The social cataclysm in liberal milieu
Indian culture: Is it undergoing a change?
By MV Kamath
Revolutionary changes are taking place in India of which few seem to be aware. The changes are noticeable but they are taken for granted – especially in urban areas. In rural areas – especially in north India – life seems to have stood still. Caste is a very dominating factor and inter-caste marriages are frowned upon and should the young in love – belonging to two different castes – dare to get married, not only may they face ostracisation, but worse still may invite the greatest punishment, death.
Such incidents are not rare and get frequent mention in the media. But is life in urban areas any different? One wonders whether anyone remembers that some time in the eighties and nineties Gujarat came into the limelight because of “contract marriages”. A man and a woman signed a contract to live together for a specified period of time at the end of which either party to the contract was free to opt out of the live-in arrangement. It was not a divorce. Nor was it an estrangement. It was simply an amicable settlement with each going one’s way to start a new life. To the best of my knowledge nobody has ever made a survey of such arrangements. To what extent were these “contract marriages” successful? What damage could such arrangements have wrought to both the participants? Again, how many continued to live together, with or without futher contracts? Did they have children? There is no statistical information available. But one seldom hears of contract marriages these days. For all one knows the experiment may have failed. Meanwhile a new development has taken place which has become a cause of concern for parents. This is a different “live-in”. No contracts are signed. Boys and girls live together and no questions are asked. The custom, one learns, is slowly spreading, as one commentator put it, like “a high-pitched fever, a hot fashion statement”.
No taboos are observed. Either parents are not aware of this development or they do not care. More likely they are aware of it but have no control over their sons and daughters. One approach to this development is that there is no damage done, since both the parties are well aware of their responsibilities and are often willing to share the burden of living together. In the case of “contract marriages” there are legal issues that have to be faced under the rules laid down and accepted in the contract. In the case of live-ins, the law does not exist. According to a Delhi High Court ruling, “a partner in a live-in relationship can walk out of it at any point in time without any legal consequences and neither of the partners can complain of infidelity, if one ditches the other”. Justice Shiv Narayan Dhingra is quoted as saying: “Live-in relationship is a walk-in and walk-out relationship. There are no strings attached in this relationship, now does this relationship create any legal bond between the parties. People who choose to have a live-in relationship cannot complain of infidelity or immorality, as live-in relationship are also known to have been between a married man and an unmarried woman or vice versa”. Which reminds one of an older custom that once was fairly prevalent and seldom was openly discussed. It was largely noticeable among the upper ‘classes’. A married man, who wanted more female company, but abhorred prostitution, had an option. He ‘kept’ a woman. She was not formally married to him, but she was faithful to him. But there were also times when the same woman was patronised by two or three other married men who had no complaints to make. It was accepted practice. This was not comparable to prostitution because the woman was not selling herself to anybody who walked into her parlour.
Those were times when wives – pativartis accepted their husbands’ paramours for a multiple reasons. One was that their husbands were at least honest and did not have illicit sex behind their backs. The other was that divorce was unheard of and security in marriage was everything. In any event the married woman had no option but to put up with her husband’s licentiousness and promiscuity. In the circumstances there was relative peace in the household. There have been cases where the ‘kept’ woman was even accepted in the family. One may argue that such a situation was strictly limited to a minute segment of society, but the fact is, it existed, in a feudal society.
Today’s generation is different. If a wife finds it difficult to adjust to her husband’s behaviour, the present tendency is to seek a divorce. The divorce rate has been growing at a rapid pace, according to a reliable source and it cuts across religious, caste and other barriers. Just as significantly there is – among the middle and upper middle class females a growing tendency to postpone marriage till one is in one’s middle or late twenties. The new class is very clear of what it wants: independence. A bank account of one’s own and freedom to spend money on what catches one’s fancies. It may be argued that the percentage of such women is happily very low and that many even now would rather their parents find husbands for them, of their choice. In the urban areas again, the sari is getting increasingly out of fashion, especially among students and those who are employees. Women prefer the salwar kameez or jeans on grounds that they provide easier movement.
A recent survey noted that girls between 16 and 24 years rarely wear saris, except on special occasions—and that, too not more often than two or three times a year! The sari is getting to be a rarity. Time was when one quickly guessed a woman’s geographic origins by the way a sari was worn. There were distinct Bengali, Gujrati, Parsi, Maharashtrian and Tamil styles. The baara haathi was quite a brand! No more. Even middle-aged women from the middle class are now opting for the salwar Kameez. There is a cultural breakdown of some kind.
The distance between urban and rural India is narrowing what does this bode for the future? Then there is yet another factor that is increasingly noticeable and that is the disappearance of the Joint Family, largely, one suspects because of two factors: increasing urbanisation and the high cost of education. More and more couples do not want to have more than two children for strictly economic reasons and because of increasing urbanisation.
The growth that has pulled millions of people out of poverty is also building a huge middle class that will be concentrated in India’s urban areas. Population growth means that in absolute terms, the country’s urban population will increase from 318 million today to 523 million in 2025. Most of them will be living in cramped quarters, making it not only difficult to have larger families but even to observe rites and rituals. And yet, one suspects basic religious values will not disappear as they are doing in Europe and the United States where churches are increasingly getting closed down. In India, on the other hand, temples on festival days are overcrowded in that sense one can deduce that Indians are getting ‘modernized’ and not “westernised” and there is a clear distinction between the two. But where does ‘modernisation’ being and where does it end? I would be happy if this article sets out a genuine debate!