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In India, love hurts

With an increased emphasis on romantic love, and greater opportunities for women, more Indian marriages are breaking down.

Hindu brides and grooms wait to garland each other during a mass wedding ceremony in the northern Indian city of Mathura, Jan. 31, 2009. The ceremony was organised by an organisation for 26 financially poor Hindu couples on the occasion of the festival of "Basant Panchami." (K.K. Arora/Reuters)

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.