Rising Divorce Rates: India Joins the Western Bandwagon

A subtly inculcated problem on the global scene has been allowed into the Indian cultural tradition in the name of modernity and change. The blind pursuit of material progress and individual prosperity so representative of the post-modern mindset has robbed – and is still robbing – human society of its most fundamental building block: the institution of the family, writes BIJU ABDUL QADIR.


Come summer, and India is all set to see its highest number of marriages for the year. Astrologers across the country give their nod for what they consider the most auspicious time of the year for a successful marriage.

As may be imagined, the Indian tradition is still that of arranged marriages where two families – that of the bride and the groom – get together to decide the compatibility of the would-be couple. In this tradition and cultural setting, the almost palpable social pressure that surrounds the couple ensures that divorce is quite an impossibility.

Or at least this was how it was in India once not so long ago.

Today, with the advent of liberalization – both of economy and culture – these age old traditions are being challenged, old taboos set aside and scoffed at, with the ultimate result that today’s marriages have far slimmer chances of survival than what was the case a decade or more ago.

To some experts like Dr. Geetanjali Sharma of Gurgaon, the past five years alone have witnessed nothing short of a 100% increase in divorce rates in this wealthy satellite city off Delhi. It is interesting to see how the divorce rates have been directly proportional to the growing economic prosperity of Gurgaon which was little more than a village just two decades ago.

Nowhere is this ‘prosperity’ more evident than in the shopping malls, coffee shops and multi-national IT companies all of which have combined brutishly to replace the buffalos and mustard fields of this sleepy village of 20 years in the past.

But neither the recently opened state-of-the-art Metro line which connects the 25 km distance between Gurgaon and Delhi, nor the wishful thinking of millions of other Indians to live in the high-rise apartments of Gurgaon, has had any amelioratory effect on the sad, broken, lives of the many couples already inhabiting these cherished living spaces.

However, and despite the statistics in Gurgaon – which can be taken as a microcosm model for the rest of the upcoming cities and towns of India – the country still has one of the lowest rates of divorce in the world. But, while researches indicate that, in India, only around one in 1000 marriages end in failure, the recent spurt in divorces pending at the courts has moved the government to propose speedier divorce laws as is the case in other countries. Of course, it’s not just the number of cases that are becoming a headache for the administration: it’s the sheer duration over which each case can be dragged along and prolonged, with all the trauma and embarrassment included.

Dr. Sharma’s analysis of the situation is good enough: she believes more marriages are undone today by the pressures of the workplace than by their being love-marriages or arranged ones. To her, people nowadays concentrate more on their careers and less on their personal lives or, in her own words: ‘Couples today lack patience and tolerance. They don’t want to put more efforts into a relationship to fix the issues… they feel that escapism is the solution.’

Perhaps, Dr. Sharma might not have known it, but what she has correctly pointed out in her analysis of the situation is in fact the symptoms of a deeper malaise.

A deeper and subtly inculcated problem on the global scene has been allowed into the Indian cultural tradition too, and all in the name of modernity and change. The blind pursuit of material progress and individual prosperity so representative of the post-modern mindset has robbed – and is still robbing – human society of its most fundamental building block: the institution of the family.

In such an unnatural scenario wherein the need for speed is paramount, wherein the time-honoured tradition of the slow-and-steady maturing of wisdom has been replaced by the ‘get-rich-quick-no-matter-what’ philosophy, our traditional notions of marriage have come to be viewed as retrogressive, redundant.

Permissive, liberal societies begotten of such a lop-sided vision of life grant easy channels for ‘love’ – or more precisely, infatuation – to happen outside of wedlock. Of course, in societies where dating is standard procedure for a prospective relationship, such channels are the norm, indeed, the right method, as against the assumed risks of an arranged marriage. But experience can be a hard teacher, because she gives the test first and the lesson afterwards. Such has been the experience of life with these ‘strains of wisdom’ from the West.

India has been the more recent – and willing – laboratory for these wayward social practices, and the Indians are learning the lesson at their own cost. Indeed, at the incalculable cost of the peace and security of their own lives. Consider the case of Mohit, for instance. The Delhi High Court is the only place where Mohit, an employee of a successful IT firm, can now meet his wife. Falling in love as teenagers, they were married in their early 20s, only to end the marriage three years ago, when she walked out of the relationship. While waiting for a final court settlement, Mohit has been left wondering on the why and wherefore of this breakup, not only of his marital relationship, but also perhaps the smooth course of his life.

Mohit’s self-revelation has been poignant and eloquent enough: “I was way too young to realise that being in love and being married are slightly different – in fact humongously different,” he confessed. “We used to fight about pretty much everything, you know. Let’s say that the first fight we had was pretty early, as in just after we got back from our honeymoon…”

To Mohit, as to thousands of other Indian males-in-introspection, the failure of their marriages has been due to a clash of cultures: the old India against the new. While in-law interference has played its own role in such disasters, Mohit admits that sometimes he too found it hard to accept that his wife had her own career. Even more interesting in Mohit’s re-evaluation are the ambiguities of priority conferred on a culture in transition, in movement from time-honoured values and norms to the untested, unchartered grounds of post-modern liberalism. Mohit’s further remark is all too revealing of this dichotomy:

“Today the Indian male, as opposed to earlier, is a very complex entity. We want our wives to be really progressive, modern, so to say, which is why we married them in the first place. But at the same time, we still want our wives to cook food for us. We want our wives to be there when we get back home.”

Mohit has finally hit the nail on its head by asserting that, despite all our notions of modernity, he accepts as wife and life-partner only that woman who is actually there – physically present – and willing to be his wife for him. Others like Swarupa, who ended her marriage last December, show us yet another side of this social phenomenon. She too left her husband which, in her own opinion, is possible only for financially independent women or women who have the support of their parents.

In the past, this would have been more or less unthinkable. But despite the growing social acceptance for divorce in India, the country’s strong tradition of marriage still acts as the vanguard and defense against this decay. In Swarupa’s own words:

“Personally, I don’t feel scared to tell people that I am a divorced person, but stigmas are still there and it comes out in very odd places… I’ve been house-hunting near my ex-husband’s [home], but you know it is very difficult to get a house because people are very sceptical about giving it to a single woman.”

However, even this restraint of the past will be soon lost in the coming years of a cultural invasion that is, even as we speak, taking the developing and underdeveloped countries by storm.

In a tragicomedy of sorts, this picture of despair in a new and predatory setting, is complete when we know that the increasing trend in divorce rates – inevitable as it may seem – is actually good news for some. Vivek Pahwa, for example, runs the secondshaadi.com website, a Mumbai-based matchmaking web-portal for divorcees. He boasts of as many as 4,000 new customers every month.

“Ours is a relatively young website, but in the three years since we started, I have seen a remarkable shift in people’s perceptions about divorce,” he says. “It is not only limited to metros like Delhi and Mumbai. Business is good.”

Business, indeed!

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