Rebel Brides and Ex-Wives

Article excerpt

Byline: Jason Overdorf

As India gets more wealthy, arranged marriage is giving way to more love weddings, and divorces.

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. …