Not long ago, 19-year-old Sreeja Konidela returned home to Hyderabad from Delhi to attend a family funeral—but didn't get the welcome she expected. Konidela, whose father, Chiranjeevi, is a megastar in the Telugu-language film industry, had been disowned for eloping with Shirish Bharadwaj, 23, who was from a different caste. The two had married on live television last October in a bid to keep Sreeja's father from interfering—they were afraid he'd accuse Bharadwaj of kidnapping her, a common tactic in such cases. But their TV wedding alerted police and a mob of angry fans, who trailed the couple from the temple to the registrar and scared them so badly they fled to Delhi. Now the lovers were back, but Konidela's relatives weren't interested in reconciliation. Instead, she says, they forced Bharadwaj to wait outside and tried to browbeat her into dumping him so she could marry a groom of her parents' choosing. "They just tried brainwashing me," she says. "So I got out of there as fast as I could."
The story electrified India, where a rapidly modernizing society is changing its views on marriage. Tales of rebellion are on the rise. Now that fresh college grads can start outearning their parents right away and the rising influence of Western culture is empowering women, more young couples are challenging tradition. So-called love marriages were rare a generation ago, but now account for 10 percent of urban weddings, according to a November study by Divya Mathur of the University of Chicago. An additional 19 percent in Mathur's survey chose their own spouses but confirmed their engagements with their parents—choosing what urban India awkwardly refers to as "love-cum-arranged" unions. Meanwhile, more and more couples are meeting online or through friends instead of at torturous, parent-chaperoned tea sessions. The revenue of online matchmakers more than doubled from $15 million in 2006 to $35 million in 2007, and more than 12 million Indians—about half the country's Internet users—now visit matrimonial sites.
The changes aren't producing only love and bliss, however: demographers say divorce rates doubled to about 7 percent from 1991 to 2001, when the latest Census was taken. Lawyers affirm that, at least among urban couples, they've since climbed much higher, though they're still very low by Western standards. "India is facing changing times," says Pinky Anand, a lawyer who represented Konidela and Bharadwaj when they sought protection in a Delhi court. "Modernization, urbanization, access to information and globalization—there are no holds barred."
Traditionally, under all of India's major religions, all marriages were arranged by the bride and groom's parents. Unions were considered religious contracts between families, designed to uphold the social order and cemented with the gift of a virgin daughter. They were not seen as private agreements between two people in love, says King's College anthropologist Perveez Mody. With strict injunctions against crossing caste boundaries, arranged marriages helped Hindus to prevent lower castes from gaining status and made it easier to restrict them to hereditary occupations. "Many women got married before puberty, and to keep a nubile girl in the house was a monumental sin," says Delhi-based sociologist Patricia Uberoi. After marriage, couples moved in with the husband's parents to form what is known here as the "joint family." New brides had few rights and answered to their mothers-in-law, their husbands' siblings and his brothers' wives (if they'd been in the family longer). Today class and religious divides remain very strong, so in many respects the old system persists. Parents still work the family network and advertise in newspapers to make advantageous matches for their children—often without informing their sons or daughters until the process is well underway.
Now, however, a complex mix of political, economic and social developments is putting pressure on the old methods. The caste hierarchy itself is under threat thanks to urbanization and civil-rights reforms. India's city population has increased from about 20 percent of the total in 1971 to more than 28 percent today—bringing a new anonymity that makes it more difficult to identify a person's caste. Similarly, quotas for the lower castes in education and government jobs, along with the shift to an industrial economy, have allowed the lower castes to break out of traditional occupations. At the same time, young people—particularly young women—have become better positioned to assert their independence and become more exposed to Western influences, as Hollywood begins to compete with Bollywood, and Vogue and Cosmo hit the newsstands. Today's top engineering graduates, moreover, can earn as much as $30,000 within a few years of starting work—more than most parents ever earned—and even call-center employees make enough to defy their parents. Many of these new lucrative careers also require young people to relocate outside their families' ambit. And although a recent study by Watson Wyatt Asia-Pacific shows that women make up only 18 percent of India's urban work force, they now account for 38 percent of enrollment in higher education, and the number of women in white-collar jobs is increasing. As a result, they now enjoy more power and greater awareness of their rights, as well as more unsupervised contact with men. Together, these shifts have caused a decline in the number of joint families, a relaxation of the rules that once gave husbands' parents (but not wives') a dominant role in their children's marriages, and an uptick in children choosing their own partners.
Society is struggling to cope with the shifts. While the weakening of tradition has made relationships more equal, it has also led to higher divorce rates, as women object to archaic constraints and loveless unions. This is true even in remote corners of the country; according to India Today magazine, about a tenth of all child marriages now end in divorce. Geeta Luthra, a New Delhi-based lawyer who works on divorce and other women's issues, says that men are often the ones to split up their marriages when their newly empowered wives refuse to do housework, play the good hostess or kowtow to her in-laws.
Love marriages, meanwhile, are also leading to serious conflict, especially among India's rural populations. In communities like the Jat caste of rural Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the murder of couples that elope has become disturbingly common; at least five such cases made headlines in the last month alone. "If a lower-caste man is involved with a higher-caste woman, he is invariably killed. And the girl, whether belonging to the higher caste or the lower, is also almost certainly eliminated," says Prem Chowdhry, author of "Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India."
So far, the state's response to these changes has also been flawed. Officially, intercaste and interreligious marriages have been legal in India since 1872, almost 100 years before interracial marriages were legalized in all 50 American states. But over time, the law designed to facilitate these unions, known as the Special Marriage Act, has been twisted around to prevent love marriages. Under a 1954 amendment still on the books, couples are required to register their intent to marry with the court, provide the names and addresses of their parents and wait 30 days while the police verify that neither spouse-to-be is already married. Although in 2006 the Supreme Court directed police and other authorities nationwide to protect intercaste and interreligious couples from harassment, this filing requirement still helps parents locate runaway lovers and retrieve them, often by accusing the groom of kidnapping. (Since 2002, such charges have grown 30 percent faster than other crimes against women.) Though police acknowledge that in most of these cases the women have willingly fled with their future husbands, the cops nonetheless often track the couples down, throw the boyfriends (or husbands) in jail and return the women to their parents. Judges also often play a pernicious role, rejecting girls' testimony of consent or ignoring documents that prove she is of marriageable age.
India's divorce procedures similarly lag behind the times. The formal rules have become more liberal over the past 30 years—for example, by allowing Muslim women to sue for alimony and expanding the grounds for Christian divorce. Yet in practice, getting India's overburdened courts to process a divorce if one spouse objects can take up to 15 years. For women like 23-year-old Rani—a resident of provincial Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh—such waits can be unbearable. "I want to be divorced this minute!" she says. And because the glacial pace of courts often drives women to misuse laws against dowries and domestic violence to threaten their husbands into granting a quick settlement, the separation process can mean almost weekly trips to court and the police station, and constantly wondering whether one is going to be arrested and jailed.
Perhaps because of all these obstacles, even many of India's Westernized urban youth remain fairly conservative when it comes to love. Most still strive to find a partner who is roughly acceptable to their parents, even if not of their choosing. Often, when they do marry without their parents' blessing, they keep the marriage secret at first and continue living with their parents, only gradually introducing the new spouse as "a good friend," hoping to win over their parents before revealing the truth. If all goes well, a proper public ceremony then follows.
Even for those who do play by their parents' rules, however, things are slowly changing. Caste and class boundaries have expanded over time to permit more unions, and the old prohibition on the bride and groom's meeting before the wedding has been relaxed so that prospective spouses are now allowed to date or at least exchange phone calls before the big day.
The advent of online matchmaking has also helped. In the old days, young people often had no idea they'd entered the marriage market until photographs and résumés of prospects began arriving in the mail (parents aimed to avoid confrontation with their children by cluing them in as late as possible). Now as many as 40 percent of the profiles posted online on matrimonial sites are written by the candidates themselves, and industry experts say would-be brides and grooms—not their parents—make up a similar percentage of those viewing their pages. The result: today "the marriage decision is negotiated between parents and their adult children," says Delhi University sociologist Radhika Chopra.
One middle-class Delhi couple that wedded three years ago illustrates how such negotiations work. Arun and Deepti decided to get hitched in 2005 after dating secretly for a few years. When they approached their families, both sides objected. Though both are Brahmins, they belong to different subcastes, and Arun is from Bihar, considered a backward region, while Deepti grew up in Delhi; she is also better educated, speaks better English, and has a higher-paying job than Arun. But over time, sustained lobbying won over the families. "We both were ready to have a runaway marriage," says Deepti. "But we wanted our parents to agree. That is something which has not changed in India." Today, to show her respect, Deepti veils her face when she visits Arun's family in conservative Bihar, and Arun (a rare atheist) goes to temple to please Deepti's parents. Love, as they say, may still conquer all; but in India today, tradition remains nearly as powerful.