Despite the commonly held misconception that marriages are breaking like biscuits in India, we still have the lowest rate of divorce in the world because of the tedious and demoralising process of divorce that encourages “adjustment and compromise” as much as the Sima aunties of the country.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
Unless you’re living under the boulder of oppression in an enforced internet lockdown, you would have seen Indian Matchmaking by now. The recently aired Netflix reality show follows Sima Taparia from Mumbai as she navigates the marital needs of Indian singles all over the world to help find them a suitable match. Almost oblivious to the actual requirements of her clients Sima preaches the gospel of “adjustment and compromise” to her clients while securing potential matches for them based almost purely on community, socio-economic status and attractiveness. Her attempt to play cupid often has her dealing with reluctant clients whose numerous rejections of her biodatas reveal a generation that seems more afraid of marriage than any that has come before it. Perhaps as an attempt to demonstrate that this age-old methodology of finding a mate is more effective than an independent pursuit of love, her interactions with the confused youth are interspersed with short interviews with couples who have been “happily” married for decades,
The older couples joke about how little they knew of one another before they tied the knot and how little it took for them to decide they were in the presence of “the one”. One gentleman said it was a cake his wife baked that settled the matter for him. It’s not rare to hear stories like that in India. My mother once told me that she decided to marry my father because she found out his family had a VCR and she thought it would be nice to be able to watch movies all day. While the reason to marry for most being overwhelmingly a parental decision that “it was time”, the older, more experienced couples on the show all agree that the cornerstone of marriage is as Sima says: Adjustment and Compromise.
To anyone who has grown up in India or under the influence of Indian culture, this notion is hardly new. We’ve all heard it from our parents, our married friends and our relatives but there’s a part of our collective belief that we leave unsaid: “Adjust and compromise, because a martyred and unfulfilled version of you is more acceptable than a divorced one.” Ultimately in a discussion of successful marriage we must talk about the potential for its failure. The failure of marriage is not something we take lightly as Indians. That reflects in the fact that even today less than 1% of Indian marriages result in divorce making us a country with one of the lowest rates of divorce in the world. Sima aunty may think that marriages are breaking like biscuits in India these days but in that she is discounting the most faithful ally to her policy of adjustment and compromise: Divorce law in India.
Divorce is not a right in India. It is a privilege that the court may grant to you if you are able to justify your need for it under the grounds stipulated by law some of which include cruelty, desertion, conversion of religion and voluntary sexual intercourse with another. If you file for divorce by mutual consent, you must still do so under acceptable grounds by filling a divorce petition in the form of an affidavit, after which you must undergo mandatory mediation and wait a six-month period of contemplation before the divorce is granted. As part of the divorce petition you must state that you have been counselled by the elders of your family buy you are still unable to work through your issues. Essentially the law seeks to ensure that a council of Simas and Preetis have had their go at reinstating your commitment to adjustment before you go too far on a path that undermines the sanctity of social commitment to death doing you part. The case of non-consenual divorce is even harder. With the process taking anywhere from two to fifteen years, your divorce is never guaranteed until granted. After hearing your reasoning and evidence for the grounds for divorce, the court may still reject your appeal for a divorce.
While lawyers in India may be more affordable than elsewhere in the world, the process of divorce is so long and prone to legal delays that it ends up costing a price too high to bear to avail a divorce. Even while availing a divorce with mutual consent, settling financial affairs in the aftermath of forever is an expensive affair. The legal process of divorce in India has been set up in the interest of preserving the sanctity of marriage, rather than an interest in the individuals who might be suffering through one. Marriage is sacred and the people within one may be sacrificed to the cause. The process is intentionally designed to take longer than it needs and as a result even if you have ended a relationship, you are rendered unable to move on because a part of you is forcefully tethered to the past you must confront routinely with lawyers and judges.
And even if you are among that 1% of people who not only want a divorce but have actually availed one, you are likely to be viewed socially as a cautionary tale for what happens when the institution of adjustment and compromise fails. Even Indian Matchmaking proves this in its treatment of the optimistic and independent single-mother, Rupam. In conversation with her about her prior entanglement, Sima shows no sympathy at the revelation of infidelity by Rupam’s previous husband. Instead she wastes no time in informing her of the “hard fact” that as a divorced woman her opportunity pool for lasting happiness is small. Rupam’s father refers vehemently to his daughter’s past “mistake” as he urges her to turn down the prospect of a man previously divorced from an American woman. The treatment of Rupam is mild in comparison to the actual social treatment of divorcees in India.
One of my closest friends divorced rather young and the attachment of that tag to her baggage has rendered dating seriously all but impossible. Men are happy to go out with her, but most of them are unable to confront the possibility of taking a divorced woman home to meet their parents. I, myself, am married to a divorced man and have often been told that settling for him was a compromise on my part. We’re encouraged to keep the fact of his divorce quiet so as to not offend anyone. My husband and my friend are encouraged to hide their truth because they represent a possible failure of the Indian arranged marriage system that Sima would have us laud as serendipitous.
Ultimately the success of the construct of Indian arranged marriage is less about family values, astrologers, parental influence or timing than the fact that we are taught through example and scandal that the social and financial cost of ending a marriage is too high to consider bearing. So what do you do when you can’t get out of the marriage that was chosen for you? You adjust, compromise and call that a successful relationship because it lasted three decades. Marriages in India aren’t breaking like biscuits. Unless it is a gold biscuit you’re trying to snap in half with your bare hands. Perhaps that is why none of the couples featured on the show carried on their engagements. Perhaps a deep-rooted awareness of the near-impossibility of exiting a marriage has India’s youth stopping at the altar because you don’t have to get out of a covenant you never joined.