NEW DELHI -- In a crowded courtroom on the city's outskirts, the once unthinkable is reality: dozens of couples – rich and poor, educated and barely literate – seek divorce for reasons as varied as domestic violence to a simple inability to live together.
Just a decade ago, divorce was a dirty word in socially conservative India. The fear of social isolation, a sense of duty to extended families – who likely arranged the marriage in the first place – and financial dependence put nearly unbearable pressure on couples to stay together.
But as the economy has boomed, the rigid boundaries governing traditional Indian life are beginning to fall, especially among the growing urban middle class. Dating among twentysomethings is growing popular, love matches (as opposed to arranged marriages) don't provoke the family scandals they once did and divorce is no longer out of bounds.
"All of a sudden it seems everyone I know is getting divorced," says 28-year-old Mohit Dutt, who last year filed for divorce from his wife of six years after "exhausting every possible way to save the marriage."
"I know at least a dozen people around me who are either there or getting there," Dutt said.
The country maintains no statistics on divorce, and the numbers are not staggering by Western standards – anecdotal reports say one in every 100 Indian marriages is now likely to end in divorce, compared to about half in the United States.
But the low rate is largely because most Indians still live in villages, where divorce remains a taboo that can destroy a family's reputation and leave a woman an outcast for the rest of her life. "It's still an urban phenomenon," says divorce lawyer Hasan Anzar, "but a really fast growing one."
In the 1980s, New Delhi had two courts that dealt with divorce. Today there are 16. A new Indian matchmaking website Secondshaadi.com, or second marriage, now targets divorcees and widowers. A search on it throws up thousands of divorcees, most in the 25-to-35 age bracket.
Still, family courts here remain geared toward persuading couples to work it out. A watercolor of a happy family hangs behind the chair of Judge Deepa Sharma, who urges nearly every couple to visit the court's in-house marriage counselor.
"Our main thrust is to unite parties," she says. "We try to explain to them what the consequences of divorce are."
A woman in her early 20s says she wants out of her barely year-old marriage because her husband refused to move out of his parents' home, where she was treated badly. She comes from a modest background – her father a poorly paid government clerk – and she has only a high school education, but she is definite about one thing: She wants her freedom.
"I can only start my life again if he lets me go," she says, as the judge unsuccessfully tries to persuade her to give her marriage another try.
A well-to-do couple in their mid-40s is asking for divorce because they have "differences of opinion" they just can't work out. They say their teenage daughter understands their desire to split.
Under court rules, the petitioners cannot be identified.
A generation ago, women had little choice but to stay in bad marriages. Most would not have received any support from relatives.
"Women, especially now, have little tolerance for bad marriages, for parental interference in their marriage. They have more economic independence," says Iti Kanungo, a court-appointed marriage counselor.
This doesn't mean the decision to divorce is an easy one.
Indians spend enormous amounts of money on marriages, most of which are still arranged between families. Finding the right home for a son or daughter is a matter of great family prestige. Ending a marriage is often not just about a couple going their separate ways but of two families, sometimes with business or political ties, disentangling themselves.
The shame of a divorced son or daughter also makes it harder for parents to find suitable matches for other children.
But that is changing too. "There still isn't complete acceptance of divorce but increasingly families feel that there isn't enough dishonor if your daughter is being mistreated," says Geeta Luthra, a senior divorce lawyer in the Indian capital.
Perhaps in response to such social churn, the federal government is considering a law that allows couples to end their marriage citing "irretrievable breakdown." While it's not clear when or if Parliament will pass the legislation, it's a definite breakaway from the current, more stringent, divorce laws, guided by religious family law.
Hindus, who form nearly 80 percent of the country's population, can seek divorce for adultery, insanity, abuse, impotence, desertion or the uniquely Indian grounds that their spouse is a leper or "renounced the world" to enter a religious order. A divorce by mutual consent requires a cooling-off period of six months.
Dutt says ending his marriage brought him both sadness and relief.
"I still don't think divorce should the easiest thing," he says, "but at the same time I'm glad it's not a taboo anymore."