Divorce and Remarriage — Indian-Style

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Phil McCarten / Reuters

Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi.

It seemed like a perfect union of literary acclaim and Bollywood glitz. He: a Booker Prize-winning author and one of India's most acclaimed literary exports. She: a gorgeous model-turned-actress turned cooking-show host. Little wonder then that this week's announcement that Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi are splitting after just three years of marriage is front page news across India, the country of their births if not their main residence.

More surprising, perhaps, is just how rare divorce still is in India. Only about one in 100 marriages here ends in divorce compared with much higher percentages in the U.S. and in western European countries such as France and Germany. But the divorce rate is now rising in this country. In urban India it has doubled over the past five years, despite the fact that failed marriages remain a cause for shame in much of the country and that divorced people, especially women, continue to face fierce social stigmatization and often find it hard to remarry.

One reason for the rise in the divorce rate is that educated Indian women — or at least educated, middle-class women — now have the option. "Women don't want to lie down and take it anymore," says Julie George, a Pune-based lawyer in matrimonial cases. "There is a lot more independence, freedom. Women who work are financially independent and aren't prepared to put up with a husband who harasses them." While no one is suggesting that Rushdie was harassing Lakshmi in any way (Indian papers reported that she was seen partying with "another man" recently), the couple is splitting, according to Rushdie's spokeswoman "because of her desire to end their marriage."

But that's only half the story. Lakshmi is hardly representative of the average Indian woman. And while middle class, urban women may be taking charge and sometimes just as likely to leave their husbands as their husbands are to leave them, in India's rural villages, it's still the men who initiate most divorces — often leaving women and children with no financial and little family support. "Poor women in villages are often just abandoned," says George, who works for Streevani, a Pune-based non-governmental organization that, according to its website, is "committed to the empowerment of women in India". "Some have no chance to remarry because according to the rules of their caste they cannot, even though the man can."

Even middle class divorcees still find remarrying tough, though like so much in India, that's changing quickly as well. Two weeks ago Vivek Pahwa, CEO of the website company Pahwa KBS, launched a matrimonial site that targets divorced Indians. Millions of Indians already use matchmaking websites to search for prospective mates. But existing sites tend to concentrate on giving a cyber hand to parents looking for suitable matches for their eligible sons and daughters, or for twentysomethings after a would-be bride or groom. One big turn-off in any prospective candidate: a previous marriage.

Secondshaadi.com ("shaadi" means marriage in Hindi and a number of other south Asian languages) gets around this problem by targeting the very people other sites find unpopular. "The idea was to attack a niche that had not been done," says Pahwa. "Divorce rates are going up in India and a lot of people are getting divorced at a very young age — even 35 or so. It's wrong to tell them that they can't get married again."

Since launching two weeks ago more than 1,000 people have created profiles on the site. A brief survey of a few shows that most people still list religion and caste details as well as whether they are vegetarian or "non-veg" (as carnivores in India are known) and whether they have kids or not. Though some Indian commentators have suggested that divorcees are less worried than other Indians about religion and caste when searching for a mate, Pahwa says his gut feel is they may "care as much — maybe even more, especially if they've had a bad experience the first time."

Pahwa estimates the total matrimonial website market in India at between $15 million and $20 million a year. He hopes to grab up to 5% of that, and is convinced that the market of divorced Indians will keep growing. Just ask Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi.