The family court in suburban Mumbai is a ringtone-free zone. When an occasional cellphone sounds from among the rows of people waiting on the first floor, it is hushed by the security guard. "It's not for the judge we do this, it's for them inside," he says, gesturing to the door next to him. "They deserve some peace; this is an important hour in their lives."
The door leads to the office of the chief marriage counsellor. Every couple seeking a mutual-consent divorce in Mumbai must spend some time here, to explore whether their differences truly are irreconcilable.
Advertising executive Tejas Chakrabarty, 28, remembers this room vividly. "I first went there three months after my wedding," he says. "My wife, whom I had met through a matrimonial website, was continuing a preexisting affair with a married man. The counsellor tried very hard to convince us to give it another shot. But she was still in love with that man, and I was too betrayed to even think about it. We just sat there in silence for 45 minutes. Then we left and started the paperwork."
That was nine months ago.
Chakrabarty knew his wife for four months before they got married. "She was a really great girl, and I was getting all this pressure to marry, so I thought, why not," he says.
In retrospect, Chakrabarty says there were warning signs. "She was always a little secretive, and would never leave her phone unattended," he remembers. "She also had mood swings, was depressed sometimes, then over-compensated by lavishing attention on me." Chakrabarty and his wife are among thousands of couples in India seeking to end their marriages in the first few months or years, ending up divorced before the age of 30.
This is an unusual trend in a country where the divorce rate was just 1 in 1,000 ten years ago, and is still a relatively low 13 per 1,000 - as compared to the US average of 500 per 1,000. While India has no central or even state-wise registry of divorce data, family court officials say the number of divorce applications has doubled and even tripled in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Lucknow over the past five years (see box).
They cite a range of reasons - the waning influence of the family and joint family; the growing psychological and financial independence of women; late marriages resulting in a greater reluctance to compromise or change set ways and lifestyles.
The greatest difference, however, is in the willingness to end a marriage that is not working, say some counsellors.
"These young couples come to me with a totally different attitude," says Mumbai-based psychotherapist and counsellor Pallavi Bhurkay. "Earlier, couples would come to me to fix the marriage. Now, I have young couples who have come just to convince their family or partner that a divorce is the right decision."
Adds Aarti Mundkur, lawyer at the Bengaluru family court: "Has the number of divorces gone up? Of course. But has the breakdown of marriage increased? No. Marriages have been breaking down with much the same regularity over the years. But couples have been continuing with the marriage to keep up appearances. The growing rate of divorce is an indication that the stigma associated with it is on the wane."
Earlier, issues such as dowry demands, property disputes and family arguments would lead to applications for divorce, adds a family court counsellor from Mumbai. "Now we see young couples who want to separate because they cannot agree on who will do the chores, or because they have realised that they no longer like each other. Most of these are young couples in the first or second year of marriage."
Divorced before 30: 5 ex-couples explain what went wrong with their marriages
"He had very different expectations of a wife"
Marriage lasted:1 month
Neha Jayant*, 29, met Brijesh Ahluwalia*, 29, through common friends in London six months ago. They were both investment bankers looking for a long-term commitment. “Right away, we entered into a relationship with marriage as the goal,” she says. A month in, in August, the couple returned to Delhi for their wedding. They then relocated to Toronto in Canada, where Brijesh’s parents live. One month later, Jayant packed her bags and returned to Delhi. “Brijesh had a very jealous streak,” she says. “It began spinning out of control. When I went to job interviews, he would criticise the length of my formal skirt and ask me lewd questions about what I was actually applying for. After a party hosted by his parents, he screamed at me for 45 minutes because I had spent 10 minutes talking to another man.” Jayant says she was in shock, and afraid that the verbal abuse would escalate into physical violence. “He was a completely different person after we got married. He had all these expectations of a ‘wife’ which he never had for a ‘girlfriend’,” she says.
The couple’s divorce is now in the process of being finalised.
"It was clear we were not meant for each other"
Marriage lasted: 3 years
He was quick-tempered; she was impatient. It should have been a warning sign, but they saw it as a symbol of all they had in common. They were both young, ambitious marketing executives in a rush to settle down. “We met through an ad in the paper,” says Anisha*, 25. “I posted the ad, looking for a life partner who would let me be me, let me work after marriage.” Amit*, 28, seemed perfect. They met, courted and married in 2012. The arguments started soon after. “Two years into the marriage, it was clear that we were not meant to be together,” says Anisha. A year on, the couple had secured a divorce. “It was the best thing for both of us,” says Amit. “Looking back, there were things we both did wrong. I would share minute details of our relationship with my parents, for example.” Now, Amit is not thinking of getting married again. “But if that happens, I will certainly work on my anger,” he says, “and try to find someone more patient.”
"He expected me to cook"
Marriage lasted: 18 months
They married after a whirlwind romance that lasted six months, only to develop a host of problems within the next year and a half. They now say the situation could have been different if they had allowed for a lengthier courtship. “We were both fresh out of failed relationships and in a hurry to get married. It was a thoughtless decision,” says Mahua*, 35, an IT executive. The couple differed in tastes and values. “He would expect me to get home from work and cook for him while he watched television. I was revolted at the idea of me toiling while he put his feet up,” she says. Also, she earned well and ended up paying for most of their common expenses. Mahua feels the couple might have stood a chance if they could have moved out of his parents’ home, but this suggestion caused a large uproar and she was accused of trying to break up the family. “That the husband and wife should love each other is a necessary but not sufficient condition. It is also important that the tastes and values match,” she says. In 2009, the couple got a divorce. They are now both happily remarried.
“This time, I have found someone who is what he says he is,” says Mahua. “I’ve learnt the hard way that you can’t change yourself, or someone else.”
"I suspect he was gay"
Marriage lasted: 3 months
Kaushani Mittal*, 26, met her ex-husband through a matrimonial website. Rajat* was 27, an architect based in Seattle. He came to Mumbai to meet her three weeks in. A month later, she flew to Seattle to marry him. “When we didn’t kiss even two months after our wedding, I began to wonder what was going on,” she says. Rajat told her he had intimacy issues and would need time. Meanwhile, his mother, who lived with them, began to pry and read their messages. “He had warned me that she was possessive. But he did nothing to help,” says Mittal. Three months in, Mittal returned to Mumbai and began divorce proceedings. “Though he still denies it, he is clearly gay,” she says. “It really took a toll on my self-esteem. It has made me develop trust issues, for which I’ve been in therapy.”
"He changed after the wedding"
Marriage lasted: 2 years
Rashmi*, 30, is still in shock that her seven-year relationship fell apart less than seven days after marriage. The two met in business school in 2006 and fell in love. “He was very affectionate and caring,” says Rashmi. “But he had always dreamed of moving to Mumbai to be an actor.” When the relationship became serious, the couple discussed how she could move to Mumbai with him, find a job, and support him while he looked for his break. They were married in 2012, with the consent of both families. “I noticed a change in his behaviour the day after our wedding,” says Rashmi. “He was no longer the loving, caring man I knew. And he wanted to move to Mumbai immediately.” When Rashmi said she needed time to quit her job in Lucknow and find a new one in Mumbai, he said she could stay behind. “This was less than a week after the wedding,” she says. Finally, Rashmi agreed to go with him for a short while. In Mumbai, he had friends he had never told her about. “He was acting like a big shot. It was like he never had any love for me.” Rashmi returned home. “For two years, I waited in Lucknow,” she says. “I can count on my fingers the number of times we spoke over the phone. We had very few meetings.”
Two months ago, she filed for divorce. Rashmi is now assistant general manager at a frozen foods factory; Rahul* is in Mumbai, seeking his big break.
(With inputs from Sudipto Mondal, Richa Srivastava, Arpit Basu and Danish Raza)