In modern India, tradition shackles love, marriage

MUMBAI (Reuters) - In drama and intrigue, the story is straight out of a film script -- she a fabulously rich girl, he an IT engineer, and both dare to marry despite her family’s arch-resistance.

A couple stands near the seafront in Mumbai, December 11, 2007. In drama and intrigue, the story is straight out of a film script -- she a fabulously rich girl, he an IT engineer, and both dare to marry despite her family's arch-resistance. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe

Changing cars to throw off their pursuers, the two traveled hundreds of miles to knock on the doors of a New Delhi court to seek protection.

The love affair of Konedela Srija, the daughter of a top Indian film star Chiranjeevi, briefly gripped India, where a deeply conservative society is still resisting the social change that economic progress brings.

Srija’s story is the latest in a spate of high profile cases of defiance of conservative parents by children trying to become more independent and assertive -- sometimes at a terrible price.

In several cases, runaway couples have sought protection from courts and even landed up at television studios, hoping that media coverage would win them a pardon from their families.

But what has sparked a public outcry and a debate on urban India’s cultural makeup is the fate of a Muslim man who married a rich Hindu girl against the wishes of her family and turned up dead on the railroad tracks of an eastern city several months ago.

Sociologists say economic progress and growing contact with Western values are influencing India’s cultural traditions and leading to increased confrontation between the old and young.

“Transition from joint to unit families, agrarian to industrial society and emancipation and empowerment of women have influenced not only the cultural moorings of the society, but also the nature and character of marriages,” A.K. Verma of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies said.


In India, where dating, let alone premarital sex, is frowned on, 95 per cent of all marriages are still arranged -- alliances that are almost always determined by religion, caste and class considerations. India’s divorce rate is below 5 percent.

Inter-caste couples who defy their parents’ wishes are often banished from families or villages. In some cases, families have ordered “honor killings.”

In this fight between tradition and modernism, Payal Thakur, a 31-year-old hospitality industry professional, says she paid dearly.

“We tried everything we could to convince his parents, but they wouldn’t even allow me inside their house,” said Thakur, who ended her 8-year-old relationship because of caste differences.

“Finally, he married someone else his parents chose.”

Experts point to India’s patriarchal family as an enduring social institution that sets the marriage rules.

“It is a space where power relations of gender, age, caste and class are played out, in ways that sustain larger social structures of authority,” says Anjali Monteiro, a professor at India’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Modernity and education are seen only as trappings necessary for social and material success, useful as long as they do not destabilize traditions.

Winds of liberalism have, however, begun blowing in educated middle-class families in the cities, due in part to increased contact with Western culture and education.

Television shows talk openly of gay rights and single parenthood. Social norms have loosened. Live-in couples now flaunt their relationships and a previously unthinkable level of boldness is evident in fashion and lifestyles.

But for the winds of change, Nadiya Pillai, a Muslim, could never have married her Hindu lover of eight years, a union eventually accepted by their families after vehement protests.

“My mother stopped talking to me and went into depression for 7-8 months,” Pillai, now a mother of a girl, told Reuters. “But we just put our foot down. They were not insensible people.”

But, the change is slow.

“A girl’s freedom of choice depends entirely on whether she is financially independent or not,” said Anshika Mishra, a media professional who at 29 has resisted parental pressure to marry according to their choice.

Indeed, India’s conservative ethos is so ingrained that surveys show that a majority of the young are inclined towards arranged marriages. A survey this year by India Today showed more than 70 percent of youngsters favored arranged marriage.

“Materialism and a willingness to permit women in the workplace have also not translated into an upheaval of old patriarchal attitudes,” commentator Amrita Shah wrote in the Indian Express newspaper.

Verma, said that love follows marriage in India in contrast to the West where love culminates in marriage.

“There, as soon as love is lost, the marriage is broken,” said Verma, from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

“In India, since marriage is a finished and a closed thing, love has to slowly germinate as a seedling and has to be nurtured.”

Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Megan Goldin