad marriages, that's wonderful news. Rani, a 23-year-old woman from the provincial town of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, for instance, applied for the courts after her husband sent her back to her parents a year into their marriage with a demand for a dowry supplement of 50,000 rupees (the equivalent of a year's salary in these parts). And when she gave birth to a daughter, her husband didn't even come to look at the baby. After three years of legal wrangling over the dowry — prohibited since 1961, though the law is widely flouted — she now says, “I want to be divorced this minute!”

But the state is flailing helplessly as it tries to balance tradition with modernity when it comes to the legal and law enforcement responses to marital discord.

Because a court-ordered divorce can take 15 years, women's attorneys often advise them to file dowry or domestic violence cases against their husbands instead, says Geeta Luthra, a lawyer who works on divorce and other women's issues. The criminal courts are equally slow, but the threat of being arrested and spending time behind bars while their lawyer argues for bail exerts pressure on men to settle. That's unfortunate, Luthra says, because the “eight false cases” are making the one genuine dowry petitioner more difficult to believe.

The domestic violence act of 2005 poses another kind of threat: An abused wife can be awarded any “matrimonial home” that she resided in during her marriage — whether or not her husband holds the deed. “The idea is that by scaring the husband and his family they'll force them to settle. And the settlement basically means money,” Banerjee says. “The law is certainly being abused. That's not my assessment, that's the assessment of the high court and the supreme court.”

For men like Rakesh, a middle-class Delhi resident, this means almost weekly trips to court and the police station's special cell for women.

After he refused his wife's demand to move into a second home that his family owned and rented to tenants, his wife filed a police case against him and threatened to have him, his aging mother, his two brothers and their wives thrown in jail for dowry violations he maintains are completely fictitious. He tried to come up with a compromise — he even rented a house for the couple to live in separate from his family. But when nothing worked he filed for divorce.

Now when he's not at the special police division devoted to women's issues suffering verbal abuse in the guise of police-enforced couples counseling, he spends his time wondering whether today is the day he'll get the warning he's going to be arrested and should seek anticipatory bail.

Still, the terms of the debate over dowry and domestic violence cases sometimes suggest what's at stake is a disagreement over the traditions of marriage.

For instance, a web site designed to help men victimized by false cases asks, “Wife forcing you to live separately? Wife does not respect you and is discourteous to your parents?”

This sort of thing cuts both ways, says Luthra. Perhaps understandably, women are less tolerant and more demanding than ever before. But it's not uncommon for a man to sue for divorce on the grounds that his wife refuses to do the housework, fails to play the good hostess when his friends drop by, or is impolite to her in-laws. On the other hand, Luthra says that these days, among couples who don't live with the husband's parents, the wife's mother may call with advice 10 times a day.

That's a problem any culture — traditional or modern — can understand.

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